SO TEACH ME
Rage is the only emotion that can't be controlled by shame. Actually, the intensified anger we call rage is anger that has been shamed. Anger, like sexuality, is a preserving emotional energy. Anger is the self-preserving feeling. Our anger is an energy by which we protect ourselves.
Our anger is our strength.
MANAGEMENT BY ELIMINATION
Once I went to the open door of the Supe's office without him noticing I was there. He was talking to Churchill about a list he had made of the ten "worst trouble-makers" in the school. The list was headed by the big brother of the child with fetal alcohol syndrome. Handsome, not quite adolescent but strongly developed and defiant, this boy was always crosswise of authority figures. The Supe had bragged to me that in the previous year the boy had tried to fight the coach, so the Supe had had the local policeman come up, put the cuffs on him, and carry him off in a squad car. The boy often fought to protect his little brother or to defend his alcoholic mother.
The Supe was trying to convince Churchill that if they could just get rid of these ten kids, mostly boys, that all their discipline problems would be solved. There was no need to persuade the Doc, because it was well-known that he thought only Catholic schools, where discipline could be enforced with a paddle and all bad kids could be expelled, were real schools. Churchill was studying the list when the Supe saw me. Instantly he was on guard. "Don't tell anyone what you heard! And why didn't you knock?"
He was afraid of what the families would do if they found out one of their kids was on the list. Busy blaming the victim again, he had no awareness that an organization has a natural internal structure. If one set of "bad actors" is removed but the underlying forces that created them are not changed, the "bad actors" are simply and involuntarily re-cast. That is, if the unfocused rage and desperation of the boys on his list were addressed by getting rid of those particular boys, new boys would soon be acting the same way. And if this set of angry faculty members were all forced to resign, the new ones would soon be just as angry-- unless true changes were made in the goals and structure of the school.
The very definition of neurotic behavior is that all attempts to escape the painful situation lead the sufferer back into the same painful situation. At some point the assumptions that give bad directions have to be brought to consciousness and questioned. Heart Butte needed to question at least two deep convictions. First, that change can only be brought about by a powerful male who uses force to impose "order". Second, that when bad things happen it is because of bad people who cannot be changed but ought to be punished. (Bad people are defined circularly as people who do bad things.) These are not just Heart Butte theories, but ideas deeply imbedded in the whole nation, especially those who benefit from the status quo and think they know bad behavior when they see it.
Often bad behavior has a racist dimension. "Fonzie," had spent some time in Colorado Springs with an uncle. A fine student and chess player who looks very much like Jim Morrison, his hero, Fonzie had handcuff scars on his wrists from the Colorado Springs police. "What did you do?" I asked.
"Oh, I was just hanging around in the wrong place at the wrong time." He was no angel. He was locally famous for having run up an enormous bill on his grandmother's phone by dialing up phone sex. He could invent "rap" and spin it out for minutes. Sometimes he would sink into despondency. "Why can't things be perfect?" he would sigh. He sounded exactly like the young members of my congregation near Seattle -- upper middle class kids with every advantage who sometimes went looking for trouble. None of them had handcuff scars.
Passive aggression is a powerful force. By balking, going slack, making "mistakes," and "accidentally" breaking things, either students or teachers could do as much damage as if they actively attacked each other. When a motivated teacher-- no matter how idealistic-- meets a student determined to resist in infuriating ways, it is a rare person who can always keep control. I was no exception.
One day in the spring of the second year, I showed a short movie. One of the less controllable kids sprawled on the floor to watch. At the end of the movie I turned the lights back on and asked the kids to pull their desks into a circle for discussion. The kid on the floor refused to move. There was very little time left in the class period. I really wanted the discussion to happen. I knew I was likely to be fired soon and that the principal had a thing about students on the floor. But no threat, no bribe, no promise would get that boy off the floor. He was big, he was sexually active, he was a fighter. I stood over him and shouted. He sneered. I nudged him with my foot. His response was obscene and contemptuous. My foot wanted very badly to kick him hard.
Completely losing my temper, I reached over and grabbed a good handful of hair and gave a sharp yank. I'd have done more, like dragging him to his feet, but one of the girls yelled, "Keep your cool, Mrs. Scriver! Keep your cool!" Her voice was desperate. I stopped and stood back, my hand coated with hair goop.
The bell rang. The boy got up and stalked out like a leopard, still sneering, and the other kids left, ashamed for me. I, too, was ashamed. I'd been defeated. This boy was first on the list of people the principals wanted out. He had perfected his sneer on those big alpha males. Finally after many, many suspensions they convinced him to transfer to Browning. Now I see him on lists of people in court for disorderly conduct. As he gets deeper into drugs and booze, I expect he doesn't have as much control as he did in that classroom. His aggression becomes more naked. His death comes nearer until it is almost welcome.
"Talk to him! You should talk to him," advised some. What would I say that hadn't been said to him a thousand times? Others suggested articles written by “experts,” most of whom had never taught in ghetto schools. They suggested many seductive strategies and points of view-- none of whicih were realistic.
What I remember most was the desperate quality of the girl's intervention and her need to save me from myself. I got the feeling that she'd had a lot of experience with people fighting in front of her and I knew that it hurt her. But also she had a sense of stepping in -- that bad things can be stopped. I can't remember another time when a kid tried to change my behavior in a parental, protective way like that. Perhaps at last many people on the reservation are feeling the possibility of intervention.
I've spent a lot of time trying to understand what I ought to have done. Maybe the simplest thing would have been to take the class out in the hall for our talk. Evading a passive person might work. I've thought about why I lost my temper. It didn't help that I was without recourse: not only was the administration unwilling to back the teachers because of the catastrophic consequences in terms of their own careers, but also they were intent on keeping the faculty off-balance, one-down. They were looking for evidence to make us vulnerable, so there was a double-bind: one could only call on the higher authority by admitting you lost control, which would be held against you. Hostile administration is never discussed by the purring experts who write articles. Most of them have never taught in a small town with sharp economic disadvantages.
