THAT AIN'T ENGLISH
To get out of history, get into geography.
SPEAKING COMES FROM THE HEART
At the end of the Eighties, members of the Piegan Institute did a language inventory of children ready for Head Start. When they had screened the children for English, half a dozen were left in a category marked "non-English speakers." Surprised that so many children had Blackfeet as a primary language, they did something no one had thought of before: they screened the children to see how much Blackfeet they knew. And the appalling truth was out: the children didn't speak Blackfeet either.
They didn't speak any accepted language, but only a kind of family-specific set of indicators for the basics: water, food, sleep, the bathroom. True babytalk. The only people who really understood them were the slightly older children who had the duty of babysitting them. This is not a circumstance peculiar to the Blackfeet or to native Americans or even to poor people. It is something that happens whenever adults are too busy, numb, drunk, angry, depressed or otherwise "out-of-it" to pay any attention to their own children. If the kids are lucky, the household will not be too chaotic for them to watch Sesame Street. Then they have a chance.
There is no way to know if there were children in the Sixties who spoke no language at all. No one tested for Blackfeet speakers. Some say that the children have come upon hard times because the boarding-school-educated grandmothers are gone-- already frail from old age in the Sixties. Others say it was allowing alcohol to be sold to Indians on the reservation after the WW II veterans came back. That was when the women began to drink. In the Sixties I never saw a fetal alcohol child. (The Sixties was also a time when certain doctors felt entitled to sterilize Indian women with little cause and no consent. Adopting Indian babies to white families was seen as giving the babies a chance.) Some would point to the efforts to move Indians to the cities, where they lived in ghettoes and acquired the culture of despair. They stopped living for the future and therefore stopped valuing children.
Human speech develops between specific ages of the child. If the window of opportunity passes without language being learned, the brain closes down that option. Children can be raised by wolves, but they will not speak. They will not read. Their culture will be the culture of wolves: eat, sleep, greet the known, fear the unknown. This is why the early years of the children are the most crucial of all if the Blackfeet Nation-- or any other-- is to survive.
When I came into my new underground classroom, clammy from being empty all summer (there was an underground spring under the hill next to my classroom), I found a stained carpet piled with brand-new boxes of remedial English drill texts. The Doc, who had been hired to make sure everything was ready, hadn't been able to get desks yet. "Well," said the Doc grandly, "If your predecessor left you garbage, just send it back." I took him at his word and did. I bought mythology and literature, the college prep kind. I didn't intend to diagram many sentences. I've never had a former student thank me for teaching him or her to diagram a sentence. I've had one or two tell me that when they were at a high-class city party and some over-educated showoff quoted Chaucer, they had some inkling what was going on. "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote..." Some could even chime in with the next line. It was like a password for the initiated. I believe in initiations. And passwords. So long as access has a just basis.
My bet was that there was no chance of teaching these kids in any conventional way and I knew the administration would not allow any deviations from what they thought the norm was-- if they knew. I believed, as the Montana state teachers' union rep once remarked, "These administrators are so fat and lazy that as long as they get their paychecks and you keep your classroom door shut, you can do just about anything you want."
Luckily, the ultimate legal authority on English was the Montana Office of Public Instruction. "Rule 10.55.1101 Communication Arts Program (In accordance with ARM 10.55.603 and ARM 10.55.100 (1) In general, a school's communication arts program shall (a) be literature-based. " The administration didn't understand it, didn't like it, wished it would go away, but that little "rule" gave me the power to do what I believed in. The literature I intended to use was going to have as much as possible to do with Blackfeet, native American people in general, and world literature. The OPI specialists encouraged me-- privately, almost secretly.
"I don't see why literature even matters," grumbled the Doc. "You read a story, I read a story, we both know the plot...so what? Nothing changes. What good is it?" The Doc and the Supe were nearly illiterate when it came to writing something original. I asked them each for a short essay for the school paper. The Supe's was so full of smoke and commas as to be unintelligible. Doc's was something he had in a file, about how he happened to go back to high school after dropping out. I suspect he flunked out and got back in via a Navy G.E.D. and helpful wives. I once challenged one of his professors at Bozeman about how such a person could earn a doctorate. "That guy should keep his big mouth shut," mumbled the professor and ended the conversation.
The Doc had been hired because he purported to be an expert on curriculum for native Americans. He was supposed to have developed an exemplary document for Bering Straits, which everyone assumed would be relevant to Plains Indians. As time went on, it turned out that that curriculum was actually written by teachers under the direction of one of his sons or sons-in-law. It was a typical midwestern, textbook-based, 1950's course of study. When Mr. Z. inquired as to where in the curriculum there was something uniquely cultural about the science program, the Doc muttered about sleds made from whaleribs, but couldn't find the right page.
The state of Montana was trying to achieve quality goals by requiring each school district to develop and use an actual curriculum instead of merely doing "ten pages of textbook" per assignment. They had drawn up a time-line with a goal date for completion and each superintendent was being held responsible for sending in the proper materials. The idea was that if we drew up our own, the state could not be criticized for dictating, but if there were at least a document to consult, questions could be raised for discussion about the actual content and new teachers would have some sort of reference.
Heart Butte had no document at all, not even the previous 7th and 8th grade lesson plans for the year which might have given me a clue what the students had been studying. As it happened, in 1962 I already had written one 7 - 12 English curriculum for the Browning Public Schools. Meant for team teaching, it had been based on stories of the world, including Blackfeet mythology. From that experience, I had a pretty clear idea of what to do.
My problem was that the Doc insisted that we had to turn in our curriculums in the grade sequence: that is, he wanted the seventh grade requirements on one day, then the eighth two weeks later and so on. My own plan was to build the curriculum in "strands," skill-sequences in various aspects of language skills: several for speaking, several for listening and so on. Few of the kids fit into their "normal" grade-- if there is such a thing-- and no child anywhere is ever on the same level as the "norm" in every skill.
I wanted to write each strand from 7 through 12 without paying much attention to which unit should be taught which week in which grade-- just how they should unfold for each child. That would be a roadmap for each student, so that I could say how far along each one was in a particular skill and therefore what they ought to work on next. I thought the only hope for the kids was to teach like a one-room schoolhouse crossed over with individual instruction.
The Doc couldn't grasp the concept. "In the eighth grade, they ought to do eighth grade stuff," he insisted. "What's the big deal?" To him the concept of grades was a given-- not negotiable or even re-conceivable. But the plain truth was that in this school-- and in most I know about-- grade levels are mostly an illusion convenient for the writers of textbooks. It's one of those salesman's concepts.
"In this eighth grade there are people who read at the fourth grade level and others who read at an eleventh grade level," I explained.
"They all should be doing eighth grade stuff," he commanded. "Make them do eighth grade stuff. It says on the plan that you're teaching the eighth grade here and I expect you to do it."
"Language arts are a multiple skill. People operate at different levels of skill. Some kids are not good readers but excellent speakers. They might be good story-tellers but bad spellers."
"That's ridiculous. You have eighth grade books here. Issue them and teach eighth grade stuff." He was simply impervious to reason or common sense.
I was reminded of the story about the child who brought a worm to his teacher for identification and was told he couldn't know because that worm wasn't taught until next year. It's a little story that a lot of teachers know.
Once I lost my temper and said to him, "Look, I'll use your own way of understanding things. I'll assume we have the same goals, but I'm trying to seduce these kids and you're trying to rape them by force."
"That's it," he said, completely insensitive to the metaphor I was using. "Force them to do what they're supposed to."
Sometimes reduced to tears and sometimes in cold fury, I managed to produce my curriculum, which was praised by the state English curriculum people and even used as a shining example in an education class at Columbia University where someone had faxed it. I was awarded a special citation from the National Council of Teachers of English for "Excellence in Teaching English to Students At Risk." Since the administration was trying to get rid of me, they tried to keep the award secret. I called a reporter in Great Falls who wrote an article. No one in Heart Butte noticed.
I would be willing to bet a thousand dollars that no one in Heart Butte has taught from that curriculum and maybe a hundred dollars that no one would be able to to find a copy of it in the building today. To be honest, there was never any budget for the materials needed. And doing curriculums properly takes time. Probably it would have been five years before the bugs were worked out of it and materials were found or designed so it would really unfold as it should.
CURRICULUM AS A BIG STICK
Other teachers, most of them beginners, had a tough time for different reasons. There was no opportunity to discuss goals and priorities as a faculty nor was there leadership in terms of an institutional mission statement or guiding philosophy. We were not allowed to schedule meetings or bring in consultants. "It's just an excuse to ask for money," scoffed the Supe. "Next thing you know, they'll all want more pay for writing this curriculum because they had to spend their precious private time on it. Browning is making a big mistake by allowing released time!"
