DON'T TOUCH ME
We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us, ashamed of ourselves; of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinion, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.
--George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman
In his book, “Teaching American Indian Students,” Jon Reyhner (who was once the principal and director of the bi-lingual program at Heart Butte though he was not a Blackfeet speaker) points out that there is often confusion between culture and race. A culture is a way of life -- a set of assumptions and strategies-- that grows out of place, economics and history. A race is a genetically related sequence of people. A culture is learned and supported by a community and can be racially inclusive -- that is, whites can learn to be "Indian" and vice versa. If either red or white people were born in China, they would grow up in the Chinese culture. Racial heritage is physical and individual, a given at birth that can't be changed. One still shows one's genes in one's face. [Not ALWAYS as a current television show investigating genes shows. The host, a strong representative of Black Thinking, turns out to be more white than he thought and Jewish at that!] In a culture of trust genetic differences don't matter. In a culture of suspicion, every small difference can become a source of hostility.
Terry Tafoya works with racially Native American youngsters who have been adopted, often by progressive white professionals. Everything is fine until the child comes to puberty. At the point of beginning reproductive activity, "white" kids and their parents draw away, and the child becomes suddenly conscious of being different. Does the difference mean "genetically flawed?" Not as smart, prone to alcoholism, hiding a "wild" streak? The obvious questions attached to adoption become sharpened when teenagers realize that they were probably given up by their birth mothers because that young woman was in trouble. Could they inherit that trouble? Was she a drunk? Was she raped? If they went looking for her, what would they find? Our understanding of what is inheritable and what is taught is still shaky.
But we don't always recognize Indians. A friend was speaking of some adopted Guatemalan youngsters. I quoted Terry Tafoya to her. "Oh, these are not Indian children," she protested. "They're Guatemalan." She had no awareness that many of the people coming this way from Mexico, Central America and South America-- riding the bus to work with me every day -- are certainly Native Americans, sometimes speaking only their tribal languages-- not Spanish. They have left their "reservations" just as whites urge the North American Indians to do. There are so many of them, they may end up assimilating whites! Alarmed whites are already nearly a minority in some states. Richard Rodriguez says, "The American indigenous people are taking the continent back-- one dish-washing job at a time."
Even when Indians are recognized, people are uncertain how to react. There is a story about an Indian man who joined the army in the days of discrimination. The sergeant was sorting the recruits. "All you Negroes fall out and stand over there!" he shouted. "All you White people fall out and stand over here!"
The Indian man stood still, waiting for a command. "What's your problem?" bellowed the Sergeant.
"Where should I go, Sir?" asked the Native American recruit.
The sergeant stood scratching his head. On the one hand it was clear that the man was dark. On the other hand, the sergeant believed that Indians were the First Americans, not slaves. In a black-and-white world, where does Red go? "Damned if I know," he finally admitted. "Go either way, I guess."
Even subtle thinkers forget that Native Americans are not like any other immigrant group, regardless of all the Bering Strait theories. The reason is that of the immigrant groups, every single one has left the land that formed their culture. Blackfeet, at least, occupy the same prairie where they evolved their buffalo culture, their social structure, and their assumptions about the nature of the universe. This is an advantage, not a handicap.
In some ways life was simpler in the Sixties. Righteous violence was accepted without much question. Montana teachers were allowed to strike children as punishment so long as we did it in private but had a witness. The principal routinely paddled the worst of the boys in his office and kept the paddle prominently displayed. One day in my first year of teaching a brazen young fellow was left in the principal's office to contemplate his coming punishment. Instead the boy turned on the P.A. system and began sending mysterious whispers and grunts into all the classrooms. When the principal returned, the boy didn't have time to switch the P.A. off, and soon indignant howls of pain were broadcast through the building. Order was remarkably good for weeks afterward. And everyone knew what order was: being on time, staying in one's seat, putting up one's hand, lining up, not talking back.
The tall, beautiful art teacher was from Cut Bank, seemingly the home of enviable white oppressors but actually a roughneck little oil town with record low temperatures. For the complicated reasons junior high girls have, this glamorous woman was alternately fawned on and persecuted by students. One day the office/storage area where she kept supplies and objects for still-lifes acquired a terrible stench. A search revealed that someone had deposited a personal tribute, still warm and direct from the source, in one of the still-life vases. The donor was never identified.
The teacher's disposition deteriorated. She occupied the other side of the tiny duplex shack where I lived. Wind yearned at the eaves and rattled the chimney pipes of our muttering gas heaters. Our plumbing was always just about to freeze. Mice got trapped in our bathtubs. We had no telephones. One of the coaches fell madly in love with the art teacher and came late at night to bang on her door, begging to be let in. She and I arranged a signal system of wall-knocking in case there was real trouble. In the end she began obsessively painting a huge blue room with a person huddled in the bottom corner. Then she began to hallucinate floating blue spots and her mother came to get her.
Before she went, she had a confrontation with a student, a tall grinning young man whose performance in my own room consisted of carefully printing his name at the top of the paper and then planting his forehead on it for a nap. I never figured out whether it was out of contempt, or because he never got any other chances to sleep, or because I was a lousy teacher. Maybe his I.Q., which was recorded as barely qualifying him to attend school, happened by some chance to be accurate. (I always mentally added twenty points to every I.Q. I read in order to compensate for the cultural handicap. I was much impressed by the case of a little midwestern girl who failed an I.Q. question because she identified a drawing of a shell as a pasta. Having never been to a beach, shell pasta was what she knew.)
In any case, the art teacher, armed with a ruler and made legal by my presence, confronted her amiable defier who expected to be slapped on the palm or possibly his back end. Instead, her eyes narrowed to fiery slits and she whipped the ruler across his face, where the thin brass edge cut a line dotted with bright blood. I was frozen. I don't know what I would have done if she had tried to strike him again, but she didn't. No parent ever came to object. Even the student didn't object, but went on grinning-- which might have been what infuriated her in the first place.
