My return to my Maze
I am flying out to Tucson this Tuesday evening, some 20 years after I left teaching high school. I am going to a conference. The plan is to go to the conference, and visit the Tohono O'odham nation with my friend Angie Listo. To try to visit as many of my old students as possible. Those young Tohono O'odham students the ones who taught me how lead with my heart, and trust that there are no better curricula guides than those in the hearts you teach. I can't wait to step off that plane, and feel the desert beneath my feet. This is my opportunity to slow down and reflect where I am now, and where my teaching is going next. It's another turn of my Maze.
According to O'odham oral history, the Man in the Maze design depicts the experiences and choices individuals make on their journey through life. In the middle of the "maze", a person finds their dreams and goals. When one reaches the center, they have their final to look back on the path and the choices they made. The Sun God then greets them and blesses them as they leave this life to the next one. At least this is the way the Maze was explained to me by Danny Lopez a Tohono O'odham elder who pass away some years back. He said the maze is different for everyone, and more than anything else it represents that people are all born to learn and reflect. This life is only a stopping point before the next one. Jesse, we need to look ahead and look back. We need to slow down from time to time to know we are standing right now. This is how we know where we are going next.
My Maze ten years ago
We need to feel confident with the language we write and speak. We are all born into a world of language, and confidence is not some fixed or timed event that happens spontaneously, or at the same time for everyone. School is often the place where time for competence becomes fixed. All ninth graders must write bio poems, all tenth graders will write persuasive essays and pass their state exit exams, and so on... The gift of the written word is like grace. We all know it is there, want it, need it, search for it, it is elusive, but like faith it has to find us. The finding in high school is difficult. The focus is far too often fixed on specific tasks that require everyone to go at the same paced and in the same direction. Your Maze is not your Maze in high school.
As a teacher of writing I have always struggled with these strange expectations. I wonder aloud “did Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Jose Marti, Federico Lorca Garcia, or Langston Hughes spend much time writing bio poems or persuasive essays”? There is something about language that links confidence not to form, but to our need for story. We all have stories to live, to laugh, to cry, to dance and share with others. Stories that make our Maze ours. Schools are seldom the place where people share their stories, but my question is why not? What happens when we share our Maze? 20-years ago, the day Andrew became a writer, and shared his Maze.
My trip to San Diego with 23 adolescents was wonderful but tiring, I returned home with laryngitis. Still every moment was worth it as we stood near the ocean, and Andrew (16 yr. old) a Tohono O’odham from the reservation who never saw the ocean read a poem by Ofelia Zepeda (an O’odham poet) called “Ocean Power.” In the Little Prince we find:
"People where you live,grow five thousand roses in one garden, yet they don't find what they are looking for...Said the Little Prince.
Antoine's Answered: "They Don't find it."
The Little Prince "And yet what they're looking for could be found in a single rose...
Antoine: "Of course."
The Little Prince: "But the eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart."
Introducing my Teaching Rose Andrew. When he first came into my class he never said a word, never wrote a line, but always had the most beautiful smile. Andrew was not difficult, but he just never really participated. Make no mistake though Andrew was close to making some wrong turns’. He was in my prayers everyday. I had to push and push him, and still he only gave an answer when he had to, with reluctance. At one point, I thought perhaps Andrew should go to another teacher whose teaching style was more traditional, but when this suggestion was made to Andrew he requested not to be moved. After that discussion with our director, Andrew began to speak up in class. But still he never wrote much. A line here, a paragraph once in a while. Andrew passed most tests, and could write a neat tidy paragraph on almost anything, but I always expected more and that expectation of more from Andrew caused my heart to ache. I wanted him to write, to really write, and something inside me knew he could. I hoped for three years. Mem Fox in her book "Radical Reflection writes about teachers aching to care.
Andrew had promise, and show it in math and science class, but not in English. Andrew is very bright, he is no special needs child in the general sense. Andrew just hated to write. He would say, "I just don’t feel like writing."
Just when I almost gave up on seeing any real writing from Andrew. At the beginning of the New Year in January 97, we were getting ready to begin work on our poetry publication and prepare for our spring public readings. Something happened amazing happen while everyone was working on their poetry. Andrew handed me some pieces of paper at the end of class, and said “Jesse, do you want my poem”? Did I want to see his poem...surely he knew...I was over the moon. He handed to me on the way out. I had a week to cherish it. I read it repeatedly. This class I teach is an Upward Bound writing class, we meet every Saturday for two hours so I had plenty of time to think about what to do the next time class met. I was so excited and happy with his poem I thought this is not just a poem this is a great poem. I typed it up, and made copies for everyone in class and had it enlarged to poster size!!