Soon the curriculum check-list had become a weapon and administrators were muttering ominously that we'd better be careful what we wrote because we'd have to teach it exactly. The Supe worked hard to demonize the Office of Public Instruction so that we wouldn't listen to them or confide in them. He resented them knowing anything about what he was doing. Neither did administrators want us to contact Browning schools or to use any of their materials, though that district had been exploring Blackfeet curriculum development for decades and the Blackfeet Community College presumably had many rich resources.
My original hope had been for time to watch and listen until I could see natural ways of supplying what the students needed and could develop materials specific to them. Curriculum, it seems to me, should grow organically out of dialogue over a period of time-- an interpenetrating reconciliation between the local and the universal. It takes time to educate a community about what the concepts are and how to value them. For that matter, no one was listening to the community in a real way. No one pressed the school board about what they really meant when they generalized about "vocational education" or "equal education." What the community heard was "guaranteed jobs."
In the first year of teaching I didn't expect much success because of not having the right feel, not knowing what would be of deep interest, not being able to find the boundaries of what would be tolerated or understood. I expected to blunder, to experiment, to take risks. But I had not expected the administration to misunderstand and attack me. I remembered better from the Sixties.
"English" is the most problematic subject taught in "ethnic" American schools because it is the most directly based on culture. And yet the subject is not even called "American," which-- of course-- it is. The subject we call "English" is really a kind of evolved jumble that includes grammar, rhetoric, and what is called "the Canon," which is a collection of writing (predominantly white, male, and British) that most people know and expect other educated people to know. The Office of Public Instruction in Montana was aware that "English" per se was a territory ill-defined and unreasonable, and so they called it "Communication Arts."
The great majority of citizens have never thought about "communication arts." Yet they spend their days speaking and listening, writing and reading. Many of them prefer to spend as little time writing and reading as possible. If you ask most people what English is about, they sigh and claim they hated the subject. In their experience it was about never being good enough. Everything was mysterious and self-conscious, from finding the source of inspiration for a bit of writing to knowing which form of "their," "they're" or "there" to use.
Luckily, human beings can hardly keep from learning spoken language. Patterning sounds and understanding the spoken sound patterns of the people around him or her is among a baby's first tasks, achieved so early in life that the baby has no memory of a time before words. By the end of the primary grades, most children have mastered grammar in their spoken words or risk being mocked by their cohort.
In fact, language evolves constantly and often forms pools of vernacular wherever people talk to each other more than to any out-group. Heart Butte kids who ventured outside the Rez soon became aware that they pronounced words differently and had different vocabularies. At that point, they shut up. More than a few students transferred to Heart Butte from Valier (or dropped out of Valier before Heart Butte High School existed) simply because they refused to speak in front of white people who might mock them. Valier required every high school student to make a speech and do a research paper, both beyond the capacity of Heart Butte students-- or so they thought. Requiring such patterned communication was frankly meant to assimilate all students to a certain standard. To the Heart Butte kids, the requirement became repression because it meant they had to risk public shaming.
Written language is another story. Only for the last two hundred years have large numbers of ordinary people been sophisticated at using print, so it has overtones of elitism. The question "Have you read such and such?" is not interpreted as a simple inquiry so much as an opportunity for oneupsmanship. "She reads a lot," is said in a respectful voice, though "she" may in fact be reading trash. On the prairies anti-intellectualism is alive and well. To be well-read comes close to putting on airs. A highly educated adult who isn’t careful to be one of the folks can become a freak. In the past such people were accepted as clergy, school superintendents, or doctors. Now people may be uncomfortable even with those authority figures seeming too intellectual.
In most contemporary American English classrooms at the junior high and senior high school levels, what is taught depends on textbook salesmen more than on any coherent or logical curriculum. Usually the textbooks are already in place when the teacher is hired. Because they are so expensive, replacing them is always delayed as long as possible. The exception is the parallel workbook, which is supposed to be issued to the individual pupil and used up over the course of the year.
Textbooks are usually bought in a series, which means buying a set for each of six different years of school (7-12), and often are "tracked" to different degrees of difficulty (although technically this is an educational heresy), which means buying as many as three or four versions for each "year" (college-prep, occupational, and slow learner, plus maybe something experimental). Grammar and usage textbooks have no relationship to literature textbooks, but they also come in a series with "tracks:" high, low and medium. A good salesman, who found a school with unlimited funds and convinced them to buy everything they needed, might easily sell two books for every student enrolled: six grades of literature times three tracks (college-bound, "vocational," and remedial) and six grades of grammar & usage times three tracks (college-bound, "vocational," and remedial) plus one workbook for each text plus teacher's copies (with the answers), overhead transparencies and now, I suppose, CD's for the computers.
It's a gold mine. Textbooks cost far more than ordinary books. The commissions must be substantial. To make it easy, figure one hundred kids, $40 per book, two books per pupil, so that's eighty times one hundred or $8,000 dollars, plus the other stuff. I don't know what kind of commissions a salesman gets, but ten percent would be $800.
New textbooks are a major budget item. Changing from one "series" to another is a decision that can cost thousands of dollars, even in a small school. Yet there is not very much difference among text series. In truth the content is determined by what will sell in the most populous locations: urban Texas, California, New York. Native American literature content in the texts we had was stereotypical, sentimental, 19th century and often written by a white. (One of my former students, Robey Clark, had the task of reading the "ten texts" for history in order to make a recommendation to the Portland Public Schools. He said each text had a little piece of the real story of the American Indians-- none had the whole story.)
Most often in larger schools new English textbooks are bought after a committee of teachers looks at brochures or, hopefully, samples sent out by the publisher. Discussion may continue for a full year. Perhaps a teacher is exceptionally motivated and subscribes to one of the teaching journals with advertisements in it. Most often teachers have already taught from one set or another and prefer what is familiar. Never have I seen a publication that analyzed "English" textbooks or rated them in an objective manner. Since there is no consensus about what "English" is, or how best to teach the various enterprises called "English," I don't know how anyone could pretend to be objective.
The texts, bright and shiny as apples, become a "holding" of the school and administrators insist that they be accounted for constantly. I numbered mine on the top, handed them out at the beginning of the class, demanded them back before the end of the class with enough time to spare to put them back in numerical order so all were accounted for. People who were absent had to check the book out after school and bring it back the next morning. This was found objectionable -- too strict. So I issued a text to each student. Soon we had too many students for the number of texts, but no money to order more. Even sooner, texts began to disappear. Every inquiry into where the book went was met with great outcries of innocence and accusations of racism.
After some voice-raising on the part of faculty, more texts were ordered, but then the students began to disappear without checking in their texts. Texts turned up in abandoned lockers, under piles of coats at games, in primary classrooms, and in cars. No parents could afford to replace what their child was accused of losing. Every now and then I went through all the lockers-- with the usual backlash against invasion and injustice-- and among the pop cans full of snoose juice (from chewing tobacco) I would find half the books that had been "lost." Their assigned custodians purported major astonishment, as though they had been teleported there by aliens. By the end of the year, our "holdings" were seriously diminished. I suppose we could have gone house to house, searching.
In order to prepare six daily lesson plans and because the administrators refused to allow teachers to return to the building to work in the evening, I either had to take a set of texts down to my apartment for the year or resign myself to hauling ten pounds of books back and forth every evening. I did a little of both. And I dreamt of the time and resources to create a custom "looseleaf" text. Someone is missing a major opportunity to do "niche marketing" to reservations.
The library had a good supply of elementary books, but no high school reading material. One of the Montana city high schools cleaned out their stacks and sent boxes of books, but the crazy librarian piled them along the wall without unpacking them. After six months I simply stayed after school a couple of nights to search through them. The librarian was enraged and I was told to stop-- too late, because I already had taken what I wanted. It was not particularly useful stuff.
People who wanted to help Native Americans constantly sent along mittens, caps and mufflers. I wished they would send good quality books instead. Don't think of them as little children with cold hands. Think of them as young people who hunger for good stories and information-- the same as anyone. They don't like being patronized.
USING MY OWN PAST
Addressing my job in Heart Butte meant either accepting the conventional way of managing "English" classes (drill, assigned reading, ten questions, and the rare one-page writing assignment)-- though everyone agreed that it was an exercise in futility-- or doing some heavy thinking about just what the class really was. My best advantage was having had that year of site-specific language arts curriculum discussion in Browning in the Sixties with the superintendent actually participating. As a former English teacher himself, he truly understood and had passionate opinions.