As it turns out, we only imagined some kind of consensus in the Sixties. Looking back, I recall that I was rough with kids-- giving out slaps on shoulders, hair-pulls and pinches, though none with much force. The only time I used real force in my own class was when a boy punched a much smaller girl in the nose, spurting blood everywhere. The class had only been in the room for a few minutes and I was taking roll without any hint that there was trouble brewing. Evidently the girl had been taunting him under her breath. My first reaction was that the boy had gone crazy and, coming up behind him, I thumped him as hard as I could between the shoulderblades to knock the wind out of him. Then I twirled him around and threw him against the wall hard before he could catch his breath. By that time he was shocked enough to be towed to the principal's office.
A few years later this incendiary, handsome, young man came back to the high school to threaten the principal, whom he believed had done something bad to his younger sister. The principal, a former football coach, stood at the top of a flight of stairs trying to talk to him while another coach -- the same one enamoured with the art teacher -- grappled with him, yelling "Get out of here, you sunnuva bitch, or I'll tear your goddam head off!" The hall was otherwise empty except for me. I yearned to intervene somehow, to be the rescuer, but was afraid of getting hurt. The principal was a good one, a man who as a history teacher had organized the first real textbook for Blackfeet about their own tribe. The coach was a fool but in this case he was preventing an assault by threatening to perpetrate one. This boy was trying to protect his family in the way he thought grown men did.
Years earlier, in the first February of my first year of teaching, a below-zero day hushed my classroom. Snow flew outside the window. My view was tar that had been splashed on the brick wall of the gymnasium when the roof was repaired. While the students were writing, I stared out the window, wondering whether those tar Rorschach blots were going to start writhing. A student nicknamed "Small Fry" came to my desk. He was a slender little fellow who once told me solemnly about the time his parents locked him in the house and went on a drinking binge that lasted a week. He remembered this as "the time I nearly starved to death" and told how he was so young he couldn't open cans in order to survive. There were few cans anyway.
In the quiet classroom he leaned his elbows alongside mine and began to talk softly about spring. He told about how his grandfather always dug a garden and how the earth smelled when it was spaded up full of worms. He wondered how his pony was doing out there on the prairie in the cold and looked forward to riding again in a few months. And he talked about the taste of his grandfather's raspberries. The boy was full of poetry. He became a father, an artist and an alcoholic. Now he is dead. The memory of him is not. He was the younger brother of the boy who wanted to beat up the principal. Love dwells side-by-side with rage.
One angry Friday afternoon I said to my all-boy lowest-track class, "If you kids don't shape up and learn, you will be dead before you are twenty-one." Over half are dead or in prison now. One became a tribal judge. In the eighth grade he wanted to be a rodeo announcer and practised talking into his fist while the other boys bucked their hands around the desktops, trying to dislodge the tiny cowboys they made from copper wire and seated on miniature accurate-to-scale leather saddles cut from old gloves. They held their hands with the thumbs on top and the movements they used were the old sign-talk gestures for riding off, an eloquent and unmistakable gesture old-timers use to this day.
When Bob Scriver divorced me in 1970, I went back to teaching in Browning for a couple of years. The students were entirely different, brash and mouthy. The young boys smacked me on the shoulder to show they liked me. The older girls piled their babies on my desk for me to watch while they went somewhere. We heard a lot of rumors about A.I.M. The kids demanded the right to dictate their own course of study and they were taken seriously.
Nevertheless, the students threatened to strike and gathered in the auditorium to make speeches. The only person they would listen to was Bill Haw, the high school counselor who had just arrived from Detroit with a degree in Rogerian psychology. He spent hours turning them around by listening, trying to feel what they felt. When people talked about kid suicides, they often said that the kid "just wanted attention." Bill would say, "Yeah. Dying for attention. Why not give it to them? Doesn't seem like much if it will keep them alive."
Then the Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop was sponsored by the Tribe and Bill Haw ran it. A lathe, a potting wheel, a kitchen for the sandwich shop, and GED workbooks converted one of the huge old government warehouses into a school. Terry McMasters, an English teacher; Brent Warburton, who later made the stained glass windows for both the Holy Family Mission Church and the Browning Methodist Church; Paul Kingston, no longer a priest; and a number of other Peace Corps types from Haw's days as a Christian camp director gathered in a pocket of energy that lasted several years. State officials visited, noted the babies tucked comfortably into pulled-out filing cabinet drawers once filled with bureaucratic files, and they approved.
The Free School finally broke apart because people saw it as a cash cow and forgot the original purpose. Haw went to Alaska. Wiley Welch's health took him down a short fatal path. Kipp left for Harvard. Brent made a living as a short-order cook. Terry became a professional ceramicist in East Glacier. The rest wandered off.
By 1989 when I returned to teaching Blackfeet for the third time, I was fifty and the people who had been in my earliest classes were in their mid-forties. We had become peers. Some of them remembered me warmly and some bitterly. The new kids had no idea who I was -- they saw me as an outsider. The oldest one had been born in 1973 just as I drove out of Browning, blind with bawling, to go start a new life with what belongings I could cram in a van. Now that I had come back, I wondered where I was.
I was a little shocked at how different the kids looked physically. They had been slender and fond of bright cowboy togs and boots. Girls had worn dresses and skirts so short they frostbit their legs in winter, but now they wore almost the same thing as the boys. It seemed as though everyone were a big, heavy person in black sweats with hoods and giant tennis shoes. Their t-shirts were emblazoned with the emblems of heavy metal/ acid rock bands. They seemed to be identifying with city ghettoes instead of western small towns. No boundaries existed for these kids. They went where they wanted to, did whatever they felt like, and used words that would have gotten them suspended in my earlier classrooms. But they rarely left the Rez. They were big frogs in a small pond.
Times change and though many people tend to think of Native Americans as somehow unchanging, they too become different. The larger society has very little awareness of how Blackfeet have transformed over the years, how they too fought in the World Wars and raised their families, found work and survived cancer or heart attacks or diabetes. We don't realize that they buy computers and play the stock market. Reflecting on contemporary reservation life is close to impossible for middle-class, educated white people, simply because they have no experience of Native Americans except through the media or limited encounters with individuals. Even living as a white colonialist, in the days when the white Browning community had control and thought of itself as an elite, was quite different from being a teacher in Heart Butte where white people were still considered outsiders, visitors, even trespassers.
