To live in Thoreau, New Mexico, is to know the great unspoken sadness present on American Indian reservations. Last year my wife, Jenny, and I were teachers at a Roman Catholic mission school for Navajo children in Thoreau, on the edge of a Navajo reservation. I taught high school science and P.E.; Jenny taught preschool and kindergarten.
During our time in Thoreau, we were occasionally inspired by the sight of a flower breaching the desert soil. For us, the Navajo children we taught will forever be our sown seeds of hope. Our work at the school was the most gratifying either of us has ever done. The teaching, however, involved wearying struggles that tested us often and at times nearly broke our will to continue.
The classroom where I taught science was a dilapidated trailer with shoddy plumbing that on occasion would spring a leak, leaving the floor under an inch of water. The room would also take in water during autumn’s frequent drenching rainstorms. And in spring, violent winds would coat the floors and counters with desert sand and blow out the pilot light in the furnace, leaving the classroom frigid.
These problems with the physical environment, though exasperating, were manageable. They are even comical in retrospect. What was extraordinarily difficult was working with kids who have suffered wound after emotional wound. Of the 40 students I taught, only a few lived with both of their birth parents. Among their families, alcoholism destroys with numbing frequency.
My students brought their pain into the classroom every day. I had to absorb verbal--and on one occasion, physical--blows. Things might have been easier if the school had a principal, but ours got sick early in the year. So another teacher and I split the duties of principal in addition to teaching a full load.
The names the high school students gave their student newspaper are telling. During my year with them, we put out two editions of The Broken Pen; the year before, they had named the paper Damaged Ink. Their writing also showed a deep hurt. Yet the poems, stories, and drawings they did for the paper exhibited artistic beauty. And this talent carried over into other activities, such as decorating the gymnasium for the senior prom and painting their lockers. The locker room art in particular was something to behold: night skies with moon and stars, the universe with blazing comets, cartoon characters like Tweety bird, all painted in vibrant colors.
In these and other ways, the kids were trying to hang onto bits and pieces of their rich culture. But it wasn’t hard to see that they had lost much of it. Hoping to impress my students, I took a Navajo language course. One day, I tried a few phrases on them. But the Navajo words I tentatively tossed out that day were met with blank stares. For most of the kids, their knowledge of their native language had withered to almost nothing.
Thankfully, they had managed to preserve their innate joy, though it took me a while to discover it. I had tried to photograph my students in the classroom, only to encounter resistance. Some gave me sullen, embarrassed expressions. Others threw up hands and arms before their faces. Still others flung jeers and balled-up papers at my Nikon. Then one day, moved by no reason other than that I had not done it before, I decided to go with them to meet their buses at the end of the day. I learned--albeit four months into the year--that here their joy flowed freely. Here they were happy to pose: prancing about, hugging friends, grinning, laughing, and cutting up. The school day over, they were elated, free to do as they pleased.
In so many ways, these Navajo students are wonderful kids. Though inured to a life of hard knocks, they show an exuberance for many things, like raising horses and working with silver. Jerry, a senior at the school, managed to shed a drug habit and become an acclaimed artist and traditional dancer.
There were many notable events during the year, but most memorable was the Artists of Indian America festival, a week-long celebration of American Indian culture hosted each year by our school. During the week, students rehearsed traditional dances and songs in preparation for an evening of performances before parents, grandparents, and hundreds of other community members.
The most commendable thing about our school was the way it sought to affirm the native culture of its students. This was never more evident than on the last night of the festival. We were treated to a stirring pageant of talent and pride put on by kids ages 3 to 18. Capping off the night, one of our last in Thoreau, was Jerry’s arresting dance routine. He wore a headband with feathers, a breastplate of bone, and bells on his ankles. He portrayed a hunting bird. As he performed, Jerry embodied the best of what we saw during our year with the Navajo.
On his journey through adolescence, Jerry had beaten long odds and breached the desert soil. Now, he was teaching me, Jenny, and all those present. He was representing the beauty and strength of his people and giving back to his community. He was showing his gratitude. He was the picture of discipline, passion, and triumph.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Desert Bloom