If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time-- But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
--Aboriginal Australian Woman
When I first taught in the Browning Public Schools in 1961, I started in the junior high school grades. In those days we "tracked," a practise which is much criticized now. It means grouping the kids by ability-- which usually boils down to performance. An intelligent student who is a discipline problem or who doesn't try gets bumped down to a "lower" group. In the afternoon I taught English to the "best" of the seventh graders, that is, the kids who had the best grades, deportment, and family connections. In the morning I taught English to the "worst" of the eight graders, that is, kids with bad grades, bad behavior, sometimes physical handicaps, and families of no power, at least in the school context. We had no special education, remedial or "Title" classes. Bad students just disappeared as soon as they could.
The eighth graders were all boys except for one girl who only stayed with us a few weeks. I used my sharp tongue to keep order the way all my grade school teachers had-- particularly Miss Coleman, my fourth grade teacher who was a Chinook Indian and published author (Kutkos, Chinook Tyee, now out of print). Then one day as I was scolding, I glanced over at the lone girl and saw that she was huddled down into her seat, trying to hide her head under the desk. In those days we didn't talk about family abuse and reactions to violence, but I could see she was terrified and I got her transferred out. In the next track "up" she did much better. I tried to remind myself to find alternatives to tongue-lashing-- not very successfully.
Over the years it has been those dozen boys of that eighth grade who have haunted me most in terms of what could have happened for them and didn't. Some are dead through no fault of their own. One was working as a carnie, took a nap under a pickup, and was run over. Some are in jail: one boy said bravely that his ambition was to join all the adult men of his family in the state prison, as though it were the army or a club. Several became amiable drunks and died of related causes, non-violent. Almost all fathered many children.
The top-track seventh grade produced tribal council members, teachers, nurses, BIA officials, pretty much as expected. They were told they were the best, that they would succeed, and they did. Not long ago I had lunch with one of the women, now director of the Indian Health Service in a major city. She is the daughter of one of the school board members in 1961, a man I have always respected and who was a good boyhood friend of Bob Scriver. In some ways she is bitter about those early years and her unsuccessful marriage to a white boy in that class. Now she tells me of stresses and dilemmas I never would have guessed at the time. Her sister, who recently taught with me for a short period, backed up the truth of the tales. These women are my peers now. It is strange to have such a window to the past and to see that much of our idealism was just denial. Nevertheless, we had a whooping good time remembering funny stories. In many ways they are wiser and more experienced than I am.
Even grade-groups are discredited in some educational circles these days. Yet in close-to-the-land societies, affinity cohorts usually form according to age. Boys or girls of a certain age stuck together, cycling through their age-appropriate tasks of learning. Pre-adolescent boys ran in a pack practising hunting skills and learned even that early who could lead successful adventures. Girls stayed in the camp with the women and even then it was clear who was most skillful and willing.
In Heart Butte the seventh grade was the most truly local group I taught. They had grown up there and had gone through the grades together. The seventh grade boys were as yet too small to play basketball, but anyway they still loved their two-year-old horses and playing horseback tag. The seventh grade girls, in contrast, were an "initiated group." It was impossible to keep the high school boys from dry-humping them against the lockers at class breaks. Some liked it and some didn't but pretended they could handle it. A few were tigerish enough to be left alone. And some attracted no one, which hurt them. Sex was the only criteria for a blurry adulthood. Girls with babies had had their rite of passage and were proud of it, which made it hard for the others not to follow.
Since Heart Butte had already been offering seventh and eighth grades, there were literature textbooks on hand, but they were childish, worn and out-dated. This particular dozen seventh graders was far beyond bunnies and let's-have-a-club. Some of the anthologies included stories about Native Americans, romantic little tales about the nineteenth century. My particular crew of N.A.'s were beginning to be outraged by hypocrisy. They were hungry for the raw truth of life and thought they saw it on the tabloid television shows. What I really needed was Vine Deloria, Jr. and Paula Gunn Allen, only with easy vocabularies.