When the Seventies empowerment movement brought back to memory the massacres and land-loss the native people have suffered, many of them became resentful. The grief and horror is still not resolved, and it is hard for white people to face their role as the enemy: killers of babies, starvers of old people, smashers of a civilization. But most of the elementary kids at Heart Butte were politically innocent, openly reacting to the physical differences that makes race such a convenient way of putting people in categories. Junior high is when the awareness hits that Blackfeet are different.
Most white people don't think much about how exotic their physical attributes might seem to other races. We feel like "the norm" to ourselves. The first reaction I got from the men in their forties I had taught in junior high was dismay. "Oh, Miss Strachan! Where has your red hair gone?" (They were too polite to inquire about where my waistline went.) My hair, now thin and curly as soapsuds and red-turned-white, was a great fascination to the Heart Butte kids. Little girls loved to perch in the bleachers behind me and play in it, though the Blackfeet teachers scolded them. I wasn't sure whether the disapproval was because they thought playing in my hair was improper, perhaps offensive, or because they thought the two races shouldn't touch. Maybe it was a reaction from years of white people snatching their children away from contact with "dirty Indians." Or maybe it came from the strategy of denial, suppressing all comment on difference in hopes of denying the difference itself.
One little girl in particular would run to me and throw her arms around my knees -- her head was only as high as my waist. She begged to be picked up and if I were standing next to a fence she would climb up and then across into my arms. I loved holding her, but again the Indian teachers and aides would scold and remove her. My fantasy was that they were afraid I would steal her, and indeed many white people love Indian children the way they love puppies and want to take them home. When I taught in Browning in the Sixties there were several old-maid primary school teachers who took children home to give them baths and feed them. Sometimes their do-goodery seemed a little over-intense.
One morning I was in the school office when the little girl who liked me to pick her up came in looking for help. In her soft voice she said something I couldn't make out. Too small to see over the counter, she curled her tendril fingers up over the edge for me to look at. The very tips of the fingers were cut off. "My grandmother cut my nails," the little girl confided in her tiny voice. "But she don't see good and now they hurt." I shuddered to think how tender those raw little tips were. I sent her to the school nurse, but my impulse was to hold her a long time and to kiss those fingertips. If I had done such a thing, the act would have seemed a criticism, an accusation of the grandmother. It might have opened the door for the removal of the child from her care.
Portraits of Native Americans define a whole school of painting: Couse, Charley Russell, Sharp, Winold Reese. Even a non-artist could see the beauty and charm of the students. Their skins were soft fawn, their eyes gleamed and their hair hung like heavy black satin. It was hard to resist the temptation to rest a hand on them, put an arm around them. But some had been so taken advantage of that they would reject any touch with anxious fury. Anyway, even in white society the media has so poisoned physical contact that no teacher can touch students without risk. Many of these kids were as sensitized as if they had been badly sunburned-- both physically and psychologically-- and could not sustain an ordinary contact without flinching. Even a glance could make them wince and protest. "Stop looking at me!" One boy shouted, "I forbid you to ever think of me!"
One Heart Butte girl agonized over her senior prom pictures because she said she "looked too white." Actually, she was a beautiful color but flashbulbs had over-exposed the photos. A newspaperman from the other side of the Rockies came by one afternoon and remarked that when he used to take photos in Heart Butte in the late Fifties, the people were so dark that he could never get features in their faces-- just shadows under their hats. It was an honest remark, but it made us all nervous. Everyone tried not to mention skin color.
At the other end of the spectrum from the shy Heart Butte girls, the year I babysat eighth grade students in the Browning junior high school, they would often ignore anything short of physical force. They knew very well that no teacher was allowed to hit them or even to speak harshly to them, and that gave them enormous power. Their goal was to provoke. One teacher lasted only two weeks because a little girl he took by the wrist to the office bashed herself into the lockers along the hall on the way, then claimed the teacher did it. He was labelled abusive and dismissed, though he still has scars on his wrist from that little girl's teeth.
In particular, the middle-class, assimilated, high-scoring kids in Browning -- the cream of the crop -- did not like me. To their minds I was old, fat and underdressed (overshirts and pull-on pants) without a proper hairdo-- therefore I was low-class, fair game for harassing. They lied, argued, misbehaved, used obscenities and balked until I finally brought in a tape recorder, recorded the study hall, and threatened to play the tapes for their parents. Up to this point, the parents had taken their children's word for everything. For a day the darlings pantomimed defiance until I threatened to bring a video camera. Then they settled down, but it was with resentment. I was an oppressor. And I was friendly to the low-status kids.
A few students were outright sociopaths. One particularly street-smart, half-black boy leaned into my face and hissed, "How'd you like me to lick your clit?" When I was his age, I didn't know such a part of anatomy existed. It took me several minutes to figure out what he had said and then I had no idea how to respond. His great-grandfather had been one of the true Old People, and despite the corruption of alcoholism, was a repository of old sacred songs and holy ritual. When I passed this traditional man on the street, he never failed to treat me with elaborate and evidently genuine courtesy. But the kid couldn’t have been all bad because he took tender care of his grandfather.
One day, exasperated with a good-natured but rowdy student who had gotten himself into a kind of spiral of hyperactivity, I reached out with both hands and tousled his hair briskly, as though I were giving him a shampoo. The results were so good in terms of slowing him down, that later I did it again a couple of times. Then one day he ran up behind me in the hall and hooked his elbow around my neck, hauling me along for a few steps. I laughed and was putting myself back in order when JoAnn Clark came storming up. She lit into the student and then turned on me. Once my student, she was now my teacher.
"You must never let a student touch you," JoAnn snapped. She is white, married to her classmate, who was principal at the time and the superintendent since. She is local aristocracy, since her father is a longtime rancher and county commissioner. Her classes run like clockwork. One of her triumphs was a hyper-active student she calmed with doses of coffee. He succeeded in school well enough to embark on a fine military career. She herself was never seen without a mug of coffee. She is a star teacher.
