Monday, July 26, 2010


First you have to think of it. Then the ideas for a group come, slowly gathering force until someone offers enough money and a place and a leader. Even a curriculum. By that time the group may have become an institution.

Is Cinematheque an institution? (There is no curriculum.) I haul out the big unabridged dictionary to see what I can discover. (Someday I’m going to weigh this baby. It certainly weighs more than the cat. Maybe both cats.) Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

I’m always surprised. Source? “statuere”, to stand up, set, place -- like a statue, a station. First meaning: a. “to establish in a particular position or office: put (as a pastor) in charge of the care of souls.” b. “to appoint as heir under Roman or civil law.” [or a formal bequest from a dead artist or artists.]

Second meaning: a. “to originate and get established: set up: cause to come into existence: organize. “ [Forget that last word! Except that these guys are experts at logistics. But more improvisational than planned, in spite of Kilian’s best efforts.] b. “to set on foot.” [Do skateboards count?]

There are quite a few other inflections of meaning but two jump out at me: first is the “establishment of a sacrament,” in this case not the breaking of bread and sharing of wine (though not in opposition to that) but really the ingestion of pharmacological molecules that have the power to maintain life but not to grant healing. A complex and unforgiving schedule of pill-taking more intricate than any liturgical hours and rules. All pretty much at the mercy of whatever higher powers (or lower darker powers) are the source of the meds.

Second, “A significant and persistent element (as a practice, a relationship, an organization) in the life of a culture that centers on a fundamental human need . . .” This element at Cinematheque is very simple: SURVIVAL. Not eternal life in some other dimension but THIS LIFE and right now. That is, survival until hopeful crucifixion is no longer endurable and then, release into memory but not alone and not unacknowleged. If you die, you will be honored. If you live, you will be loved. Those are Christian terms. But not exclusively. There are equivalents in other places, other times. Schweitzer said, “Life in the midst of life, life that wishes to live.”

Very simple. Nearly unendurable. Mega-expensive.

Can it be franchised? Of what would the franchise consist? Permission to struggle? License to suffer? A 400-page directory to what isn’t and can’t be known? Would you like the Brooklyn Bridge with that? Or just a cure for AIDS?

In the Sixties and Seventies, the losses of hot war and gelidness of cold war, plus the experience of so many who had seen the world as soldiers or were there now as rebuilders, caused people to call out for new ways to do things. “Why not?” was the cry. The creation of Israel, the reknitting of Britain, made us think about schools. What happens to the child in the kibbutz? Why do the English have that fascination with boarding schools that gave so many men spanking fetishes? How do the French manage their Catholic schools in the face of edicts from Rome? Now that the governesses have disappeared into novels, how do we educate girls?

In America there had always been after-school schools for immigrants trying to preserve their culture: Jewish schools, Chinese schools. But now the Free School movement in Boston called on students trapped in public schools -- theoretically invested in maintaining citizenship skills, but pushing students to the side if they were black -- to come in on Saturday to learn more and in better ways. There had always been parallel public schools, parochial schools, and private schools -- each trying to find the perfect formula for their self-selected students. Even public school students learn how to “select out” through truancy, moving often, becoming incorrigible. And now we have home schooling.

Headstart was invented for preschool. Unparented, possibly abused, certainly neglected, these little kids came to kindergarten without ever holding a crayon or using scissors. The first job of the young VISTA workers who helped was to go to the homes, wake the children, put their jeans and t-shirts on them while the parents slept, and walk them to the school.

In 1972 on the Blackfeet Reservation, the special school for kids who would not stay in public school was called The Blackfeet Free School and Sandwich Shop. Set up in the old commodity warehouse, the school had no cafeteria but installed a sandwich shop and invited the community to share at lunch time. The old left-behind filing cabinet drawers became cradles for babies. Where the commodity cheese had been stacked, kicking wheels for ceramics began to spin. There were even classes in reading, but mostly books were just around and the youngsters were curious. One full-blood grandpa told me decades later, “That’s when I really became an Indian.” One winter the whole school took an old school bus across the country, pursuing one adventure after another, many of them having to do with the bus breaking down.

About the same time the Catholics started an elementary school, which withered, then sprang back up, so that today it is high-functioning. The Baptists started a school. By this time the Blackfeet Community College itself had been started and grown into a real campus with a curriculum and accreditation. They started an “academy” for high school students.

Most intriguing of all to the outsiders was Cuts Wood, Nitzipuahsin, Real-Speak School, an immersion school where everyone spoke Blackfeet. People said it would never work. They said it was wrong to “go backwards,” and something bad would happen. The public school teachers said the students were not learning the basics, which have to be taught in English, and predicted they would all fail in high school. But they didn’t. When they went on to college, they excelled. Because in the end it wasn’t the content that mattered. It was the person’s sense of self and refusal to be intimidated or told who they had to be. They met the world with curiosity and self-confidence and taught themselves through exploration.