Phil Ward, Jr. was the superintendent who first hired me. Phil's dad had been a school man, also. Mormon, calm and practical, literate and a pretty good poet himself, Phil was as enlightened as administrators get. He knew how to inspire people and yet the Browning white folks never really understood him. Once in a while Phil would pass my classroom in the hall, hear what I was teaching, and come in to ask if he could try teaching the subject, just for a class period-- just because he loved the subject so much. I always learned from him. Recently I spent a summer evening in Choteau talking to Phil Ward Jr.
By this time Phil is a retired professor of school administration in Oklahoma. In his college courses he taught by using case examples in the famous Harvard Business School method, always approaching from an ethical point of view. He still finds me well-intentioned but a little out of control. To his thinking, I have a lot of potential but lack discipline. Remember he is Mormon and I am Unitarian. We are each faithful in our own way. He is a patient assimilationist and an incorrigible optimist. I'm a realist looking for some way to preserve everyone's differences, including his. We bring who we are.
When I began to teach in Browning in the Sixties, Phil had to bail me out of trouble several times. One of the earliest came about because of a speech and drama class I taught in the junior high school. Several kids were far too shy to talk, which presented a problem. I organized a style show, going downtown store-to-store to borrow outfits. Then I had to convince even the bolder girls that it would be all right to put on strange clothes and NOT on top of their own clothes. Two girls were too shy even to walk across the gym floor. Since it was near Halloween, I put sheets over them and they ran across the floor as ghosts. One of those girls, Dorothy Still Smoking, is now finishing her Ph.D. while directing the local Headstart Program. She has just been elected to the national board of Headstart. By writing grants, she has brought millions of dollars to her people and she is a founder of the Piegan Institute as well as the Immersion School. The other "ghost," Beverly Bullshoe, is a dedicated parish worker in Heart Butte, a kind of lay sister.
Neither woman, as an adult, would make the next mistake I made. Inflated over the success of my style show, I decided we would write a play. Since we were all girls, the setting had to be a place with only women. The girls decided on a reform school and we soon had an exciting plot about rival gangs and an escape during which dogs were used to track the escapees. One of the parents, a matron at the Cut Bank Boarding Dormitory ( a residence for kids who live too far out on the reservation to make it to school otherwise), saw the script and decided the play was a poorly concealed attack on the boarding dorm. She demanded that I first be instructed about what was proper and then fired. Phil managed to save my job, but it wasn't easy.
The girl who was to have played the leader of one of the gangs, Delores Butterfly, is now a teacher in the Browning Schools. She married a Bird, so -- as she puts it-- "I still have wings." When I read about the old Holy Women of the Blackfeet, wives and mothers who have lived irreproachable lives, and thereby earned their sacredness, I think of Delores with her quiet inner light. Once a few years ago I embarrassed her in a class we were both taking by trying to explain to the group how her spirit had stayed with me over the years. It was pretty corny, and I shed tears. No one knew quite how to react.
The next year after my play that closed "out-of-town," my seniors were in an uproar about confrontations with the local police, at that time separated into City Police and Tribal Police. Seeing a chance to teach discussion skills, I let them talk about their troubles. In the Fifties, Northwestern University was one of the sources of theories of constructive negotiation. Dean Barnlund taught us that people ought to practise on topics they really cared about. Next thing I knew, there was a knock on the door and the Chief of Police was there with his ticket book to write me up for libel. He cared, all right.
We went down to Phil's office. Phil, ignoring any issues of jurisdiction, leaned back in his chair and said gravely, "Well, you know that the defense for libel is simply proof that what was said was true." There was a long pause before the Chief of Police left. Then Phil tried once again to explain to me that teaching is both ethical and political. It is not unethical to keep from stirring up trouble. I differ with that concept when trouble is the only route to change. Was there really no way to even talk about cops who beat up kids? Couldn't we have actually done something? Were we afraid of confronting it? The whole thing haunts me.
In 1964-65 a committee in School District #9 consisting of myself, Phil Ward (the superintendent), Tom McKeown (the junior high principal), Darrel Armentrout (the counselor), Grover McLaughlin (the high school principal) and the other high school English teacher spent a year developing an English curriculum. In those days administrators were interested in education.
Phil Ward already had his specific aims for the high school program:
1. To provide a meaningful program for each student.
2. To provide a plentiful intellectual growth opportunity through curriculum based on skill improvement, exploration, and challenge.
3. To provide for physical development.
4. To develop social awareness and a social conscience.
5. To assist the student in making a realistic evaluation of his capabilities that he may make well-considered decisions relative to occupational choice.
6. To provide the student an understanding of, and an appreciation of, the culture and tradition that is America, toward the end that his citizenship participation may result in an ever-improving nation.
7. To develop good readers, good listeners and good speakers.
8. To develop a recognition of propaganda, its purpose and intent.
9. To develop cultural interest wherever, whenever and however possible.
10. To provide opportunity for the development of character and integrity.
This is the goal-directed curriculum minimum my notes of the committee meetings show:
The following goals are for a graduating senior:
1. Tell a traditional story in a direct way without notes so as to hold the interest of a third grade group.
2. Give an organized, substantiated, serious five minutes speech from notes.
3. Carry on a conversation on a level he [sic] will probably use in future life.
4. Discuss a subject in a group following the recommended steps and reaching a clear-cut conclusion. The recommended steps are:
A. Determine the question.
B. Define terminology.
C. Assemble the evidence.
D. Make a hypothesis.
E. Judge the hypothesis.
5. Use parliamentary procedure to chair a meeting.
6. Pass an oral examination on any special field in which he [sic] has done special research and which is approved by a faculty sponsor.
1. Write a 500 word organized essay that:
A. Has a main theme supported by specific evidence, instances, anecdotes.
B. Has unified paragraphs.
C. Has complete sentences on a level of complexity equal to what will be expected in life.
D. Uses imagery and concrete sensations.
E. Is clear and direct in style.
F. Uses good handwriting.
G. Has no more than:
one spelling error
one capitalization or puncuation error
one usage error
2. Paraphrase material on a level of difficulty he [sic] is likely to encounter in life.
3. Write a one-sentence precîs of an essay, movie , novel or poem that is a clear statement of the central theme.
4. Write a one-paragraph example of:
5. Write a clear, presentable business letter.
6. Proof and edit a prepared paragraph in order to correct mistakes and improve clarity.
1. Pick out the sequence of events or ideas in a work of fiction or nonfiction.
2. Pick out the main theme or idea of a work and justify it with evidence from that work.
3. Identify propaganda and ulterior motives.
4. Find and use whatever library materials he may need in life.
5. Read at a rate of speed and depth of understanding equal to his potential and/or what is likely to be expected of him in life.
1. Remember and repeat simple instructions.
2. Pick out the sequence of events or ideas in spoken fiction or nonfiction.
3. Pick out the main idea from a speech.
4. Take notes in outline form form an organized twenty-minute lecture.
5. Recognize propaganda and ulterior motives.
We also provided a list of habits we wanted to build in school:
Being on time.
Maintaining a certain degree of cleanliness.
Reasonable manners (Waiting one's turn, not calling out rude statements, no hitting, etc.)
Taking care of one's equipment.
Respecting organized authority.
Attending school every day.
Doing one's own work.
Respecting property rights.
We felt no self-consciousness about "changing the culture," though "Indian time" is notoriously a part of reservation life. Likewise, we didn't think about how hard it might be to maintain cleanliness in a one-room cabin full of people. The rest of our standards were against the grain, but no one thought of them as lessening the "Indianness" of the students. We thought of them as part of growing up. We intended to assimilate to “Americanness”, assuming that was the same as improvement.
This sort of results-oriented approach is very popular as I write, but is coming under heavy fire from parents who believe that somehow these kinds of statements contradict the basic three R's kind of education they had. It ain't drill and therefore it ain't English. But I would still happily defend this list of goals in the name of practicality and function. I expect no one in School District #9 would recognize them now, although the people who later became teachers and administrators did actually meet these standards as high school students. Unfortunately, it was the most full-blood students who gave up and faded away, precisely because of these demands.
The administrators were upset by the prospect of having to tell non-achievers, still faithfully attending after twelve, thirteen, and maybe fourteen years of getting "social" passes in order to stay with their classmates, that they would not get diplomas. So we teachers made a loophole: "equal to the student's potential and likely to be expected of him or her in real life." Nowadays, students who have not passed are given diploma boxes with nothing in them. The rationalization is that they will come back to pick up their incompletes. They wear the cap and gown, walk in the procession, and get the heap of presents their families provide, but they may never receive that piece of paper with a seal on it. A few will never figure out the difference-- mostly because a high school diploma will not be expected of them in real life.