One day as we talked, one of the girls hurled at me the accusation that I didn't know what their lives were like. "You live up here on the hill in your teacherage and you don't have any idea what it's like to have drunks banging on the door or your folks mad at each other or nothing in the house to eat." She made me remember Alfred, the boy who thought about raspberries in January, and another boy named Charlie who had long ago written an assignment about "the best thing that has happened to me recently." He said they finally moved into a house with running water so he didn't have to haul it in a bucket from the community pump.
That night, after the girl made her accusation, I went home and typed a page as I thought one of those girls might have written it. Next day I handed out copies. "Is this what you feel? Have I got it right?"
"Weeeelll. Close maybe." The trust level went up a bit. I asked them to write their own versions. One boy wrote simply, "I am a turd." I expressed concern to the counselor. His mother and grandmother came to accuse me of framing him by saying he wrote that when he didn't. I showed them the paper with his handwriting. They said nothing. Next day he was transferred to the remedial class.
This boy was not even close to being a turd -- he just knew how he was being treated by the world -- like a turd. He didn't belong in a remedial class, but once there he worked hard and well. He was the most "Indian" of all the kids in that class. I wrote a page from a boy's point of view but it was pretty much of a flop. No one would talk about it.
The next time I wrote to the Office of Public Instruction, I included the page of the "girl's point of view" with some other things and didn't label clearly what it was. Back wrote the OPI Language Arts person saying, "This girl must be helped! She is so full of talent and deserves as much support as we can give her." I confessed, as tactfully as possible, that I had written the piece in an attempt to be absolutely true to the girls' feelings in my class. There were no more offers to find scholarships or to get the girls into special programs. And yet I had quoted what I heard them say, only tried to give them voices. They did feel those things. They were that girl. They still deserved scholarships and special programs.
One day I tried a little human relations gimmick. I brought a ball of red yarn and sat us all in a circle. I instructed each one to tell us a memory about someone else in the group and to throw the ball to them, paying out the yarn so the connection stayed traced by red. In a half hour they had used the yarn up and a complex web zig-zagged among them. As always happens, they had been careful to make sure that everyone got roughly the same number of memories. At this point in the exercise I normally take out the biggest pair of scissors I can find and say, "This yarn web is the community -- and this is what death does." Then I take a big snip through some of the strands so that they fall down.
These kids would not allow it. They shrieked and rose as a group to escape me, keeping the yarn stretched out among their hands. Then the bell rang. They realized they could move as a group without losing the web. "We're going to go show Mr. Z," they cried, and off they went down the hall to biology, yelling at people to make room for their yarn web. He told me how they explained it all to him. Knowing Mr. Z, I expect he managed to get an ecology lesson out of it. At the end of the day, my yarn came back all neatly wound up in a ball again.
These kids had been drilling on grammar for years and had pretty much sorted themselves out on the skill continuum according to their interests and abilities. What I could affect was their level of aspiration. My heavy-duty secret weapon was Star Wars: the Trilogy. First we just watched it and did the dutiful stuff about plot-sequence and character motivation. Then I took off with the Joe Campbell hero cycle stuff: how we all get thrown out, sent out, called out, to seek our destiny and after many struggles and loves and new friends-- we grow up. Then we come back to help the others. That's the part that most often gets left out.
Of all the things these kids wanted, growing up was the fate they most dreaded. Growing up meant ugly sex, violence and drunkenness. To them childhood-- shelter, dependence, irresponsibility-- was the ideal. Most of the changes in their lives had been for the worse. Sometimes they would actually say, "Boy, I wish I weren't growing up so fast. It's hell to be a grownup. You have to work all the time and everybody's mad." They still wanted to stay in the pack they had been since they began school together as kindergartners.
"Star Wars" was old enough that these kids had not seen it. In Heart Butte it was not a popular rental video -- not sexy and violent enough, I suppose. It was worth the whole effort to see their faces when they realized that Darth Vader was indeed Luke Skywalker's father. I only hoped that the insight into the Demon Father and his origins would somehow bring them healing. At least they would share a contemporary myth that is constantly referred to in the media and conversation.
