Ten Things About Leonard Public School I Didn’t Know Were Special Until I Moved Away

By Michelle (McDonald) Burton, Class of ‘89


When I tell stories about my youth, I often find myself having to pause to explain context.  It seems that most people didn’t graduate with a mere 14 classmates. Evidently, grades K-12 riding on a school bus together for an hour through the Sand Hills is an unusual arrangement. Not everyone knew the names of all the first graders in their town when they were in high school!  Small town North Dakota is special, and the LHS experience was unique even for its time and place.  Without further ado, here are the top ten things that surprise other people about the school from which I am proud to have graduated.


1. Transportation:  In North Dakota in the 80s, we could get our drivers licenses as soon as we turned 14, and most of us did. When I think about my own 14 year old sons and their lack of judgement, I thank my lucky stars we made it safely through those years. We drove our cars to school, of course, because it saved our parents from having to pick us up after our after school activities. My father always admonished us to leave the keys in the car when we were at school, in case he might (for some never fully articulated reason) need to stop by and use the car during the day. So yes, we were a car thief’s dream. Except - no one could have hopped into one of those cars and driven it away without attracting attention. Everyone knew what car everyone else drove!  And then there was the time that my dear classmate Harley Blegen drove a diesel tractor to school, and had to leave it running right outside our classroom windows all day because it was so cold out that if he turned it off it wouldn’t start. As I said, LHS was special!


2. Student comfort:  It was no secret that our little school was usually in a precarious financial position. Superintendents had to be creative to stretch the budget to last the entire school year. Why waste money on heating? 62 degrees is a perfectly acceptable temperature. We wore gloves in class all winter, and often donned our winter coats indoors too. 


3. Safety:  Sure, we had the occasional fire drill. Who didn’t love the opportunity to get out of class and hang around on the lawn, checking out the cool upperclassmen, once in a while. I even remember a tornado drill or two. But was it actually safe to have our science lab in a corner of the basement? And how old and unstable were some of the chemicals in there? We made it through without an explosion, so I guess it was all perfectly ok.


4. Our building:  K-12 under one roof, sharing the same lunch room and music room...evidently that sort of thing is not normal. Our building may have been old, but we had one thing that we could be proud of: the gym floor. We revered that gym floor! When I was in elementary school, Mr. Oyos would instruct us on how to respectfully walk through the gym in our street shoes. You must never, ever step inside the out-of-bounds line. Street shoes would RUIN that floor, we were admonished. To be honest, to this day I am uncomfortable stepping inside those lines in any gym, anywhere, unless I’m wearing clean, indoor-only shoes.


5. Staffing:  I had the same teacher for kindergarten, first, and second grade. (And don’t get me started on grades 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6 sharing a classroom and a teacher. Why do people find that odd?  I LOVED getting a preview of what I would learn the following year!). I had the same English teacher for grades 7-12. Six years of English with a single teacher. We are lucky it was such a good one. (And I’m not just saying that because he’s judging the essay contest!) It had its drawbacks - I started honors English in college never having read a single novel for an English class. (On the other hand, Rhonda Roesler and I quoted from the short story curriculum throughout our adulthood.) The upside, though, was the dreaded weekly composition. I was shocked to learn that that wasn’t a required part of the grade 7-12 national curriculum! I am forever grateful for that particular part of my high school experience, because much of my success in my current jobs revolves around the ability to write quickly and well - a skill that I can trace directly to the six-year-long composition-writing ordeal. 


6. Activities: Can you believe that in some schools, people have to try out for the school play? In Leonard, every junior and senior was a thespian. Everyone could be in the band and choir. The pressure to play basketball was strong, because without an 80% participation rate, we couldn’t even have fielded a team. I loved basketball, but was never very good at it. And yet, as an 8th grader I was on the A-squad. (Mostly on the bench...but what a motivator it was to be needed!) I am fully confident that at a larger school I never would have played any sport, and so many of my best high school memories revolve around basketball.


7. Activities, part 2:  Pom Pom Pull-away!  Oh, the years of running up and down that vacant lot, chasing each other. I’ve never met anyone else outside of North Dakota who has heard of our favorite elementary school pastime. Why was it that we played that game solely in the mornings, before the arrival of the busses and the start of school? Why did generations of Leonard kids continue that tradition?


8. Facilities:  Our school’s tight budget situation was also apparent when it came to our furnishings. We sat in desks with our parents’ names carved into them. The desks were very important to us. Each grade had a home room, and we kept all our possessions in our home room desk - which other students sat in throughout the day as we moved around to different classrooms for other classes. Nothing was private - pencils were “borrowed” and notebooks were rifled through. When I was in 8th grade the upperclassman I had a crush on routinely found my scribblings about him in the margins of papers in my home room desk. In the mid-80s, when Ed Mattson generously left some money to the school, the administration wisely bought lockers and this particular form of adolescent humiliation came to an end.


9. Traditions:  Leonard made freshmen wear beanies. Beanies! In the 80s! Long after the America of the 1950s was gone, we clung to that tradition - one that was all the more bizarre because the divide in Leonard wasn’t between 8th grade and 9th grade, but rather between 6th grade, when we were elementary school, and 7th grade, when we entered through the separate high school entrance and began changing rooms for each class throughout the day. What, then, were we marking with the “initiation” period and the beanies? What changed between 8th and 9th grade?


10. And more traditions: We had something we simply referred to as “privileges.” In early high school, privileges were granted during the fourth quarter to students with a good GPA. We were allowed to leave the premises during study halls and lunch. For seniors, privileges were extended to anyone passing most of their classes. What fun we had, going up to the bank in the mornings to have a cookie with Marlys Heuer! How lucky the town kids were to be able to pop home and play Atari!


As we spend this weekend remembering LHS and the start it gave us in this world, I hope that everyone feels as fortunate as I do to have been a part of this special place.