Unless a school is clear about its unique philosophy, I don't know how anyone could achieve integrity in teaching. At Heart Butte there wasn't even any school-wide mission statement, much less a focus for the English program.
These were the goals I settled on in my own mind:
These were the goals I settled on in my own mind:
1.Familiarity with literature:
that people expected high school students to know,
that explored the Native American heritage, and
that was locally based, that is, Montana writing.
2. Confidence in writing and enough pride in performance to care how good it was, right down to whether the paper was clean.
3. Vocabulary, based on roots, prefixes, suffixes, and metaphors in as many languages as English includes. And, as an adjunct, Blackfeet roots, prefixes, suffixes. and metaphors.
4. An understanding that usage and spelling are a matter of habits and attention and that conventional usage is an advantage in the world. They are a form of good manners.
5. For those who could master grammar, a good enough grip on the parts of a sentence to make them able to wrestle with sentences as structures.
6. The beginnings of media literacy, especially narrative video.
7. Thinking skills
This does not even scratch the surface of what "English" can and probably should include. But it was a major mandate for someone returning to teaching after a lapse of twenty-odd years and it was a major challenge for an assortment of young people at every possible skill level in many different psychological states. Explaining it to the administration would have meant being shut down, since they would not understand it and therefore would not agree with it. I think it is wrong and dangerous not to confide in one's administration, but I believed the situation was extreme enough to justify my decision.
CREATING A CANON
In 1989 in Heart Butte the strongest goal I had in mind was compliance with the State of Montana mandate that English be "literature-based." I whole-heartedly agreed. If a youngster reads well and knows that there is exciting stuff out there in the world, his or her future is almost guaranteed, because he or she will self-educate for the rest of a lifetime. I thought that the literature we spent time on should include the conventional canon, because certain writing (often the most difficult) is considered a marker of education at higher levels. Not knowing Chaucer is a bit of a handicap. Not knowing Shakespeare is a much more serious deficit.
But not knowing one's own literature has got to be the most serious loss of all. "Montana literature" seemed a new concept on the reservation Mac Swan, a teacher in Kalispell, was considered a pioneer when he took a year's sabbatical in 1987-88 to compose a workbook for digesting major Montana books. ( ) Many English teachers these days are new to Montana and so have little notion of who the many local writers are. Luckily, the anthology called The Last Best Place has changed all that. For all its possible faults, it is an undeniable Canon that is local. The book, massive as it is, ought to be a textbook in Montana high school classrooms. It is a best-seller, not just in Montana but among all people interested in the American West. The public radio stations took up the cause by organizing on-the-air discussions of Montana books and call-in interviews with local authors. These programs are available on tape. In addition to schools, library-based adult reading groups benefited from the lively series. People called in their opinions, often memories of the events in the book and sometimes with personal tales about authors.
Just as the Eighties tipped into the Nineties, there was a flood of fine Native American writing. The earlier writers like James Welch, Jr., Leslie Marmon Silko, and so on were joined almost weekly by names I'd never heard of before, and now almost every issue of The New York Times Book Review includes a book by and about Native Americans. There are even sub-genres about gay Native Americans or in a gothic, surrealistic style, not counting the grocery-store-rack pulps of pop history or pre-history.
It seemed clear to me that we should be reading the classic canon--with a lot of coaching and interpretation-- alongside contemporary Native American and local writing . Based on this, we would write. Reading and writing would go together. We would read each other's writing, workshop-style, sometimes with the protection of anonymity.
In the Sixties I had assigned an essay about one's own room. The following brief essay -- or maybe poem, as I have organized it below-- stunned me:
One does not associate a room to one's inner self,
but I shall try to relate it to the aspirations of the mind.
A room, suspended in time,
entwining through the past and present.
A hovel, a castle, a bearer of truths,
a deceiver of falsehoods of thoughts of deep despair,
and of highest hopes to tumble mountains ,
raise the heavens.
Comforting and passive in manner,
progressive and blunt reality.
A sanctuary of harmonized solitude,
a mirror of life,
of planes coinciding with one another,
of unbound dreams,
a distorted cube constricting one's being,
harrassment of undepictable horror,
a bomb of explosion,
blazing and blowing thousands upon thousands,
thus accumulating in globes of section
in which appears one's many lives.
This student was far beyond anything I had encountered. How does a teacher approach someone who writes like this? Where on earth had it come from? Was it copied? What was he reading? I can't go to him now--as I have with some students-- to ask him about what he wrote, because he is dead. If he were living now, what would he be writing? Does he have descendents who write? Did we somehow lose a Blackfeet James Joyce or Thomas Wolfe? Are there others who can write like this?
I wanted the students to write about what they knew, to be able to give realistic and meaningful evidence of their own lives, but there is always something beyond that. This deeper level of writing is what I was looking for in Heart Butte students. A poetic sense of beauty, mystery, and uniqueness seemed to me at the heart of what Plains Indian culture was about-- majestic thunderheads, seething grass, dreamguides, shape-shifters. Mysticism without drugs, vision beyond any one culture, even New Age. If there are no jobs anyway, why not educate people to be poets and philosophers? Particularly if that is their natural aptitude? And if the larger culture is hungry for it?
Teaching writing is an industry in the United States, with dozens of summer workshops offering personal coaching. Sometimes one must qualify by submitting a manuscript, but mostly people simply gather someplace pleasant by paying a fee up to a thousand dollars for a week. Writers who can claim to be professional (published) are the teachers, which mostly means they read the manuscripts a little in advance so they can lead group discussion on each effort. Criticism is usually subjective. There is a certain amount of overlap in style with the kind of groups who meet for psychological growth, which--in my opinion-- is legitimate since writing has a great deal to do with what kind of person the author is.
In winter the same writing teachers will often serve as "poets-in-the-schools" for several weeks or months. Heart Butte school in its K-8 version has had at least two poets-in-residence, Ripley Schemm and Mick Fedullo. Poets are among the people who are willing, even eager, to stay in Heart Butte for a while because they are curious about the people and open to the beauty of the location. Anyway, Ripley Schemm grew up just miles south of Heart Butte, near Choteau. These people from "outside" were gentle, encouraging, and non-judgmental. The results were little pamphlet books of poems in naive free-verse style, pleasant but not surprising. The kids learned that the enterprise was both easy and praiseworthy, which is a good start.
But at the high school level that sort of writing can descend into being "precious" and sentimental. Real thinking, logical organization, vivid imagery and psychological insight are not beyond high school writers. Most people won't put out the effort or take the risk of revealing themselves unless they have strong feelings about what they are expressing. Therefore, I was tolerant-- maybe over-tolerant-- about subject matter. At the same time, I assigned topics, usually one a week. The load of correcting essays -- even short ones -- was a heavy one. Sometimes in place of grading I simply typed them all together, correcting all the grammar and spelling errors but not editing, and let the classes discuss them. It was a form of "publishing." Even the non-readers would read them, even when they were not assigned. Elementary kids, parents, the janitors, other teachers would all read them. Students kept them and read them again months later.
Sometimes I made up worksheets from the most common errors. For a while I kept individual files on students so that if a person were constantly making one mistake, I could supply some special worksheets and instruction on that topic. Generally they clustered around one or another mistake, so a universal classroom lesson was a good idea.
One of the older women who acted as aides was reminiscing about former teachers. "She was the best English teacher we ever had. She never made any mistakes and she corrected everyone all the time. She was really strict." The aide looked at me meaningfully, saying with her eyes, "Get a clue!" To her, English was the same thing as legitimacy which was the same thing as propriety. That woman and I are the same age. Her point of view is the one adopted by media portraits of English teachers-- a stereotype about as accurate and nuanced as media portraits of Irish priests-- or American Indians.
Much of what is taught as English to "slow" students is really just an attempt to change habit patterns. Whether one uses "to," "two," or "too" in writing that particular homonymn is just a matter of conventionalized habit. We try to agree among English speakers in order to preserve understanding, but we usually really know what is meant, the same as we can stumble through 18th century creative spelling like Ben Franklin's--if not archaic language like Chaucer's. I could find and/or invent page after page of drill on "they're/their/there." After weeks of correcting papers I myself was losing the line between "its/it's." I still spell some words differently because of living in Canada for a few years. Most people are not troubled by small variations, but I used to type out dictation for an Australian law professor who was very concerned to make sure I used American spellings, because being culture-appropriate had been made an issue for him. It's not just a problem for little kids. Computer spell-checkers must be adjusted for at least four kinds of "English:" American, British, Canadian and Australian.
