I slam my car door shut, and I am finally alone.
meetings, kids that won’t go home, a basketball game, several tragedies of both the large and small variety… I turn the key, put the car in reverse, take a deep breath and begin to weep. I cry and I cry, and I hold in the brake pedal like a bandage on an open wound. Eventually, I return the car to park because I cannot see. I am ashamed, because I am supposed to be a professional, a good example, and a role model, but I cannot stop crying in the school parking lot. It’s not fair. How childish. How like everything the children say all day. Read this, I say. It’s not fair, Ms. Sumrall. Write something, I say. I won’t do it, not fair! Stand in line, don’t push, put your binder away, pick up that trash. Not fair, not fair, not fair. I am a middle school Language Arts teacher on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south central South Dakota. I am really very young. I am inexperienced. I am no expert, in teaching or Native culture. But I believe in education, and I value hope. I’m just a girl who thought she might be able to help a little. Just a girl, who thought she might create a place for a few kids to be, and live, and grow, if only for a while.
Overheard “We’re gonna buy a trailer on Friday. Its bigger than the one we live in now,” says Daniel. Daniel is an eighth grader, one of those kids who gets along with most everyone. Both of his parents have jobs, he’s got new clothes when the tax checks come out in January, and his mom’s phone usually has minutes. Daniel is talking to Tori, a pretty, popular girl who excels at sports, serves on student council, and makes good grades. Her response is genuine. She is excited for her friend. “Really? Like one of those…oh, what do you call them…?” They both consider for a moment, what you call them. Finally Tori seems to remember. “Oh! Double-wide!” “Yeah!” said Daniel, nodding enthusiastically. Tori also nods, in admiration. “Those are so cool,” she says. “All big.” Both kids sit back in their seat, minds drifting as they fantasize about Daniel’s new life in a double-wide trailer.
Kyle It is October, the team of teachers I work with – me, Mr. Flowers the science teacher, Mr. Hunt the math teacher, and Mrs. Butcher, the special ed teacher - is having a meeting about a sixth grader named Kyle. We scheduled the meeting because we wanted to know what we had to do to get rid of him. Please understand, we don’t harbor any particular malice toward this student. We just can’t teach anyone with Kyle in the room. He shouts. He hides, and then pops out in the middle of the lesson. He gets angry when you don’t pay attention to him. He takes things, and then throws them. We tell ourselves that we have tried, and we just can’t help Kyle the way he needs to be helped. So we decided to get rid of him. Because Kyle is a special ed student, we need to get the head of the special ed department to place him somewhere else. We think we can make a pretty good case, and we have enough evidence to back up our claims. A lot of people we’ve never met end up at this meeting: Kyle’s previous school counselor, his elementary special ed teacher, and his educational caseworker.
don’t actually know what the educational caseworker does, but I suppose I’ll figure it out throughout the course of the meeting. We are seated around a kidney-shaped table in the middle school special education teacher’s room, discussing Kyle’s previous record. It occurs to me, as his elementary special ed teacher talks, that we’ve never discussed Kyle’s elementary school experience, and I wonder why.
At the beginning of the year they told us he was a “bad
kid,” but we never got any more specifics. “Yes, he’s always liked to hide, and to throw things,” his old teacher is saying. But, at his elementary school, he also assaulted teachers, brought weapons to school, and refused to comply with any instruction. Kyle is the youngest kid they remember sending to the juvenile detention center. He spent his fourth grade year in a group home for children.
His caseworker chimes in. “He completed that program successfully, and returned to fifth grade, which means he can’t go back there.” I wonder what successful completion of a children’s group home program looks like. The counselor speaks next, to talk about what happened after this successful program. Kyle had re-integrated into elementary school for fifth grade. She mentioned that, during the months when she met with him regularly, she thought he had sometimes hallucinated. Last year he routinely told his teacher he was going to kill her.
She thinks Kyle
is making remarkable strides in middle school. After all, he hadn’t once threatened to kill any of his teachers. And then the caseworker pipes back up. “You know, Kyle’s mom moved to White River,” he says. White River is a tiny town just off the reservation, thirty miles north. “She moved in with her boyfriend, but it doesn’t seem like Kyle moved with her. He’s pretty much living in her house, but with his brothers. He’s basically taking care of himself, now. If he eats, it’s because he found food. I think his grandma comes over sometimes, but I’m guessing that the kid is washing his own clothes, getting himself on the bus.” He goes on to explain that things are even worse for Kyle’s halfbrother. A week ago someone shot a B.B. through his half-brother’s finger, and he has not yet received any medical attention. The school nurse cleaned it, but the finger got infected. The day the nurse sent him home, the caseworker took him to White River, to tell his mother that he couldn’t come back to school until he received medical attention. The boy was covered by Indian Health Services; all she had to do was take him to the hospital. She looked at the finger, the nail almost perpendicular to his shredded, pus-filled flesh. Without speaking to her son, she said she would take him. That afternoon she did, but he wasn’t seen by a doctor. Took too long. All of this had been reported to social services. No action, so far.
