Last week was my best assignment yet for the McKenzie County Farmer.
I spent three hours at morning lessons at Horse Creek School, one of four rural schools still teaching in North Dakota. Over 4,730 rural schools taught children in North Dakota, and Horse Creek, just six or seven miles east of Montana, is a true outlier that has no real end in sight like other schools that saw their demise.
From interviews with the county's superintendent of schools, I learned Horse Creek has never had a large number of students in a given year. In 2016-17, just six students from two families comprise four grades at the K-8 school.
They arrived just before 8 a.m. (Mountain Time) in the Horse Creek School District's school bus, a Chevrolet Suburban driven by a school mother. And what wholesome, wonderful kids they were.
They worked independently and helped each other with schoolwork throughout the morning. The seventh grader helped the two first graders learn subtraction while the teacher worked with the fourth graders (all two of them) with reading while the fifth grader studied by herself.
At long-awaited recess, the kids showed me their fort made of sticks and grass in the wooded creek bottom below the school and the highway. There I saw that these kids don't really think of themselves as siblings when they're at school; they're all a friend group learning and playing and growing together at this rare rural school.
I had the classic K-12 education in three schools: elementary, middle and high school. I had hundreds of classmates in 13 years. Some of Horse Creek's students have been home schooled, gone to public school in Sidney, Mont., and spent two or three years at Horse Creek. Pretty much everything but private school.
One fourth grader's eyes grew really big when I told her I attended school in a city of 120,000 people.
Yep, Fargo, N.D. A regular NYC.
I'm not sure these children recognize the rarity they are receiving as an education. Rural schools were once so common in North Dakota, almost a landmark of the state as the shuttered and abandoned schoolhouses line rural roads and the countryside.
In fact, they were numerous enough to stand every 15 square miles on North Dakota's landscape.
There's a safety in the isolation these children have. The closest town is 15 miles away. The bus route is 35 miles long. The school sits along State Highway 68, a lightly traveled stretch of road.
These students have learned independence at extremely young ages and work well with each other. When I was their ages, I had mean classmates and teachers who did not devote as much time to individual students as Horse Creek's schoolteacher does to hers (nothing against those people. Past is past).
And that's another thing too; this rural school is not lacking for services or equipment. It has everything it needs for its students, from a library to computers to textbooks to a visiting speech therapist for two students.
North Dakota is often the butt of many rural jokes, as we apparently still drive horses and buggies and live in towns surrounded by crops.
Eh, that last one's true.
But there's nothing laughable about Horse Creek School. It is to be commended as an excellent source of education. I only wish more students and even myself could experience that kind of classroom.
But that would take away from what makes Horse Creek unique. No more than 12 students in a year have been educated at the school. The more students at the school, the less the school retains its uniqueness, I would think.
I tip my hat to Horse Creek School, and I thank my editor and teacher Kim Kranz for letting me visit.
One quote by Kranz as she reflected on raising the flag for the pledge of allegiance on teh school's first day last month particularly resonated with me, and I'll leave you with it.
"As I stood there with the meadowlarks twerping around me and the sun shining off the buttes, I felt I was in an alternate universe."