Later JoAnn brought up an incident when she had played the title character in “Molly Morgan,” a John Steinbeck story about a young teacher that I had directed in the Sixties. At one point she had been supposed to walk out onto a platform and pretend to admire a view. Because she didn't wear her glasses and a spotlight was shining in her eyes, she had fallen over the edge, a four foot drop. A real trooper, she had climbed back up and resumed the part, but she had to fake walking because the high heel came off one shoe. She had been truly hurt, but had hid it at the time-- and I, shamefully, had been less protective of her than of the production. I ought to have found some way to mark the edge or cue her. She had complained in rehearsals and I had ignored her, not purposely, but just because there were too many other things to worry about. No excuses-- I simply failed to protect her as was my obligation.
A couple of years later, the boy whose hair I tousled in study hall--now much bigger-- once again hooked his arm around my neck and gave me a good head-rubbing-- "noogies." This time we were in the supermarket and everyone looked aghast, but no one intervened. The boy glared into my face and made me understand that he had not appreciated what I had done to him. He had felt humiliated. I was wrong. Again, I had failed to protect him-- from me.
The junior high students in both Heart Butte and Browning were obsessed with commercial hygiene worries. If you got too close, they yelled, "Ugh! What bad breath! Don't you ever use mouthwash?" Or, "God, you stink!" One teacher was nearly driven out of her job when numerous students objected to her smell-- she was a "granola" who ate soy products, used "natural" deodorants, and didn't wear perfume. The parents of the students went to the administration to insist that their children be protected from this weird-smelling hippy. The principal finally told her she had to "wash proper" and shave her legs or lose her contract. Many old Blackfeet stories are about women who "smell strange" because they are cannibals. Was there some kind of weird confusion of vegetarianism with cannibalism?
I remembered that in the Sixties one student had been in the town jail and was driven up every morning by the police in order to attend classes. Truly he did stink of drunks and sweat. There were no showers at the jail-- barely were there functioning toilets. Phil Ward arranged for the police to put him through the gymnasium showers every morning and got some spare clothes somewhere. The miscreant was not particularly pleased to be clean. He was used to himself. Smell is a status marker -- but which smells mean what? Teachers sometimes complained that some kids smelled smoky or greasy, but I always sort of liked those smells, associating them with camping.
The Heart Butte girls often reeked of cheap perfume, especially the kinds like baby powder. (My own favorite is Estee Lauder's “Aliage,” which one boy said made me smell like a mushroom.) Their hair was so full of gel and spray that it felt like wire and the favorite female "do" was long bangs in a kind of curly pompador in front and great sheets of straight hair in back. Both sexes wore t-shirts, keeping out-sized jackets around them much of the time. Then they would get to playing basketball, discard their coats, and never come back for them. They would set out on long winter bus trips in light jackets, which would mean suffering -- even death -- if the bus heaters failed. Their attitude was that if anything happened to them, it would be the fault of the adults.
Huge rubbery sneakers, never laced all the way up and in various stages of destruction, burdened every foot except when they wore cowboy boots. They liked sweats and often swapped clothes around, sometimes out of necessity since they stayed with each other on short notice. Kids didn't talk about where they "lived," but where they "stayed." Most carried athletic bags of clothing and personal grooming supplies which seemed to crowd out their school books. The latter turned up any old place.
In Heart Butte there were fewer of one reservation sub-group: daughters of middle-class Indians. They kept the same hair-styles as the other girls, but had enough money for the clothes they saw on television, with pantyhose and sometimes heels. They were very much like the elite white girls I had taught decades earlier, except that they were conscious of their Indian heritage and could speak about it eloquently, though their participation tended to be as well-dressed pow-wow princesses. It was hard to imagine them camping out. They felt whites were universally prejudiced, but they didn't have much use for low-class Indians either. They weren't pure Blackfeet--their parents often had met at federal Indian schools so that they were mixed tribes. They were frequently athletic stars.
The girls' bathroom at Heart Butte was always a great center of commotion. The girls used enormous amounts of paper towels, so the Doc -- in order to save money -- replaced them with hot-air dryers, which were not fast enough to dry hands in the breaks between classes. Anyway, the girls didn't like the dryers because they were so loud, so they either wiped their hands on toilet paper -- which now disappeared in such quantities that only cardboard cores were left by lunch -- or simply stopped washing their hands. The liquid soap dispensers dripped on the floor, so when the janitor got tired of cleaning that up, he removed all but one. One day after school I used the facility and saw that one toilet stool was leaking -- not for the first time -- so that a pool of dirty water formed at the lowest spot on the floor, which was not over the drain but right under the single soap dispenser. You had to wade to get soap.
About this same time we had a quick epidemic that was or wasn't hepatitis. (Danger on the Rez is always ambiguous. The source is always elusive-- blame whomever you resent.) Mostly it centered on one family, whose kids might or might not have been involved in drugs and/or sex. Even though it was said not to be hepatitis, some people were asked to have gamma globulin shots and a team of public health nurses came out to give us a stern lecture about "fecal-oral contact." For the rest of the week the students gave devastating imitations of uptight nurses saying "fecal-oral."
One senior boy in particular had always thought that "feces" was one of the funniest words he knew. He was fond of a speaking of a "fece" in the singular. I had made the rule that they could not use four letter Anglo-Saxon terms for bodily functions, but they could use the Latinate fancy words. He was also fond of saying "flatulate" and "expectorate," accompanied by demonstrations. He liked to say "fuck," but I wouldn't let him. "Do not say 'fuck' in my class," I said, hoping that my saying the word would take it out of the magic category. I said he could use the term "copulate," but he never mastered it. What a relief.
The high school boys in particular came into the classroom in the morning hawking and spitting to dispose of the night's pleghm. Some of them spat as much as a pint into the plastic-lined wastebaskets where it dried and circulated into the air. In the second year the drug and alcohol counselor, who was Blackfeet, finally managed to get the administration to investigate the air circulation. It turned out that half of the intended ventilation intakes up under the roof had been blocked at some time in the past in order to keep down heating costs. Unblocking them improved the air quality considerably, though we never did overcome the smell of art materials, home economics projects and limited science experiments. (Real experiments could not be done because the necessary venting had never been installed.) When athletic uniforms were washing in the home ec machines, the odor of sweat and detergent swirled through the school.