Kyle stayed at school.
Post Office Woman I saw a woman at the post office today. I was bundled in my kneelength, down-filled coat and boots. She wore a Steelers starter jacket, unzipped, with purple sweatpants. Tennis shoes, no socks. She was walking out as I walked in, so out of habit I apologized, sorry, even though it wasn’t my fault we were in each other’s path. Her face was deeply lined in that ageless-old way I’ve only seen on Indian people. She could have been thirty, or sixty. Around one eye the skin was purple and puffy, and both irises and pupils were the same vacant black. I don’t think she saw me. As I turned the key to my PO box, I thought, someone beat her. As I left the post office, she came back inside. I apologized again.
Giving Thanks It is a week before Thanksgiving. I am teaching traditional Lakota stories, like “How Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun,” “The Earth on Turtle’s Back,” “The White Buffalo Calf Woman.” For the first time, my eighth graders are excited to come to my class. Suddenly, in walks Blake . We are twenty minutes into second period, and she has nothing in her hands -- no pass, no notebook, no homework. She simply enters, and stands near the door. I take a step toward her, but most of the girls in the class rush past me and surround her. Her neck is red and purple where the rope burned and bruised her skin. I do not know what to do. It is my classroom, but this is an intimate moment in which I have no role. The girls are crying. One strokes Blake’s neck, so gently, and I read her lips saying, “Is this where…?” I stand, still and dumb, a few feet from them. And then, as quickly as she came, she is gone. We won’t see Blake again for a long time. She has gone to treatment, like so many before her. She is lucky to get in without having to wait. For drugs or alcohol, sometimes there is a waitlist. I guess attempted suicide will get you in faster. I didn’t even say hello. Or I’m sorry. Or, I love you, please never, never do this again. The girls sit back down, and we go on with the lesson.
Something That Isn’t Quite Sense Maria is very cute.
Small and athletic, she’s got a symmetrical,
heart-shaped face, olive skin, and coal black eyes. Her hair is black, too, and long.
She’s good at math and writing, and gets along well
with most of her teachers. The other students like her. Sometimes, Maria falls into a gloomy mood. It isn’t often – once a month, maybe – but on these days she is inconsolable. She cries in the bathroom. Avoids meeting your gaze. Numbers chase each other across her paper instead of settling into the equations she’s supposed to solve. Words dance around the page, making something that isn’t quite sense. Maria was gloomy yesterday. Today, her friends carry her from her last class back to her homeroom. Her science teacher notices that something is wrong. Maria can’t stand up. She is making strange noises, stumbling, incoherent. “Maria,” says the teacher. “Are you…drunk?” Maria is thirteen. Her unfocused eyes settle on her teacher. She wrenches free of her friends’ grasp, and falls into the lockers, dropping her books, her backpack, and her water bottle. She hits the lockers, giggling. Her friends rush toward her again, trying to maneuver her upright. The teacher picks up the bottle, unscrews the cap and sniffs. Everclear. Straight. She is drunk. Very drunk. Kids and papers and books swirl around the science teacher, as he stands next to her, trying to figure out what to do.
Dana Dana is a tomboy. She doesn’t really get along with the other girls, and she’s a little immature for eighth grade. Her mother cares for her deeply, helps her with her homework and makes sure she turns it in. Her parents are divorced, but her dad is also a very involved parent. He comes to parent/teacher conferences, and takes her and her brother hunting. Jesse has transferred from White River to Todd County because the teachers in White River are racist. This is what his mother tells my team leader on the phone, and what he confirms his first day at school. Yup, them teachers are racist. They hate Indians. Do you hate Indians? No, I tell him, I do not hate Indians. In fact I’m very happy that I get to teach Native students. Jesse takes this information skeptically, but does the schoolwork I give him. As time goes on, it seems that Jesse likes the non-racist teachers here. It’s the students with whom he has a problem. After less than a month at school, he gets into a fight in the hallway. Details are hazy. But now he’s got an enemy, and the hate spreads over his face and through his body. It settles into his eyes, and it doesn’t go away. He hears Dana talking about hunting, and gets an idea. He slides into the seat next to her at lunch. “Your dad’s got guns, eh?” Dana swirls her school-bought spaghetti around her fork. “Yeah,” she says. “Does he got any little ones?” “What do you mean? He’s got rifles for hunting. That’s the ones we use.” “So he’s got little ones, too. Like a pistol.” It isn’t a question any more. Dana answers without thinking. “Yeah, he’s got one.” “Bring it to me.”
