Class C schools, Class C tournaments, Class C towns.
What does that C stand for? According to the Montana High School Association, Class C designates the high schools with fewer than 120 students. In Montana, that's about 64% of all high schools. 108 of them, to be exact, located in tiny towns and reservation communities across the state.
Jocko Valley, home of Class C Arlee High School
In towns with Class C schools, the school functions as the pivot point for many activities. Even folks without kids in school come to school events such as band concerts and fundraisers. Grandparents, aunties and uncles and other extended relatives fill the seats at athletic competitions and graduations. Even some funerals are held in school gyms, when there is no other venue large enough.
And when Class C schools travel, towns empty out. "Last one to leave turns out the lights" goes the saying. Here's a Missoulian article about this phenomenon from last year's state basketball tournament. And what about those fans? Here's what the Northern Sports Network reported when Arlee's eight-man football team made it to the state championships for the first time 29 years: "The fans were one of the notable parts of the game. Hundreds of fans made the 366 mile trip to Chinook to watch their team play in the title game."
Three hundred and sixty-six miles. That's over five hours one way. Yes, Montana, but also yes, dedication. Can you see the caravan of cars, painted red and white, stretching for miles across the plains, heading east to watch their team - our team - play in their first state championship in decades? We lost. But here's what happened then: "Following the trophy presentation, the Arlee players lined up single file and every single Warriors fan came by and gave each and every player a hug. The emotional event lasted over 45 minutes." Because that's how we do.
Community members left behind watch the game from a high school classroom.
When Class C Chinook lost a wrestler in a car accident just before the state tournament earlier this month, Arlee distributed memorial armbands to their wrestling team. One Chinook wrestler remarked, "It just shows that the whole wrestling community is one big family." The wrestling community and the community of small towns: one big family. That's how we are.
And of course last night at the Western C Divisionals basketball tournament in Hamilton, 72 miles away, hundreds of Arlee fans packed the gym to watch both of their teams compete in the championship games. Picture this: One side of a gymnasium fully wearing red. Half of the opposing bleachers, also in red. One full end, also in red. This crowd is rowdy, ready, loud, and proud. Not only did both teams bring home the first place hardware and clinch a trip to state, the girls became the first team in recent memory to do so.
Around 11:30, I was home enjoying some couch time when I heard the sirens. Not fast, but slow. Not one, but several. And the honking. I stepped onto the porch, and cue the goosebumps - the teams were back from the divisional tournament, escorted by our town's emergency vehicles, flanked by happy parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles and extended family.
If you do not live in a small town, you cannot know the elation of a community that rallies around its own: the gyms packed with sports fans, proud parents of graduates, or mourners at a funeral.
If you do not live in a small town, you may not "get" the excitement of caravans that travel together, hotels full of guests who know each other, hundreds of fans with matching t-shirts in faraway bleachers.
If you do not live in a small town, you may not guess what the C in Class C really stands for: community.