I became a boarding school student for the first time when I was eight. After the Teec Nos Pos BIA school, I once again took my schooling by correspondence. Halfway through fourth grade, my mother gave birth to her sixth child. My father bought our first automatic washing machine and decided I would go to Rehoboth Mission School, one hundred thirty miles away. The washing machine meant my mother no longer had to use a washboard or feed clothing and diapers through the rollers of the old wringer washer. Boarding school for me meant more time for her other chores.
I was excited. I thought I could be like those teens departing for Anadarko and Chilocco. The braids that hung to the middle of my back were cut off, leaving a severe bob to make it possible for me to take care of my own hair. My mother gave me a small tin box for my little treasures. It wasn't a footlocker like those big kids bound for Intermountain owned, but it was mine and it was new. Everything else went into the yellow and brown suitcase my mother had used since nursing school.
Sixty-seven years after I started at Rehoboth, whenever January 24 comes around, I remember it as the anniversary of my first day of boarding school. It's not that I try to remember; I can't help it.
My father drove me to Rehoboth in the mission pickup, thirty miles over dirt and cobbles, one hundred miles over the narrow asphalt strip that was New Mexico Highway 666. He was on his way to Prescott, Arizona to be a witness in the Federal trial of someone from Teec Nos Pos. He left the pickup to be serviced by the Rehoboth maintenance crew. Over the next few days, while he was in court, that pickup became my touchstone to home. I knew on that first day that boarding school was not going to be an adventure after all, Anadarko and Riverside to the contrary.
There was a separate dorm for missionary kids, which really meant Bilagáana missionary kids. Miss Vander Weide, the white-haired matron, showed me to my basement room with its Pepto Bismol pink walls and insulated steam pipes suspended from the low ceiling. "Everyone calls me Miss Van," she said. She showed me a drawer. "Just put your suitcase on your bed for now, and you can unpack later." Mine was the narrow bed. At right angles to it was a double one. "That's where Jessie and Bonnie sleep. You'll meet them after school."
Then she walked me down the hill from the big white house that had been turned into our dorm and across the mission campus to the school. She knocked on the third and fourth grade classroom door, and a stylishly dressed, young Diné woman opened it. She and the high school Home Ec teacher were the only Diné faculty. Everyone else was Dutch American or Dutch Canadian. Neither of these women would last long at Rehoboth. Miss Silversmith brought me to the front of the room, put her arm around my shoulders and introduced me. In all my years at Rehoboth, she was the only one to give me the welcome of touch.
At noon we lined up and marched to the Mission House where we sat ten to a table, all ages, with one adult who would ensure that we ate some of everything and cleaned our plates. After school, I went up the hill. Jessie and Bonnie were there in our room. Bonnie wore a brace on her leg, and when I saw it, I realized who she was—the missionaries' kid from Two Wells who had been bitten by a rattlesnake. She was in first grade, and I thought she seemed kind of slow. She didn't say anything at all.
Jessie was big, way bigger than me and a lot bigger than Bonnie. "I'm in sixth grade," she said. It sounded like a challenge. "What grade are you in?"
"Fourth," I squeaked.
"Ohh." The slant to her oh tied my stomach in knots. "Well, we had a lot more space in here before they brought your bed in." She kicked Bonnie's brace at the ankle, "Didn't we, Stupid?"
Bonnie nodded. She didn't seem to care about being kicked or called Stupid.
I knew I should say something, but I didn't dare. "I'll say something next time," I thought. I already knew there would be a next time. I unpacked my suitcase, and started out of the room.
"Hey! Where are you going?" Jessie asked.
I was afraid if I told her, she would follow me. I didn't say anything.
"Hey! I asked where you're going."
"Oh, are you going to tell on me? Are you a tattletale?"
I shook my head.
"What did you say?"
"I didn't … no."
"You better not be if you know what's good for you."
Just then Wilma, who was in high school and shared the room next to ours, stepped over to our doorway. I knew her because she was the daughter of the missionary in Shiprock. "Hey, Jessie," she said. "You better leave her alone."