The stubborn old janitor wasn't too particular how he tested the water source. Sometimes he just didn't and sometimes he was gone. Constant surges of "flu" went through the school population. We all had mild diarrhea a good share of the time, sometimes intense enough to be miserable. (The boys had lots of jokes about what they called "the Hershey squirts.") We were in cow county, where people got manure on their boots and jackets, tracking it into the carpeted classroom where the corners were soaked with surreptious shots of tobacco juice. We were in beaver country so almost surely the water carried giardia. Babies were always with us and people weren't too careful about their disposable diapers. Everyone who used the Indian Health Service was full of antibiotics much of the time, a perfect breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant germs.
BUT HE'S MY COUSIN
Any taboo against touching between students did not apply in spite of every classroom showing a poster saying, "Keep your hands to yourself." In fact, they regularly violated each other's spaces-- crowding, striking, pinching, seizing-- sometimes in rough play like young littermates but often in trespasses that verged on violation. Even the young boys lying down liked to put their heads in girls' laps. Hands wandered. The Doc insisted that children should never be allowed to lie on the carpeted floor. They should sit in desks, he felt, and the desks should be in rows with assigned seats. He often lectured me on this because I let kids haul their desks around so long as the configuration fit the task at hand.
Wild tag was the favorite occupation of pubescent kids and the slippery-floored cafetorium was the perfect place for it. Next best was the cement outside the entry. When I was assigned lunch duty, which theoretically meant preventing the sliding, slapping, lifting-off-the-floor collisions, I decided to take my assignment seriously and yelled at the kids when they did it. The Doc immediately emerged from his office to forbid me yelling. "Just write down their names and I'll put them on detention," he said. I soon had thirty names scribbled on the back of a paper napkin. He did half-heartedly put them on detention and after that they all behaved, but only on the days I was the lunch monitor and only when I could see them. One woman complained that she was spending a fortune on the chiropractor because the boys kept hauling her daughter around by the head, twisting her neck.
They thought I was terrifically unfair. When one kid in a plaster leg cast was clouting other kids with his crutches, I took them away, sat him in a chair and put the crutches in the office. In five minutes he had them back from the office clerk, his cousin. By the end of the year we had had dozens of sprains and a few broken bones. People muttered about suing, but no one did.
The kids explained to me seriously, "It's all right for me to do that to him/her-- she's my cousint." Family lines were carefully noted and if someone came over the "cousint" line, that meant the "cousints" of the afflicted person would beat that someone up. This is the ancient order-keeping mechanism of tribal peoples: "My brother/father will beat you up." And they did. At least it worked for those who had strong families.
Sometimes things escalated. One boy refused to leave a particular girl alone. This boy was a star athlete but otherwise -- in my opinion -- pretty much a sullen, sneaky boy. The girl was a straight A student and a good athlete who was expected to be a credit to her family. The girl's male relatives warned the boy off. When that didn't work, they caught the boy and shaved him -- everywhere. He was so humiliated he had to stay home for weeks -- at least until he had eyebrows again. This boy always got the girl off to the side somewhere and talked to her intently, almost nose to nose, now and then hitting her on the back or arm as though he were a stallion nipping a mare. I found that abusive and offensive, but the other kids said I didn't understand. "They're really in love," they pointed out. "They can talk to each other." Their voices filled with longing.
In the end, the girl began to be chubby and took to wearing her long winter coat through all her classes. Then she suddenly lost weight but hung onto her coat, clutching it around her as though chilled all the time. Thin, bereft, almost transparent, she still let herself be hit and dominated by the same boy, but she seemed infinitely sad. I decided abortion was finally breaking through the Catholic taboo. I wished the taboo on contraception had been broken first.
LOVE AS A FOUR-LETTER WORD
Coming from a liberal church background, my rhetorical context was sometimes out of whack. One kid challenged me, "Why do you want to come around here and try to make me better, anyway? What do you care?"
"I love you," I explained.
"Eauughh! I don't want sex with you! You're an old woman! That's disgusting! You must be some kind of pervert."
My romance with Bob Scriver thirty years earlier struck these kids as unnatural. Bob was now nearly eighty. "He's old. What did you want to marry him for? Why don't you get rid of his name? How can you divorce him and keep his name?" The modern liberal practise of staying friends with former spouses had not reached these little towns.
"Hey! I only married him to get this name," I joked. "I'm not going to give it back now! It's mine to keep-- I like it! It means writer."
"Eaauuuugh! That's awful. That's really cold to marry someone for their name."
The Doc had a different take. Someone had told him about the past superintendent who turned out to be gay and how he had installed his "cousin" in the adjacent teacherage and cut a convenient doorway in the wall. Homophobic Doc was soon enough re-telling the story with some improvements. In his version the doorway -- which was in fact in the married housing and had been resealed-- was between the apartments of myself and Miss Pickletoes. He knew better since, while waiting for his house, he himself had stayed in the apartment Miss Pickletoes later occupied. It became clear to several that the Doc was saying Miss Pickletoes and I had a perverse relationship. This might not be serious in San Francisco, but in Montana homosexual relationships are a felony.
Miss Pickletoes instantly produced a boyfriend. Unfortunately, no one was very impressed with him, especially after they found out he had made her a long buckskin skirt with flower designs beautifully beaded around the hem. "Eauuugh! What is he -- some kind of pervert?" And the older women said, "He don't look much like he's going to earn a living." At least the kids decided that, unnaturally fond as Miss Pickletoes' attentions to her German shepherd were (she kept it in a dog house and petted it a lot), she probably was not having relations with it after all. She told me that she kept a loaded .357 magnum revolver at bedside in case of rapists. A male friend had taught her to crouch in a corner with the cocked gun steadied on her knees in front of her. She feared rape always, even when she wasn't on the reservation.
