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NEIL PUTNAM: Education still part of American Dream

Neil Putnam, Mitchell School Board member  Last year, I was carpooling to a meeting of school board leaders. We detoured off the highway to visit my father’s gravesite. I directed the driver through the rolling hills and gravel roads en route to the small, remote cemetery. On the way, we stopped at my family’s vacant homestead. Subliminally, I saw livestock and my late father working the fields, and wished the abandoned house and buildings surrounded by overgrown prairie grass and weeds were a mirage.

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As we drove through the countryside, I heard dad’s voice talking about crops and the genealogy of the area families; it was as if I was once again a passenger on dad’s leisurely drives. The nearly 30 years since his passing seemed like yesterday. We drove another hour until we reached the hotel. My mind became filled with nostalgia of fond memories, and I tried to mitigate the melancholy.

At this meeting, I was selected by my peers from nine states to serve on the National School Boards Association Board of Directors. I am still in awe and extremely grateful for the opportunity to represent Mitchell, South Dakota, and the United States advocating for students. Additionally, it was surreal that I accepted this honor in my boyhood backyard. Since then, I have been provided a plethora of resources and the nationwide network of school board members has exposed me to American education that I hope will benefit those I serve.

Since joining NSBA, I have received voluminous materials and access to national experts on American education, which I appreciate. However, for me, dad symbolizes the essence of American education. The year 1983 was the eve of my senior year in high school, and dad and I would often discuss college and beyond. He knew his time was short, and I denied the eventuality that he would not see me graduate. Despite his health limitations, my education was a priority. He helped with homework and attended school events. During his adolescence, the country experienced The Great Depression, Dirty Thirties and World War II. He was from what Tom Brokaw described as the Greatest Generation. Therefore, the means to educate your children was quite a sacrifice. He often reminisced about attending one-room school houses. I am sure his mother, along with many aunts and uncles, being teachers also helped. Coincidently, the school house he attended would become a garage on our farm.

Sometimes I long to hear dad’s rendition of his grandparents’ journey in a covered wagon and settlement on their 160-acre site that President Lincoln made available in then-Dakota Territory and a couple miles from where Lewis and Clark explored. Dad’s lesson was that hope and resilience even in the most difficult times shall not hinder our posterity’s education. I will forever be grateful for his wisdom as parent and a citizen.

Recently, at an NSBA board meeting, I had a conversation with junior and senior high students from Memphis, Tenn., about their observations of American education. They were witty, charming and nervous, yet honest and optimistic.

I am sure talking candidly with school board members was uncomfortable. They reminded me that students in Tennessee, South Dakota or elsewhere all have an American education story, and someone sacrificed for them so that the promise of an American education would be their legacy. Abraham Lincoln captured this so well when he said, “Educating the mind without the heart is no education at all.”

- Neil Putnam, of Mitchell, is a member of the Mitchell Board of Education.