In class when I asked Andrew to read he said he would prefer if I read it for him. As I read it I emptied three years of hope into his poem, I wanted him to hear his soul beating in my reading. When I had finished reading there was a moment of silence then every one clapped - and the grin on Andrew’s face was better than cotton candy. After class, he told me that he wanted to be part of the Poetry Reading, he wanted to practice with everyone during the week, and he wanted to know would I (once again) be taping this on video. My smile at that moment expressed the most glorious moment I personally have ever had as a teacher.
Andrew practiced and read his poem in public for the first-time last semester. He was wonderful. Andrew has not stopped writing since. When Andrew read Ofelia’s poem "Ocean Power" at the ocean last week-he started "We O’odham people have important things to say about life, and we need to write them down on paper like Ofelia. Ocean my name is Andrew. I just might become a great O'odham writer some day like Ofelia Zepeda”. Then he read-and I had to turn away just for a moment, to dry the sweetest tears any teacher has ever shed. Later Andrew said “Hey teach, I did OK didn’t I”?
Yes, he did OK-and he is the miracle child that I know will turn out fine, just as E. B. White knew Charlotte was special, because it is not often someone comes along and is both “a true friend and a good writer,” I knew that moment Andrew like Charlotte was both.
Looking back, I think Andrew did not win any race to write, but in real writing it is not how fast you get there that counts, but what the writer writes.
Here is Andrew's poem- Remember he is allowing you an insight into the world of a young Native American mind-not very different than other young Native Americans - respect his view. To really see the power of his poem - you need to see his chest expand and his head rise up - and the proud look on his face as he reads the last line, with a shy smile.
In 1997, Andrew Thomas is a 16-year-old Tohono O’odham teenager who attends Baboqurivari High School on the Tohono O’odham reservation outside Tucson Arizona read his poem before a public audience at the University of Arizona. His rose bloomed.
The Spectral Question
What is an Indian?
We are always answering this question for:
The African Americans,
The question varies,
But remains the same,
Sometimes even poorly stated,
Sometimes even answered for us,
But, usually adds up to one question,
What is an Indian?
They say he is a person who doesn’t work,
But, gets a monthly check from the government,
They say that the Indians are lazy.
Still others say:
He is a man who got a raw deal from the government,
Therefore, he deserves what he gets from the government.
He is a drunkard,
Who never mounts to anything.
So therefore, terminate the government checks
Let him make his own way in the white man’s society
Myself, I do not see an Indian in this light,
My question is not who is the Indian,
But why others cannot,
SEE Indians as a unified group,
All different in their ways,
But held together,
By a common bond,
I see us as one
Who fought courageously against overwhelming odds.
Never giving in,
Despite every treaty broken,
One after the other.
I see the Indian as an individual,
Who when this America was in danger,
Went to the front voluntarily,
And gave their last final measure of devolution
In all your wars,
We came forward to defend this land.
I see the Indian as a group of people
Who are proud,
And rightfully so,
Because they possess the secrets of life,
No white man has ever discovered.
As a group, even in broken English,
Our children are told how important it is to get an education,
In this modern world.
I see the Indians as people,
Who crossed a cultural barrier into the dominate society,
Becoming the best in their chosen professions,
I see Indians in the:
So, when I think of the question
What is an Indian?
MY CHEST SUDDENLY EXPANDS,
And I think,
I AM AN INDIAN
By Andrew Thomas a true friend and good writer ©1997.
A little update on Andrew. His poem was published in Red Ink, a national Native American Journal published out of the University of Arizona. He graduated secondary school, the first in his family to ever accomplish this task. He went on Johnson and Wales College of hotel and culinary arts. He left after his first year, and join the United States Air Force. Andrew never follows a straight and narrow path, but he always finishes what he starts. My hope is he found his way home to live his life in the way that would make his elders proud. My heart is looking forward to seeing my students, my fellow travelers through the Maze, and sharing that everywhere I walk in the classroom they walk with me.
Roll on silver bird,
Roll on land of the sun,
Bring me back home,
Turn me around,
Give me that reflective look back,
Put me back on the good road,
Let me grow some more,
Live some more,
Learn some more,
Grow some more,
And help my bones age gracefully,
May my Maze journey be long, proud, humble, and true.
If you are wondering what song this walking man is listening to on his walk through the woods this morning it'a not a Tohono O'odham song. It is Amazing Grace Cherokee-Prayer.
My Tohono O'odham students taught me that curriculum has to be culturally accurate and relevant, something Nez Perece Chief Joseph tried to tell the White Man over a hundred years ago.