But part of it was deeper than that. Over and over in poor families it is older women who try desperately to keep order and make progress while the young men test all limits in their determination to dominate. In a culture that works, where people's lives are fitted to their work and their families, older women have their place and older men protect it. The young men go out from the families until they are ready to mate, just as young male elk or mountain sheep do. But when older women are charged with controlling young men, a nasty woman-hating edge creeps in. This boy wrote essays (if you could call them that) about abusing people. I saw him being abusive to girls and smaller boys. He was an accomplished sneak and liar. So far I could ever tell, he had no family whatsoever.
And deeper than that was my own family history, which is Scotch-Irish immigrant. When I was growing up, "spanking" was considered desirable. Teachers never spanked me, but they often threatened my brothers and a second-grade teacher threw an ink bottle at one brother's head. My parents were sometimes angry, frustrated people and though I was an ideal student at school, when I was home I was exactly the kind of "passive aggressor" I've been describing. The last time I was "spanked," I was nearly fourteen. We were on a family outing, my father lost his temper at kid-bickering, and he stopped the car along a major highway. Choosing me over my younger brothers, he dragged me out of the car and administered what today might be called a public beating though at the time it was simply "spanking." I never got over it.
These long-ago personal dynamics made me both more sympathetic to the students and more vulnerable to their games. With enough pressure, I leave myself and become my parents, just as my parents were probably becoming their own parents when they punished me. But my parents never went beyond spanking . The parents of these children, especially when they were drunk, had no limits, not even death. It is important to realize that for a middle-class teacher, the continuum of violence is not the same as it for ghetto students. What for the teacher is an extreme response, may be for the student a prelude to life-threatening behavior. No wonder it is nearly impossible to impose discipline through threats.
When I "listen to" teacher chat lines on the Internet, I see message after message about discipline. It often seems that every teacher constantly obsesses over discipline "tricks and strategies." Yet I rarely see student/teacher conflict discussed in terms other than “classroom management.” We might make more progress if we looked at larger social patterns (class, economics, ethnicity, family structure) and the inner structure of teacher psyches.
Schools that have few discipline problems enjoy a consensus about what ought to happen there. When they do resort to spanking or paddling, everyone agrees that it is justified. The real secret of the success of contemporary Catholic schools is not paddling, but consensus. People agree about why they are there and what behavior is reasonable. If they don’t agree, they leave. The public school cannot eliminate dissenters, but must control them somehow in order to do its job.
Social issues and private personality dynamics rush in to fill empty space left when a school has no purpose but to supply salaries and athletic programs. If athletics cannot be separated from public schools-- and I'm not so naive as to think there is any chance at all that might happen -- then we need to develop "fire-walls" between athletics and academics. In my opinion, using athletics to keep kids in school only destroys standards of scholarship and intensifies the kind of pressure that can surface old scripts. Coaches become so obsessed with winning that they cross the line into rule-bending at best and real abuse at worst. The community puts the value of winning so high that they grant coaches the right to be violent. I've heard fathers call from the sidelines of basketball games, "You make that freethrow or I'll beat your butt tonight!"
A teacher or superintendent in a reservation town is far more likely to be fired over a losing team or the privileged behavior (drinking, fighting, defying teachers) of a winning team than over any academic issue. The school board in Heart Butte promised its new basketball team that if they could take state, the board would buy them a Bluebird bus-- a potent bribe in a place where basketball teams are on the road almost continuously during the season. A Bluebird bus costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, enough to install an outstanding collection of books in the library. No one ever suggested, “If you all graduate from college, the school board will buy thousands of dollars of books for the library where they can inspire the children of this community for decades.”
The big myth is that sports keep kids in school. Instead, I saw sports destroy school as a source of education. One of the boys claimed he was going to college on a basketball scholarship, but the truth is that very few Native Americans ever manage such a thing. They are often good players, but they will not invest in being students enough to stick in college. This particular boy was supposed to be in remedial classes but used his basketball status to stay in regular classes where he understood very little. He was disruptive, never did any work, and actively hurt many of his classmates by punching, tripping and dragging them around by the head. He lived for games, but --more than that-- for the keggers afterwards which the police overlooked. As the year went on, he became less and less valuable as a player. His parents never came to the school despite many letters from the administration. He did not live with them, but floated among relatives.
The tribal community people who claim the attention of teachers are not the quiet, conscientious, hard-working parents. More likely the ones the teachers get to know are the trouble-maker parents, the meddlers and squawkers. Mature local folks have tired of seeing people come and go with their new ideas and inexplicable changes. ("I used to make friends," one woman told me, "but it hurt too much when they left-- and they always leave.") Old people who truly keep alive the old ways do so by shutting out strangers.
Most writers recommend that teachers go visit parents at home, both as a friendly gesture and as a way of understanding where the students literally come from. One night Miss Pickletoes and I, fed up with the shenanigans of one of the students, decided to go make a home-visit. We set out in my little hatchback, bounding over the prairie in the dark with the headlights as likely to be pointed straight up as onto the wheel-tracks. After some blunders around snowdrifts and coulees, we found the right house. The pater familias was astounded, but welcomed us and quickly supplied hot coffee. The kids of the household gathered around with their ears sticking out, though they pretended to be watching videos or playing electronic games. I counted three tv screens in the room. The home was comfortable, middle-class, and orderly.
