Billie Johnson

Billie Johnson

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Last weekend, the Pocatello High School football team ended their season with a third-place finish. I followed their advancement through friends who had a son on the team or who were involved with Poky Nation. “Poky Nation” is the student cheering section. The pictures and videos of their season portray a palpable Poky Pride. These kids have embraced their new Thunder nickname with a fervor that surpassed anything I could have imagined or hoped for them.

It’s not just the football team or Poky Nation that has surprised me. I have been plunged into a subculture previously foreign to me that is bursting with school spirit: the speech and debate team. At Pocatello High School, they are now known as the “Voice of the Storm.”

Last weekend while the football team was playing in Holt Arena, the PHS speech and debate team was at the Gate City Tournament at Highland High School.

The “Voice of the Storm” has team uniforms this year of matching navy suits with a maroon vest and options of a traditional or bow tie. They look sharp. On Friday after school, I received a text from our speaker while he was on the bus heading across town. (Shared with his permission.)

“Is it possible for you to grab my debate tie tack please? It’s in my room, probably on the floor because my room is a mess. It is in a small pink box in the bag that has the bow tie and pocket square in it. Again, probably on the floor.”

He’s a smart kid. By acknowledging the mess, I’m less likely to give him grief. The box was right where he described. Curious, I opened it. Then I stood in his doorway smiling. It is a sterling silver lightning bolt. He could have gone through the evening just fine without it, but this was his personal symbol of the Storm. His badge of Thunder.

An earlier season tournament in Idaho Falls laid the foundation for my recognizing the importance of his tie tack to him. These kids will spend four to six hours in speaking competitions on a Friday night and then turn around for another 10 to 14 hours the next day. Add a couple bus rides on top of that. When he gave us his first post-tournament report, it began with, “we scared the bus driver.”

I envisioned my own impromptu speech about the need to respect the bus driver, when he continued, “because our cheer was so loud.” He went on to describe the scene on the bus and recite a new cheer that some seniors and juniors wrote over the summer. Our 16-year-old stood in our kitchen on a Sunday morning grinning through his shouts and waving his hands in excitement. His hair was a mess and his voice was hoarse but this was an unmistakable presentation of Poky Pride.

Before either of these two tournaments, their season began with a novice tournament at home. Varsity team members served as judges while the novice participants got experience with a lowkey competition. Their coach asked for parent volunteers to help chaperone, and I spent hours roaming the halls of Pocatello High School to make sure the students were where they were supposed to be.

I had time to inspect every single class picture that still hangs in the 129-year-old institution. The trophies. The pictures of student body presidents. The pictures of past principals. The “Indians” memorabilia on display. The new Thunder imagery featuring a fierce bison. It was a very “Dead Poets Society” couple of hours.

That Robin Williams movie came out in 1989 — when I was the exact age that our debater is now. There is a scene where Williams’ character Mr. Keating, an English teacher at an all-boys boarding school, has his class stationed in front of the old trophy cases and asks them to “peruse the faces of the past.” His message in that exercise is to point out that many of the people in those pictures are now gone. Life is short. We must “carpe diem” or “seize the day.”

I recalled that scene while I wandered and thought. My ponderings were interrupted when debate kids flitted by looking for their next round or a laptop charger. It was a poignant and beautiful clash of the past and present as their giggles and disputes provided the soundtrack to my own perusing of the faces of the past.

Many in our community are still skeptical and unhappy about the retirement of the Pocatello Indian — for a variety of reasons. I wish my experience alone in that school a month ago could set hearts at ease. The history on display is resounding. Today’s students are doing right by our rich traditions while making new ones of their own. It’s been a treat to hear their cheers and feel their energy, and when I lean in to look, I can see them seize the day in how they are seizing the Thunder. Mr. Keating would be proud.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in business from Idaho State University. She is an engineer and community volunteer who relishes hiking and biking the mountains of Southeast Idaho.