During a spring storm, a group of fourth-graders are considering how their lives will change in the future. I’ve asked them to think about anything that might be different for them tomorrow, or even 30 years down the road. A bunch of hands go up, and the first student I call on looks out the window, and says, "The drought will end." The next boy says, "Grandpa will give me the ranch."
Like a lot of people I work with at South Routt Elementary in Yampa, Colo., these children live close to the land. They’re growing up with the weight of a ranching ethic; they know more than I ever will about cattle, hay and weather.
My job is to teach them how to write. I try to get them to feel, analyze and communicate. I try to get them to think lyrically. I believe it’s an important job. Some of the parents in our tiny district worry about the limited number of programs an elementary school with just 172 students can provide. The principal and superintendent worry about disappearing funds and declining enrollment.
Next year, the sixth grade, which used to be part of the middle school in the next town over, will be moving into our building. Our district is losing one of only four administrators, as well as two teaching positions. We all worry about the budget, and about what is best for our kids.
So I teach poetry, lessons on "writerly" voice, figurative language, sentence fluency. One girl writes about her ranch, where there is "a sweet smell of fresh stacked hay" and "where hills and fields are covered in hungry cows." She tells how the piglet thinks he’s a dog. Another girl writes, "I dream of snowflakes being worlds we don’t know about." A boy writes, "I think of my hands being as swift as the wind."
Sometimes when the children read what they’ve written, I feel jealous. They are so sure about the earth and the elements, so naturally devoted to observation. I want to be able to speak as intelligently about the makings of a good laying hen as Sarajane Rossi does.
I can’t say that every child in my school is salt of the earth. Our little town is situated just off a state highway between two of the biggest ski resorts in Colorado. There is a large ranching community; there are also students whose parents work for the railroad or in construction, or who drive every day to work service jobs in the neighboring resorts. But the size of the district draws the students together. On average, two-thirds of the children who start kindergarten in a class of 25 will graduate from high school with the same classmates, 13 years later.
When the 10-year-olds read their work aloud, troubles, faults and fears vault onto the page. Children listen, and nod; they identify with having a dog die, or a parent leaving home, with having no breakfast in the house, and a hay crop that fails because of no rain.
Will these same students do well on a high-stakes standardized test? In the process of expressing themselves, will they remember how to punctuate correctly? Probably; our little school scores better than average on Colorado’s test. Most of our kids will be deemed "proficient."
But trying to measure their capacity for compassion or knowledge is like trying to lasso a thunderstorm or put a yardstick against the sky. Writing about twilight in town where he lives, a third-grade boy says, "Above Blue Star Hill, the white from the snow on the Flattop Mountains hits the pinks of the sunset that make it look so beautiful. I look up at the sky and see the tiny bit of fading blue retiring from a busy day. I see the crescent moon just coming up from the other side of the world."
Sometimes, when the students read, I stop worrying for a while and just listen. The kids make me imagine a season without drought. They make me imagine what kind of readers, writers and thinkers they could be, given a few school years with full funding for programs and enough staff.
But even with budget cuts, they’ll go on expressing gratitude and awe about their mountain home. I love the way they look getting on the school bus at the end of the day — some in hip-huggers and platform sandals, some in Carhartts and cowboy hats — chucking one another on the shoulders, talking about what happens when it rains.
Kate Krautkramer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Yampa, in western Colorado.