Despite our serious issues, we had an hilarious time joking about trivial things. The father told us that he had never been visited before but he had often "gone up to straighten things out." He felt no one took him seriously or would listen to his opinion, even when he demanded a good old fistfight. Together we laughed at the ridiculousness of the whole situation and then we went off, waving goodby out the windows. We didn't have any trouble with that family's kids for months. When the superintendent found out we had been out prowling around house-to-house in the dark, he forbade us ever to do it again. His mental picture of the students' homes was far darker than what we found.
Many veteran teachers spread sensational tales of what it was like to teach on the Rez, how it wasn't possible to succeed. It is easy to walk off holding your nose if you're white. No one will blame you for failing. You needn't feel guilty. They are only Indians and wouldn't amount to anything anyway. A professor at a teacher training college in Great Falls confided to another professor, "No use trying to teach Indian students anything. They'll just go back to the Rez and teach Indians."
When I went back in 1989, some of my former students and friends were angry with me. "Why did you come back?" they demanded. "You made it out of here. You could have had a good life away from here." Parents would say, "I want my children to leave, so they can make money and have a good life." Yet many tribal people my age came back while I was there -- for the same reasons I did. Even some of we whites love the place, miss it when we are away, and want to help those we remember. We feel more ourselves when we are there.
Those who look at technology as salvation were defeated on this go-round. The superintendent had spent thousands on eight Macintosh computers: six Pluses and two SE-30's. (He either didn't know or didn't care that they were just about to take a major price drop -- the computer expert on Canadian radio advised this -- or maybe he bought them from a friend just before the drop.) At the same time he bought "Mac School," an ambitious integrated administrative program to be used for attendance, supplies, and other data bases. But no one could make the program work. Under direct orders, the Doc finally learned by rote how to list his purchasing invoices, but if he got off the six steps outlined on the 3X5 card taped to his monitor, he locked up. He bragged that in the previous school he had had a bigger, fancier, more powerful, more real (IBM) computer, which he never used at all. "I kept my back to it all year," he boasted. We believed him.
A single class was organized in Great Falls to teach the office secretaries and the administration, but the administrators got frustrated and left early. The secretaries learned only how to type in information. When I brought in my curriculum on disc, they printed it out and retyped it onto their own discs, because they didn't know how to transfer the digitized version. No one had showed them how to drag an icon.
The Browning School System had ordered the same software and were having good luck with it, but no one from Heart Butte would ask them for help. In fact, we probably could have linked our attendance programs over the telephone and for once have been ahead of the kids when we tried to figure out who was attending school where.
The salesperson had sold "MacSchool" by describing the use of the linked computers as an in-house LAN, but no one had the slightest idea how that was done and the salesperson had not explained that more equipment plus some technical installation would be necessary -- to say nothing about maintenance. Communicating by computer just seemed too mysterious. No one bothered to find out any more. No software was bought for or by the teachers. Not even a catalog showed up. Some salesman missed a step. There would have been a lot of potential in following along behind the hardware purveyors in order to promote software. How much of modern American education is completely dependent on enterprising salespeople?
I had no experience with computers at all, but I had good contacts. A nuclear reactor scientist from Idaho Falls told me about "Writenow," a low-cost, easy to use, word-processing program. I bought it, read the directions carefully, explained what basics I knew to a couple of kids, and left them in a corner of the room to struggle with it. In a half-hour they had figured it out and wanted to print, which I couldn't do because there were only two printers in the building: the one in the school office and the one Churchill had. (Churchill quietly mastered one of the SE30's and ran his athletic program off "Microsoft Works." He would not let me use the program. Of course, it might not have been licensed for more than one copay.) To print I had to beg for a few moments on the office printer or catch Churchill at an indulgent moment. So the kids kept their work on floppies, pretty soon they were bringing their own from some mysterious source, and by the end of the year the computer had a virus.
Anyway, the business teacher-- who proudly announced he knew nothing about Macs but had real IBM's in his classroom-- never ordered ribbons for any printers at all. Halfway through the year-- after I had created two dozen floppies of classroom materials on the Macintosh and had become desperate for printer ribbons that actually made perceptible marks -- the Doc informed me he was going to sell off the Macs because it was too much trouble to order different kinds of ribbons. When I flew into a tantrum, he was self-righteous.
At the end of the year it turned out that a third Mac printer had been across the hall from me the whole time, unused all year for lack of a three-foot plug-in cord. I found out by accident when the fifth grade teacher complained that she hadn't been able to print out any of the stuff her kids had been doing on their early Apples. She was teaching programming language as a way of encouraging logic, and had asked and asked for the few dollars it would take to get the connector cord, but got no response and refused on principle to buy it herself.
Somewhere in some training course, the Supe had been told that teachers should be allowed to take computers home. He was happy to check one out to me (no one was using it anyway) and soon I was addicted. It was worth the whole two-year teaching gig to break through to that little Macintosh Plus. At least now my worksheets were customized with local and Blackfeet contexts. One of the other teachers took a Mac Plus to his classroom but soon brought it back. "There's nothing on it," he complained, evidently thinking it was like television. The shop teacher took another to use with a computerized horse-shoeing course. (There's something strange about that in a place where ranchers shod real actual horses all the time.) He didn't know to make a backup copy so when the kids accidentally erased the most crucial part of the program, it was worthless. The company refused to supply new software without the school paying full price, which it would not.
At one point Mr. Z thought he had outwitted the lack of ventilation in the science room (which meant that no chemical experiments could be done) by ordering Apple IIC computers for each student plus a chemistry class on floppies. He taught himself to use the machine and the kids caught on pretty well, but the actual chemistry material was too difficult for the kids. The biggest computer success was a set of ground-level arithmetic games on a simple Apple machine from the remedial room. The kids played them almost obsessively. The win-win-win-win was addictive. More challenging games were disconcerting. Yet there were a few students who would eventually learn on their own how to master the most complex of computer games, like Myst. Many kids had home video games and soon some had their own computers. I have no idea where the money came from.