I said hi to Wilma and hurried toward the stairs. I knew where my father had left the pickup, and I crossed the campus, walked up behind the houses to a garage that could berth up to three vehicles. Outside the garage stood the familiar dark green pickup with the white lettering on the door: "Teec Nos Pos Christian Reformed Mission." I touched the lettering. I tried the door, but it was locked. I wanted to get in and sit on the leathery brown seat and wait for my father to come back from Prescott and take me home. Instead I leaned in and rested my forehead against the door and felt the tears trickle down my cheeks.
I'd stood there a while, when a bell gonged on the other side of campus. A thin, bent man wearing blue coveralls and rimless glasses came out of the maintenance shop and said, "That's your supper bell. If you want supper, you better run."
I didn't know if I should run to the dorm or the Mission House. I picked the Mission House. Then I saw the others marching down from my dorm, and a second bell rang. I was pretty sure I'd made the wrong choice. Much longer lines of Navajo students marched from the big gray dorms on either side of the schoolhouse.
After supper Miss Van got out a carom board, and Jessie and a boy named Bobby, whom I recognized as a third grader from my classroom, taught me how to play. While we shot the wooden rings into pockets, two sisters from Naschitti who were in high school took turns practicing the piano. Three high school boys and Wilma did homework in the dining room. "Maybe it won't be so bad," I thought.
Then Miss Van told us it was time for us younger kids to get ready for bed. Bobby went to his room, and Jessie, Bonnie and I headed downstairs. I had brand new flannel pajamas, white with little orange and turquoise stars, ordered from the Sears catalog. I felt I was going to cry, so when I pulled the top on, I kept my head inside. I was afraid to let Jessie see.
"Hey. You. Don't start crying now."
I gulped and said, "I'm not." My voice quavered.
"You're on the verge. I can tell."
I pulled my pajama top on the rest of the way and sought refuge under the covers, pulling them close to my face so I could cry without being heard.
The next day I found my safe place. It was behind the big gray Girls' Dorm. The Navajo girls' dorm. Irma Ahasteen was in fourth grade too, and I knew her from Beclaibito, the place next to Teec Nos Pos. She drew me into a game of Red Rover. When the first bell for supper sounded I raced up the hill so I could march back down with the missionary kids. The Bilagáana missionary kids.
The first weekend I went home, I begged my parents to let me stay. "You wanted to go," they said. "Now you have to live with your decision." Only when someone else said, years later, "You were only eight years old," did I realize how inappropriate their reasoning had been.
"Can't I stay in the Girls' Dorm instead?" I asked.
"You can't stay there because the Navajo kids can't go home on weekends. You wouldn't like that, would you?"
"Why can't they?"
"If they go home, they might not go to church. We want them to go to church every Sunday."
Later I would realize that this constituted one rationale for a separate dormitory for missionary kids. Much later, it would occur to me to wonder why the Diné missionary kids didn't live in our dormitory. Surely no one feared that they wouldn't go to church if they went home on the weekends.
At home, my brother Rick and I made what we called Ps. We wouldn't say, "Plans" out loud because they were to be kept secret from our parents. The plans were strategies for keeping me from returning to Rehoboth after a weekend home. Our most elaborate P was to dig a large pit, cover it with branches, and hide me in it until it was past time to leave. That way I would miss my ride in the old green Studebaker with the missionary kids from Shiprock.
Every time I went back to school, I spent the first half hour in class sobbing. I tried desperately and failed to stop myself. Finally Miss Silversmith would say, "Why don't you go to the office and get a drink of water?" She never sounded impatient with me, only kind, even though I was the only one who went through this Monday after Monday.
It wasn't every Monday. All the other kids in our dorm went home every weekend, and even though I had a ride to Shiprock, my parents said that the thirty-miles over the dirt road would be too expensive and hard on the car every week. Two round trips would have amounted to a hundred twenty miles of rough road, but in my mind it was only thirty, and I couldn't understand why they wouldn't want me home every weekend. I was forced to spend alternate weekends with families that lived on the mission compound. Mostly one family, the Van Bovens, where the children repeated Jessie's bullying less overtly. The Van Boven kids teased me about having skipped a grade. They teased me about being homesick. They laughed when I accidentally slipped into what linguists have called Dummitawry English—English spoken with a Diné accent. They dished out the meanness of kids who don't want someone else's kid living with them.
© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.
To Be Continued on Monday, 1/29/24