THE POLITICS OF ENGLISH
Language has many political and moral attachments, both in the larger aspect of a complete language system and in the smaller aspect of vernacular uses within one language. Some sub-pronunciations, local grammars, and unique vocabularies are labelled "low-class," to be extinguished. When students say "ain't," the effect is almost like swearing. "You shouldn't say ain't," scold the virtuous who KNOW. From then on the word has an aura, like forbidden sexual words or cursing. Playing with the words is playing with emotions-- getting the grownups mad, showing independence, making a statement about class and status. Kids know a lot about rhetoric-- they just don't have a name for it.
Phil Ward used to look forward to television reaching the community, because he felt that it would be a way for the kids to hear and develop standard pronunciation. Bless his heart, he couldn't have predicted Rock n' Roll culture, shock-jocks and the ghetto-based lingo that dominates much of the media. Not too many Rez kids watchin' Hallmark Hall of Fame! (They all watched Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" with the result that I was never able to use the word "poke" in class again.) But just the same, I do think the kids now have better spoken and heard vocabularies. They just don't read as much as they used to. They carry videos instead of books. Movies are texts as surely as novels.
I grew up with a reading vocabulary that overreached my verbal vocabulary and ran into embarrassment when I had my own peculiar pronunciations. (I used to speak knowingly of "man-yer" as a fertilizing agent.) Today's kids are likely to have many words they speak but never see in print and therefore can't spell except phonetically. We are in a time when vocabulary is being created daily, both because of new technologies and scientific terms (i.e. "floppies," "plate tectonics"), and because of world culture-meshing or even the popularization of under-class vernaculars by the media. ("Don' be dissin' me, girl!")
Because of renewed waves of immigration from South America and Asia, speaking English has become a political hot-button again. "Speak English or get out," say the conservative patriots. Not speaking English is equivalent to being un-American -- resisting assimilation. It never occurs to most people that English is an imported language-- even a latecomer, since the earliest visitors from Europe were Spanish and Italian. (Columbus brought a rabbi along in case the natives spoke Hebrew, which he thought of as a sort of ur-language.) Blackfeet is a literally native language. But Blackfeet is also portrayed by some as a "foreign" language. A few still hang on to the idea that it is a pagan and therefore satanic language.
It seems to me impossible to teach English on the Blackfeet reservation without coming to terms with the teaching of Blackfeet language, because at one time English was the forcible replacement for Blackfeet and still has that political stigma. Speaking English was the criterion for assimilation. People still living were once whipped for not speaking English instead of Blackfeet. They can hardly be blamed for resenting English or even for trying to escape the whole issue of language. They are self-conscious about the near-dialect that many habitually use and afraid of being criticized for it.
The Doc constantly urged me to drive the kids "the way the Japanese push their kids." (They have the highest child-suicide rate of any country.) But he was dubious about any kind of stuff that might be unAmerican. Every morning the administration made sure the student body president read the Pledge of Allegiance over the intercom, even though he got the giggles so bad he could hardly finish. It was the forms that were insisted upon, even when the spirit was exactly opposite to what it ought to have been.
Every morning my more sophisticated students refused to stand up or put their hands over their hearts. I didn't insist. I did stand with my own hand over my own heart. When I gently inquired with one dignified and rather well assimilated girl, she said flatly, "They killed us and took our land. I won't pledge to them." I never would have suspected she felt that way. It was a little harder for me to stand and pledge, since I am “them.”
THE NEED TO BE UNDERSTOOD
Being truly understood in spite of blunders and limits is the great magnet that calls out talent. Every time I've ever asked one of my former students, or even one of the high-achieving older Blackfeet, just what it was that made them outstanding, they've said, "My teacher believed in me." Or maybe it was their grandpa or their mother, but someone believed they were an achiever. They could do it. Feminists sometimes speak of being "listened into understanding."
Suzanne Langer proposes that language arises from feeling rather than logic. It is the need to share that drives speech and writing into being. Her philosophy has great integrity and persuasiveness, but I also believe it intuitively. What kept the students from growing in the language arts was their own inner reluctance to feel, because it was so painful and risky. There was no safe environment in which to share. And yet their only chance of finding out how to survive was to plunge into words and feelings. The forces of secrecy that come from alcoholism, traumatic pasts, festering hatreds, and political competition were all in the way of good writing, which depends upon honest disclosure. This, I felt, was the real reason the community was hypocritical when it said it wanted the children to be "good in English." If they began to write truly out of their own experience, people could no longer pretend to be what they were not.
How do people think before they know any words? This question fascinates me. I find that when I think there is often talk in my brain, but sometimes it's more like drawing diagrams, or a camera panning, or like a dream in which I'm dancing. Sense memories are underneath the words; they are the raw material the words only symbolize. The smell of parents, the sounds of doors and cupboard catches, the taste of rubber or wood, long shadows, warm water, wind in the trees, dogs barking far away, car upholstery-- all the clues that float through dreams.
Solid connections with the actual world, strong sensations deeply and accurately felt, are sources of both sanity and good language. My acting training centered on sense memories, the language in which emotions are coded in our brains and transmitted through our poetry and stories. Alvina Krause, famous professor of acting at Northwestern University, taught us how to find the body and surroundings of a character. "Think what it is to be alive for this person! What is around you? How do your clothes feel on your body? What kind of chair are you sitting in? What music do you hear? What do you smell? What was the last thing you ate?" She insisted that we hold an imaginary rose in our hand and make it so real to ourselves that she could tell what color it was from looking at our faces! ( A little show biz hype!)
The textbooks I taught from in the early Sixties listed Wallace Stegner as one of the editors. (He was a small boy on the Montana/Canada border and in adulthood developed one of the nation's finest college writing programs at Stanford.) The sections on writing were very much anchored in the five senses plus kinesthesia and movement. Exercises were based on vivid description, ordered in space (back to front, left to right, top to bottom) in time (earlier, now, later), and in psychology ("the first thing I noticed was..."). They did not begin with actual writing, but with preparation for writing, the summoning up of material. It was a way of learning how to write out of abundance. To lack this step is to lack confidence that one can write or that writing is "about" anything.
Over and over I chose a topic and -- forbidding the kids to seize their pencils and embark on clichés -- made the students sit still, remembering some specific time and place until it seemed almost real. Then I made them write a list of ten sensations, each one in a complete sentence, two for each sense. At that point they were to compose a topic sentence, then choose the best three sensations, and pull together a paragraph from all the raw material they had summoned up. Recently I described this method to someone at a writing seminar who accused me of “hypnotizing” the kids. If focus is the goal, I guess it is a little like hypnotism.
In those days, the good kids tried to write "pretty" and "nice," in a sort of greeting card way. I penalized vagueness and icky sentiments by taking points off, but they clung to their blue skies and fresh air. Finally I had to resort to giving every paper with the words "pretty" or "nice" in it an automatic F. Even then, once in a while I would have to dramatically tear up a paper while gnashing my teeth to get the point across. I also kept a six-foot poster of vivid synonyms. I tried to pass on what my high school writing teachers had required: "All right, Mary. You say this is lavendar. Point to something in this room that is lavendar. You say a robin was singing. Imitate that robin for me to prove you know it." Precision. Accuracy. Location.
One of my all-time best paragraphs was from Kelly Grissom, son of the BIA superintendent. The assignment was memories of summer. Of course he meant to be shocking. He wrote about watermelon juice trickling down his shirtless belly, chicken manure squishing between his bare toes, and sand in the bottom of the bathtub. I loved it. A little kid in shorts on an Oklahoma farm.
In Heart Butte I went to a more abstract and newer process called "webbing" or "mapping." The idea is to draw a small circle on a big piece of paper, write the topic in the middle of the circle, and then let ideas occur to you by free association-- "brain-storming." As the ideas come, instead of trying to maintain a hierarchy, scribble them into balloons and attach them to the main idea with lines. If sub-ideas come along, put them in balloons and draw lines to the closest related ideas. When it is all done-- and sometimes I did this on the board with the whole class collaborating-- there is a lot of material ready to be used. Often the whole thing falls into order by itself. Usually one needs to do editing or even some research.
What this revealed was that some kids had few ordering skills. They couldn't think in categories or see relationships. Everything had about the same importance. Most stuff was so mysterious and amorphous to them that it simply was indescribable. As far as some of the kids were concerned, we were talking about an invisible world-- one their senses couldn't reach. Often there was no world they really cared to think about. I didn't know how to deal with this. It was existential despair. The remedy is religious, not educational.
