DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Going Home With Mrs. Hovland

I was 6 years old and in the first grade in the spring of 1950 when my parents received my last report card of the year. It was signed by teacher Sylpha Hovland, who certified my promotion to the second grade at Fram Township School No. 3 in Wellsburg, N.D.

I still have the card.

Later, I moved on to Harvey High School, the University of North Dakota and Northwestern University. But in retrospect, I regard Mrs. Hovland as the best teacher I ever had, bar none.

She was very encouraging, focused on solid fundamentals and instilled in us a desire to learn. My subject matter grades were decent (except for penmanship).

But I fared less well in two habits and attitudes categories: “Responsive to Authority” and “Receives suggestions kindly.”

Yeah, she got that right.

The Vorland farm, in 2004.
The Vorland farm, in 2004.

Although the Vorland farm is long gone, most years I try to visit Wellsburg. This picture was taken in 2004, shot from roughly the center of the home quarter. The buildings and trees are now gone. The current owner farms the land fence line to fence line.

The Wellsburg grain elevators also have disappeared. Indeed, so has most of the town.

But the school building still exists, converted into a personal residence.

I’ll travel to Wellsburg and Harvey this summer, as I have done so many times. The novelist Thomas Wolfe was wrong — you CAN go home again.

And this year, I’ll be thinking of Mrs. Hovland.

TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — A Note From Mrs. Norton’s Son

The following is from Tim Norton, re: his mother and my second-grade teacher. See: My last post, “A Serendipitous Chance to Remember Mrs. Norton.” Deeply touched, Tim, and hug your mom for me.

“Tim, Your kind words were shared by me here at Creighton University as a tribute to all teachers (professors, TA, Adjunct, etc.) in the classroom and otherwise.

“As I thought about the positive influence you wrote of and the comfort realized during those early years of your development, I think back to those days myself. My parents, Tom and Alice (Mrs. Norton), set the bar high for my sisters and me, and I’ve spent my life trying to emulate their kind and generous behavior toward others.

“Parents are teachers by nature, and lessons learned over the years resonate daily with me through my interaction at home, work and in the community.

“Am I always successful, no, but as the saying goes, ‘I learned what not to do,’ which can be applicable to so many situations.

“Mrs. Norton was a teacher inside that small classroom where you first met and has continued teaching her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, friends and neighbors, lessons of acceptance, gratitude and most importantly, kindness.”

Yes, most importantly, kindness.

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Here’s To The Gypsy Teachers

Hats off to teachers on the move! All across Minnesota and North Dakota, fresh education graduates are setting off right about now for the great unknown … along with the rest of the tribe of itinerant teachers whose careers take them beyond the beaten track each August to classrooms over the horizon.

If teaching is a calling, it often turns out to be long-distance. Career educators in more urban districts like Fargo and Grand Forks sometimes spend most of their careers in a single community … comfortably looking forward some September to welcoming the children — grandchildren? — of the kids listed in their very first grade books.

But about this time every August, I feel the urge to salute the rest of the educational corps: the teachers called to classrooms in towns whose populations don’t top three digits. Where students are sparse and classes worryingly small, there you too will find men and woman writing lesson plans and mastering the names in a new attendance book. And their nomadic lives are quite unlike their earthbound neighbors’.

I wish them well. And I still feel that ghostly urge to start packing.

My mother was one of those itinerant teachers. She’d cut her teeth on blackboards in one- or two-room schools in places like Hoople, N.D., and Rothsay, Minn. When she returned to teaching in the 1950s, after my farmer father’s health deteriorated, that preference surfaced again … aided in no small part by her two-year teaching certificate in an increasingly degree-oriented market.

So off we went, the schoolhouse gypsies. Beginning when I was in third grade, she accepted contracts from Antelope Consolidated School near Mooreton, N.D., where she taught sixth, seventh and eighth grades; Inkster, N.D., with its seventh and eighth grade classroom, Streeter, N.D., (solely seventh) and Amenia, N.D., from which she retired as a sixth-grade teacher.

