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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures

CHAPTER II, Installment 1: IN AND OUT

A BIA school like the one at Teec Nos Pos

"In and Out" was first published in Isthmus, Special Political Issue, 2016


Anadarko. Chilocco. Haskell. Riverside. Intermountain. That's where the giant olive-green, formerly military buses were headed. Far away to Oklahoma, Kansas, California, Utah. I watched with admiration as teenagers hefted their shiny enameled cobalt or black footlockers into the bellies of the buses and then climbed aboard. The girls wore shirtwaist dresses with full skirts, bounced out by crinolines. The boys had on startlingly white shirts and brand new dark blue jeans, black or white cowboy hats.


The buses lined up beside the little Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) School. Each bus stood there for a whole day, while horses and wagons came and went—parents bringing their children to buses that would take them to boarding schools far away. At day's end, the buses roared off, raising dust as they passed the mission below the school—the mission where I stood watching.


I loved the names of those places. They sounded like poetry. Anadarko—full of mystery. Chilocco—a sound of music. Intermountain—surrounded by majesty. Riverside—a green paradise. "Someday I will go to boarding school," I thought, and I knew it would be a romantic adventure.


I was five, living on the small mission post in Teec Nos Pos in the northeast part of the Navajo Nation. My first year of school had been a kindergarten correspondence course from the Calvert School in Baltimore. Missionaries the world over used the Calvert Course, but the next year my parents arranged with the principal that I would attend the BIA school.


"She won't be on the books," the principal said, "because it's not really legal for her to attend."


"What about report cards?"


"She'll get a report card, but we just won't include her in any of our reports to the Bureau."


My parents were sticklers for rules, so it's surprising that they agreed to this arrangement, having me be a sort of ghost student.


"We can't have her in first grade, though," Miss Mims added. "The other kids will still be learning English, and she already knows how to read." She gave my mother a look of disapproval.


On a bright September morning, my mother walked me up the hill for my first day of second grade—my first day of "real" school. The building had been constructed as a Works Project Administration (WPA) effort during the Depression and was built of native sandstone and pine vigas. We entered the cool, dark hallway, and I was assailed by unfamiliar smells that I would soon enough identify as sawdust sweeping compound, petroleum jelly, and Government commodity powdered milk, pressed pink lunchmeat and pale yellow processed cheese.


We marched down the quiet, empty hall to my classroom. My mother knocked, and Mr. Washington answered. Silent children filled all the seats but one. Perhaps the arrangement with Miss Mims had been reached after the school year started, and that explained the already full classroom. Mr. Washington pointed to my seat, and my stomach went queasy. We started work, and between reading, coloring, adding and subtracting, I forgot that my mother was gone.


Before lunch I found out where the petroleum jelly smell came from. We girls went into a bathroom to wash up by the long porcelain trough with its many faucets.


Afterwards, the others took large dollops of Vaseline from a container in the coatroom and spread their faces, hands and arms with it to protect against the desert air. I imitated them. We trouped into the dining hall, where I learned about the powdered milk, pink meat and pale cheese. My stomach got queasier.


Then Mrs. Belone came in, and I was happy to see her. Hers was the first familiar face I'd seen all day. She was the mother of Sally and Carol, the girls we played with in the apple tree, down in the arroyo, and in each other's houses. But she pretended that she didn't know me. "Line up! Line up! Time for your nap," she shouted.


"What?" I didn't say it out loud, but I was thinking it. "How could this be? What's happening? I don't take naps anymore. And why does Mrs. Belone sound so mean?"


She got us marching to a room with rows and rows of narrow metal beds. Striped seersucker bedspreads covered them—light and dark green ones and pink and maroon ones.


Mrs. Belone led me to a bed. "Here. You sleep here."


I tried to say, "But I don't sleep here. I don't stay here." But she was gone to some other part of the room where two boys were tussling with each other and laughing. She got that out of them right away.


I lay stiff and straight on top of my pink and maroon spread. I was terrified that this could mean I would be staying here permanently. Mrs. Belone left. My bed was near the door, and I rolled off of it, being as quiet as I could. The springs squeaked, and I stopped. No one said anything or did anything. I got to the floor, hunched over, and scooted to the door. It was open a crack, and I slipped out, looked both ways down the dark hall, saw no one, and made a dash for the outer door. It was heavy, made of metal, and it made a loud creak when I pressed the bar to open it. I squeezed through, and launched into a run. I didn't stop until I was home.


My mother looked surprised, when I dashed into the kitchen. Between gulped breaths, tears streaming, I said, "I don't want to go to school anymore. They're trying to keep me there. I had to go in this room and go to bed. They want me to stay there. And Mrs. Belone pretended like she doesn't even know me." I stopped and looked up at my mother, then I added, "And the food tastes awful."


She got on the phone to Miss Mims. I waited, hoping I wouldn't have to go back ever again, and listened to my mother's end of the conversation. When she got off the phone, I said, "Do I have to go back?"




"Noo. I don't want to. Please."


"You have to. But you can come home for lunch and have your nap here."


"But…" I was pleased but puzzled. "I don't take naps."


"We'll see about that. You have ten minutes. Then you have to go back up."


As soon as things were settled, I felt ashamed. I knew the other kids' mothers couldn't call Miss Mims and get things changed for them. I knew they had to eat the lunches, take naps in that big room, eat supper there, and sleep there at night. I was glad I didn't have to, and I felt guilty for being glad. What had happened didn't fit with my sense of fairness. But I wanted the reprieve anyway.




© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rightds reserved.


If you missed the first essay, "Fissures and Crenellations," you can read the entire essay by going to the Table of Contents.

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To be continued on Friday, 1/26/24

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