In fact, at Heart Butte when I used sensory exercises, just lists of smells and sounds, they didn't work very well. For some kids the world was a blur they tried not to experience. Brain damage might have been involved-- real difficulties in sorting out sensory information about color, shape, size, and movement-- but it seemed more like attitude: they didn't want to feel anything. They didn't want to know anything. The world was a painful place and the idea was to either be so disengaged that it would all be a gray blur or to be so over-stimulated by speed, danger, drugs or sex that it would pass in a glittering flash. They had no interest in controlling themselves, because they felt so paralyzed by things they couldn't control. What they liked best was to be caught up in something intense but external, like a movie, so that the time passed with them hardly knowing it and without any risk on their part. Before these kids could be convinced to read or write-- indeed, even to talk to a teacher-- they had to be brought alive. They were zombies, on-lookers at their own lives.
Trying to teach such kids how to diagram a sentence or even to punctuate was pretty much an exercise in futility-- almost like taunting them. The underlying grammar in a sentence cannot be seen by people who can't grasp abstract relationships like predicate words or subordinate clauses. When I asked the class what a noun was, they all parroted, "a person, place or thing."
"It is NOT!" I exploded.
They were astounded. "But every teacher we've had has said so!"
"A noun is a NAME of a person, place or thing!" I bellowed in an explanatory manner.
"Same thing," they shrugged.
"It's NOT! A person, place or thing is real, a sensory object you can hold onto-- and maybe something you are pretending is a sensory object. A name is just a sound-sequence that stands for the person, place or thing. Or maybe it's a set of particular little squiggles on paper that stand for the sound-sequence that stands for the person, place or thing."
It took me a long time to convince them that NOUN=NAME. It was the concept "name" they couldn't get. They had a Pavlovian understanding, not an insightful one. And they didn't think it mattered, but it matters a lot when you do grammar and must reflect on what a word is standing for.
They couldn't get MODIFY either. "That's math," they said. Well, math is just another language. But if you can't understand "modify," then you can't identify adverbs and adjectives, or phrases and clauses used like them, so you can't diagram and you don't get the idea behind where the words can go when the sentence is reassembled. (Adjectives have to go right ahead of the nouns they modify-- adverbs can move around.) All of this is as logical as chess, if only one has the first insight into the underlying assumptions.
All teachers recycle their own student days. I have always used the teaching methods of Agnes Carter, my red-headed, bow-legged 8th grade English teacher. She was Irish, a pillar of St. Andrews Catholic Church whose tolling bell I could hear from my backyard, and she took no nonsense off anyone. Her solution to teaching grammar was simply to make us learn sets of the small recurring words by heart in batches. We learned all the linking verbs, then all the prepositions. (To this day, in our fifties, my brothers and I can recite them aloud.) It was a wonderful help and if I succeeded in teaching the kids to spot prepositions, then they could usually find the whole prepositional phrase. Once the prepositional phrases are excluded from a sentence, the bare bones left would more easily yield subject and verb, especially if you know "have-has-had-do-does-did-shall-will-must-might-should-would-could-be-am-is-are-was-were-been" are always verbs.
For the Heart Butte kids I tried to teach it with rhythm, like rap. "Have, has, had! Do, does, did!" I even made them stamp their feet and clap their hands. Stamp, stamp, CLAP! Stamp, stamp, DID! It worked just fine. Except that it was getting towards spring and there were never again more than a third of the kids in any class, no class with the same combination of people from one day to the next. My bookkeeping about who-had-mastered-what broke down and was never completed.
Teachers & Writers Collaborative proved to be a rich source of materials. One of the best was a two-part set of books called Origins. It was about word roots in English (e.g. BHEL, to swell) which became whole families of vocabulary (billow, belly, balloon, bowl, bold, bulky, ball, boulder, bulge). The books include exercises and stories, which I used, but I was especially careful to use the "Total Physical Response" method that the Blackfeet teachers found effective. That is, we said, "BILLOW, BELLY, BALLOON...." while pretending to swell up and roll around. It was a great release for the class clowns. Besides having another way to get at word meaning beyond the Latin and Greek clues, I hoped they would see that languages are almost physical-- that they come out of life itself. I wanted them to see Lear some day and recognize "Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks!" I wanted them to look at a bloated horse or a hay bale and think: "swell up: BHEL!"
For the very first spelling lesson, because our books hadn't come yet, I used some simple naturalist lists that Glacier National Park had made for tourist kids. No Heart Butte kid could spell "ptarmigan" or even knew what one looked like. Same for "marmot". After some discussion a few kids realized they had seen ptarmigan, or at least grouse, walking around right in the school yard. They had been calling the marmots "ground hogs" -- just didn't know proper names. I was determined that the kids should know what they saw around them, be able to name them and to spell the names.
For the remainder of the year I tried to draw the spelling words from their lives, so the list was likely to include things like the parts of saddles and horses-- "pommel" and "haunch." The project was complicated because of local pronunciations. Among these kids the cowboy leapt into his "sattle." "B," "d," and "t" slipped back and forth in unexpected ways. If one spelled as they pronounced, it became clear that here in Heart Butte words had drifted in common usage. I said to a dog, "sic 'im," but they said, "sig 'im." I said "pot-bellied" and they said "pop-bellied." Sometimes I liked their version better. How can anyone teach phonetic spelling to kids who don't use the same consonants as the rest of the country?
Some kids were dyslexic When reading and writing they reversed individual letters left to right (b for d) or even top to bottom (p for b). But I didn't know what to do about it and could find no helpful references. Not until the end of the two years I taught did I uncover a priceless book , Language Arts: Detecting and Correcting Special Needs. Every time I got close to a college, I raided their bookstore, but invaluble as the resources were, it was hard to digest them alone. I longed to talk to someone about them, but there were few opportunities to meet with other local "English" teachers. Those I did talk to were just as stumped as I was. High school teachers are not taught how to deal with such problems because it is taken for granted that they will be addressed at the elementary level.
In Blackfeet nouns are not singular or plural, signaled by suffixes, which is why no one can ever explain definitively whether to say "Blackfeet" or "Blackfoot." Their pronouns don't carry gender clues either, so old-time Blackfeet speakers would confuse male and female references in English. Stories with gender references mistaken in a funny way are still told by white people, many of them with uncertain English skills of their own-- which is why they like to tell the stories. It's always nice to feel you're smarter than someone else.
In Blackfeet a vowel is drawn out to make a different, new vowel, and the sounds are shaded slightly. People speak of Blackfeet speakers as drawling. Blackfeet also includes consonants that were long ago dropped out of English in its passage from Anglo-Saxon: back-of-the-mouth fricatives and plosives, glottal stops like Scots talking. I called it guttural once and made a former student very angry, because he thought it had something to do with the gutter. One almost needs an x-ray in motion to see what is happening in order to learn to do it. And until one learns to make the sound, it is hard to hear. Of course, the English alphabet has no symbols for some of those sounds. There are specialized alphabets with proper symbols, but I don't know them.
Now and then I heard a French locution-- a word order not used in English or an unusual inflection-- not surprising considering that French Canadians and Metiz had been in the area for a hundred years. One of the little localisms often mocked even while it was consistently used was “init.” I wondered if it weren’t a conflation of the French-style phrase, “Is it not?” That would be logical, init?
I ached to know more, to find better resources for describing and guiding. I used what conventional spellers I could find, but continued to take spelling words from their own papers. Using Sylvia Ashton-Warner's ideas in her book about teaching the Maori, I gave them pieces of paper with "their" words on them. I kept a file of the words each kid consistently mis-spelled and based quizzes on the ones no one got right. They were always willing to write words twenty times or even fifty times, and sometimes that helped.
Occasionally I thought the real problem was the kids not hearing words accurately, and requested hearing tests. Many had recurring ear infections or had received blows to the side of the head, as well as wearing too-loud headphones for their beloved rock music. Icy winds in winter and blowing dust in summer didn't help. No one was surprised to find many hearing deficits. Speech therapists came from the Browning school system to work with the kids. They were the gentlest and most inspired of teachers, doing as much counselling as pronouncing. They sat in quiet relationship, listening, demonstrating, playing little win-win games they had invented. They were kind of a model for my ideal: quiet collaborative learning. I never met their standard.
Still hanging on to the idea that these kids were "double-breeds," I ordered a set of books on Greek mythology to complement the material in their literature books. They would sometimes choose the mythology books for free reading. To teach them the gods, I made a little set of cards with each god sketched and named. Then I developed a technique of fortune telling using the cards. "Oh, yes. I see! Here is Venus, which means you will soon fall in love, and this is Mars, which means you will have a fight with someone." Since I knew about these kids private lives, I could easily do a little counselling in the course of predicting. "Oh, my. Jupiter and he's upside down-- that means you're quarrelling with your father. But here's Athena, the goddess of wisdom, so what would be the wise way to handle this?" A few girls came every morning to get a reading, until their parents began to mutter about the work of the devil in cards. (Athena had also gotten into trouble over doing Tarot readings. I sometimes thought she ought to have been named Juno.)
