Smith: Why Rat took on Riebli School

Across the world Sunday, funnies-page fans saw that the sardonic Rat of "Pearls Before Swine" became a grade-school basketball coach whose team prepared to play "Riebli Elementary."

Perhaps some comics readers paused at the school's name long enough to wonder how it's pronounced (REE-blee) or why cartoonist Stephan Pastis chose it.

North of Santa Rosa, members of the Riebli Elementary family gasped and cheered.

"It's nice to have your name recognized as long as it's for the right reason," said Fran Hansel. She's principal of the 500-student Mark West Union District school whose one-room predecessor was founded in 1907 by Swiss immigrant John B. Riebli.

Hansel liked that, in Sunday's strip, a player named Carla told Rat she favors forfeiting the game vs. Riebli because winning and losing causes sadness within what the sensitive kid called "The Brotherhood of Humanity."

Principal Hansel said that, in fact, the sports program at the school focuses far less on winning than on inclusion, making sure everyone gets a chance to play.

"By middle school," she said, "we're going to have a lot of kids who do not make the cut."

Cartoonist and Santa Rosa resident Pastis, whose hugely popular strip appears in 700 newspapers, shares that the new story line reflects true life. Both of his children, Thomas and Julia, attended Riebli before the family moved from the district. And Staci Pastis was active in the Riebli PTA.

Following the family's move, Stephan Pastis signed up to coach Julia's school basketball team — which did in fact play against Riebli.

He asked, "Can you believe I was the coach of a kids' basketball team?"

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