The other big hit was the greeting card and banner program on the IBM's in the computer room. Banners appeared everywhere. Since they were printed in black and white, hours went into hand-coloring them with fibre-tip pens. Once, pushed to my emotional limits by unreasonable kids and suffering from a toothache anyway, I cried in class. In half an hour the kids had produced a hand-colored greeting card apologizing for their bad behavior and begging forgiveness.
A grant from the Federal Government brought us a roof-top satellite dish that was supposed to give access to a satellite-link all across Montana that would supply classes and educational materials. The librarian was given a VCR to tape important shows and a monitor was set up on the stage of the cafetorium. But the VCR had no remote timer that could come on by itself, and since the librarian refused to walk the few hundred feet from his house to turn it on, there was no use requesting that any evening programs be taped. The educational network never materialized. Instead, throughout every lunch the monitor played Country MTV on the cafetorium stage. The cowboys among us sat in tipped-back chairs with their hats pulled down over their eyes, morosely contemplating the disasters of honky-tonk life. When I went up and tipped back a chair of my own, they rolled their eyes over to stare at me without moving their heads. "What does all this stuff really mean?" I asked. No answer.
At the same time the Browning Schools put in several truly humonguous satellite dishes, started up a studio with local programming, and flooded Browning with public television. Montana is one of the few states where you can't watch public television without cable or a satellite dish. Suddenly Browning's Headstart and several day care programs could show Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. Since the quality of the reception was so good, many began to watch science programs, news events, and Masterpiece Theatre. But back in Heart Butte the best media was still CBC radio from Canada, which I knew from my years in Saskatoon. (It was pretty good. I still miss Peter Zoski and his conversations every morning.)
MY PRIVATE LIFE
The regular network television Heart Butte translator had broken down, either vandalized or weather-beaten, and since no one would pay for repairs, there was no television. Then someone convinced the Tribe that juvenile delinquency would be abated if the kids "had something to do," and the translator was fixed by some intrepid person who struggled up to the ridge. The sound was better than the picture, so I often used my little black and white as a radio. Since my apartment had only one small window to the east, I left my door open with the glass storm door shut for a window to collect sunshine.
"What are you doing in there, Mrs. Scriver?" the kids demanded. "Why aren't you correcting papers? Why don't you have a color television?" I didn't smoke, I didn't drink, I never seemed to go to anybody's house-- they couldn't figure it out. When I came back from a trip, cars would join me on the highway and trail me home to see what I took out of my car and whether anyone was with me. Late at night in a storm, it was intimidating. Because of the headlights, I couldn't tell who was following me. One man, known to be armed, would follow single women with children. But maybe people were following me in case my car broke down or went off the road. Maybe they were trying to help.
"What do you eat for dinner?" the kids asked. I hated to tell them that my favorite meal was a package of frozen peas heated up with butter and garlic. It was quick, tasty protein and I could eat it easily while I read. When I asked them what they ate, they evaded the question. I decided they lived on Korn Kurls and orange pop.
When the first Christmas came, the kids were shocked that I didn't trek off to Portland to be with my family. "You're supposed to go feast and get presents," they insisted. All the other teachers did this. How could I explain that the gift I wanted was ten days of peace and quiet to read and write? I finally said to them, "Look, I'm a religious person. On Christmas I stay alone to fast and pray." They understood that and acted respectful.
My mother, nearing eighty, came to visit. The kids were impressed and when she came up to sit in on classes, their manners were excellent. One of the worst act-up characters drew a picture of me and gave it to her. It was pretty good and after that she always asked about the boy. She went out to walk on the hills and gather small bouquets. The Supe went by in his pickup and stopped to visit. He was quite charming and she was well impressed. Then later he told me, laughing, "I saw some old white woman out there trespassing on school property so I took a shot at her to scare her off." This passes for teasing in Montana.
THE KIDS’ PERSONAL LIVES
What slowly became clear to me was that the kids saw themselves as something like the "lost civilizations" on Star Trek where the Prime Directive prevents any kind of interference with the culture. They felt that, miserable as their situation sometimes was, it was far better than the corrupt free-for-all of the larger world, which could only offer them technology. At the same time they yearned for the sentimental rigamarole that the media constantly promoted: trappings, decorations, things that cost money, gizmos that provided pleasure with no effort.
Their own strongest imperative was to prevent change and, if possible, to keep from growing up. To become an adult was to become unhappy, burdened and alcoholic. This was what they saw around them and the parents agreed with them. "This is the only good time of their lives. Let them enjoy it," they said. Some people left, but they went out into a mysterious world that the kids feared and did not want to enter. To their minds, being a kid meant being free to be themselves. Growing up meant sacrificing both identity and privilege. They had a very bad case of Peter Pan Syndrome. It was a powerful force against education. It made me very angry, because it fed directly into the racist assumption that dark people are like children, and therefore ought to be controlled by parental white people.
One of the older girls had a hard time with English. Ever since reading "Up the Down Staircase in the Seventies," in which a male teacher received a love letter from a student and corrected it with red ink, causing her to commit suicide in despair, I have not been able to keep from equating red ink with blood. I made it a point to correct papers with green ink. I gave this girl her paper back, looking mighty green. She barely glanced at it before it went into the trash. "How can you learn if you don't look at it?" I asked.
"I just hate it. I'm so stupid."
"Look, I'm not trying to hurt you. It's just a way to explain what you should do next time." And I told her why I used green ink. She stared at me with her mouth ajar.
