Third quarter report cards just came out, which meant teachers like me were entering grades and confirming that students’ marks reflected what they had done and learned.

My trouble with the quarter was that I couldn’t find a way to report on all I had seen, a trouble typified by what happened on March 8, when the junior and senior AP English students from Stevens and Central gathered for a writers’ conference. They spent the day learning from guest speakers how writing is done in professional contexts and how they might improve their own work.

And they were wonderful. They attended to guests’ remarks, engaged with the material, and took notes where they could. The day was long — six sessions for each student, no study hall or independent time — but they endured as best as they could, asking questions up to the end.

I hear many versions of the idea that our children are in crisis. They are not curious. They are enslaved to their phones. Their jeans have more holes per square foot than fabric. The concern is genuine, maybe arising from a sighting of teens texting each other from opposite sides of a booth at Perkins, but the fatalism indicates little experience with teenagers.

The students attending the conference did not all want to be writers — many would celebrate never having to write an essay again — but they were polite and kind to everyone, allowing those who were particularly excited to enjoy the moment. Perhaps most telling was that the students’ favorite guest was a poet, revealing that vocational relevancy is not the only thing students value.

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That poet, Aaron Belz, visiting because of a generous grant from the Rapid City Public Schools Foundation, read his poems in an hour-long performance at the end of the day. And while poetry can be difficult — it’s so easy for the mind to wander, so easy to miss the dense meaning — these students left their phones in their pockets and opened themselves up to what Belz had to offer. They laughed at his oddity, relishing his deadpan delivery and his poems’ surprising endings. After one poem elicited belly laughs from some students, he muttered, “I didn’t think anyone would get that.” That they did is a testament not only to their wit but to their engagement.

Later that night a couple teachers hosted a house reading with Belz, providing an opportunity for those outside the schools to hear his work. A small group of students who had spent the day at the conference came as well, and they sat with us in a circle by the woodstove, laughing and smiling while Belz read for another 45 minutes. Afterward we mingled in the kitchen, swapping great band names (The Stale Campfires!) and arguing spiritedly about the risks and rewards of pursuing a career in the arts.

We were a small but eclectic group: teachers and students, religious and non-religious, Democrats and Republicans, aspiring engineers and growing musicians. But we were warm in body and spirit, and we thoroughly enjoyed poetry and comedy and one another.

The evening was simply a microcosm for the day, and while both were particularly beautiful, neither was surprising to those of us who work with these students.

Ultimately, there is no data field on these report cards for beauty and kindness and respect. But that is what these students were full of, so I suppose Rapid City will simply have to trust me on this one: We’ve got a whole lot of A-plus kids in this town.

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Geoffrey Sheehy teaches English at Rapid City Central High School.

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