Students & Me

On registration day, new and returning students arrived, and the staff and faculty advised them. The college expected to enroll four hundred or more students during two days of open registration; nearly all would receive tribal scholarships to pay for tuition, room, and board at the college. When I arrived that morning, I met many of my new colleagues for the first time. All the academic advisors sat at tables spread out in the eight directions of the library, another modernist hogon, and the doors opened at 9:00 AM., first come, first served.

The crowd of students, some with their families, arrived. Nearly all the young men and women were Navajo, but also, some were Hopi, Apache, Ute, and Spanish, as well. Many were dressed ‘cowboy’: tight jeans, boots, belt with silver rodeo buckle, and ‘the hat’. (This is what I called the ‘The Look’.)  They might be wearing a heavy metal t-shirt, long hair tucked under a hat with the Skoal logo. They were cheerful, if a little wary, but throughout the day, reasonably polite. Most all had grown up on ranches and farms on the reservation, an area which spans the high desert country of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah.

Mostly young men lined up to speak to me about classes. A parent, or an aunt, might sit in on my advisement, often pushing the prospective student a little. As I’d speak with them, I quickly picked up that most of these young guys were not academically skilled, spoke poor English, and were semi-literate at best. Auntie would translate for me, maybe chew him out a little in Navajo, and we’d fill out his schedule and send him off to the registrar’s table.

After a while, I also noticed that many of my students were, or wanted to be, student-athletes on the college’s top caliber rodeo team. My boss explained the deal to me, that since many of these rodeo athletes had no academic inclinations at all, we enrolled them in trades classes in automotive, welding, and building trades. This seemed cool to me, at the time. The rodeo guys and gals were all cocky, robust, and confident people, and I liked them. (Some of them were also crazy.)

Our college had excellent athletic facilities, and an excellent basketball team. There were some fine Navajo players, but in fact, most of the young men on our college team were black players recruited from all over the country, playing on scholarship and pursuing ‘hoop dreams’. The college devoted a substantial effort to supporting basketball and rodeo, and, just before I arrived, had constructed a rodeo arena, with stands and concession buildings, for the use of the rodeo teams. I learned fast that Navajo people are crazy about rodeo.

At the end of a long day of registration, we had enrolled about forty students in the welder training program, most of whom were 18-25 years old. I also had some older people who were retraining, prepping for certification, or just needed something to do. The next day, a Friday, was far slower; Jack handled the table alone, while I continued with maintenance and repair at the shop. We finished up with sixty students, ten of whom were rodeo team athletes. A great bustle of students moved in on the weekend, the dorms rocked, the campus walks became busy, the cafeteria boomed, and on Monday, the semester began.

When I was interviewing for the job, I had been told outright that the welding component of the trades program had been slated for closure; there was a general sentiment amongst many in the administration that the program was ineffective, and a financial drain. Although Jack Mowrer, one of the founders of our trade school, was still teaching welding classes, he’d advanced to department chairman, couldn’t find a real teacher to fully replace him, and frankly, had lost interest. The status quo was unacceptable to the professional educators above me in the school hierarchy. My sudden arrival was a reprieve for the welding program; I was given a mandate to make change happen.

It didn’t help matters that our school, like many tribal institutions, operated under a constant cloud of financial crisis. I arrived at NCC in a budget crisis, I worked for long periods in a state of budget crisis, and I left the school while it was in a budget crisis. It was hard to tell when one crisis ended and the next began. Training young men to be welders was an expensive proposition, and thus, the program was seen as a financial hemorrhage. I was expected to bring some discipline into the program, to exercise fiscal restraint, and revive the curriculum.

For three years, Jack had employed an elderly Navajo, Stanley, to be the daily teacher in the welding area. Although well-meaning, Stanley was only semi-literate himself, and ineffective at directing the program. Stan was still employed when I arrived, and would be my co-worker for three more months, until his contract ran out. Old Stan was helpful at first, but also a problem I inherited.

