I’ve been thinking about Page, Arizona quite a bit lately. That’s because I read about the closing of the Navajo Generating Station, located on the Navajo Nation near Page. In 1972, Page was booming as the generating station with its three 775 ft. stacks was being built. The school population was also booming and I was hired to teach eighth grade literature. Through the years, I’ve told you a few stories about Page and there are more.
I’ve been reminiscing about Page lately, but I think about education pretty much all the time. That comes from being the daughter, sister, cousin, aunt, and friend of teachers. Tomorrow many students and teachers are returning to school after the winter holiday, so I am thinking about them. I’m not sure what the students in my classes learned, but my year in Page was a goldmine of life lessons for me.
What I learned*
- Consider how you label people. I was reading aloud one of the stupid memos from the office (see Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman, 1965), which said something like “all the Indian children should go to the office.” E_________ , a Navajo, or perhaps more correctly, Dine, said, “I am not from India.” Got it.
- Keep your own counsel. I was so enthusiastic and idealistic that I didn’t realize that it’s generally best to keep one’s cards close to one’s chest. I still have a little trouble with this one, but I am savvier than I used to be. Now you wouldn’t find me (without support from others, at least) asking the principal to let me have someone come in to talk to the kids about drugs. No matter that a number of the kids likely were more familiar with drugs than I was and that I despised drugs then, as I do now. It just made me look like a druggie/hippie, and it didn’t help the kids.
- There is a place for decorousness. There is a uniform. Speaking of chests: I needed to work on a bulletin board one Sunday after I had been away somewhere in the country. On such journeys and under my camping outfit I did not usually wear a bra. I remember I was just wearing my trusty flowered thermal long-underwear shirt. As I was working on the bulletin board, one of my male students showed up. He was a nice kid—I forget his name, but I can almost see him. “Hi, Mrs. Schmedlen,” but his eyes were on the shirt. I had thought no one would be around, but I am still embarrassed about the encounter. Even now, contrariness makes me not want to wear the uniform. Still, I was raised right and I do know what uniforms go with which cultural encounters.
- Beware of shopping baskets full of wine. Because school started in August and the North Rim (see Cookies on the North Rim and Ain’t No Reason to Go in a Wagon to Town) stayed opened until mid-October when the snows came, I occasionally still got up to see my Grand Canyon friends. In fact—shades of the Zeitgeist—twice that fall semester, Friday classes were called off early because of bomb threats. I never knew who called in the threats—student, teacher, administrator, or outside agitator. There were no bombs, no one was in danger, but I was able to head up to the rim early. I am mentioning this because I had become a traveler between the isolation of the rim and the fairly poor excuse for civilization Page was back then. My North Rim friend—everyone’s friend—Paula happened to be in a cheap wine phase. So, she asked me to stock up on Annie Green Springs to bring to her the next time I went up to the rim. Being an agreeable person, I went to Babbitts and picked up many bottles of cheap wine. I was just completing that one errand, so I don’t think I had anything else in the basket. Since Babbitts was the main grocery store in town then, it was not surprising that I met a student with parent in tow. I don’t think they failed to notice my shopping basket half full of wine. Maybe that’s why, some months later, after I took a day off to get Pippin the Volkswagen worked on in Flagstaff, a rumor surfaced. One of the kids told me that some kids thought I was home drinking to “celebrate the end of the war in Vietnam.”
- Mental health days are occasionally appropriate. Like serious teachers everywhere, I got up early, worked hard all day, bought extra supplies, made materials, prepared for classes, and corrected papers. I used to correct papers and prepare lessons on the bed in my bedroom in the school system owned apartment I shared with the school librarian. As long as I owned those sheets, they carried the pen marks where I had done my school prep. Another thing I did with those sheets was get eight hours of sleep every night. I think if I hadn’t enough sleep, I wouldn’t have been strong enough to carry on. Maybe you are laughing a little bit now and maybe I am, too. I have by now done many more difficult things in my life than teach eighth grade literature. However, in my defense, it was the hardest thing I had had to do so far in my life and I think I acquitted myself well enough. I remember that when my mother was teaching she would on rare occasions take what she called a “mental health day.” Teaching is emotionally and physically demanding, and, yes, we teachers owe it to ourselves and our students to be up to the challenge. I think I took one mental health day that year in Page. No, it was not to get drunk to celebrate the end of the war in Vietnam. I don’t even remember the day specifically, but it was good to be able to follow my mother’s example.
- Arm-wrestling was useful then, but is not currently advised. Because of my tom-boy (as we called it then) childhood tagging along with my four brothers, I had spent my share of time arm wrestling. It turned out I could usually out arm-wrestle the boys in class who challenged me. I don’t know how it started, but I do remember that almost all of the boys were taller than me and my arm-wrestling prowess seemed to give me a smidgeon of credibility. One day a likeable, talkative boy was goofing around too much. Holding on to his shirt, I picked him up out of his seat, told him to stop and put him back in the chair. He calmed down after that and was even friendlier to me than before. Another time, another charming, lively kid was goofing off around by my desk. I gave him a friendly poke with my pencil, but I was holding the pencil backwards, so I gave myself a little puncture wound and I still have the mark on my right palm to remember the incident. What am I saying–that violence is good? No, I was the only teacher there who wouldn’t use a paddle on the kids. I am saying that engagement on some non-academic level can break down barriers and build trust for both teachers and learners. I don’t disagree with rules that have been put in place to protect children. I think those rules need to be in place, but adults need to know what is reasonable, appropriate conduct for teachers, not ban them from putting a friendly hand on an arm or having a friendly arm-wrestle. This looks like a slippery slope that can be argued longer than I care to think about it.
- I almost didn’t tell you this story, but I was encouraged to put it back in the narrative. The kids used to come up around my desk sometimes to ask and tell me things. Looking back, I think there was a certain amount of low-pitched pandemonium in my classes, but the desk routine plays pretty well in my memory, except for this episode. One time, S____, a Navajo with cowboy boots and bowed legs, was one of the kids around the desk. I gave him what I meant to be a jocular and affectionate mild little push on his arm and he fell down on the floor. What—from all my years of watching TV westerns—I had imagined were bowed legs from riding horses (maybe like Gabby Hayes) were something else. I now believe the child had rickets and I knocked him down as if he were a feather. I am so sorry. Sorry that I was so stupid and sorry that any child in the 1970s (a much better economic time than we have now, BTW) could be suffering from such a malady. I wonder if I have learned anything except that remorse is a stubborn emotion. Be careful and be tender, but I’ve found that a little difficult to keep in mind all the time.
- Children need to learn how to control themselves. In the years before and after Page, I have seen many kinds of discipline. Discipline is still not my strong suit, and I have been glad that I have hardly ever had to apply overt discipline to an adult ESL student. Plus, I’ve seen strong disciplinarians who were kind, effective, and who always had the learners’ best interests at heart. I still believe what my dad once told me: that children need to learn how to control themselves and overly hard discipline by the teacher won’t help them to get there. Someone recently asked me, what does help children learn self-control? I think I have learned to be a quite self-controlled person, but I don’t have an answer for this question. I think maybe our experiences teach us things (e.g. stoves are hot), but I don’t think that gives teachers the right to be preemptively and overly strict to try to teach children life lessons. I don’t know; I just don’t like bullies. We all have to learn to control ourselves. I continue to work on it, with some success and with some failure.
Happy back to school, teachers and students!
*(adapted from Losing It: Deconstructing a Life, unpublished work © Lynda Terrill, all rights reserved)