Hassles Pile Up

It usually happened that when I would arrive in the morning, there might be several local people lined up and waiting for help from us. The work might be fixing farm equipment, welding repairs on trucks and stock trailers, repairing corral panels, etc. These people arrived expecting free service, or to use our facility or borrow our tools. The load was a complex problem, a big drain on our resources, distracting, and too often the occasion of some real animosity, usually directed at me. Dealing with this very Navajo problem would be a challenge over the next three years.

A separate concern was a contract dispute that developed with my employers. In short, I wasn’t being paid what I expected; higher ups in the administration, desperate to fill a need, had promised me a salary that didn’t materialize. Eventually, this dispute would be resolved, more or less, to my satisfaction, more or less, but after three months of short payroll checks, my anxiety level began to rise.

As the fall progressed toward winter, it was clear that I had a long, frigid season ahead of me in the house trailer. It was drafty and hard to heat. In early October, the weather brought high winds from the west which swept across the reservation picking up sand; Tsaile was blasted by dust storms. One night, I sat in my trailer and watched dust blow right through the building; the next morning, I and all my possessions were dusted with fine red sand. I didn’t think I could stand a full winter under such conditions.

At the shop, my coworker, Stanley, was still, for a time, employed. He was a likeable fellow, 70 years, a Navajo with some metalworking and welding background. He had no teaching skills and limited knowledge. Stanley had been in the right place at the right time, and had hung on for three years, but his contract was soon to run out. Stan was angling and lobbying to get rehired and stay on. He had some annoying habits.

One morning, I went to our storage area, a space next door to the shops. Once in there, I noticed an odor, something rank, and I followed my nose over to some lockers. I opened a door, and found a full, newly dressed sheep skin, hung on the locker hook. Another locker held skinned meat, drying on hooks. After two or three such encounters with Stan’s animal husbandry projects, I insisted he keep animals, whether dead or alive, out of our building. He was uncooperative in some ways, friendly in others. But his family and clan members were abusers of our shop resource, and troublesome people.

I was urged by my colleagues in our trades and business school to get rid of Stan; they recognized his negatives and shortcomings. Eventually, I figured out that Stanley had to go. The reasons are complex and personal, but the old fellow undercut my attempts to reorganize and take control of the program.

In those early weeks, I often found myself pushed to the side while all the old problems took over our daily schedule; my agenda for the school day would usually be thrown over by some local ranchers, who’d take over our shop space to weld on some ancient stock trailer, with twisted frame and hopelessly bent axles. Or, Stan’s nephew, stinking of booze, might arrive and, pushing the students out of the way, take over our shop while he fixed some tired, worn out muffler.  He was running his own little business out of my classroom; of course, the program never saw any of the money. Then, there was the truancy problem, no small deal to me. And the contract dispute.

In a conversation I had with some close colleagues, I revealed that I probably wouldn’t last beyond the current semester; this statement made its way to the ears of some of the administrators, who confronted me in a tense meeting. I was bluffing, of course; I was really enjoying my new life, but the housing issue in particular was a real problem. By this time, I’d established much credibility; my fellow teachers in the trades program thought I was a godsend, a strong addition to the faculty, and my boss was determined to keep me on. The outcome of that meeting was that I got nearly everything I wanted.

Later that week, a dozen plant department men descended on my sad little house trailer; in a whirlwind day of hard work, they jacked up and leveled the structure, installed new windows, fixed the plumbing, replaced the carpet, tightened up the trim, and installed new, weather tight skirting around the base. All this made the place much more comfortable, and I lived there through that school year, until I found better housing in the nice, modern hogons in the faculty housing area.

I asked for the external work load to be eliminated, or at least handled differently. The daily chaos defeated my attempts to create a real learning environment. My superiors allowed me to clamp down on this problem, and I did, although not always with success. And, a consensus formed, finally, that Stanley not be rehired; the next day, I evicted Stan from the office, which he stubbornly occupied, as if his physical presence in the office chair might translate into continued employment in a job for which he was manifestly unqualified. Pushing Stan out was difficult and a little sad; the whole affair made me unpopular in some Navajo circles.

On the matter of the contract issue, I was stuck. Until the current dean of instruction left at the end of the semester, no changes could be made to my contract; but I was offered some committee work, which paid a little, and I was assured that the whole problem would be resolved in the next semester, with a new contract. And it was resolved, eventually.

In the matter of the student truancy, a stubborn and persistent problem, I was allowed to make whatever changes I deemed necessary, as far as curriculum, grading, and discipline, to attack the issue head on. In other words, I finally had real support for my mandate; I was fully in charge of the program. I had been given the authority I needed to force real change, which I set about doing, with some limited success. Some of the problems turned out to be a lot harder to solve than others.