And they loved Yoda. In fact, I got a good grammar lesson out of the little elf by teaching them how to talk in wrong-side-out sentences: "Hungry I am." "Thump you I will!" We wrote out sentences, labelled the predicate words and objects and then put them first -- presto! Yoda-talk.
The larger lesson I hoped they would learn is that every language has an inner structure, but that those structures are not all the same. Some of these students were still close enough to being Blackfeet speakers that they had trouble with the difference between plural and singular indicators or male and female gender references. Neither grammatical distinction exists in Blackfeet, nor does it in many Native American languages. Some have pointed out that it is more politically enlightened to speak of persons without reference to their gender, as is possible in Blackfeet which is truly "gender-inclusive." English could take a Blackfeet lesson.
Once at a National Council of Teachers of English workshop I attended in Minneapolis, a nun announced that she had solved this ubiquituous (and from her point of view, iniquitous) problem. As a speaker of the tribal language where she taught, she simply imposed upon it arbitrary grammatical signals for gender and number. These she would teach to the children in their own language and then-- she claimed-- it would be a snap to teach the same thing in English, because they would already have the concept. Afterwards I expressed shock and indignation over the idea of imposing European grammar on native American languages. A seasoned teacher next to me asked, "How long have you been teaching Indians?"
"Well, then why are you worrying? What do you think her chances are of succeeding?"
I cheered up. "Zero, probably." I never heard what happened.
WE BECOME NOVELISTS
My seventh graders weren't anxious to know grammar. What they wanted to know about was life -- how people fell in love, what was important for happiness, and whether they were good themselves. I wanted to talk to them about a lot of things. Little brothers with faces and minds crippled by fetal alcohol syndrome and aunties who got drunk anyway. Fathers shot by scared old bartenders. Co-dependent girls who let their boyfriends hit them. Mothers who got into knock-down-drag-out fights in the street and expected their daughters to join the battle. Fathers who screwed your best friend's mother on the floor in the middle of the front room when they only thought you were asleep.
But how could I? Any mention of real life was going to bring parents storming into that classroom and blow my cover. The page I had written while pretending to be a seventh grade girl, combined with my fooling around in while learning how to use the Mac Plus, gave me an idea. We would write a novel. Sitting at the computer, I turned in my chair and said to Jonelle, "What's a good name for a girl?"
"Heather." Without hesitation.
I typed the beginning of the story. "What's a good name for a boy?" There was some argument, but then they said, "Che."
That night I finished a first chapter, photocopied enough for the class, and we began to read it as a group.
Every week for the rest of the year we talked about Heather and Che, their life and what they ought to do. We wrote it together like a screenwriting team for a television show. "I think something sad ought to happen now." "We need a new character." "This is getting boring." Then when we had an idea what would happen next, I would write the chapter, keeping in mind that they needed to notice how quotation marks worked or how description could create a mood.
I thought to myself that it was almost marketable and that, if it were, some of the money ought to get back to the kids. So we wrote their names into the story. If you were in the story, you were one of the authors. The boys show up at a house fire and the girls have a scene in the school cafeteria. When I did actually send the finished story around to a few publishers, they said, "Well, we have an author here who could do a rewrite-- polish it up a bit... Make it more consistent. You know."
I didn't know. The point of the story was that it was the way the kids agreed it ought to be.
Towards spring I looked over to see one of the boys concentrating hard as he wove a stolen home ec sewing needle through the skin on his forearm. I knew this was behavior associated with drug use, but more than that it seemed to me obsessive, self-hating, and a cry for help. I went over, sat in front of him and gently took the needle. He didn't resist.
"Don't do that to your beautiful skin," I begged, and rubbed his forearm to soothe it. He hadn't gone deeply enough to draw blood. "You mustn't hurt yourself like that."
"Nobody cares. I'm no good." I had no idea what had just happened to him and thought it would be better not to find out, since I was not prepared to do full-scale therapy and I was pretty sure the school wouldn't get the kid any help either. But the other students had seen the whole thing and gathered around.