"I never looked at it that way. I never thought you were trying to help me," she said. "I didn't think a teacher would try to help me." Despair comes in all colors, I guess.
SPEEDING TOWARDS A TRAIN WRECK
The fantasy that Heart Butte School was going to have a small student population, a strong connection with the new electronic media, and a new philosophy of education was very attractive. The Supe must have sold a lot of insurance in his time. We all believed in the fantasy until Christmas, and then reality set in.
The pre-existing K-6 school went on about its business pretty much as usual, except for the dangers and distractions offered by so many big kids on the premises. The seventh and eighth grades had always been problematic but now they became almost uncontainable. The boys were small and speedy in every sense, determined to test the absolute outside limits of what they could get away with. The girls were irresistible to the older boys and their little permed heads were turned. Surely now they would marry their heroes and live happily ever after on Aid to Dependent Children in their own HUD house.
The high school students were an assortment, but almost all of them had been on their own for a long time. They saw themselves as adults and in many cases they were several years older than they should have been. A few could not be controlled or even influenced by any adults. A fair percentage were there on a last-chance basis, but as far as they were concerned the whole process was arbitrary and inscrutable. Stuff a person did in school didn't mean anything. But if you had to do this junk in order to get into the military, in order to play basketball-- forget jobs or college-- well, there was no other place for them to go anyway.
The strongest conviction I had was that these students could not be forced to do much of anything. Even the ones desperate to play basketball would use up enormous amounts of energy trying strategies they thought would get them around grades. If they had put a fraction of that effort into their homework, they would have had good grades. We turned in flunk/pass reports once a week. In theory no one who was flunking could play. So they were "absent" in order to have make-up time or to turn in papers after the other kids got theirs back, so they could copy. They were robbed, they lost their papers-- something always happened. The teacher hated them and in revenge was sabotaging the team. The idea was to create a lot of confusion and then question any written records. Parents would never come to regular scheduled conferences, but they would appear by surprise, incensed over some injustice and demanding that whoever was guilty should come outside and fight.
The students were simply too resourceful to be powered into working. My energy went into trying to find some way to persuade them to make the decision to learn. For girls, having a baby was often the persuasion they needed. For boys there seemed to be no effective enticement. Once in a while I would find a young man who asked questions, who had a social conscience, and this would be a beginning, but not one that any authority figure welcomed. Outside judges could be told the students were not learning because of deficiencies in the community or the students themselves. But no one wanted students out of control.
Students promoting chaos were greatly helped by constant invasions of the classroom by non-teaching school people. The Doc came in to hand out faculty paychecks-- no envelopes, so that the kids grabbed and craned to see what the amount was and exclaimed indignantly over the exorbitant amount of money. Teams of kids from other classes came in to sell candy or lottery tickets to raise money for some worthy cause. The nurse came in to read TB skin tests or to give flouride "swish" treatments. The intercom called people to the office for phone calls or because their mother wanted to see them or because the principal promised they would provide help for a custodian.
Besides that, there were the "Pull-out" programs: kids pulled out for drug programs, for military recruiting, for science trips or spell-athons. Kids begged to be excused so they could finish projects for other classes, or they left early so they could drive their folks down to Great Falls or to Browning for the doctor. They went out for speech therapy, for counselling, and to explain their behavior the day before.
The school had signed up for the normal series of school assemblies, but we were thirty miles away from anyplace with a motel, so the speakers were never ready at the time when the assembly was scheduled. If one prepared lesson plans and began to teach, they showed up. If one counted on the assembly and made no plans, they took the wrong turn, got caught in bad weather, or just chickened out. After the assembly left, everyone was hyper for an hour.
It seemed to me that there was a serious decline in the quality of the assemblies from the ones we saw in the Sixties. Maybe the school simply bought the B-string. One of the most memorable of the Sixties was a man in training to be an astronaut who “blew the whistle” on some part of the program and was busted out of the system for it. He gave a stirring talk about free speech and honor. Another was the predator bird trainer for Walt Disney, who brought hawks and owls that flew through the gymnasium and returned to his hand. The Heart Butte assemblies blur together in my mind, but were mostly on the level of novelty musical instruments or the physics of yo-yo’s.
I kept bugging the Doc to "shrink" the schedule for the days when we had assemblies so that the kids wouldn't keep missing first and second periods over and over. He didn't understand the concept. His big worry was making the lunch schedule, which was staggered in order to fit everyone in, come out even so the cooks wouldn't be mad at him. He understood that cooks are to be respected. Once he issued an edict that no one was to bum coffee off the cooks any more, because they were getting cross. He was slow to realize that he was the only one who raided the cooks' coffee. The rest of us stuck to the swill we made in the teachers' lounge. We were careful about the cooks, too. When Mary, nicknamed "Monkey," came out of her kitchen with a giant spoon in her hand to give us a lecture, everyone shaped up.
When basketball really got underway, the kids were hardly in school anymore. In Montana teams have to travel so far that they leave at noon and don't get home until well after midnight. On days that interesting games were scheduled, the non-athletic kids stayed home to prepare for travel on their own. The kids who came were in a great flurry to get clothes lined up, collect money, and make arrangements. The next day they just didn't show up. The team was often officially excused until noon on the day after a game-- or if they came, they put their heads down and slept. .
So a student got behind a little, that coincided with other interruptions so the missing work was never made up, the concept was lost, the next assignment was impossible to explain -- yet promises were made and intentions were good. The third assignment was either a clean start or became crushed under the loss of the earlier work. It was impossible to build sequence, to gather skill. This was especially deadly for English.