After one big kid threatened to beat me up , set my car on fire, murder my cat, and so on, I got him alone and leaned into his face, hoping to seem strange and threatening. "If you touch me or anything of mine, I will kill you, " I hissed. "And I know how to do it so no one will find out." He believed me and never came within ten feet of me again. I thought the whole thing was sick but necessarily effective. I had no gun. Or even a bat propped behind the door. What made the threat convincing was the number of quite actual mysterious deaths in the area. In that young man's reality, revenge was simple protocol.
The Doc had other fascinations. He was fond of saying that full-bloodedness meant nothing -- if he brought ten gorgeous blonde Swedish girls to Heart Butte, there wouldn't be a full-blood Indian in the next generation. When told this was insulting, he failed to see why. His own rail-thin wife was platinum blonde, although the second year she suddenly went flame red. Their relationship did seem to suffer. We could hear the insults being hurled.
She took classes at Blackfeet Community College, which the Doc ridiculed for having a muddy, weedy, improvised campus, and she occasionally came to my apartment to borrow books. One night she showed up clearly anxious and wanted to know if I had any books on physical abuse. I didn't and she was incredulous. "What, you're a minister and you don't have any books on physical abuse?" She wouldn't come in and she wouldn't leave, but teetered on the threshold trying to tell me something without saying it.
I don't know whether the Doc had hit her or she was trying to warn me about being accused of classroom violence or whether she really believed I was beating kids. Surely she was not interested in discussing whether ministers should be social workers. Maybe it was the Doc who hit HER. After that she was often gone "visiting" out of town. As soon as the Doc's rather nice "double-dip" retirement was settled, she divorced him. Montana is a fifty/fifty alimony state.
OLD WOMAN'S BODY
The sexual focus of my own secret life was menopause. I'd never been pregnant (which the kids thought was highly unnatural) and now, passing fifty, my cycles were becoming sluggish. My gynecologist put me on .625 daily mgs of Premarin with periodic .10 mgs cycles of Cyrin, on the theory that causing the uterine lining to slough vigorously would bring my troubles to an efficient end and prevent cancer. Thus monthly I had to make desperate flights to the faraway women teacher's restroom to cope with the consequences. Long past monthly PMS, I was taken by surprise when the new drug-induced mood swings seized me. Early in the month doses of estrogen had me purring to myself like an old setting hen, but by the end of the 28 days I was cranky and slamming objects. "Whatza matter? You on the rag again?" snarled the onset-of-testosterone junior high boys, rolling their eyes at the depravity of female anatomy and hoping to suggest they knew all about it.
Ancient tribal taboos about menstruation seemed to have persisted. The guidance counselor used my room for a class during my planning period. He kept what passed for order in part by allowing students to rifle my desk for art supplies and paper. I threw a fit. One boy, a very responsible good student, didn't see why anyone shouldn't have access to my desk at any time. "What could you possibly have in there that I couldn't know about?" he asked.
I decided to be honest. "My stash of Kotex." The boy practically fell over backwards. He was appalled. His safe little world of neuter teachers exploded. In a while he transferred out of the class and he never really spoke to me again.
But the younger boys weren't above violating taboos. For a while they took to shouting beestinah at each other in the hallway, until I asked the teacher of Blackfeet, a dignified woman truly of the old culture as well as the new one, what the word meant. Amused, she gazed at me evenly and said, "Oh, you know-- down there."
"Oh, no!" She had the giggles now. "The woman's. . . .you know."
I pinned down the boys and told them they were not to shout "vagina" at each other in the hallways, even if it was in Blackfeet. "What's a vagina?" they asked, truly mystified. "Cunt," I said firmly, hoping to seem clinical.
"Oh." They slunk off.
"And besides," I lectured on, following them. "The old-time Blackfeet did not find sex dirty and did not use sex words for curses. Be true to your heritage." They rolled their eyes some more.
That was the end of it, except that sometimes I would overhear them lecturing someone who had just transferred to Heart Butte. "Old time Blackfeet did not think talk about sex was dirty."
YOUNG MAN'S BODY
One day I ordered "Au Revoir, Mes Enfants" on video. My idea was to get them past the Blackfeet holocaust and the Native American experience with Catholic boarding schools to a more universal understanding. Therefore I would show this movie of a young boy in a French Jesuit school during World War II and his inadvertent betrayal of his Jewish friend. I'd forgotten that the boy has wet dreams and that during the bathing scene he is caught enjoying himself in the bathtub. Nothing is shown, only implied.
The younger boys spotted it at once and turned to me with jaws dropped. "Did he...? Was he...?" The movie was in French with subtitles and from then on the poorer readers were desperate to know what the subtitles said, especially when the hero read from Arabian Nights. They soon checked the library for the book. No copy was there, not even a children's expurgated version. None of them had ever seen a movie with sub-titles before, or even a dubbed foreign film. I hoped -- and I think it did happen -- that their store of human images was expanded and that their thoughts were haunted, however briefly, by boys caught in a desperate world entirely European.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of this little story is that the same boys who were so intrigued by this movie had watched -- I suspect -- many triple X movies taken off the porn satellite channels. I watched a few myself to see what it was all about and found them boring. My hope was that the boys themselves, if they were exposed to truly thoughtful stories, would also eventually become bored.
A men's informal group was the "Heart Butte Beauties," a cross-dressing basketball team. Cross-dressing has long been a source of merriment on the prairies and my own family's albums show aunts and uncles wearing each other's clothes and bent over with laughter. One long-ago summer afternoon when nothing was happening, my mother and aunt switched my clothes with those of my male cousin and took photos of their one-year-olds in drag. But there was a meaner streak at Heart Butte.
The Beauties challenged the male high school teachers, several of whom were young and fairly good athletes, to a basketball game. None of the administration showed up. Probably none were invited, since the Supe, the Doc and Churchill would never have been able to run one lap around the gym. Anyway, they were football players, anchored, confrontive -- not the leaping, long-armed, ball-juggling types the local former high school basketball stars were.