I had a classroom for lectures, and taught lab skills in the welding shop. That first week, the classes were pretty full; attendance dropped off precipitously by week two, and by week three, I was down to the core group of people who were actually interested, and wanted to be there. I was facing the first challenge of my work: getting most students to actually attend the courses they were enrolled in.

As the first semester rolled on, I would assume the role of truant officer, constantly on the prowl to round up recalcitrant students. The campus was a small place; on my walks around campus on business, to the administration building, or the post office, or the cafeteria, I would take unpredictable routes, and would often run into my wayward charges, goofing off, making time with the ladies, shooting hoops, etc. Many of my students, seeing me coming down the walk, would duck out of site, or veer off into one of the other buildings. If unable to avoid the confrontation with me (I always tried to be friendly and humorous in these encounters), they’d usually promise to come over to the shop and get busy, right after lunch, or bright and early tomorrow, or right after the rodeo, next week. Predictably, they never showed. In fact I had many students who, after registration day, were never actually seen again, at least by me. Later, I would take more drastic steps to push these ‘phantom’ students into class, or out of the school.

My core students were a great bunch of young guys, fun and outgoing, humorous, but with a lot of problems: illiteracy, drunkenness, and a background of poverty. Alcohol abuse, in particular, was ubiquitous in our students, our staff, and the community at large, and during the entire three years of my stay on the reservation, I became somewhat resigned to the problem. It was impossible to do anything about, and Navajos themselves didn’t see the issue in the same dire terms as the non-Indians at NCC. It wasn’t that they didn’t care; many Navajo in our school worked tirelessly to help those amongst us who struggled with alcoholism. But there was a matter-of-fact attitude about this problem. Whereas we, the ‘anglo’ staff members, saw the widespread drunkenness in front of us as a tragic epidemic, many Navajo simply accepted the problem as being in the nature of things, a constant in the background of tribal life, unpleasant but tolerable, no big thing.

In many communities on the Navajo reservation, one in three infants are born to alcoholic mothers; they are born suffering from ‘fetal alcohol syndrome’, and, as they grow up, these unfortunates exhibit all the difficult limitations of the disease: lowered IQ, cognitive and behavioral issues, lack of self-control, and a predisposition to drink. A lot of my students fell into this category; this cycle of drunks giving birth to drunks is one of the intractable dilemmas of Indian life, not only in Navajoland, but in native communities all over North America.

My core group of hard-working guys, always a minority of the total enrollment in my area, were fun, friendly, and energetic. They showed up right after breakfast, hung out all day, screwed around with the tools and welding process, and were genuinely curious. All of them came out of farming and ranching backgrounds, and were mechanically inclined, and capable of hard work.

Our course lectures were another matter. I’d give a lecture, then follow up with a question and answer period, or an exam. Although I had some bright students, for many, very little of the academic material stuck. I got in the habit of asking individual students questions about the lecture I’d just given; they’d often awaken with a start, a little jump, and look around sheepishly at their fellow classmates. Then everyone would laugh; I’d get no answer indicating that the student had absorbed anything of the subject I’d just spent forty minutes covering.

Eventually I made friends with many of my other faculty members, in particular the reading teachers, a hardworking, highly motivated group of dedicated people. As the first semester went by, these people helped me get up to speed, and convinced me to incorporate as much reading and written examination as I could, as much as my students could stand. It was never easy, the students were highly resistant, but I kept at it, and made student literacy a goal of my efforts at all times.

By the end of a month at NCC, I had a good handle on the academic and program issues I faced. I felt comfortable with people, had great relations with other faculty and staff in my building, and I’d gotten the attention of my students. I was also making friends fast, and made to feel really welcome. Things seemed to be going really well in those areas. And I was absolutely taken with the West, with Arizona, and with Navajoland. And just a few miles distant, there was Canyon de Chelly.