The idea of the cards came from being suddenly pressed into service to babysit the Blackfeet language class when their teacher, Molly Bullshoe, was ill. Desperate for something that would hold the attention of the junior high boys, I grabbed my set of Medicine Cards-- animals with Jungian/New Age/Native American interpretations. Each kid drew a card from the pack to establish his true nature-- "Ah, you are a badger! That means you are fun-loving and work hard!" I improvised, having once had a pet badger. We went on from there. The Jungian philosophy that accompanies the cards is so mysterious and magical sounding that they loved it. "What does that mean?" they demanded and really tried to figure it out. I used the approach I learned from Thomas Moore, when he did a class on dream interpretation in Bozeman, long before his books on spirituality became best-sellers: "What does it mean to you ? Use your imagination. Everything means something. Turn it around. Take a chance. Look at the small details. Let the objects speak."
Montana Writers and the Choteau School District organized a literary conference in Choteau in honor of A.B. Guthrie, Jr. who was still alive but very frail. It was the kind of event that initiated literati would fly thousands of miles to attend. Significant Western writers by the handful would be speakers. One day was set aside specifically for high school students. I asked the administration for transportation and the day off to take four of my best writers.
I was especially anxious to get them there because James Welch, Jr. would be one of the speakers and I wanted to plant firmly in the kids' heads that they could follow his path. Also Ripley Schemm would be there. A fine poet herself, the widow of Richard Hugo had spent a year as "poet in residence" in Heart Butte where she was much beloved and got good work from the younger kids. I had read out loud The Blind Corral so we also looked forward to Ralph Beer in his big black mustache.
The kids were scared before we even started out in the Jimmy with the truant officer driving. The bold author of an impassioned story about Vlad the Impaler, the Ur-Vampire, was late waking up as usual, and we had to go pound on his door. All the way down Highway 89 the student writers had panic attacks about what the Choteau kids might do to them.
When we arrived, I buzzed around saying hello and asking questions. I found Welch and towed him over to my foursome so I could brag about each of them. He was gracious and truly interested, as he always is, but the kids were mortified. As soon as he left they scolded me, sotto voce. "You're calling attention to us! Everyone is staring!" They tried to stand with their backs together like buffalo facing wolves.
At lunch time, after incredulously inspecting the Tater Tot casserole on their plastic trays, they rose in a body, scornfully dumped the offending food into the garbage, and stalked off to find a fast food vendor. The truant officer went with them. I suspect they also picked up some cigarettes. Partly because I was provoked with them, I ended up picking an argument with a Choteau teacher who claimed she understood all about Blackfeet kids.
The day was divided into sessions, of which we were to choose one from several alternatives. The kids, moving as an eight-legged animal, mostly stuck close to me. The last reading in the afternoon was by Mike Riley, a colorful young man who had once taught in Augusta but -- for reasons not unlike those that put me out of Heart Butte -- was now on the faculty in Cody, Wyoming, where he was rewriting a novel about Indian basketball players. A reformed druggie with a fast-and-fancy take on language, a wild sense of plot, and an obvious love for kids, he read a scene wherein one dark night a wooden Indian from a cigar store is stolen and incinerated at a small town intersection. All four Blackfeet fell madly in love with him. They still ask me when his book will be published. That fall I called him in Cody and offered to swap teaching jobs for a week, but since he had a wife and kids, it was too complicated
The next summer Nature Conservancy near Choteau sponsored a poetry workshop taught by Ripley Schemm and Mike Riley. Schemm had grown up there. This time Mike Riley gave me a stiff lecture about not living up to my potential. The teacher I had quarrelled with in Choteau was at the poetry workshop and we made peace. After I was thrown out of Heart Butte and living for a summer in a tiny yellow house behind a photography shop in Browning, Riley brought me a gleaming fat trout he had caught, which I grilled to my cat's enormous appreciation. (She got the skin and head.)
So many writers were working in the area, from Rick Bass in Yaak to Linda Sexson in Bozeman, that I thought we had a unique opportunity and a real obligation to involve Native Peoples in their lives and the writers in our Heart Butte lives. If Victor Frankel believed in a "talking cure" as a means of trauma survival, then I believed in a writing cure. If there ever was a dream for Heart Butte, I saw it as the creation of a voice.
First, there would be student writing that was honest and powerful. Then, networking through computer modem hookups on Internet, they would be able to search the libraries of the world and to stock their own collection of books. Someday-- a publishing house. They could send their work direct to Japan and Germany, where people hunger for stories about Plains Indians.
I envisioned books written by The People, printed by The People both in cheap editions and in fine quality letterpress editions, both for the use of the Nitzitahpi (hopefully using myths and poetry written by themselves) and to preserve historical works-- all bound by the Nitzitahpi in leather tanned right there. Imagine a specially hand-set version of Napi stories-- restored to their original vigor and uncensored by white men (In some stories Napi has a penis so long it has to be rolled up like a firehose!)-- with marginal decorations and illustrations, bound in smoked buckskin with a grouse feather for a bookmark. (No eagle feathers-- too sacred.) Maybe the shaft of the feather could be beaded or quilled.
On this deeply aesthetic level one might begin to create a kind of jobs that people would enjoy and stick with. I sketched out a plan for how a building could provide a place to work, with lockers for individuals to keep their projects safely, and someone to sell materials as they were needed or buy them as they were brought in. Marketing could be done on the Internet, through bookstores, or through the conventional tourist trade. They could tap the world market that exists for old-style artifacts done with care and inspiration. (Now some say the best ones are made by German aficionados.) A Native American former drug addict told me the most successful therapy for fighting drug addiction he knew of was beading-- a kind of replacement repetition-compulsion obsession addiction.
People said it wouldn't work.
GRIZZLIES, LOVERS, TRICKSTERS AND HEROES
In the second year I decided that I would organize each grade level's work around a specific theme. This was partly to keep my own head straight about who was doing what, and partly to relieve the boredom of students repeating the same class. The counselor assigned them to whatever English fit the rest of their schedules. Some of them were making up three years of failed English classes.
The freshmen were assigned grizzly bears. I bought as many picture books as I could afford-- with my own money so I wouldn’t have to argue with the administration. The kids pretended they were bears, they told real life bear stories, they told bear tall-tales, they read photocopied newspaper stories, and I read out loud Doug Peacock's Grizzly Years and Ernest Thompson Seton's Biography of a Grizzly. We saved Far Side grizzly jokes. For several years I had attended the annual grizzly/wolf technicians' conference that formed around Chuck Jonkel, a professor in Missoula and a much-loved and powerful visionary. (It's not easy to attend these conferences since they go out of their way to pick an inaccessible campground and don't let the public know where it is.)
Jonkel, a strong believer in wildlife videos and student video work, loaned me lots of videos about bears. Once, for some reason, he included one about meerkats which knocked us all out. None of us had known anything about meerkats before. They are a sort of cross between a weasel and a gopher that live in colonies in the African desert. Some kids were a lot more interested in meerkats than grizzlies. The strange is always attractive.
We watched the Scandinavian movie, The Bear (The kids loved it, especially when the cub got high.), and an awful grade B movie starring Clint Walker about a demon grizzly that turned out to be very close in plot to one of the stories in The Old North Trail. An early warrior is heroically brave but is killed. He becomes a grizzly and guards the old Cut Bank Pass trail, but then he is killed again and becomes a tree that still stands there, looking vaguely bear-like. People on the Rez can point out the very tree. (Bob Scriver says that over the years there have been three or four of them.)
I described the Bear Knife Bundle, one of the most impressive objects in the Scriver Artifact Collection that went to Edmonton. I read part of the Craighead's book out loud and we watched a pretty inept film of Faulkner's story, The Bear, which was only a black bear anyway. I got so into grizzlies myself that I rose up at 4 AM and went out to watch a road-killed bull from the safety of my pickup, in hopes a bear would show up. None did. It was cold and rainy, so there wasn't much smell to get the message to the bears. Sitting out there in steely darkness, gripping my thermos of coffee, I felt at last I was becoming a nature writer.
Towards spring the kids were able to sit down and write a paragraph about why bears are of scientific interest. " Bears are studied by scientists for three reasons. Bear ovum do not implant in the womb until the bear hibernates. Bears get fat but do not have a problem with cholesteral. Bears can sleep all winter without urinating. The things we learn from bears can help people." It wasn't much, but it was clear and orderly. It was not stupid.