Native American immersion schools became necessary because the early mission schools had forbidden the children to speak their own language. Imposing their proselytizing zealotry next to the double government goals of unifying a diverse nation and preventing the unification of enemies, the boarding schools stole a generation of authochthonous children and introduced an abyss into their lives that no amount of alcohol could ease. Some of those early grandparents feared their children would be stigmatized or even killed by soldiers if they went back to the old ways. They had seen it. They had heard it from their own ancestors. When today’s children were only healed and strengthened, they were amazed. And now their task became finding and renewing old ways that had had to be hidden.

Barrus’ friends suggested the idea of an art school for boys with HIV-AIDS. They had watched him with youngsters, including his daughter. They knew he had been a Headstart administrator when he was Eavan’s age, that through the years he had worked with disabled students of all ages and had done drug-damage triage in LA emergency rooms. With his wife he had acted as house parent on an Indian reservation. He’d traveled the planet as a child advocate and AIDS expert. He had the loft, the place. The money was left to him. But it was the boys themselves who insisted that he invent Cinematheque. The need pulled him in.

Back in the days when we were all reading A.S. Neill, Jonathon Kozol, Neil Postman and a host of others saying “why not?” about education, I ran across a story told by a principal in a tough ghetto neighborhood. It was an elementary school. One boy was impossible to contain, ending up in his office again and again. The principal tried all his counseling tricks, all his bribes, all his rules and contracts, but none of it worked. Finally one day the boy did something outrageous and the principal lost his temper. He got out his paddle and spanked him. It was legal, but all authorities advised it was a terrible thing to do.

The boy totally reformed. From that moment on, he obeyed all the rules, stopped by the office to greet the principal, and finally began to work in class. He was not a stupid boy. The principal knew he couldn’t be threatened into changing -- wasn’t that afraid of a little pain. So one day he asked the boy, “What changed you? What did beating you do?”

The boy laughed. “It’s simple, man. If you’re not big enough to take me down, you’re not big enough to protect me either. I got enemies!”

Tim never beats anyone. He takes them up on the roof. He takes them to walk on the beach He sits them in a red chair and makes them talk. They listen to him because they believe he knows.

Guyz at Cinematheque, who range in age from way-too-young to near-adult (which doesn’t much correlate with their chronological ages even if those could be documented) have lived desperate and demeaning lives. Tim’s street creds -- been there, done that, won the wet t-shirt contest and designed a new logo for the back -- make the boys believe in him and attach to him. Even when they’ve had enough and run away, Tim eventually gets a phone call. He hopes it isn’t from a hospital. Learning one’s grammar and math is fine. Learning how to survive HIV and stigma in a chaotic and shifting world is far more important. It is learning a language that pulls you into the tribe.


I like what Mary's doing here.

Let me add something about edges.

I have messages. I just do. I don't have to rationalize it.

Message Number One: Listen.

I need you to listen.

Marc would not listen.

He was killing himself. He was jumping from bridges. AIDS is HARD.

It breaks up famillies who are fragile anyway. No one ever talks about them or that. No one supports them. No fucking one.

Marriages dissolve. I have seen it time and time again.

I will not knowingly send a kid into a broken marriage.

I took Marc to Australia. Fuck the money. This was about his life. Jumping from bridges is a very serious thing to do.

People have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. It happens all the time.

In Australia, Marc learned about Aboriginal life. Where there are many tests.

One of them has to do with listening.

To the land.

The boy will get it or die.

I sent him back to his family in Santiago.

Mom and Dad were splitting.

Marc listened to that landscape. It was painful. He left it.

He survived a grueling journey to Buenos Aires. Where he knew I would be.

It was his first experience as a survivor. His hip replacements will be his second.

Sometimes you have to take them right to the edge and you had better know what the fuck you are doing.

The kid will live or he will die. Sometimes art helps.

That to me is what an education is about. It's life and death. -- t


Glen said...

Mary, I am Paul wheelers Uncle glen who grew up in Cut Bank, am now retired Lutheran pastor. I find your blog very interesting and insightful. I trust you have read The Wolf at Twilight by Kent Nerburn and since you seem to like dogcatchers and love God you could use a little more humor in your life by reading A Walk Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton, agreat image of the love of God who by the way happens to be an 87 year old woman. My cousin Ken lives a couple blocks from you and our family homestead was 14 miles west near birchcreek, April 1,1912
Edward Arthur(Windy) wheeler and my dad Arthur Edward arrived their in a covered wagon from Camrose, Alberta. I have a couple memories of Bob but will save those for another time. I can tell you have a passion for marginilized people and kids. glen wheeler

prairie mary said...

Welcome, Glen. I heard you might come. You could contact me more directly via email:

You might like another blog of mine which is at It's all about Bob.

Prairie Mary