All along I knew that if I taught as I thought was right and effective, I was likely to be fired. I knew that the kids shut out any kind of phoniness or hypocrisy. I spoke frankly about sex, because the kids were "doing it," and had many questions as well as a lot of crazy convictions. (Like, if you have relations with a woman who is menstruating, it will drive the blood to her brain and kill her.) When things got pretty sticky, Mrs. Marlboro (presumably as an Indian woman who would avoid the taboos and not be criticized and also as the "health" teacher) took all the girls for an afternoon and "had a good talk with them." I heard her voice from the next room. She sounded angry and punishing-- the way a nun in a boarding school might sound. (I thought of the devil-hating nun in Louise Erdrich’s stories.) Afterwards the girls came away with the absolute conviction that a person could get a sheep pregnant. No amount of my talk about DNA would persuade them differently.
STARTING THE INJUNS
I taught Blackfeet history as though it mattered, spoke a bit of Blackfeet, kept classroom order no matter the level of confrontation it took-- even physical contact short of striking -- used video tapes as much as books, and taught the traditional high school literature: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowolf, Whitman, Poe--as well as the "New Canon" of Native American literature: not just James Welch, Jr. (who is half Blackfeet) but also D'Arcy McNickle, Louise Erdrich, Paula Gunn Allen, Beverly Hungry Wolf (who is a full-blood Canadian Blackfeet). The wonderful new wave of Native American books was just beginning, and I tried to keep up. I had the idea that if I could get the kids curious, make them care in spite of themselves, that the constant drifting would end and they would start their engines.
Because I couldn't find a good Indian account of the early Blackfeet times and because the more scholarly Blackfeet: Raiders of the Plains by John Ewers was being used in social studies, I made every student read McClintock's The Old North Trail. The second year I chose one Indian-written novel for each grade level. Also in the second year, since my room was only roughed-in drywall, I stapled maps of the reservation all over them, plus an aerial view of Browning. The kids spent a lot of time studying them as well as a handsome Atlas I kept on the counter. My own personal thinking tends to be topological: foreground, background, central and peripheral, etc. I think this was also true of some kids. I thought any kind of representations, schemata, abstractions, were good for them.
We watched every movie about Indians we could lay hands on, but also movie versions of the "classics" like Little Women (both earlier versions-- the newest one hadn't been made yet) and Tale of Two Cities. I read books out loud, being careful to stop at cliff-hanging moments, and sometimes the kids would check the book out of the library to read ahead of me. The kids all loved Anne of Green Gables, both book and movie. When I asked them why, they said it was about a small town where people were close, like Heart Butte, except that they kept nice yards and had orderly parties. It was that 19th century pastoral world the Blackfeet lived in for a few decades.
I played a sound tape of Doig reading from his work about Valier and the five students in the room put their heads down to sleep. A year later one of them, a potential writer, began to talk about that tape in a way that showed he had heard it and pondered it repeatedly. This boy's uncle had been one of my best writers in the Sixties. Often it seemed that talent ran in families, maybe because as a group they valued stories and writing.
I told the kids never to think of themselves as half-breeds, but as "double-breeds," people whose heritage came from two mighty historical streams that mingled in them, giving them all the strengths of both. (This was my version of the 150% man MacFee talked about.) On my classroom walls I put up portraits of famous Indians from many tribes.
One boy responded petulantly, "I don't know why you'd put up portraits of Indians who aren't even from our tribe." He had caught on to the strategy of always making one's wants more pure, more stringent, so as to never have to admit satisfaction. It's a familiar strategy among people who have found their historic misfortune to have great political power. The boy did not recognize the names of the people whose portraits I put up. Not even the Blackfeet, whom I had to point out to him. He did not recognize his own people from an earlier time, but only the current cast of characters.
One whole wall was Blackfeet from Winold Reiss' portraits commissioned for Great Northern calendars. Bob Scriver had known Winold Reiss, whose son was the same age as Bob, and he had hung around the artist's colony in St. Mary. I told the students this. Some of the portraits were people I had met myself, old people in the Sixties. It made them angry that I knew more about them than they did. "You're a wanna-be," they accused. "You just come here and take over our stuff." (They will accuse me of writing this book in order to make a profit from their lives.)
I let the kids write anything, no matter how violent, profane, or inappropriate, no matter how anti-white or self-hating, no matter how childish or twisted. I made no comment, but tried to understand what prompted them. In Browning some of the boys had drawn obscene cartoons--like women bending over and holding their cheeks apart-- but I never saw them in Heart Butte. Maybe they were just better hidden. It was clear that the kids were living hidden lives, just as my own white teenaged grandchildren-by-marriage did, so that they shared everything with each other but nothing with any adults. Among themselves they knew which parents beat each other up, who all the homosexuals in town were, which baby belonged to which father, and how to get drugs or X-rated videos. Sometimes they kindly tried to clue me in to the real nature of life. Bad. Short. Hopeless.
For the most part, the kids didn't pass judgment. In fact, in their limited but shared wisdom, they handled their illicit knowledge better than the adults, who tried to deny and hide everything but ended up obsessing and projecting it all onto each other. The kids were endlessly scornful of adult hypocrisy, as they always are. Like the eighth graders I had known in 1961, some of these kids with dependable parents tried to help the ones who were needier. One gay young man would ask me for advice in comforting his self-destructive younger partner. My suggestions were pretty weak.
In order to teach well, it was vital to know what was real to the kids. I spent a lot of time listening and watching. I figured that it would take several years to really understand what was happening. I tried to give them a voice by constantly typing out what they wrote -- corrected in order to dissolve the bad grammar, nonstandard spelling and clumsy handwriting so the ideas would come through. In this way I processed everything everybody wrote and handed it back to them, stapled together by subject, so they could see for themselves that some people were writing nearly publishable material and others were barely getting down two sentences.