For some of them it worked pretty well. But one kid heaved a sigh and said, "You sure do have a thing about bears, Mrs. Scriver. I wish I knew where it comes from." They reported all their own bear-sightings, which were rather numerous, but took a bored attitude about bears. They were just common. All I cared really was that they stop thinking that writing a report was the same as copying something out of the encyclopedia. I saw them in the library, copying and copying-- mostly inaccurately-- for their other classes.
By now I had discovered the wonderful Boynton/Heinemann books about how to teach writing in the classroom and was using the little "paragraph creature" to remind them how to organize: a head for the introduction, three points on its back with underneath lots of feet (details to make it "walk") and then a conclusion for a tail. I kept a drawing of the creature on the bulletin board and insisted that they look it over and think about it before writing.
All over Montana high school teachers were teaching Shakespeare by using "West Side Story" and the Zefferelli "Romeo and Juliet". For the sophomores I followed suit. The theme was to be thwarted lovers. When "West Side Story" first came on the screen, the class was electrified and incredulous. All heads swung around. "What are those people doing?" they demanded. " Are those gang guys dancing and singing?" They had never see a true musical before --just MTV.
I added "Dirty Dancing". We made a list scene-by-scene of how the plot went and then began to write a new story called "Dirty Horseback Riding" about a Blackfeet boy who is a guide for dudes in Glacier Park and falls in love with a tourist girl from Minneapolis. (Other things intruded and we never finished it, but it was a pretty good tale. I still have the notes.) "See, just pick out two people who are in love but from two different worlds and then play those two forces against each other." It was a chance to talk about cultural differences and the consequences of prejudice, as well as how plot unfolds from conflict. I rented "Elvira Madigan. " The girls were entranced-- the boys could care less.
They wrote about Indian/white romances and Blackfeet/Crow romances. I pulled out of "The Old North Trail" and other books some of the old legends about women who fall in love with a bear or a star or a dog. One luckless maiden fell in love with a turd, which was melted by spring rains, much to her despair! Again, in the Scriver Artifact Collection is a Beaver Bundle, which was said to be created when a Blackfeet woman fell in love with a Beaver. McClintock describes the story and the Bundle in detail and shows photographs. (This is objectionable to some Nitzitahpi.) Bob had done a sculpture of the Beaver Bundle being opened, as well as a sculpture of the woman and the beaver embracing, echoing in their curved form the beaver's lodge. I explained and demonstrated the Beaver Women dancing with sticks in their mouths. I suppose some would consider that sacrilegious.
Towards spring, the class-- now down to three or four students-- insisted they wanted to watch "Pretty Woman", in spite of having seen it half a dozen times at home. I consented, but only if they would let me talk during the show. I did a running commentary to get them to see how the costumes, the lighting, the scene cuts, and the underlying assumptions were coaxing them to believe that something as hard, demeaning and destructive as prostitution could be the path to a happy life. "Is this real or is this Cinderella?" They knew women who had been prostitutes, but none of them knew men who paid for sex -- in their experience, men just took it. To them, someone who actually paid must be a real gentleman. "But a man who has to pay for sex? Do you think he is likely to be so handsome, so considerate?" They looked at me and I saw the bubble had burst. "It's just a fantasy, isn't it?" they sighed. Why are the public schools not teaching students how to resist such brain-washing?
The juniors' theme was the Trickster. They knew their own Napi, who gets everyone--including himself--into so much trouble all the time. But I wanted to include Loki, Coyote, Road Runner, Hare, Mercury, Odysseus. The theme works remarkably well as a way into American literature. Huck Finn, Walt Whitman, Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan. Perhaps these American tricksters are indebted to the underlying Native American culture.
Seniors were to consider heroes and anti-heroes: Beowolf, King Arthur, Macbeth, World War II soldiers. For the freshmen and sophomores, I had ordered the easier reading books, but for the juniors and seniors I ordered college prep. My rationale was that the five or ten students who made it that far deserved to know what everyone across the country was reading-- even though I knew I would mostly just explain parts or show movies.
I was surprised when Beowolf was a big hit with the seniors. My approach was to show "Aliens" and to explain that the story was very much parallel to "Beowolf." (In fact, "Star Trek" recently did a take-off on "Beowolf".) Defining video movies as literature was a little close to the conventional edge and The Doc hated them, associating them with the kind of teacher who gets tired at the end of the week and shows any old film that happens to be lying around. "I know you do it," he claimed. "I used to do it myself."
My approach was much more esoteric. I sketched out Joe Campbell's hero cycle over and over. I thought it was not unlike the pattern I had seen lived out by actual Blackfeet who had left the reservation, had careers, and then returned when they neared retirement, bringing new ideas and energy back with them. The strategy worked well and I continued it on into Idylls of the King. I figured Celts, Angles, Saxons were the Natives of their time and place-- horse-culture warriors. I was just a little bit ahead of Rob Roy and Braveheart.
One afternoon a single student showed up for senior English. The assignment was King Arthur. The young man was having a rough time in his life. His best friend, the friend's wife and their new baby had been burned to death in a trailer fire. He and his girl had had one stillborn infant. Now they had had a second baby, but their relationship was rocky. The girl had gone back to stay with her parents who warned the young man to stay away. I had bought a video of "Excaliber", knowing it had gotten good reviews and that the casting was English Shakespearean actors, but I hadn't previewed it yet. It was rated "R."
When I mentioned this to the young man, I was startled by his reaction. "What?" he cried. "I've been looking everywhere for that movie! I've got to see it!" For the next fifty minutes we watched it together without interruptions-- or rather he watched the movie and I split my attention between my student and the movie. The R rating was for nudity and violence. The film is very long. When the bell rang at the end of the class, we were just past Lancelot and Guinevere betraying Arthur. They were asleep on mossy boulders, startlingly nude and vulnerable. Arthur came as they slept to plant Excaliber between them while great chords of Wagner swelled on the soundtrack.
Fairly true to the Malory version of Morte d'Arthur that was in the textbook, the movie is also a great heaving, steaming entanglement of echoes from "Star War"s, Ursula LeGuin, a bit of Monty Python thrown in here and there, and an occasional shadow of Ingmar Bergman. When I watch the video now I recognize Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson. The plot follows on out through Fraser's "The Golden Bough" and the Fisher King motif beloved of T.S. Eliot -- the health of the king is the health of the land-- until the body of Arthur sails off into the setting sun. There was easily enough material to occupy a college seminar. Well -- a broad-minded one. Maybe one led by Thomas Moore.
The textbook printed version of the Arthur myth was not acessible to many among my students. This spoken, acted out version would at least make the plot clear. Sadly, from experience I discovered that the old black-and-white Orson Welles-type versions of Shakespeare were repellant to these kids. Too dark, too arty, not enough special effects. But now I realized-- unprepared-- that this movie had an almost religious meaning to this young man, in the sense that deep concepts were moved at the level we call the "heart" as compared to the "mind." It was pre-verbal, even psycho-therapeutic. To him the screen had a mythopoetic reality, an authority, like foretelling dreams or Jungian analysis. It was an understanding underneath the words, carried by images and music, a meaningful archetype -- and why not? Knights have been role models for generations.
If someone could reach students on that level, I thought, their lives could be interpreted , even transformed. But I was neither Merlin nor Yoda. At that moment I was not capable of saying, "Look, this is a story about pre-Christian or at least paleo-Christian time-- about the end of one civilization and the beginning of a new nation. It's about druids being replaced by priests and the Roman Catholic church-- not so different from the old Blackfeet shamans being replaced by Father Mallman, the Merlin of Heart Butte. And it's about tribes who war among one another uselessly, which takes the land into destruction and the people into poverty. The secret is that the king--the chief-- and the land are one, which once meant that the king and the nation are one-- but maybe now it means that the actual land and a strong leader could redeem this Blackfeet landscape and nation. And maybe you are that leader. Or maybe it will take a whole Round Table of knights."
I believe that in an incoherent way, the young man was feeling--not thinking-- these things. He longed to have power, to be a leader. But he lived in a violent time where the deadly magics of alcohol, methamphetamine and cocaine make illusions and cravings more vicious than Grendel's mother. How is he even to identify the villains? The rage is there, but it has no focus, no plan of action, and so it turns inward on the very People the heroes ought to be protecting.
Anyway, the next day class was cancelled or the student didn't come or the other two students in the class came back-- something happened to break the magic and we never did have a chance to really talk about what the movie meant. But I was convinced again that videos can be as effective as the original experience of sitting in a great stone hall listening to a wandering poet chant/sing the great heart-deep legends of Beowolf or Morte d'Arthur, which was how the whole thing got into the English textbook in the first place.