B. Barnett is leaving the game. Sort of.
This is a story about pursuing excellence and a dogged devotion to the success of our youth. It’s about commitment to a set of principles and what it looks like to leave a true and lasting legacy. It’s a story about those things most of us would hope to be reflected in our lives by the end of our lives, all the while knowing that for, whatever reason, some of us will most likely be more successful in accomplishing that than others.
Because it’s set in the High Plains of Colorado in a small and relatively unknown town named Eads, this story is told in the language of the landscape, for, among the people who populate these windswept horizons, not the least of which is the person at the very center of this story, few things are frowned upon as much as bragging. Out here, humility is not just a virtue to be respected. It’s expected, as well, and tempered only by the unspoken but heartfelt pride that comes from the hard work that’s a part of reaching any goal worth reaching.
For the past thirty years, Betsy Legg Barnett has been as much a part of the educational experience in Kiowa County as football games on Friday nights, girls’ basketball tournaments in the gym, bleating goats and mooing bucket calves at the 4H barn and the elementary school’s spring concert. Although she and twin brother, Brett, were born in Boulder during the years her father was attending CU law school, the family returned to the county where previous generations—on both sides—had homesteaded land years before. Along with their younger sister, Dana, who had just been born, their return to Kiowa County in the late 1960s made Betsy and Brett the first pair of fourth generation Leggs to walk these slightly rolling hills. (I know…I know… But I just couldn’t pass it up.)
Under the tutelage of Mrs. Anderson, their first of many teachers, “the twins” were only the second kindergarten class to have ever attended school in Eads. Twelve years later, along with 26 classmates, they walked across the stage to receive their high school diplomas without ever having attended school anywhere else.
Even now, almost half a century later, Betsy can still recall the names of some of teachers she had through the years, names that are no doubt familiar to many. LaVelle, Durrett, Ewing, Sibcy, Nelson, Fox and, in her words, “the Beans in Junior High”. High school brought Lessenden, Crawford, Woelk, Diel, and DeVaughn into her life. And, of course, Mr. Bud Wiser was one of her principals.
From the beginning, a love of competition, setting goals, giving it “your all” and the value of hard work have been at Barnett’s core. “My brother and I were always really competitive,” she recalls. “In first grade, we had reading contests. Sometimes, he won, and, well, sometimes, I won.” She pauses just long enough to add that one of her prizes was a Raggedy Ann and Andy book in the first grade.
Whether it was conscious or not, those same philosophies that she’s espoused throughout her life are ones she followed growing up. She set a goal to be Valedictorian and admits to meeting it, carrying a 4.0 grade point average. “It was a relatively small class,” she adds. Of course, she does.
Sports was, and continues to be, enormous in her life. “I was just a little above average athlete,” she says with a slight shrug, “but I tried really hard.” In reality, Betsy was on the first girls’ basketball team from Eads to go to state, and, once there, they got second place. As a senior, her team returned to state and just missed getting into the championship. For her part, Barnett scored 29 points against Limon, which was a school record at the time. However, in describing a feat that she touts far louder and more often than her own, Barnett cites the accomplishment of her only daughter, Jordan, who, also as a senior, holds the single game scoring record with 41 to go to state. Of that, Betsy simply says, “That’s pretty cool.”
Barnett also took up volleyball and track, running the quarter and some relays. But she genuinely loved pitching softball in the summer. “Larry Watts coached one of my teams when I was older,” she says, “and we went to state and played against some good teams.” With a laugh, she adds that she was also on the Eads High School Bowling team, where she won her “only state championship” by bowling a 239 in one game.
Betsy’s GPA plus her “a little bit above average” athletic skills won her a full paid scholarship to the highly prestigious Colorado College. “That was a huge change for me,” she reflects. “I loved basketball but it was really hard to be a little fish in such a big pond.” The change was, indeed, so great that she considered doing something she had never considered before. When she returned home for Christmas, she announced she was going to quit basketball. “My dad talked me out of it,” she says. Whatever it was her father said, it was the right thing. When Barnett returned to college, she decided to give it her all. “I was holding back,” she says, “and that wasn’t the right way to approach new things. Once I committed, I became the starting point guard, and we went to Nationals in Iowa.” She shakes her head at the thought. “That was the first time I’d ever been on a plane,” she says. “I made a lot of good friends. We had some really good times.”
During these same years, she started dating Marty Barnett who would, several years later, become her husband. Having returned to Eads, Betsy took a job at the bank in town. Soon, she and Marty started a family. An innovative program at Regis University, aptly called “University Without Walls”, allowed her to continue her education. However, Betsy was uncertain about her direction. While at Colorado College, an advisor had told her that Accounting, her first choice of careers, “wasn’t for girls”. Despite real determination to get her degree, she was “a little lost” about which degree to aim for.
Chad, Betsy’s second son who was born in 1984, was the person who actually turned Betsy toward education. “Chad was born with Down’s Syndrome,” Betsy says. “and that made me want to learn all I could about how to help him. They’d just developed ‘Infant Stimulation’, and I was bound and determined to teach him everything I could that would help him lead as normal of a life as possible. Teaching Chad…studying about how kids learn…that was what got me turned toward education.”
Eight years, a full time job and four kids later, she finally got her Bachelor’s degree and started a career that would profoundly shape the next thirty years of her life.
LITTLE SCHOOLHOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE?
When Betsy Barnett started her first job teaching 5th grade, Plainview and Eads classrooms were much as they had been for decades. The library had books and a few old portable televisions teachers could borrow. But, mainly, the library had books. Classrooms had chalkboards, pens, pencils, paper and books. There might have been a computer here and there, but, if so, they were primarily used by faculty for email.