"It's not true. You are a unique and valuable human being and everyone in this room cares about you." The others nodded. I took hold of the boy's hand, firmly, to anchor him and begin to tell him everything good about himself I could think of. The helpful things he did, the jokes he told, his courage, his sense of humor, the intelligent things he said in class. It almost destroyed him. If I hadn't had a good grip, he would have twisted onto the floor. I knew from my own experience it is very hard to accept praise. He had tears in his eyes. In a minute I stopped.
"Do me next, Mrs. Scriver. Do me!" They were all clamouring. So in turn I sat across from them, gripped their hands and looked hard into their faces. I did the best I could and was grateful there weren't many of them. I made a mental note to pay more attention so I'd have better things to say next time. A few were pretty hard to think of good things about, but I kind of figured out the trick. You had to go to the context of the kid -- not stay in the framework of school. "You are very brave," to the boy who defied authorities. None of the other classes ever developed enough trust to let me do this kind of exercise. They would rather have been slapped.
HEART BUTTE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CLASS OF 1991
The next year, after I had been "non-rehired," the Graduating Eighth Grade Class of 1991, which had been that yarn-web seventh grade -- asked me to give their graduation speech. I was flattered. In 1990 the speaker had been Earl Old Person, chief of the Blackfeet Tribe. This year the superintendent did not attend. He had attended the night before at the high school graduation, where Don Wetzel spoke. (Wetzel was an admired coach and administrator who had accepted the personal crusade of stopping student athlete alcoholism. He would become the superintendent in Browning, but leave mid-year.)
This is what I said that night. I am using the real names of the students.
There once was a time when eighth grade graduation was as far as most people went in school. It's still what the law requires. Almost everywhere that human beings live in groups, it is at about this age that some kind of ritual happens to recognize a big change, a change in bodies-- a coming of age-- and a change that goes deeper, even into the heart of the personality. It is about this age that people become capable of parenthood and therefore need to be taught the ways of their tribe, the secrets that can keep families whole and the generations moving safely into the future.
A hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, maybe thirty thousand years ago-- before Heart Butte was called "Heart Butte" or even Moskizipahp-istuki-- people were camped here and their children were becoming adults at about this age. Perhaps things were more what we'd call "religious" then. We tend to think that there was less to learn, that life was easier, but I'm not so sure. My guess is that life was just as hard, that there was likely to be something as difficult to learn as algebra. I know there was an oral tradition of great depth and beauty, one that was learned by heart instead of read from a book-- the same way the Old Testament of the Bible was handed down. I'm told that the oldest Napi stories were like Psalms, in that they were meant to be memorized word-for-word in order to preserve ancient ways of speaking and thinking exactly. I'm told that the Blackfeet language is so old that there is a word for mastodon.
Now we have to teach our children to count to ten in Blackfeet.
It is hard to know what they will need to learn for the future. When the early missions came here, they thought Indians ought to be educated as a servant class. They wanted students to learn to be on time, to be clean, to be obedient, to work hard, and not to question orders. Those are not bad things to master, but they are not enough now. Some people haven't realized that yet. We are not just educating broom-pushers and typists, though everyone ought to be able to sweep thoroughly and to keyboard skillfully from an early age.
What the Blackfeet need is people who can analyze treaties that were written carelessly and with a slant, so as to bring this Indian nation to greater justice. We need certified public accountants who can trace what the government does with the assets of the tribe and find out what happened to the misplaced billions that government bookkeepers lost track of over the years. We need people who can sit down with families and get to the bottom of the grief and rage and confusion, so those families can express their love for each other and heal. Don Wetzel said last night that he calls this generation the "healing generation."
We need people who are geologists who can judge whether or not there is likely to be oil or gas or coal in the reservation ridges and valleys, and people who are biologists who can manage the animal resources of this inner nation, which is about the same size as the Serengeti Crater of Africa where famous herds of zebras and antelope attract visitors. The last of the grizzlies live here and a small herd of buffalo already roams these ranches.
And we need novelists who can explain what it means to grow up Blackfeet on the front range of the Rocky Mountains at the end of the second Christian Millenium, the beginning of the 21st century. So that someday an African girl can read and understand us; a French boy can laugh at our jokes; and a south American gaucho herding cows on the pampas by swinging his bolla can see in his mind's eye the way we herd cows on these Montana grasslands.
