By Patrick Winderl
It will be out of the frying pan and into the fire for Havre High School English teacher Axel Schmaing this summer.
The bearded, bespectacled local legend will leave his teaching post in Havre for a position halfway around the globe. He leaves behind 35 years of distinguished service at Havre High.
"There's no one that's indispensible, but he comes pretty close," said friend and former colleague John Musgrove, now a state representative. "It's the end of an era for Havre High School."
Schmaing will begin work next fall at a private school in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia. He was encouraged to take the job by the principal of the school, who happens to be a former high school classmate from Billings.
The school consists mostly of American students whose parents live in the country, he said. About a fourth of the students are citizens of the country.
Teaching in Abu Dhabi, a city of close to 1 million people, will be different than teaching in the United States, he said. For one thing, the students are separated by gender, and the curriculum varies from what is taught in the United States.
"The kids will be different," he said. Drug use among students won't be as common as it is in this country, he added.
Schmaing gave serious consideration to the job after speaking to his former classmate, and a visit to the school last Thanksgiving solidified the decision. While living in Abu Dhabi, he will reside in an apartment provided by the school.
The end of July will mark the end of Schmaing's tenure in Havre. He will spend the last several months trying to clean up loose ends, he said.
His move brings mixed emotions.
"I feel a little bit of everything," he said. "I've had a good run here. This is where I've spent most of my adult life. I will miss the kids I have a rapport with and the people I teach with."
Schmaing is credited with building the English department at Havre High.
"He's been there since 1968," Musgrove said. "He molded and shaped an English department that is nothing short of excellent."
Sixteen years ago, Schmaing and Musgrove were largely responsible for developing the current two-part English program, said Havre Public Schools Superintendant Kirk Miller. The program, which is closely emulated in other school districts in Montana, uses a combination of literature and grammar courses, Miller said.
"He is an educator of the highest quality," Miller said, making observations based on a 27-year relationship with Schmaing. Miller, a Havre High graduate, was once a student in Schmaing's class.
"My recollection was that he really knew his stuff and had the ability to get along with everyone," Miller said. "He knew how to get the most out of the kids in his class."
The two were colleagues a few years later when Miller took a position teaching math at Havre High School.
Schmaing was a "great source of stability and leadership in the English department," Miller remembered.
"He's an extremely effective member of the Havre Public Schools team," he added. "He knows the students and he knows the subject matter."
Schmaing said he has enjoyed watching the English program at Havre High mature.
"It has a mind of its own," he said.
His students might tend to agree with him. During one recent advanced placement class available only to high school seniors, Schmaing and his students discussed the novel "Billy Budd." The discourse seemed to be better suited for a Mensa meeting than a typical high school classroom.
During a very informal discussion, students were encouraged to ask and answer difficult questions about the novel.
Schmaing's influence has not been relegated solely to high school classes. His dry sense of humor is well known at Montana State University-Northern, where he taught speech, composition and short story writing for a number of years.
During his 35 years at Havre High School, Schmaing said he has seen many changes, the most noticeable of which is probably the shrinking student population.
"We've gone from about 1,100 kids to under 700," he said. "That's a pretty big change."
Schmaing said students today are different culturally and socially than they were when he first started teaching. Today's students seem less inclined to study and work hard than yesteryear's counterparts, he said.
Some students who pass his classes now he "would have happily flunked 30 years ago," he said. "Or maybe I'm just seeing things through rose-colored glasses."
Schmaing, who graduated from Montana State University with a degree in education, said he may move back to Bozeman after he finishes teaching in Abu Dhabi.