We spent summers at home base in Hillsboro, N.D., where Dad raised grain east of town. As he wrapped up taking the wheat and barley off the fields, though, we were back to packing our wagon, ready to roll to whatever school was lucky enough to have signed Mom for the coming year. By the time I graduated from high school, we had moved exactly 18 times and lived in 10 different rentals, ranging from one with a privy out back to run-down aged homes whose elderly owners had passed away over the summer.

Nor were we alone in our rather nonstandard way of life. In every locale, we encountered other families who were part of the tribe. Schoolteachers, principals and superintendents — as well as preachers — provided just about all of the moving in and moving out in the villages we temporarily called “home.”

We were curiosities among the deeply rooted farmers and merchants around us. Webs of cousinship, ancient sweethearts and generations-long family feuds and alliances were invisible to us. We had trouble following North Dakota-style directions in our new surroundings: “Go a couple of miles south and turn where the Dockters’ barn used to stand.” We had no hereditary place in the social landscape, no history that meant much to our new neighbors, and the indelible standing as benign carpetbaggers … permitted our opinions on local concerns, but none that mattered much.

It was an interesting way to grow up, if slightly off-kilter. Mom’s teaching jobs endowed us with an appreciation for what passed for diversity in those days. We were amazed by Mooreton’s huge Labor Day bash and Streeter’s (N.D.) epic annual buffalo supper. Good little Norskies, my brother and I rubbed shoulders with German-Russians and Czechs and Poles and Hutterites. And we even learned exotic new skills, like spitting sunflower seeds.

Raised on whitish Norwegian fare, we quickly adapted to colored food: Gackle, N.D., sausage and borscht and pierogis and halupsi and fleischkuchele and knoepfla soup, plus anise candy, ammonia cookies (better known by a far less genteel name), kolaches and real German-Russian kuchen … always kuchen.

Once the school year began, we seemed to spend our after-school hours in an exotic bubble comprised of Mom’s teacher colleagues and their families. Our native neighbors were pleasant, and many were kind. In villages, though, where their forebears had literally broken virgin prairie sod side by side, our undeniable other-ness meant we circulated in a largely separate stratum. I baby-sat exclusively for the principal’s sons; no one else ever asked.

The local circle, established so long before we arrived, rarely expanded. So the atmosphere was electric at our house when a new superintendent moved to town with his wife and kids or married teachers brought their families. On the historic occasion when an outsider bought the Chevy garage, his brood of five was automatically part of our circle. We couldn’t wait to meet the new preacher — were his kids still in school?

Small-town teaching positions seemed to be a better social bet for the single members of our tribe. As a teen, I secretly wondered if the local district’s teacher vacancies weren’t Mother Nature’s sly strategy for importing eligible women for the area’s bachelor farmers. When all was said and done, those matches accounted for most of the more-or-less permanent faculty members planted in the community.

If you’re a teacher on the move this month — a newbie or an old hand — you have my best wishes. If you’re headed deep into North Dakota or Minnesota, that goes double. Get ready for an adventure that will challenge your views of what counts as everyday life. Be prepared to broaden your horizons. Take nothing for granted; you’ll learn — and impart — new discoveries every day.

And if you’re a teacher’s kid like me, settle back with a whole buffet of back-to-school memories scattered all across the map. It’ll give you time to figure out a more succinct answer to the question that always stumps us: “So, where are you from?”

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — The Verdict’s In … The Headlines

Too much — way too much — ink and airwaves have lately been consumed with salacious stories involving teachers and teenagers in the most unseemly situations.

Consider two highly charged dramas unfolding before us. The first involves North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year, the West Fargo High School English instructor accused of an extended affair with a 17-year-old student five years ago. After his case ended in a bizarre mistrial, he awaits a decision on whether he’ll be retried.

The other: the superintendent who’s sitting in the Ward County Jail. Lawmen arrested him at Sawyer Public School just days ago. He’s charged with corruption of a minor and child trafficking, accused by a Minot teenager who says they connected on the gay dating site Grindr.

Then throw in a couple more that pop up on top in Google: the Park River teacher accused of having sex with a 16-year-old girl … the female Fargo paraprofessional who showed nude pictures to a student … the veteran English teacher in Mandan who wrote two of his students into graphic sex scenes in an Old West novel — then gave them autographed copies of the unpublished manuscript inscribed with thanks for the inspiration they provided.