“What? I can’t do that!” “Shhh. I’m not gonna shoot anybody. I just wanna point it at someone. Scare him.” She thinks about it. He’s a scary boy, and there are others like him on the rez. Tough. Reckless. Crazy. If she doesn’t do what he is asking, he might decide to focus all that tough, reckless, crazy hate on her. She considers what he says for a few days. Every so often, he sidles up to her, in class, or in the hall, and says it again. “Bring it to me.” In the end, Dana does not bring it to him. After school one day, she tells the counselor. While the counselor tries to figure out what she ought to do at school tomorrow, the boy gets arrested for stealing a car, so now we don’t have to worry about him.
Conferences The grandmother sitting across from me is broad-shouldered and leathery. She is handsome; she comes from ranch stock, and although she has a PhD, it’s easier to picture her on the back of a horse than behind a desk.
She is as dark as some Indians I’ve met, but she is
white. During most parent/teacher conferences, the parent sits awkwardly across the table, wrestling a couple of toddlers and looking everywhere but at me.
I get moms, dads, grandpas, aunties, sisters.
The adults and I usually speak in general terms about their student’s behavior and progress, and then they leave. Not this time. This woman is alone, and sits directly across from me. She looks me square in the face, and says, “So tell me about Derrick.” This woman is Derrick’s step-grandmother. She is not Native. Her grandson is the child of a white woman and a Native man, but he has been adopted by his stepfather, who is this woman’s son. Grandma is not just a ranch wife. She is the school superintendent. I am a lowly, first-year teacher. I wish I wasn’t nervous. Her grandson’s behavior is good enough, but he is significantly behind in reading and writing. I begin to guide the conversation toward his deficiencies and what can be done to overcome them, when the superintendent interrupts. “Yes,” she says, “but what are you doing about his handwriting?” “Excuse me?” “His penmanship is terrible. There’s no way he’s going to be able to be a part of the family business with writing like that. You teach Language Arts. What are you doing about handwriting?” I am silent a moment. Did I hear that right? “Um…well, I have to say, I don’t really focus on handwriting as much as writing. I mean by eighth grade, if they are still not reading on grade level, which I have to tell you, Derrick isn’t…”
I am interrupted, and the rest of the conference goes by quickly. She’s saying something about the life of a “boy like Derrick,” telling me she knows all about what “kids like him” can do, and I can’t get in more than the occasional nod or grunt. She keeps talking about “kids like him,” and then briskly, she gives the table a sort of we’re-donenow tap, takes his report card, and leaves. “Handwriting?” I say aloud to the empty room. The wall charts and barren desks seem to feel as appalled as I do.
The Family Business “Fine Dining,” the new sign outside says.
There aren’t any other
sit-down restaurants on the whole reservation. I have not been here before, and I want to support businesses in my new community. The main room’s interior is rustic, mostly wood, with ranch and bar paraphernalia on the walls. The main doors open to a corner, with a large square bar on the right. Two pool tables and several dart boards lead to round tables on the far side of the room. Tonight is Friday night. When I walk in, the first person I see is Alex, an eighth grader who hadn’t been at school in three weeks. The last time I saw her, she was in the cafeteria, showing off her freshly tattooed arm in the lunchroom. Alexandria, the tattoo declares, in faux-fancy script. I raise my arm to wave at her. She scowls in my general direction and walks into a back room. Soon after, another middle school student comes in with his father. They sit at the bar. His dad shoves a dollar at him and points at the jukebox. My friends and I sit at a round table in the back, and I watch people drink and drink. I think about the people I see along this road every weekend, hitchhiking between various communities and this bar. Just last week, a teacher picked up one of our student’s parents, a kindly man stumbling along the highway. I think about the notorious presence of drunk drivers on this road, and the kids who have missed school for a family member’s wake. I am not comfortable here. I decide that I won’t come back, and I don’t. Later I’ll think back to this decision, and wonder if I should regret it. When I want to have a glass of wine, I take my money thirty miles south, instead of supporting the working parents of my students in this community. Instead of coming to this place, where I recognize people, and feel weird, and otherly, I sit in a room with a lot of polite, white Nebraskans that I don’t know. I am not used to seeing kids in bars. I don’t want to see drunk parents. I don’t want to run in to the school superintendent, or her son. I have decided that they are taking advantage of the people they
claim to serve.