I believe those people we need are right before you here on this stage, this very minute: the scientists, the therapists, the doctors, the teachers, the lawyers, the hunters, the fathers and the mothers. Maybe astronauts and rock stars! Anything is possible with this class!
In fact, this particular bunch of students is more than just a class. They're like a tribe or even a family. As individuals they represent a great span of styles-- no two of them are much alike. But as a group, they have a real personality, and they will stand together in the face of a threat or in order to meet a promise. They are exceptionally brave. They choose to look for the truth and because they care about that, they make us care about the truth as well.
Kenny Spotted Eagle wants to be a doctor-- not just a doctor, but a surgeon. The other day he said to me-- and he is very earnest when he asks these things-- "If I go through all the training that a doctor goes through and I pass all the steps and get all the certificates, would you trust me to operate on you?"
Now I've never had an operation. I'm terrified of operations. And look at Kenny-- he's just a kid! He's a nice kid, but-- heck-- I taught his daddy in school, which makes him seem even younger. Would I let Kenny Spotted Eagle take a knife and cut me open and rearrange my insides?
If I wouldn't, what are we doing here? We're not pretending to teach students. No one can fake doing major operations, can they? We are forced to realize that the students we teach will be controlling us and our world in the future.
I think of how carefully Kenny does things, how willing he is to look hard things in the eye, how much he really cares about people, and I realize that, yes, if Kenny makes it through med school, I will trust him with my life.
What about these other kids? How can I tell you about the specialness of each of them? It is as though they cast a great shadow behind them, twice as tall as they are, but not a shadow of darkness-- rather a shadow of light, something like the Urskex at the end of The Dark Crystal. The shape of their potential futures is almost frightening in its brightness because-- I've heard these kids think out loud-- what if it's too hard? What if they can't make it? What if things go wrong? What if they get hooked on something or hurt? What if they let people down? What if -- what if--
That's what we're here for tonight, isn't that right? We're here just in case-- to help, to lead, to support, to applaud, and--if that's what it takes-- to scold, to weep, to yell.
Let me talk about these people a little more personally.
Kenny you already know about. He should be ready to do surgery about 2007. I'll be 68, about ready for repairs.
Jonelle Tailfeathers says she is going to be a teacher and none of us have any doubt about it. One day last year she got so bossy I just turned the class over to her and she put us into good order in no time. What may not be so obvious to everyone is that Jonelle is a person with a great capacity to love others and to support them, even when they don't necessarily deserve it. She's a fighter and she'll fight for the underdog because she has a strong sense of justice. I predict that she'll be a fine teacher, loved by many. If her first class is eighth graders, she may be speaking at their graduation in the year 2000.
Emmett Cain might surprise some people, including himself. He's a deep one, Emmett is, and smart enough to watch and listen much of the time. He ought to get his bachelor's degree about 1999, and I suspect he has the kind of cool and ability to stay centered that would make him a good administrator or manager. But he also has enough daring to be a successful entrepreneur. I'll be very curious. He likes the good life, you know, and I think that will push him to success.
Christy Crawford is a girl who needs to take care of others and she's got someone now, though we won't meet that person for a few more months. This means that Chris is going to have to work extra hard, give up a lot of things-- like sleep, for starters-- and make hard choices. But you must understand that Chris is a young woman of enormous intelligence-- in fact, once her emotions begin to simmer down a bit more, that intelligence will carry her through into skills we can only guess at now. She could go so many different directions it's hard to predict: teacher, minister, clinical psychologist, tribal council chair? Could be any of those.
Mitchell Messinger is a quiet fellow. He's so big that every move he makes bumps into someone else, and they let him hear about it. Sometimes Mitchell suffers and no one even knows it. He never means to hurt people. I watch him draw-- which he does very well-- and try to answer his questions about the old days, and sometimes his face is like a window on the past. Maybe he'll be a movie star, like Rodney Grant. I think he will always be a good friend to those around him.
