Going out on a high note

Dorinda Blotsky has taught music at Norman County West Elementary School in Hendrum, MN since 1989.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

School is out in Hendrum Friday. For good.

Norman County West Elementary School is closing its doors for the last time, when the district dissolves for good and its students move on to surrounding schools. Most of its population of children from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade will start next fall in the classrooms of the newly renamed Ada-Borup-West district; others will scatter to closer schools in Moorhead or Shelly.

But for music teacher Dorinda Blotsky, the longest-tenursed member of its faculty, it will remain a large part of her life’s story.

“It’s very bittersweet,” she mused earlier this week, on a rare day when her music classroom was empty of young voices. “I’ve been in this basement room in the oldest part of our schools since 1989, but it’s always been a music room from the very start. So many memories are alive here. It’s like that song – ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ … so many people, so many changes, so much beautiful music.”

Hendrum has hosted a public school for 140 years. Consolidated School District No. 1 started with a two-room school that doubled in size, then was replaced in 1913 by the gracious three-story brick building where Dorinda has taught for so long. That structure housed a growing Hendrum-Perley School, eventually welcoming rural kids as their one-room schools closed in the 1940s and 1950s. The district’s pride and joy, the gymnasium, was added in 1990 with the formation of Norman County West, a district serving Hendrum, Perley and Halstad. Grades six through 12 went to Halstad, while the district’s little ones were bused to Hendrum.

“We knew this would be coming when our older children went on to Ada,” she says. That arrangement began in 2018. “But it was in the back of our minds.”

The 2020-2021 school year began as usual in Hendrum – a tightly knit student body where teachers knew not only their students but their parents, their neighbors and much of the rest of the community of 300. The announcement that the school would close for good, though, didn’t come until last January.

Dorinda, a native of Goodrich, North Dakota, came to Hendrum after several years teaching in Elgin west of the Missouri River. She was working on her master’s in elementary music education at the University of St. Thomas at the time. “Hendrum suited me. I could focus on teaching music to younger children. Research demonstrates that if you can get them started at age 3 or 4, music has an important effect on brain development. Studies have shown that reading scores go up. It’s beneficial for social and emotional learning.”

She has taught music five days a week ever since – at least, until this bizarre pandemic year. That has included not only teaching the fundamentals, often through singing games and other musical fun, but also leading older students in choir and directing a beginner’s band. The last two, both optional, moved down from fifth and sixth graders to fourth and fifth after Norman County West directed sixth graders north to Halstad.

Among the high points she and past students remember are the annual musical performances her choirs have performed. Each has gone far beyond reciting a series of songs, with themes, costumes and a role for every student. None was scheduled this year, of course, when masks made singing difficult. (“But we did it!” she exclaims with a note of pride.)

Some of Dorinda’s lessons have become traditions in Hendrum. One is her annual music programs, when parents and grandparents get to see their offspring take to the stage. On one recent occasion, the theme of baseball. Each student picked and portrayed a famous player; they were introduced, ballpark style, as they took the stage. Parents pitched in putting together sporty outfits; other teachers pitched in as she directed the vocalists. The gym was packed. The evening was deemed a winner.

Diminishing enrollment, coupled with Covid, precluded her band this year. In the past, though, she fondly recalls a former highlight. “Everyone was assigned to teach a parent to play their instrument. At the last concert, parents sat in each child’s chair with their instrument, while the student crouched down beside them. They played ‘Hot Cross Buns’ – just three notes,” she explains. “It’s hilarious. Some know how, of course, but others don’t. It’s a chance to find out how learning something new feels to their kids.”

That lesson wasn’t entirely new to some of her students’ elders. They themselves learned – and taught – the same lesson a generation before. “I’m teaching my own past students’ children now,” Dorinda says. “It’s very fun.”

That’s part of what she and her colleagues will miss after Friday, she says – the relationships that have tied the community, teachers and classes into one interconnected family. Some will carry on, since she’ll be teaching many of the same students next year in her new music classes at Ada-Borup-West. But it will never be quite the same.

“It makes me so sad to leave,” she admits. “My heart is full of memories and the people who matter so much.”

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