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GRAVES: Blue Ribbon award truly noteworthy

Joe Graves, Mitchell Superintendent  The recognition event for Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School a week ago was noteworthy for any number of reasons, not least of which was the panel of speakers invited to elevate it. For one thing, the group was a most distinguished one. The president of the Mitchell City Council, the governor of South Dakota’s chief of staff, and the South Dakota secretary of education were all present. For another, they all took due notice of just who their audience was that day — 434 school children — and crafted their remarks to that audience.

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If that doesn’t sound at least a bit daunting to you, then you are someone on one extreme end or the other of a continuum of public speakers — those who haven’t done much public speaking and so have no idea just how tough it can be to engage students ranging in age from 5 to 11, or those who are so skilled at it they have a finely tuned talent for speaking to any group of people regardless of their demographic. Each of the these speakers — Jeff Smith, Dusty Johnson and Dr. Melody Schopp — spoke to almost a half a thousand school-aged children and had them enjoying the experience, even eating out of their hands. I was impressed.

Oddly, though, none of these was my favorite speaker of the day. That designation goes, rather, to Mrs. Vicki Harmdierks, the principal of GBR, who attempted to communicate to her pupils just how noteworthy an achievement being named a Blue Ribbon School is.

And she nailed it.

She did so by using a graphic illustrating sets of ones, tens and hundreds, a depiction familiar to all of the children through mathematics instruction. You probably remember these. One oval or square represents a set of one. Ten all connected in a line represent a set of 10, and 10 of these lines lumped together represent a set of 100.

When she placed the graphic up on the enormous screen at the front of GBR’s gymnasium that afternoon, student heads shot up out of the crisscross, apple-sauce seated crowd in warm looks of familiarity. You could almost hear the “hey, I’ve seen that before” exclamations that ran through choral counting by the four sets of 100, three sets of 10 and four sets of one that make up the GBR enrollment.

And instantly she had them. The seven sets of 100, three sets of 10 and four sets of one that they counted, and that she went on to explain, were all of the school building in South Dakota. The four sets of one that were colored represented the tiny group of schools in South Dakota recognized as Blue Ribbon Schools. And I really did hear the “aha’s” and “oh’s” that swept through the crowd of children as the fuller understanding of the exclusivity of the honor was made clear.

The understanding that emerged was not unique to the children. I am quite sure I noticed the same greater clarity as it reached a number of adults in the crowd.

It is a sign of our grade-inflated times that such an implicit clarity is even needed. In a better world, all recognitions would be genuine and well-deserved. But in this world, we too often find ourselves having to differentiate between genuine honors and, well, marketing. It was Napoleon who famously said (did Napoleon ever say anything that wasn’t famous?), “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Such cynicism first intruded upon my own life when, as a first-grader much enamored with the little gold stars Miss Johnson very occasionally placed at the top of my school papers, I discovered a whole box of the things in my educator parents’ junk drawer with the price tag positively blaring — 29 cents, a paltry sum for such an array of glory even then.

Thus, the rather extraordinary achievement of Mrs. Harmdierks was engaging this mass of elementary humanity while also managing to convey a difficult and complicated distinction to the minority of adults in that same crowd, that being named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education is a highly meaningful, difficult-to-achieve accomplishment. That Mr. Smith, Mr. Johnson, and Dr. Schopp followed up with an explanation of the hard work, talent, and commitment from students, teachers, parents, and staff that was necessary to make that happen was the second part of a one-two punch that could not and did not fail to leave a lasting impact on everyone in attendance.

Including a school superintendent who last Tuesday came to an even deeper realization of just how extraordinary are all of the people at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School who made this happen.