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Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass
Hearing the Different Drum

by Michael L. Umphrey

Featured Author
Montana Education Association/Montana Federation of Teachers Annual Conference
October 16, 2003
Billings, Montana

At a conference of Montana teachers last summer, the conversation kept turning to the gloomy state of Montanaís economy. Without having any glib answers as to what we might do about it, I thought about a team of high school students in Libby I met a couple years ago.

team of student researchers from Libby, Montana
Teacher Jeff Gruber and Libby students.

They had researched the history of that town to present to the powers that be at Plum Creek headquarters in Portland. The kids wanted the corporate officers to understand the impact their actions had on the local community.

After researching a hundred-year environmental history of what seemed to be nonstop economic troubles, the kids concluded this way: "We looked to Libbyís past for answers to our current troubles. But we didnít find answers. What we found was that life had always been difficult, but that our grandparents and great-grandparents had always found a way to help each other and get along. And so will we."

Iím not sure the executives who heard the presentation learned much from it, though I'm sure they enjoyed seeing the kids do a good job. One of them told me later that the company couldnít operate according to what was good for Libby. They had a responsibility to stockholders.

And so it goes. The global economy didnít care about the fur traders when beaver hats went out of fashion. It didnít care about the tribes when they were crowded out by ranchers and farmers. It didnít care about the ranchers and farmers when harsh winters and drought ruined them. It doesnít care now if drought contributes to declining populations in the eastern part of the state.

Libby Montana

But if the kids didnít change minds at the centers of power, they had done something else that in the long run may be more important. By working together to research the history of their place, they had formed a "we" that included the students on the research team but also their parents and grandparents and others who preceded them in the historical place they now live. Seeing themselves as members of this large and durable "we" gave them courage.

I asked the teacher what he had learned during the project. "Donít be a company town," he said.

Itís good advice. How dependent do we want to be on those who donít have our well-being at heart? From the commanding heights, all places seem interchangeable. But those of us who love particular placesĖa sunrise over the Sweetgrass Hills, a storm over the Snowy MountainsĖwho know that places are not interchangeable, might want to think about the ways that we become a company town as well as the ways we become a "we."

Montana Literature books

We Montanans are lucky in lots of ways, and one of them is that we have a sophisticated literature that can go a long way towards forming a "we." A people with its own literature is well on the way to finding or making whatever else they need. Our kids need to know this literature.

It has a lot to teach us, about, for example, the disillusionment and catastrophe people so often find when they come looking for the wrong things or looking for them in the wrong ways.

portrait of Montana writer A.B. Guthrie

In The Big Sky, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1947) A.B. Guthrie said "I had a theme, not original, that each man kills the thing he loves. . .the fur-hunters. . .killed the life they loved and killed it with a thoughtless prodigality perhaps unmatched." Though I wouldn't state such a thought as a general law in the way Guthrie seems to do, it does nudge us toward reflection on what we really do love and how well we are taking care of it.

Díarcy McNickle wrote about the way people from different cultures can misinterpret one another. He has important insights for a state populated with immigrants. In both The Surrounded (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978) and Wind From an Enemy Sky (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978), he offered a way for young people to see the trouble we get into trying live together if weíre not humble about what we know for sure about other people.

As the native way of life passed, a brief flourishing of the open cattle range led to an enduring cowboy myth about another lost way of life. In We Pointed Them North (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1939), "Teddy Blue" Abbott helps us understand something about why that myth wonít die.

Young cowboy from Harlowton, Montana

It has to do with timeless verities of the masculine heartĖespecially the young masculine heartĖboth its secret fears and its secret desiresĖwhich he tells so honestly we canít help but like him even when we disapprove.

The homesteading boom left us a large literature of hardship, disappointment, and failure in books such as A Bride Goes West (Nannie T. Alderson, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1942) and Homesteading (Percy Wollaston, New York: The Lyons Press, 1997). But the trouble is mixed with the hope and courage of people who built a society in which farm houses were never locked, even when the owner was away, so passing strangers could come in and fix a meal or get what they needed.

Mary Clearman Blew

A more recent writer, Mary Clearman Blew, explores the subtle ways that the world doesnít just fall apart and things donít just end. People also hang on and they also return, searching for all the ways difficult endings may be necessary transitions to new beginnings. In All But the Waltz (New York: Viking, 1991), Blew gives the experience of devastation its due, but like several other women writers she reveals a kin network that survives, showing us how family members reconnect with each other through the troubles.

In Fools Crow (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), James Welch showed us a western hero who faced catastrophe by turning toward life. When Fools Crow met the survivors of the massacre along the Marias River, he turned their attention to their children, who did not know the past but must live in the future. He performed what Ken Egan Jr. called "that most vital storytelling function of all, locating the listeners in a continuum of time that offers memory and purpose, a sense of belonging to an order of life, a reason for continuing" (Hope and Dread in Montana Literature, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003).

I like talking about these stories. But the last couple years, it seems that every time I try the conversation is derailed by questions about No Child Left BehindĖlike the loudspeaker interrupting a discussion of a poem to announce that Jostens is in the lobby selling class rings.

No Child Left Behind facade, U.S. Department of Education

So, letís talk about No Child Left Behind. When I was in Washington last year I sought out the U.S. Department of Education. Here are their office buildings. You see that No Child Left Behind facade, that hollow shell somewhat forlornly trying to evoke a warm and friendly impression, like a Hickory Farms storefront in the mall.

But we see that massive building behind the facade. We arenít fooled by the flimsy front. We know that American education is dominated by vast and impersonal bureaucratic machinery. It's not that I'm an anarchist. I think vast and impersonal bureaucracies are just fine for some things. But I know without much doubt that they are not the right institutions to educate children. . .NEXT>


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