Tuesday, March 01, 2016


In 1989 I was hired to teach English at the start-up high school in Heart Butte, a village in the foothills of the East Slope of the Rockies.  The superintendent tried not to hire me, because he wanted a young man who was supposed to be a good high school basketball coach.  The whole purpose of a new high school was to produce a winning basketball team of Blackfeet, because on the rez and in Montana in general, winning at sports is what counts.

The young man was having an adventure that summer and couldn’t be contacted.  The superintendent wouldn’t give me my copy of the contract we’d signed.  If that guy had showed up, the superintendent would have claimed the contract never existed.  I knew that.  I moved my furniture into teacher housing so people would see I’d been hired.  They don’t think much of paper around there anyway.   Too many ignored treaties. 

Let’s be clear.  Teaching English in a traditional way on a rez where kids have shuttled all over the continent and were sort of emotionally suspended among a half-dozen languages and cultures including undergrounds (there are multiple), kids who had flunked three years of supposedly sequential subjects like grammar, where there was no library, thirty miles from the next town, where materials had to be created by the teacher who was assigned six classes plus coaching and monitoring — it was simply impossible.  The xerox machine burned out.  Then it was ridiculous.

The only thing to do was improvise but no one agreed on what principles.  Some thought we should make this a folk school, a tribal school.  The two main administrators that year were hugely overweight former football coaches.  (The Blackfeet kids didn’t like football — a person could get hurt.)  One administrator had taught history and had a decent education.  The other, the main one, was a deeply ignorant and conventional man.  He had grown up on a reservation as a white man with contempt for Indians except that they were good athletes.  He didn’t have much use for faculty either, but his impressive salary showed he was not the same as us.

Pretty soon he was eager to get rid of me.  I was not proud of my teaching, but I was trying to the point of exhaustion, experimenting.  The superintendent sent the educated administrator to evaluate my teaching, hoping for justification for firing.  Wedging into a desk seat, he would sit in the class for an hour, going down a checklist about whether the bulletin boards were appealing and so on.  The class would have to sit quietly, unlike their usual selves.  So I took advantage.

Ernest Hemingway

Since Post WWII, American literature has been dominated by the Saturday Review of Books point of view, which held up a trinity:  Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner.  We have never recovered from this.  Everyone else is arranged on those terms:  the terse Parisian existentialist, the California natural, and the ruined Southerner.  So I drew a chart on the white board, handed out individual copies of it and lectured my way through by location, philosophy, style, social period, readership, prestige — so that if by some fluke they went to college they would remember the names.

My evaluation was positive.  The students were baffled.  “You never taught this way before!  You are a hypocrite just trying to look good!”  Bet your sweet bippy this was exactly true.  The kids weren’t dumb.  They just didn’t know anything because they wouldn’t shut up and listen but why should they?
"The Red Pony"  First Edition
I took my copy up to school and the kids drew saddles on all the horses.

I was thinking about this because of a post at  https://medium.com/the-banterbury-times/hemingway-is-overrated-c4e0777fb79#.vqe9aufbg  entitled “Hemingway Is Overrated”.  No kidding.  But like everyone else, I prefer my Faulkner in movie form, and because of my constant divergence to theatre, I know Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neil better.  My not-secret love has been Steinbeck, very unfashionable.  I stole my brother’s copy of “The Red Pony.”  I taught it next to Wallace Stegner’s “Carrion Colt,” a short story about Eastend, Saskatchewan, where I always stopped on the way to Saskatoon.  Stegner grew up there in a house his father built for his mother with the money he made bootlegging. 

For a while, a high school student myself, I had the opening paragraph memorized:

“At day break Billy Buck emerged from the bunkhouse and stood for a moment on the porch looking up at the sky. He was a broad, bandy-legged little man with a walrus mustache, with square hands, puffed and muscled on the palms. His eyes were a contemplative, watery gray and the hair which protruded from under his Stetson hat was spiky and weathered. Billy was still stuffing his shirt into his blue jeans as he stood on the porch. He unbuckled his belt and tightened it again. The belt showed, by the worn shiny places opposite each bole, the gradual increase of Billy's middle over a period of years. When he had seen to the weather, Billy cleared each nostril by holding its mate closed with his forefinger and blowing fiercely.” 

(Hollywood miscast Robert Mitchum as Billy Buck, but he somehow became Billy anyway.)

Steinbeck was straightforward, grounded, and ordinary.  If you didn’t know better, you’d think he wasn’t skillful.  I had a series of texts called “Writing: Unit-Lessons in Composition” which used analysis of one paragraph at a time to make a relevant point.  One series was presented at four levels of increasing sophistication, which was great for my classes of six or eight people, each at a totally different level of understanding and experience.  The textbook writers, all English teachers in California, often chose a bit from Steinbeck.  It was these little analyses that really taught me what Steinbeck was all about.  He was a master of the graceful sentence rooted in reality and since he was writing about Mexicans in California, he was writing about indigenous people.  (You can find copies of this textbook series in used book stores.)

The American book buyer reads for the “dream” of the words, which everyone now calls “immersion.”  But they buy books in hopes of being the author for a while, which may explain why they become enraged to discover that the author isn’t the person in the book.  They’d rather be Hemingway or Faulkner than Steinbeck. “East of Eden” as enacted west of the Mississippi did not appeal to Manhattan.  Luckily, like Faulkner, Steinbeck was redeemed by the movies.  Unluckily, that dropped out his careful, vivid language.

William Faulkner

Just now I was looking at my last diverted copy of “Writing: Unit-Lessons in Composition” and out fell a slip from Ginn and Co. saying that Jack Baier was my “book rep” and had sent this complimentary copy.  I remember the man.  I was teaching in Browning, MT in the early Sixties.  He didn’t just come around drumming up business, he was looking for writers.  He was too early for me.  If I’d written anything then, it would have been trite, predictable and safe.  Maybe that’s what was wanted.  Even in the early 2000’s I was still safe, fact-bound, and Billy Buck wouldn’t have objected, but he wouldn’t have been that interested either. 

This last school year, as part of a cross-discipline learning unit, the Heart Butte kids cut up a real buffalo, dried the meat and called a feast.  Billy Buck would have been very interested and so would Robert Mitchum.  So how many of these “immersion” focused people would be interested?  Could they even relate to what they don’t already know?  And what did the kids write about it?

This man is doing the job with Stone Age tools

Why are we still arguing over Hemingway?  Would Kiefer McKenzie be interested in the technology of dismantling a buffalo?  I suppose it depends on who’s writing. 

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