Friday, June 04, 2010

Not a wannabe

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, education, culture

At my parents' 50th anniversary celebration, my youngest brother spoke of growing up with three older brothers, and mainly of his school years. One or another of us was always showing him something new, so that he had a head start in some parts of his schooling, but ran crosswise in others. He had other experiences also, ones he felt were the most relevant to living life. His closing remark really stuck with me: "Education is what happens when you aren't being schooled."

Kurt Caswell makes a related remark in his book In the Sun's House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation. On p121: "…life at home was an education too, a better education in how to be Navajo, perhaps, than any classroom could provide." Considering that Borrego Pass School has half the class day held in the Navajo language, this is telling. Just as my brothers and I learned to be who we are by growing up in a certain family, the Navajo kids learned who they are by growing up in their families, and the author became who he is by growing up in his Idaho/Oregon family.

By age 26, having traveled the world more than most of us, having lived and taught in Japan for a year, he would be, one might expect, more cosmopolitan, more resilient in the face of different cultures. Perhaps he is, but in Borrego Pass he was completely out of his element. He didn't help himself by getting into a staring contest with one of the first school children he met; that's a good way to make a lifelong enemy out of a Navajo (and the same holds true for Native American men in general).

I believe the cluster of buildings in the foreground of this Google Earth image is Borrego Pass School. It is less than a mile from that point on the map known as Borrego Pass, where the Continental Divide wriggles through northwestern New Mexico.

The school grounds and surrounding buildings are nestled up against a mesa on and around which the author took frequent walks. In the afterword to the book, Rex Lee Jim has a few complaints, that Caswell didn't experience certain things that might have affected his outlook. He writes of the Navajo tendency to celebrate things like a child's birth or first steps, of the rich family life Navajos lead, and states, "He never sees it."

Indeed, this is true, but what options were there for him? I've spent a total of a few months on various Indian Reservations, and with very few exceptions, they are Third World enclaves buried in the lost corners of the First World US. Borrego Pass (really a part of Crownpoint, NM), is such a case. Poor people everywhere celebrate what they can, for there is little else to take the grinding edge off a poor life. While Caswell has definite loner tendencies—he seems to prefer long walks with his dog to most everything else—he was up against cultural tendencies that excluded him.

Like idealistic young people everywhere, the author hoped he could "make a difference", though he muses more than once over just what such a vague term that is. What he experienced was that Borrego Pass began to make a difference to him. He didn't change anyone much, but he was himself changed. At some point, he began to find the desert beautiful. He almost admits to finding the people beautiful, but he never goes that far. This fits the loner profile, with which I much sympathize; we are more comfortable with landscapes and mechanisms than we are with people.

Every teacher lives for those moments when someone's face lights up, or to hear a quiet "OH!" from the back of the room. He had a few similar moments, and was in the end quite impressed with a student he calls Renee (all names are made up to protect the people he lived among). Of all the kids (he taught 6-8 grade children), she alone seemed to look beyond the New Mexico horizon, for opportunities to grow beyond "the rez" and be able to return to "help the Navajo." Perhaps she will, just as Rex Lee Jim did in his own generation.

Kurt Caswell moved on after that one school year. But Borrego Pass didn't leave him so easily. It took him a few years to settle it in his mind, then he wrote this book. It exposes and reveals him in a way he'd have found painful at the time, but he has matured. He may think he had little effect, but he is like the man on the seashore, throwing starfish and snails back into the ocean. If someone asks, "How can that make much difference? There are so many," he will reply, "It matters to this one" as he throws it back in. For the uninitiated: that ocean is within.

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