20 April 2006


Memory is a funny thing. Today, I was cruising the Intarweb when a news story on gas prices caught my eye. In an instant, my mind flew back two years:

It was a crisp, cool day in early May, 2004. With all my earthly possessions (mostly well-read books and ragged clothes) loaded into my dusty '96 Camry, I was driving on I-70 through Colorado towards Kansas and home. I had spent a sometimes wonderful, frequently painful year teaching at a small K-12 mission school on the Navajo reservation near Four Corners, and I was full of all sorts of different emotions.

Foremost in my heart was a feeling of freedom and escape. So many times during the year, I had felt inadequate to do my job: to teach and to show my kids how a Christian believes and lives. Sometimes I wasn't even sure what that meant.

The teaching was tough for several reasons. First, I hadn't had a very wide variety of classroom instruction, and my degree was in English and history... not education. So when the principal of the school assigned me teach 7-10 grade math, High School Spanish, and Jr. High Bible, I was a bit out of my comfort zone. Nonetheless, I did what I could. I didn't know how to run a classroom, how to write tests or homework assignments or lesson plans, or how to make the kids do their work. I was sketchy on discipline, I hated dealing with laziness, and I had a hard time engaging them in the subject matter. In short, I was fresh meat, and the kids all knew it.

I was taken advantage of so much... for the first month, I thought Bill* and Ted*, two of my 8th-graders, were Steve* and Bob*, two of my 7th-graders. When I took kids home after cross-country practice, they told me to take the wrong roads on the way back. And on the Navajo Rez, that can mean a side trip of over an hour... the roads are rocky, confusing, and overall pretty terrible.

So in some ways, my life was kind of tough that year. The social and cultural environment didn't help much. Half the kids lived with aunts or grandmas whose husbands (and, a lot of the time, kids too) were alcoholics. Every kid in my junior high class had at least one relative who had died of alcohol-related causes. Bill* and Ted* were both suspended mid-year because they came to a junior high basketball game drunk on Bourbon (we think it was provided by their older cousins). Some of the kids may have even experimented with drugs (though not around school).

I was not a great teacher, I'll admit. I had little patience with kids who were determined not to learn, so I helped the ones who wanted to as much as I could. As for those who didn't want to, well... most of them managed to work their butts off enough to pull C's late in the year.

Other parts of my life that year were great, though. I got in good physical shape for the first time since high school -- I helped to coach cross country and basketball, I worked out with the kids, and I played community basketball, softball, and volleyball.

As I drove along I-70 that afternoon, gas prices were much higher than they had been the year before, when I had been on my way down to the mission... that somehow stuck in my head, and I just remembered it today.

In retrospect, it was really one of the best periods of my life. It's shocking, in some ways, to think of how different that life was from my life as a graduate student in an artsy little college town in northeast Kansas. How quickly our lives can change!

* Names changed for obvious reasons.

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