When the Beauties came prancing out in dresses, the teachers were a little taken aback. One Beauty put the basketball up under his skirt and approached the newlywed wife of one of the best teacher players. "Do you know where your husband has been sleeping, honey?" he lisped. "Well, look what he's done to me now!" Such jokes continued, which is not unusual, but things got a little rough. The Beauties began to threaten to de-pants their rivals. The teachers fell or were elbowed. Bruises appeared. Pretty soon the teachers made excuses and went on over to their trailers and apartments without using the communal school showers as the Beauties did. Next day they spent time hanging out together reassuring each other and trying to figure out how to handle the future. To the women they denied that anything happened, even the ones who were there.
I believe that an honest inquiry -- were it ever possible -- would find that a few local men would as soon take a man as a woman. Some had prison histories, some no woman would have anything to do with, some hated women as a category so much they would sooner have a sheep. The kids knew who they were, feared them, and sometimes became their victims. Once in a while I was told bits. One boy wrote a daring essay in which he described holding a younger boy down and urinating into his mouth. But other times he wrote about smuggling girls into a bunk-house through a secret tunnel and keeping them captive. (When I saw a photo of this boy in kindergarten, I realised he was probably FAS.) Another boy wrote about raping a girl and was coy about whether he made it up or not. To the males, almost universally, sex was a matter of dominance and status.
To the females, as in the larger culture, sex was submerged in "love" which meant deliverance into a safe and privileged life. Sex/love meant a house and babies, plus a small income from ADC. But the baby was usually defined as a "gift" from the man, which obligated the woman to give him money. Only a few women could stand up to the father of their children enough to exclude him from the house.
At the same time, among the more sophisticated students a gay identity was respected as natural and legitimate. They knew about national organizations of Native American gay people ("two-spirited people") and had off-reservation contacts. A few were paired. Their relationships often struck me as maternal, even though the pairs I knew about were male. They seemed more about love than sex. I only knew one "out-of-the-closet" gay Blackfeet person, a former student not in Heart Butte.
The administration and school board totally denied the existence of sexual considerations, except to snicker about it among themselves. The only female janitor was fired because she refused to work alone late at night. She was replaced by a man who suspected of participating in the gang rape of a girl later dumped from a moving car and critically hurt. "I had to hire him," said the Doc when teachers objected. "He was the only one who would work late."
Then he told about a girl being raped by a classmate beside the swimming pool in a nearby white school, implying there was no use in being cautious-- even white schools had problems. It was simply the nature of things. After that the other two administrators stopped telling the Doc anything, because he was injudicious in repeating them. He never understood the context. The Supe and Churchill needed the support of their peer administrators and the white folks of Pondera County-- which meant that the code of secrecy should be extended to cover them. But they didn't mind giving away the secrets from Browning, especially if they put down Native American administrators.
CONFUSIONS AND ARRANGEMENTS
On the first day of Heart Butte High School classes, I knew enough to do a lot of listening at first to see what was going on. Since only a few students had showed up, I decided to interview them separately. I assigned some easy reading and called each person up to a table where I was creating a card file. I was after life-patterns, level of experience, and so on. Most had never been out of Heart Butte, but one had spent a year in Boston, which she found scary and depressing. One had spent a year in a hospital as a small child. I discovered one who had previously "sat" through classes I taught -- in a sense -- because his mother was pregnant with him. She had been a good student and still functioned as a pillar of the church.
Then my interview game ran away. A tall fellow, boyfriend of a nurturing and very pregnant girl, confided, "I gotta tell you there is someone here in the school I hate so much that I'm gonna hafta kill him. I can't control myself." In my summer of hospital chaplaincy and half-dozen years of congregational ministry, I had heard some frightening confessions from people, but exactly this problem had never arisen. I thought he might be making melodrama, but couldn't take it for granted. I whisked him down the hall to the counselor, newly returned to the school after special training in Bozeman. "This boy is afraid of becoming a murderer by day's end," I announced and took a seat to see what would happen and to make sure the kid stuck to his story. The counselor was plainly stumped. The tall boy smiled. I learned a lot more about him later. It was melodrama, but there was a grain of truth in it. [The counselor managed to stick it out in Heart Butte for the next 17 years and his students sent an article praising him to the local newspapers. He tells me that now he would know what to do.]
When his girlfriend gave birth, this boy was miserable because he wanted the baby for himself. "If only she had had twins," he sighed. For a while they fought and he was pushed away from the family. Later he got her pregnant again. She still refuses to give him one of the babies. Thank goodness.
Falling in love was seen as an overpowering and ecstatic experience, giving birth was the creation of an amazing new possession (and also a handy political weapon if the father's identity was ambiguous), and marriage was a necessary compromise for the sake of prosperity. The soaps everyone watched never showed long-term marriage or ordinary day-to-day relationships. All was up and down, endless melodrama with a small cast of characters.
Heart Butte was just as full of stories as of their denial. There were the Indian men who married white teachers for their income and nice apartments. There were drunks, both male and female, who beat up their whole families. And so on. Most people were not like that, but the ones who were supplied many stories. The school board chair made a great fuss about drunkenness and then nearly lost an arm in a drunk-driving accident. The administration made a declaration about the school being tobacco-free and a week later I arrived at school early to discover the Supe enjoying a cigarette. I had wondered why he always had so many room deodorizers in his office. "Don't tell on me," he begged.
One person was able to relate directly and effectively with Blackfeet people. Mr. Z's wife, Dot, took care of the babies of the student-mothers. Having no children of her own but being from a solid Minnesota farm family background, Dot fed, cleaned, rocked and sang for the babies, and as often spent time with the mothers, sympathizing, soothing, trying to talk through problems and find solutions, giving out hugs. Pretty soon the mothers and aunties were dropping by to visit with Mrs. Z. and she knew more about what was going on in the families than any teacher. Long after the Z's had been driven off the reservation by the Supe, they still took some of those children for vacations, teaching them to fish and buying them new clothes. Over the years the families of the children called them for help and spoke of them as relatives. Of course, they sometimes asked for money.
After a few years, relationships became trickier. The former students were older and harder. Sometimes they played tricks on the Z's. The little kids became wilder and didn't remember their old caretaker as well. It left the Z's feeling touchy, hurt.