Cindy Rutherford is a real firecracker. Far more beautiful than she has any idea-- rather French with big soft eyes and flyaway bangs-- Cindy has major emotions and -- in her own words-- "a red-hot steaming boiling firebird temper!" But she is quick to repent and generous in her apologies. Sometimes she hurts and looks bruised and sits quietly alone. Other times she has so much energy it's like a whirlwind in the room and she gets us all up and doing and laughing. What will Cindy be? Something special. Something wonderful, I think. Let's see-- an airplane pilot? A news anchor on television?
Nikki Rutherford was late coming to this class, and she still hasn't really had time to be fitted into some kind of role. But she is another high energy person, generous with her emotions, quick to look for heroes, intense in her feeling for justice, honest in her confronting of troubles. Nikki will shine in high school. She only begins to realize how intelligent she is. Maybe she is going to be the state senator who can energize everyone or the lawyer who will save the Badger-Two Medicine.
Patty Bremner has changed more completely than any other member of this class. In two short years she went from being a knobby-kneed colt who loved to buck and cause a commotion, to being a slender, poised young woman who looks like Julia Roberts. She is actually at rest occasionally, and as willing to hold hands as to sock someone. She is changing too deeply and too quickly to forecast her future, but I predict it will be surprising. For one thing, I think Patty has a lot of brains. Maybe she'll be a chemist or physicist-- once she realizes such things exist.
Victor Day Rider had a turnaround year this time, too. He is changing his picture of himself, as well as our picture of him. Now his energy begins to go into more constructive pursuits-- his image is split between an earring and a shop coat. We have many strong wishes for Victor's future.
Galen Bullshoe is one of the most centered, patient, real people I know. He is already growing into a kind of man that Blackfeet often are-- a stable, kind, hard-working man of the land. There used to be a lot of them ranching around here. Galen's intelligence is that of the knower of land, knower of animals, knower of skies. It is not so much in his head as in his heart and his gut-- something inherited more than taught. Value this young man highly. He is precious.
Allan Arrowtop hides from us. Only now and then is there a little glimpse of someone in an internal world of considerable complication. But he watches us, and learns from what he sees. In these next few years, Allan will have to make some connections and reach out for his future. We see his dreams in his drawing and we want to know more. Especially about that wild sense of humor. Maybe we have a cartoonist here.
Shannon Bullplume did not take English from me this year or last. But almost every day he shows up in my classroom and every day I throw him back out, which he never holds against me. I look up, and there he is on those incredibly long springy legs, eating my Scotch tape with a big grin on his face. This is not an ordinary grin, for Shannon has joie de vivre, that is, joy of life, and he is not stingy with it. I suspect that Shannon will be a joy to everyone around him until he is a great-grandfather with hundreds of little kids hanging onto his long legs.
This class has not forgotten the other students who have come and gone from their midst. We often speak of Angie Howe, who added so much last year. Emmett says he misses her most when things get boring, which gives you an idea of what she contributed!
David Running Crane jumped ahead to high school and Joey Trombley went his own way and Berry Running Crane transferred to Browning, but they are still sort of like cousins to this family of eight graders. Do you remember Kaylene Spotted Bear? These eighth graders don't forget, they don't reject, they don't avoid, they don't deny. they want the truth, all of it.
JoAnn Clark, one of my former students who teaches eighth grade English in Browning, says that eighth graders always break your heart when they graduate, because they grow and change so much during that year. When people go through intense things together, it bonds them and makes them love each other. it's hard to turn back to the next set of reckless characters and start all over again-- because they are always entirely different.
When you come back as freshmen in a few months, you may look different, especially the boys. Your long bones will be stretching out and your faces will take on more shape. Complexions will begin to clear and feet will begin to go where you want them to go. More than that, in the next few years something hidden and wonderful will happen to you. This is documented and a scientific fact, though lots of people don't notice.
Your brains will be coming of age. Like a wonderfully complex living rose inside your skulls, you will be blooming mentally. Suddenly you will see the point of poetry you didn't understand earlier or you'll understand the shape of equations that didn't make sense before. The world will come into better focus and be more deeply colored, more scented, more various than before. This is what it means to be human.