THE MEDIA AND THE MESSAGE
I was supposed to be "doing" the school newspaper and decided it would be a truly kid paper instead of a pr job. The kids drew intricate mandalas and logos adapted from the world of rock music-- feathers and skulls, daggers and warbonnets. The tamer ones got silk-screened onto the backs of satin jackets by various organizations. For Halloween I included in the paper some of the wilder skulls and plucked-out eyes. One of the parents spent an hour patiently pointing out to the Supe where all the devil-worship codes were hidden in the drawings. Maybe he was right. The kids insisted that certain people were killing pets, especially cats, right in front of little kids. One Easter a "sacrificed" lamb was found on the altar of the ruined Holy Family Mission building. Television obligingly supplied lots of ideas about Satanism, ghosts, and extraterrestial delinquency.
The Doc called me in for a lecture. "That's not a newspaper," he said to me about my photocopied tabloid. "This is a newspaper!" he proclaimed in a Crocodile Dundee voice, whipping out a four-color overlay slick-paper professionally printed near-magazine and slapping it triumphantly with the back of his hand. "This is what we did in Alaska! This is your goal! I want you to try harder!" But he was upset that I was using the photocopy paper so fast.
We all were. The copy machine fairly smoked by afternoon. It was ten years old and no one had ever planned money for its replacement. Maintenance people hated to drive the hundred miles up from Great Falls. The Doc decided we couldn't be trusted to use the machine and put a lock/ counter on it. This was remanded into the custody of the most reliable school aide. "For now on, only this aide is allowed to photocopy!" announced the Doc. Then he used the aide as a substitute for teachers, so that she never had any time to do copying.
One night before the counter was installed I trudged up the hill in the snow after supper to print the newspaper-- the 14 X 17 sheets wouldn't feed properly if the machine were hot. Suddenly the Doc's big banana-colored Caddie wheeled up next to me. "Where do you think you're goin'?" he demanded.
"Up to print the newspaper."
"Just what newspaper is that?" I think he thought that somehow I was pirating out a personal 'Zine. Since I had entered seminary, I had put out a private newsletter called "Sarvisberry Soup" which went to friends and family. Maybe he'd found out about that, though I got it printed in Great Falls. "Go home," he ordered. I did.
My household is always awash with magazines. I toted the Western art slicks (Southwest Art, Art West) up to the classroom for rewards after work was done. The non-readers craved them-- they yearned over the stories in the pictures and copied out parts-- horseheads, regalia, animals. No one stole them. No one tore them up. At first I took fashion magazines up, but the girls were shocked by the naked women. The thinness didn't bother them -- many of the girls were as thin as the models-- but the sexiness shocked them. Both the oldtime Blackfeet culture and the later Mission rules emphasized that a girl should be irreproachable for her own protection. If she did something bad, she must have tempted the aggressor somehow. It's an old story. But it was strange that the girls accepted what verged on abuse, while rejecting come-hither images in magazines. Why didn’t they protest that their behavior was just fine? Why do victims of all kinds accept blame? Why didn’t their parents or the school personnel see that the girls were blameless and intervene to protect them? Maybe when girls’ basketball teams take state, things will change.
THE 'OTHER' WITHIN
Among the juniors was a very troubled young man who came to Heart Butte to play basketball because his uncontrollable temper had already gotten him barred from the Browning team. Scottie's dark skin made it clear that his father was black. I was told that after Scottie was born, his mother took a long look at him, laid him on her bed in the Indian Health Service maternity ward, put on her clothes and quietly disappeared. Scottie was handed around from one relative to another.
He was desperate to completely identify with the Blackfeet. In an essay assigned to be about "Why the Basketball Team Will Win This Weekend," he wrote that the team was undefeatable because it was an All-Blackfeet team, which anyone could tell from looking at the names, including his. It never occurred to him that all the names were in fragmented English translation, not Blackfeet, and used as family patronyms when the Nitzitahpi way was to give everyone a unique personal name.
Every day Scottie came into the room looking for a fight. His English skills were weak and that shamed him. I knew if I gave him an edge he would take over and I was determined to run my own classroom. I tried every trick I could think of with no results. So we went through a little ritual: I gave an assignment, Scottie raised his hand with an objection, I over-ruled him, he escalated his volume, I insisted, he began to throw his chair and yell, "Fuck you!" At that point I sent him out of the room and we went on with the lesson. If he did it too often, I wouldn't sign for him to play basketball. The coach didn't fight me very much to let him play. He was not a key player and he had been put out of the Browning team for fighting the coach.
The real prime player was Joey Tatsey. Joey had done very well in his four years of high school basketball. He had intended to leave for college but he was persuaded to take one more year of high school, which they guaranteed him he would pass. "They" also expected that Joey could win games for Heart Butte and they were right. The only trouble was that the state athletic regulatory body found out that Joey was a five-year student, against the rules, and disbarred him as well as cancelling the wins he had led.
Joey rightly figured he had been double-crossed. The English class he took from me only had three people in it. He informed me early that he considered the class a nuisance, that he didn't feel like working, and in fact he wouldn't attend any more than he had to. So I flunked him. After all, he'd already passed senior English. In fact, his skills were okay. His grandmother, a school principal, had a little talk with the Supe and the F went magically away. "My grandsons do not flunk," she was heard to say.
In the year after I had left, Joey and Scottie went to a party together. Booze and quarrelling intersected and someone shot at Joey, or so one version went. Instead, they shot Scottie in the head. Some said Scottie was trying to protect Joey. At that moment Scottie went from the mythology of the Lost Dark Prince to being the Shining Angel full of transcendent qualities. Patricia Tatsey, Rainbow Woman, eulogized him in her newspaper column, saying that now he walked on diamonds in heaven.
