Sunday, May 23, 2010


In 1990 the first senior class of the new Heart Butte High School graduated. Of the eight grads four were male. A standout among the boys was Grinnell Day Chief.

Yesterday, 2010, was graduation day in Valier. There were twelve grads, three of them male. All three were named Cody! (Was that a movie star or a singer when these boys were born? Or a rodeo top hand?) One was Cody Day Chief, the son of Grinnell, who is now the manager of oil and gas leases for the Blackfeet Tribe, a multi-million dollar responsibility.

It all goes so fast and the stakes are so high!

This is the first graduation I’ve attended in Valier. The paper said it would be at 1PM but at that time, when I got there wearing my formal red spangly tractor hat, the only people in the gym were girls taping up signs saying, “congratulations.” If I’d have mattered, someone would have told me the time had been changed to 2PM. Small towns operate like congregations: word-of-mouth. There was a run-through of the DVD “slide show” presentation prepared by two of the grads: Malia Vandenbos and Chelsea Monroe. (The girls have romantic and ingenious first names: Samantha, Amber, Kala, Kristen, Carly, Chelsea, Mariah, Jerica, and Malia. Not a Jane or Judy in the bunch.) There was the inevitable search for enough extension cords.

When the families began to filter in, they found their assigned seats in the folding chairs on the gym floor. In the Hirst row (Kristen Hirst) was another of my former students from the Seventies in Browning. (Greg? Mike?) Kristen’s father was Charlie Hirst, the bus maintenance man when I was in Heart Butte. He was my next-door neighbor in the teacherage apartments and since we were almost the only ones there in summer, we got to be pretty good friends. He put my decrepit cars back in operation a couple of times. No charge. His shop was cleaner than some of the classrooms and even the superintendent snuck out to hit his coffee pot because he made better coffee than the lunchroom. Kirsten will be going to college in Missoula next fall.

Cody Day Chief is going into the military. (So did Grinnell.) If I heard correctly, all three boys are going that way except that Cody Henneman, tall and handsome, had good enough grades and scores to qualify for an Air Force grant that will pay his way through college, then take him in as an officer. There to present this award was a lieutenant colonel, five foot two and eyes of blue to match her uniform (skirt not pants, many ribbons).

There were absolute showers of scholarships and grants from families and businesses in town as well as universities and organizations. A hundred here, a thousand there, and the total added up to $85,000, we were told. Even Amber who is going to be a cosmetician got some financial aid for beauty school. This is a town that takes its children very seriously and also takes high school very seriously. In fact, you can live here your whole life and not be considered local unless one of your children graduates from this high school. It helps to be athletic, whether girl or boy.

The slide show was organized as a sequence of chapters about each student, showing baby photos up to the present and playing a sound track of the student’s fav song. Music is very important as a defining factor. Also, nicknames and the obligatory trip to Washington DC. The photos were mostly mugging, the same tongues-out, weird-sign-language signals that show up everywhere there is television. One set of prom photos, evidently professional, were exceptionally glamourous and funny, very sex-in-the-city. No fluffy net and pastels: dark prints, metallic fabric, slit skirts with legs out. Poses were girl-with-girl, no guys. Grades are never mentioned except for stars in the program next to the National Honor Society members, eight in all. No boys. Girls rule.

When it came to the traditional Salutatorian and Valedictorian speeches, Kala and Carley shared the honor, passing the mike back and forth between them. The speeches were not about going out into the world to conquer, but rather retrospective funny and cherished things, mostly about members of the class. There is an interesting bias in these kids against being big stars or “better” or being left out. They will find ways to share. They are a group -- even a gang. Okay, a clique.

When people say, “High school years are the best years of your life” and really mean it, they are likely not to be the people who left. Those who stay wrestle hard with the challenges of small town infrastructure and entwined families all jostling to survive. Jerry Sullivan, one of our prominent town council members, a big heavy-equipment operator with a strong mind and personality, has a tiny, pretty daughter graduating: Jerica, who says she’s going to medical school. Backhoes pay bills.

My favorite senior pic was that of my neighbor across the street, Kala, who posed in the midst of a pile of old tires, looking fresh-faced and funny. Her whole family has a wild sense of humor. For instance, her mother drives a sports SUV, bright yellow, with a license plate that says “Peel me!” Kala’s graduation party ended about 3AM. I know because the pickups parked in front of my house left about that time. Otherwise, there was no noise, because it’s fifty degrees, freezing in the nights, and our windows are closed. Kala is going to Carroll College where she will major in art. I’ve got to tell her about the Scriver Bursary award for studio materials. I have no control over it, but it’s there.

When it was time for actual ceremony, someone sat at the piano and began the familiar music. The seniors came in a side door and went up the center aisle under an arch of evergreen boughs. Girls were either clipping like ponies in unaccustomed high heels or slipping along in rhinestone flip-flops. Of course, boys wore manly ten-pound rubber athletic shoes. Kirsten's mortarboard was beaded. I forgot to check Cody's.

There was a receiving line afterwards, but I didn’t stay. I’m always afraid I’ll cry. I even felt like crying when I looked at Grinnell in his pretty pink shirt. I wish I’d found out which Hirst that was, Mike or Greg or ? for the formal newspaper story with photo.

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Chas S. Clifton said...

My nephew graduated from a rural Colorado high school almost that small a few years ago--maybe 20 seniors.

They had the same "slide show"--those must be S.O.P. now--but I noticed that some kids seems to get more photos that others ...

And yes, the sneakers under robes! He was so proud of finishing his EMT class that he draped his stethoscope over his robe. Even though he was not yet 18, the vol. fire department was still using him on calls.

Anonymous said...

One of your loveliest posts.