This is what drugs or alcohol could steal from you.
And because you are Blackfeet, a gift that carries an obligation, you must use that unfolding intelligence to learn your land. Get out and ride, walk, explore, until you know all the ridges and coulees of this country from the Canadian border to Birch Creek, from the Rockies to Milk River. Become experts on your reservation. Read what you can find, write what you think, talk to your brothers and sisters, your parents and elders.
And learn to speak Blackfeet. Sit with the elders, sing with the drummers, sweat with those you respect!
You are not trapped here. The world is as much yours as it is open to any human being. You will find that the farther away you go, the less prejudice there is. The higher you go in education, the more people will work to understand you and value you.
But this is your center, your homeplace, your place to come back to. I love it, too, but it is not mine. It is your heritage! You don't just love it, you are it! This winter I saw a lot of sweatshirts around here that said, "Carpe diem!" Seize the day! I say, "Carpe mundi!" Seize your world!
The motto of this class is: Each of us has different talents, different dreams, different destinations-- but all have the same power to make a new tomorrow.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
When my seventh graders had graduated to the eighth, I had looked forward to seeing them again, but they had changed. They were harder now and some of the boys never reappeared. In every decade that I taught, half the kids disappeared when they reached the legal limit of school attendance-- or a little sooner if they could stay invisible enough-- and half of the freshmen disappeared before high school graduation. Very little has changed. "Where did they go?" asked JoAnn Clark. "I was close to a lot of those people once, but now I have no idea at all where they are. They must be here somewhere." The truth is that they were right there on the reservation. But they didn't travel in circles that intersected with the school anymore. Even if they had kids of their own, they stayed away. If school people went out to hunt for them, they hid.
When I looked over my new seventh graders, they were nothing like I'd expected. These were real children, with little backpacks where they had hidden stuffed toys. All they wanted to do was color with scented felt-tip markers, read comics and sprawl on the floor. They were determined not to work, not to succeed and not to get older. Daily we locked in combat and on most days they won. About once a week I was reduced to making them write sentences a hundred times. They never minded this punishment and never questioned whether I could or should make them do it.
They lied, they sneered, they cheated, they stole, they broke things, they turned into noodles and slid out of their chairs. When I was absent they talked the sub into unlocking the cupboard and showing them the R-rated videos. Their eyes rolled up in their heads. They made terrible noises. They took all the screws out of my teaching station so the racks fell off of it. They came late and constantly tried to slip out of my classroom into the next one.
I have to say that I took them by the arm very firmly indeed. I may have left finger marks. They were still small enough to lift up and put someplace. If I laid a finger on them, they howled, "You hurted me!" But they never said they would tell. So far as I could see, they only tattled on each other, which they did constantly. When their parents came for conferences, the adults expressed disgust and despair at the behavior of their children.
I had some long talks with myself in the evening about violence. It would be so easy to dislocate or even break an arm. When I was monitoring study hall in Browning, I had taken one girl aside (as aside as you can get in a "teaching pod") and hissed the truth at her, "I'd just like to strangle you!" Five teachers popped out of their classrooms to see what was happening. They took the threat seriously. To me it was so exaggerated as to seem almost ridiculous -- to them it was entirely possible that an adult might strangle a child in the school hallway.
This girl's "cousint" in Heart Butte was just as aggravating and I recalled that her aunt had been the same, thirty years earlier. That long-ago girl, in the seventh grade, had worked herself into such a tizzy one day that I picked her up and put her out in the hall to cool off. We had doors to shut then. Now I told the "cousint" she was just like her aunt. The next day she informed me haughtily that her mother said I was never to say I was like any of her relatives and never to mention the family again at all. Since her father was chair of the school board, the command had a certain amount of weight.
None of this second batch of seventh graders had the slightest interest in writing a novel. I could occasionally get them to write about pets or what the older kids were doing. They wanted to draw or make paper decorations, as they had for the previous teachers. But they loved to spend time writing out the lyrics to sentimental pop songs. One snuck into a bar with her older brothers, passed a note about it under my nose, and was outraged when I gave the note to her mother. So was the mother -- not at the girl, but at me.