What on earth is going on here?

Human nature and hormones don’t seem to have changed much over the years. Yet I don’t remember any horrors of this sort from my own distant high-school days. I wondered: Was my world-class teenage naivete affecting my memory … or late-middle-age faulty recall?

So, I’ve been asking around. While a few friends recall a vague wisp of gossip here and there, none — none! —  can come up with anything to rival the scandals that seem almost commonplace today.

So are today’s teens more tempting that the adolescents our own teachers wrangled back in our classroom days? Each generation does assume that they alone invented sex, but come on now. Lots of us grew up in the Sixties!

Are contemporary educators more befuddled by the hormone-infused fog of boys and girls exploring puberty? I sincerely doubt it. The line between adults in positions of authority and the vulnerable, impressionable minors with whom they’re entrusted was clear then, is clear now and will still be transparent as glass for generations to come.

Or has something else changed? Could it be the messenger who deserves much of the blame? Are today’s lurid headlines of schoolhouse scandal due to something as simple as news media that have relaxed their standards of what is (and isn’t) fit to print?

We do seem to be on the fast track to perdition … but I suspect the best explanation is that relentlessly sensational news coverage is making something that’s vanishingly rare seem almost everyday.

The West Fargo teacher’s trial occupied most of my local daily’s front pages for almost a week. Coverage contributed more than 3-square feet of photos above the fold: the accused wearing a troubled yet resolute expression, his wife in the witness chair, him cradling his head in his hands. The young woman who accused him was not shown or named because the local media, in a fit of decency, choose not to name victims in sex-related cases. (Good taste apparently does not preclude dropping lots of hints.)

Each day’s dispatch included a long, detailed account of what he said, what she said, what his wife said, what his former colleagues said, what the handwriting and cellphone experts said and what lots and lots of lawyers had to say. Some of it was pretty graphic.

Every scrap of this information was legitimately available to reporters and, through them, the entire community. Freedom of the press, we call it — the public’s right to know. Legally, it’s as bold and simple as the undeniable fact that court testimony is part of the public record.

But does being free to report this information mean that every member of our highly competitive, audience-craving Fourth Estate should share it?

Ross Collins of North Dakota State University’s communication department pointed me to a particularly apt passage in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. Several points seem shriekingly relevant. SPJ declares,“Journalists should

  • Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
  • Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
  • Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

Good judgment calls for finding a delicate and ill-defined balance. Ignoring or suppressing stories like these is clearly not in the public’s interest. How much is too much? I’m ridiculously glad I’m not the editor or reporter making that call. But I do recognize tabloid-style sleaze when I see it. This is one of those lines that may only be understood after it’s been crossed.

We can certainly argue that parents, in particular, need to be aware of perils their children (very, very, very rarely) might face when they spend their days in school. We can debate whether unmasking bad actors could make our schools safer and healthier in the long run. We can even assert that the media storm might serve to caution potential Humbert Humberts darkly dreaming of Lolita.

Of course, justice must be served. Statutory rape is a sinister, serious, hideous crime. That we can trust such accusations will be investigated and resolved is essential. That this mess eventually came to trial is undeniable evidence that our legal system does strive to get it right.

Let’s skip down, though, to the bottom line. Here’s what the texture and tone of the heavy-breathing news coverage smacks of: Salacious, vulgar prurient interest.

Justice does not require the total destruction of the teacher who stands accused. Whether he’s found guilty or not guilty or, as now seems most likely, left forever in limbo … his future as a dedicated, charismatic, effective high school teacher is toast.

Nor does the brave young college student who brought charges against Mr. Chips deserve the lingering clouds of innuendo that surround her. Whatever the facts from 2009, her sincere need to seek justice doesn’t warrant how she’s being characterized in the tabloid-worthy hive-mind: the intimation that she must be the particular kind of perhaps-delusional Jezebel summed up by that damning phrase, “a woman scorned.”

Mistrial or not, the verdict has been rendered — not by judge and jury, but by the irresistible, faceless vigilante force that we call “journalism.” Right or wrong, it is a life sentence.