I have decided that their priorities for their child
are out of order. I canâ€™t do anything about it, but I can take my business elsewhere. And I do.
Independence Day Every few seconds I can hear a sharp crack coming from somewhere beyond my backyard. In a place so riddled with gang activity my first thought was gunfire, but the gangs here seem to prefer bats and hatchets to firearms. Then I realize that the advent of the sounds coincides with the end of June and the opening of a firework stand uptown. Used to instant gratification, I guess the kids just can’t hold out until the Fourth of July. And then it occurs to me: Why are they celebrating? Thanksgiving, I understand. That was a peaceful exchange between Indians and whites, and I am certainly in support of an attitude of thankfulness, whatever the historical significance. But the Fourth of July? That was the beginning of the end. Once the colonists were loosed from the British they were free to sprint toward the Pacific, making deals with France and Spain, pushing Natives further and further west (when they weren’t outright killing them). I ask Louis, my Lakota friend and fellow teacher, why. He simply said, “We’re Americans, too.”
The Kindness of My Heart “I do this out of the kindness of my heart, you know,” the wiry Lakota woman tells me, adjusting her black coat. Her clothes are nice, and clean, but out of style. She tucks her short hair behind one ear and adjusts her glasses. “Yes, ma’am, nothing anywhere says I have to take care of my screw-up kids’ kids. I do it out of the kindness of my heart. Do I want to? No. But I do it anyway…” I could finish the sentence for her, but I don’t.
She is talking
about her grandson, Zach, a sixth grader who has more than thirty referrals. It’s still the first semester.
She speaks to me, with her
hands on his shoulders. The thing is, I like Zach. He isn’t mean or hateful. When he has an idea it jumps from his head to his mouth faster than most of my students can form a thought. He’s creative and funny, and very impulsive. from me.
We’ve developed a nice rapport. Few of those referrals are
I tell his grandmother this, and she scoffs.
“Well you call me when he starts screwing up. I’ll figure out a way to get him back in line. I’m only doing it out of the kindness of my heart,” she says.
He shuffles out of the room behind her.
The next day, Zach bounds into first period. His joy spills onto the carpets, the other students, and me. We’re all in a better mood because Zach is so happy. Soon I find out why. “Miss Sumrall, Miss Sumrall!” (He never says my name just once.) “Miss Sumrall, I’m going to need some work for tomorrow. I’m not gonna be here!” I promise to have homework for him by the end of the day, and I ask where he’s going. “Sioux Falls,” he says, beaming. “I’m going to see my brother.” I didn’t know he had a brother. “This makes you very happy, I can tell.” “Well, yeah,” says Zach, talking fast. “See, we’re the same age almost, we just have different moms, and his mom lives in Sioux Falls,
so he lives there with her and I live here with my grandma and sometimes my dad. And my dad, who is his dad, too, he is going up to Sioux Falls tonight, after I get done with school, and he’s going to pick me up and take me and we’re going to go see my brother, and probably hang out with him, like all weekend” “When’s the last time you got to see your brother?” I ask. “Two years,” he says, with a certainty most sixth graders lack when trying to grasp the passing of time. “He came here when I was in fourth grade and stayed for a week with my grandma and my dad and me and we rode bikes and played PS2, except it might have been PS1 then, I don’t remember, but we played it, and I got to miss a couple of days of school then, too, cause it was a very special occasion.” “Well, you’ll have to tell me all about it on Monday.” “I will!” says Zach, and he bounces along to his next class. The next morning, I am a little late to my first class. When I enter, most kids are already there, getting their materials and going to their desks. I see Zach already sitting in his usual seat. If yesterday was a full-color portrait of his happiness, today Zach is the photo’s negative. He is silent, bent over the warm-up assignment. When he glances up at me, I can see that his eyes are redrimmed. He seems to take up less space than he did the day before. Disappointment sits heavily upon his bony shoulders. Unceremoniously, I give him new copies of today’s assignments, and make no mention of his dark mood or unexpected presence. I compliment his work, and encourage him as best I can. At the end of class he is the last to leave the room, still small and slumped. I hope his other teachers are kind to him today.
Alone in my car, I close my eyes again, and all I can see are their faces; all I can hear are their names. I feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for them. Itâ€™s not fair. But I soon cry myself out. Thankfully, no one has seen me. I return the car to reverse, pull out of the parking lot and go home. Tomorrow, Iâ€™ll wake up, take a couple of Tums, and do it again.
Tara Sumrall is a 2007 Teach for America alumna. She taught middle school Language Arts on the Rosebud Indian Reservation from 20072009.