I gave them the pep talk about being the leaders of tomorrow and they laughed at me. All those people were corrupt and deserved destruction, they said. I challenged them to name good people in town. They came up with two names, both prominent folks, but we all knew one was alcoholic and the other smoked pot, the devil weed we had assemblies to condemn. I was slow realizing that this class included the scions of the biggest drug-pushers in town, if not the source of the triple X videos.
One day, when they were really being awful, I decided to use psychological judo. "This is great! You kids are absolute masters of class chaos. Let's get this down on the board before I forget." I began a list.
1. Pretend not to hear what the teacher says.
2. If that doesn't work, pretend to misunderstand.
3. If the teacher opens her mouth, start to talk or make a noise. If she stops making noise, you stop, too, and pretend you didn't make a noise. But if she opens her mouth again, make the noise. (This one can be fun! I saw Soupy Sales do it on television once.)
4. Drop your pencil. Pretend to be picking it up, but instead roll it under a girl so you can crawl under her.
5. Put your hand up. If the teacher calls on you, say, "Oh, nothing," and take it down.
6. Go sharpen your pencil until it is a stub and then demand a new one.
I must have had thirty items and some kids were getting interested until one of the more suspicious cried out, "Stop! She's going to get us all in trouble!"
Sometimes I used the Assertive Discipline rigamarole, which doesn't usually work very well beyond junior high kids. It's basically a kind of carrot-and-stick routine involving putting kids' names on the board and putting tallies beside them. Every time they got a tally, they had a ten second delay leaving the class. Some kids ended up with more delays than there were minutes between class, so I'd give them delays on successive days which meant a lot of record-keeping. It was all tiresome, dumb and childish. Just another fancy manipulation requiring expensive demonstrations from flashily dressed former teachers who came around selling workshops and books. It's enough to make anyone cynical, but these kids liked it. In fact, they critiqued the way I used it. "You're not doing it right."
One day a boy decided to parrot everything I said. "Take out your books." Take out your books. "Enough of that-- it's time to work." Enough of that, it's time to work.
At first I tried to say things that I thought the parrot wouldn't repeat, bad things about himself, but found that he was perfectly willing to say them and the class thought it was even more hilarious. So I tried a new tack: "Herb is my favorite student." Herb is my favorite student. "Herb is really smart." Herb is really not smart. "Herb has a lot of friends." At that point Herb lost interest.
These kids knew exactly what they were doing. They did not intend to grow up. And they were certainly not going to let me get close enough to them to entice them into changing their minds.
There was one girl with better sense than the rest. Her dad had become part of the growing group of Native American extras being cast in movies. She often had a casting catalogue with her and we would talk about my "crush" on Graham Greene. She would encourage me to think about Rodney Grant -- so handsome with that sheet of silken hair -- and I would protest that Graham Greene had much more substance and a better sense of humor. Then she would offer to introduce me to him sometime. She was often solemn, but this made her laugh. It was an argument that wouldn't have been possible a few years earlier because then there were hardly any known Native American actors. Her family name came from one of the major chiefs of Blackfeet recorded history, Mountain Chief. It was his band that Baker was trying to destroy when he hit Heavyrunner so hard. When my Glacier Reporter came recently, I was excited to see that this daughter-of-a-movie-star was recently featured as one of two students who spent a summer working in medical research at Montana State University in Bozeman.
It was to this class that I read a favorite book of my own childhood, "Tangled Waters". It was about Navajo and written by a white woman, but the story, now out of print, is an accessible and memorable account of two young people trying to find their way between the past and the future. I think the Blackfeet kids will remember, maybe at a time when it is helpful. Certainly, they listened quietly without games.
The remarkable and hopeful fact about human beings is that a new generation is always beginning, with a fresh chance to figure things out and a whole new set of circumstances. Jonelle and Christy already have babies. It is those babies who might even live to see the twenty- second century if they live as long as Mary Ground, Grasswoman, did. May they remember her name and honor her.