But no one ever had much time for the real Scottie. I always wondered what would have happened if I could have found some strong, handsome Air Force man in Great Falls, a Black hero, who would be willing to spend some time with Scottie. I doubt that his family would have allowed such a man to be in contact. They would have feared him. When it’s tough enough to be a 150% man, how does one kid reconcile both European and African heritage with his Native American self?
When we came to Langston Hughes in our American Literature anthology, I decided to try an experiment. Speaking as much like James Earl Jones as I possibly could, I leaned my voice hard into the cadences and rolled through the poem. When I got to the end, the whole class turned and looked at Scottie. "Read it again," he said. And I did. Then he got mad, did his violence thing, and we went on as usual. But it was a little bit different after that.
In the first year I ever taught, there was a half-black kid named Stanley Chief Coward. He would be nearly fifty now. He also had a Black father. His mother, alcoholic, had been killed by a car on the main highway through town. In the version I was told, she came onto the road suddenly from between cars parked in front of a bar, and a white man from out of town struck her before he knew she was there. Stanley's focus in life was to grow up, find that man, and kill him for vengeance. No one knows where Stanley went. I use his real name in hopes of finding him. Over the years I've thought about him often.
He was raised by his grandmother-- maybe actually his great-grandmother -- an old-time Blackfeet who did things the old-fashioned way. Probably Stanley, a double or triple-breed, knew more old ways than his classmates. His features and build were purely Blackfeet-- but his skin was dark and his hair was fuzzy. "These Browning kids could never make it in a real city ghetto," said one white teacher scornfully. "Real street gang Blacks would have them for breakfast." Somehow there was indeed an innocence about Stanley, in spite of his lust for vengeance. His IQ was recorded as 100, which means it was probably really about 120, gifted.
In one of the study halls I babysat (in '88-'89), a beautiful part-Black girl would not allow her legs to be touched, and you didn't want to come up behind her too quietly. She read constantly. Book-pusher that I am, I gave her Michael Dorris' novel "Yellow Raft on Blue Water". It is about a mixed Black/Indian girl who receives unwanted attentions and then the story continues on to a "prequel" about the girl's mother and grandmother. I felt sure that it would be almost dead-center about her. After a while, I asked her how she liked it. She looked me straight in the eye-- which she normally didn't do-- and said very deliberately. "I lost it. I never read it." My hunch is that she read it all right. She just didn't want to talk about it.
What right did I have to even suggest I understood what these kids were living through? No one has ever had their experience before. And yet it was a universal experience: the outcast, the ugly duckling, Anne of Green Gables, the Hero with a Thousand Faces. Maybe the very fact of paying attention made a difference. At least I take it on faith that the more exactly and deeply a person feels understood, the more likely healing becomes. The opposite of witness is denial. Denial is the strategy of choice on a reservation, but it is a lethal one, killing hope.
STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND
For biology class Mr. Z ordered a kit from the Montana Wildlife people. In the kit was a set of 3 inch squares of various hides. The idea was to ask the kids if they could identify what animals the hides came from. Only one of the Heart Butte kids could do it, but I could. Helping Bob Scriver in the taxidermy studio and maintaining the full-mounts in his museum had taught me the texture and shadings of all the major Montana animals. The hollow dark hairs of moose, the equally hollow and stiff gray or rufous hairs of deer, the two-lengthed white fur of mountain goats, the long waxy ruff hair of buffalo-- all were as familiar to me as the fur of my own cat. To everyone, even Mr. Z maybe, for a fat middle-aged female English teacher to know more about the local ungulates than these supposed young hunters (who hated to get out of their pickups) seemed against nature. "Go correct some papers, Ms. Scriver. We're busy."
In the 1960's one of the busiest and canniest trappers and hunters on the reservation used to come into Bob's shop to sell mink and beaver hides. Sometimes he would have something bigger, a lynx or a bear. If it was out there, he could get it. This man was now the custodian who was supposed to be testing our water supply. No one ever asked him to talk about hunting or trapping. At least his daughter could tell pretty good bear stories.
A summer or so ago I was sitting in the front room of Bob Scriver's studio/museum when a band of ragged local boys came in to sell him dead gophers for his wild pets to eat. There were four or five small boys and two or three taller, older boys, half-Black. They were from the subsidized housing projects, pretty much let run wild all day. What struck me was that their bearing, their way of interacting, was more like the kids I had known thirty years ago. They were hunters, in a small way, and they covered a lot of prairie on foot-- planning, anticipating, watching-- in their determination to get gophers. The land was pulling them back into old ways.
It is often suggested that the public schools on the reservation ought to teach and sustain the historic culture of the tribe. How is that to be located and defined? Through scholarly notes taken by anthropologists and archived in museums? Through old people born in this century after the original cultural system had been destroyed by the death of buffalo economics and the suppression of the social structures built around the great herds? Through the demands of neo-traditionalists who feel that blood quantum entitles them to judge?
My own contention is that the native peoples must go back to the land that shaped them in the first place. Before the culture can be recovered, the land must be redeemed. If the reservation is to be preserved, if assimilation is to be resisted, then the people must fit themselves to the watercourses, timber, and haymeadows-- even the oil wells and grain fields. They must know the animal lives around them. Even if people come from other places with other histories, the land can teach them to be local, native, autochthonous.
No one wants to be out in a Montana winter with only the supplies in a dog travois. The only person I ever knew who actually lived in a traditional lodge all winter was Adolph Hungry Wolf, a voluntary Blackfeet. No longer are there herds of buffalo to run over cliffs. So how do the Blackfeet return to the old ways in a new world? My Blackfeet friends feel strongly that the first step is the preservation of the Blackfeet language. I think we are both talking about the same thing. The language and the land are intertwined-- one is not alive without the other.