No, there were no computers for students to use. No such things as lap tops. Cell phones had been invented and were being sold commercially, but they wouldn’t be common for another decade.
Not exactly the stuff of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but far from what’s found today.
And that had nothing to do with how Barnett approached education.
From day one on, she developed her own style. During the five years she taught K-8th grade at Plainview, Barnett chose projects over textbooks, and her “kids who were so smart” did novel studies, writing and reading workshops. They even wrote local news for the newspapers. Her kindergarten class—an age she describes as being initially “disconcerting”—made books. Her favorite? The OUCH book. “When the kids scraped their knees or something, they ‘told’ the OUCH book what they did and how it felt,” she says. “That way, I didn’t have to hear every story, they learned to write and express themselves and they still got some sympathy.” She chuckles and shakes her head. “They learned so much that year.”
Much as she loved Plainview, and she did love it, the driving distance from Eads (and her kids) became problematic. After taking a few additional courses which eventually included getting her Masters, she transferred to Eads where she was the K-8th grade Media Specialist, officed in the elementary school library. “I loved that job,” she says. “I enjoyed it tremendously.”
After another five years, Barnett made a choice that, in retrospect, was inevitable.
She got into coaching middle school and high school, and that took her to Media Specialist position in the high school library. While coaching Middle School and high school basketball, volleyball and track was the fulfillment of a number of dreams at a number of levels, Barnett hit a wall that she just couldn’t work her way through. “It was the politics,” she says, somewhat flatly. “I wasn’t good at the politics.” And, unfortunately, politics is almost always accompanied by criticism. “I struggled with that a lot,” she says, “especially when I was younger. But…” she goes on, in her typical style of looking for the positive side of even difficult situations, “the criticism prepared me for being a principal.”
“It has been an amazing adventure over the last 19 years with Mrs.Barnett,” Superintendent Smith says. “We’ve watched many students grow up and graduate from EHS, a few against the odds. We’ve also endured tragedies, which were difficult but made us stronger as a team. Mrs. Barnett's passion for success has been instrumental in strengthening programs and opportunities for our students. She truly cared about all the students, and her passion and leadership will be greatly missed.”
The passion Smith refers to is evident in her multiple accomplishments, many of which won awards and taught students truly extraordinary things. But the substance, the true and enduring impact this principal has had on the lives of those she was ultimately responsible for educating can only be found within the words and between the lines of what she says in describing her job.
“When a kid gets in my office they’re in for sometimes a long, long conversation.” She chuckles as she considers her words. “I…wear them down until they agree with me so they can get out of there.” The smile is replaced by something else.
“Being a principal is really rewarding. I get to see kids at their worst times, and then I get to help and encourage and watch them enjoy the best times. I’m there from the beginning…steady with the same message…the same support…the same rules…the same set of expectations. They don’t always like them, but they accept them because they’re good kids. And then, all of a sudden, they’re realizing things and starting to do things right and I don’t have to worry about them anymore.”
She stops for just a brief moment and then continues. “Working with kids is never black and white and those automatic rules…well, you gotta know the kid, and the circumstance and what’s in a kid’s heart. Do I throw the book at him? Or do I ease up? I don’t usually ease up because their feelings are hurt. It’s when I know it’s going to affect their future and close a door or two. Kids are just learning, and to close doors so soon is hard for me to do. The door I close may be the very door that will help this kid be a successful adult, you know?” She shrugs.
And then, in a genuinely rare moment of disclosure, she brings up the worst day of her entire career. It was Thursday, October 13th in 2011 when a fatal car accident took the lives of Howard Mitchell, a beloved Cheyenne County deputy, and six of his thirteen foster children, all of whom but one were Eads students.
“I’ll always remember that day,” she says. “From the minute I got a call from Melody [Mitchell] asking if Howard and the kids had made it to school to me—with that sinking feeling in my stomach—having to tell her ‘No’, to hearing there was a wreck and we’d lost students. I remember it all. We had to begin the crisis situation with statements and upset parents, staff, and students and the media that just didn’t let up. There’s no textbook to tell you what to do in a situation like that. I remember Mr. Smith telling our student body who all we’d lost and who was still with us and the… utter shock and despair and fear on my students’ faces. From there, the community just tried to heal. I went on auto pilot trying to do what I could to help our school family and Melody and the family heal.” She takes a deep breath. “It took more than a year to get some semblance of normalcy back. But when October comes around…I still think about Jeremy coming in my office the day before it happened and telling me, ‘I’m going to graduate, Mrs. Barnett.’ Yeah…..that was the worst day I had in my 30 years.”
The totality of decades spent educating children as they grow in life is hopefully full of goals that are met and victories won. But it is life, after all, and sorrow is an inevitably. While difficult and too often heartbreaking, those times are survivable if the journey is taken with someone who at least seems to know the way to a less sorrowful place. To many, Principal Betsy Barnett has been one such person.
“Knowing her has made me a better person,” says Mary Vasquez who has been an English teacher under Betsy’s supervision for 15 years. “I’ve never seen her back down from anything she was passionate about, even if those around her couldn't see her vision. She cares deeply about this place we call home, and it shows in her actions every day. She's one-of-a-kind, and even though she'll still be highly involved in our community, the halls of Eads High will miss her being in them. And so will I.”
There will be a celebration in honor of Betsy Barnett’s retirement Friday, May 25 in Horseshoe Park from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. The public is more than welcome to attend.