HONESTY AS A TABOO
It was on the fertile ground of sex and violence that the Supe built his case against me. I spoke of sex frankly. When a boy asked me what "smegma" was, I told him and also advised him to keep it cleaned out so he wouldn't get cancer of the foreskin. When a girl asked me why sex outside of marriage was wrong, I told her that there were two reasons: a womb is a specially fertile and protected place meant to nourish a baby and therefore it is particularly prone to infection; and her own feelings during this time of her life were so tender that she should not confuse them with a physical relationship before she was wise about making choices. (The girls said, "Oh, you make it sound so awful." I was abashed.)
When kids asked me how to become good lovers, I said the most important sex organs were the brain and the skin, so they should protect both with good nutrition and careful safety practises. When a girl asked me if I thought she was depraved to want to feel her boyfriend inside her, I said, "No, not depraved. But don't hurry. Wait until later, when you're older. It will be even better than." She didn't believe me.
The school board said to me at my last hearing, "Do you have special training? Are you certified to teach about sex?" The hospital is the great counter-authority on the reservation, privileged to violate taboos in the name of preventing death. The church has a real but more dubious authority. "Yes," I asserted. "I am an ordained minister, trained to do marriage counselling." They stared. None of them had realized this, though I had acted as the local Methodist Mission minister the year before I was hired in Heart Butte. I would have added that I had actually attended a Masters and Johnson workshop in Chicago, except that no one would have recognized the names. If they had, they would have assumed the worst about what happened there. (The worst that happened was that the lady next to me developed five o'clock shadow.) Their next assumption was that I must have gotten into trouble some way -- been thrown out of the ministry. Why else would I come to a place like Heart Butte?
The Supe summed it up neatly. He knew I had consulted a lawyer. "If you start a lawsuit, you will probably win it. But it will take years and you will never teach school in this state again. You will have a huge debt." He frankly intended to smear me.
The violence charge came in part from rough-housing with the youngest boys. When they got wild, I would get them into a corner and turn my back on them so I could pin them for a few minutes without using my hands. Usually, this helped to quiet them, but now I think it was a stupid thing to do. Also, a big boy-- really a young man-- had arrived in class in a rage, yelling "Fuck," and throwing chairs. It looked to me as though he might be on drugs and totally out of control. I grabbed him hard by the arm and dragged him out of the room, fearing what he might do to the other students.
"Did you touch him?" demanded the Doc.
"I certainly did. My responsibility is to protect the students, even from each other, even at risk to my own safety. I expect to control my own classroom, whatever it takes." He couldn't disagree.
Probably my most guilty use of force was with that second seventh grade class. They were expert at taunting, refusing, and bedeviling their parents and their teachers. I grabbed their arms and put them in their desks. In a while, they learned to scream, "Ooooh! You hurted me and you've left a mark on my arm! I'm bruised!" They said they told their parents, but no parents arrived. By that time, the end of the second year, I was too tired to care or do anything about it. I was exhausted, crabby and fatalistic. It was a great temptation to really hurt someone. I would have preferred that it be an administrator.
Once the same boy who was shocked by my Kotex stash told me about the teacher who preceded me. A former Marine, he had also resorted to grabbing the kids hard. Once he put his fist through the blackboard -- they showed me the place, which was indeed dented. I knew another teacher had been fired when a student pulled a knife on him and was forcibly disarmed. This was ruled to be a fault on the part of the teacher.
Another very large Heart Butte boy, emotionally young for his age, was in the habit of bullying others. I was fond of this boy, but I couldn't seem to reach him with words. One day I lost patience and slammed into him sideways with my shoulder, like a football player. "How do you like it?" I demanded.
I had forgotten about the metal chalk tray, which connected hard with his hip-bone. "Mrs. Scriver! You've hurted me! I thought you were my friend!" His voice shook and his eyes brimmed with tears. He never really trusted me again, though I apologized. I felt like a rat.
The final incident that sealed my fate in Heart Butte came from the son of one of the teachers. The whole family was having a rough few years. This particular boy was probably the brightest one of his family, but also the most defiant and the laziest. He'd been on detention a dozen times with no effect. His mother had heard so many complaints from me that she was beginning to attack me back to shut me up. On this day he refused to get his book out, talked back, and so on. In frustration and to make a point in my lecture to him, I gave him a rap on the chest with a closed fist. Instantly, he leapt to his feet and announced he was going to get me fired. "Fine," I said. "You just march right down to the office and do that." So he did. Or so he thought. For a while he was a great hero among his peers.
In the ensuing confrontation the boy's father and mother met with myself, the boy and two principals, Cheever and the Doc, neither of whom said anything at all during the meeting. The father ripped into me, one of his worst accusations being that I had said all Indian men died before they were forty. He felt that I was not reporting facts, but putting a curse on his family. The mother said very little. She was not completely sure how things were going to turn out, I think. She often worried about losing her own job, though she had tenure. Mostly, she accused me of hating her family, "having it in" for her family. She knew that I knew many family secrets. Many of them she had told me herself by way of explanation, pleading to have bad behavior excused.
After shouting and threatening me for most of the meeting, the father turned on his son. "I'm sick of your behavior," he yelled at the boy and proceeded to rip his son up one side and down the other. Shortly we all sat exhausted and staring. One of the principals must have dismissed the meeting. I went to the bathroom.
In a few minutes I came out and went to pass through the cafetorium back towards my classroom. The father was standing in the thin mountain light coming through the big windows around the school entrance. We stood far apart with long shadows stretching from our feet across the polished floor towards those misty, air-brushed warriors on the wall. The father looked as lonely as any human can be. "You don't know how it is," he said quietly. "You don't know how bad I was when I was young and how hard it has been to give all that up. We've worked so hard."
He had been one of my students in the Sixties. I did remember how bad he was. I knew as much as anyone could from the outside. "Don't be ashamed," I said. "Be proud of your real accomplishments. That's the best thing you can do for your son."
He put on his cowboy hat and left. The image that stays with me is that lone man standing there, exhausted by the fury, unfocussed and uninformed, that was the only way he knew to fight back against what he thought was destiny.