I am sitting in the Denver airport on my way back to school for graduation, and of course my flight is delayed. So what better time to reflect on the last few days?
On Wednesday I interviewed at a school, and although I’m almost certain I did not get the job, it was very interesting in many ways. This school is the most rural placement we have in New Mexico, and it is without a doubt the most rural place I’ve ever been in my life. There is no town; there is the K-8 school, the high school, the chapter house, and one gas station, complete with pumps that date to the 70s and a small convenience store. That’s it for an hour’s drive in any direction. Looking out over the beautiful but desolate landscape, I couldn’t even imagine what it must be like to spend most of your life in that area. How would that isolation affect the way you view your family? Your land? Other people? The world? Yourself? And how would it frame your future, not only through the difficulties of getting an education and having opportunities for success, but also in the way it shapes your mindset of what is normal or possible for you? And then in contrast, what is the responsibility of a teacher in that school, to broaden students concepts of the world while never belittling the roots or culture that keep their families there? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I don’t know that they would have been so real to me had I not gone out there.
The next reason it was interesting was that I had the opportunity to chat with a Navajo woman who lived nearby (relatively speaking, still 45 minutes away) who was also interviewing for a job. She was open and friendly, and we chatted idly about traveling and museums, kids and moving. Yet sometimes some things that she said so easily and naturally, as if they were obvious, revealed a way of thinking based on different values than my own. For instance, I mentioned that I felt bad she had to wait so long to interview since all us TFA-ers were before her (there were 11 of us; it took 4.5 hours including waiting time). Her response was that it was good because her son was spending the time with his grandmother, and it was really better that they have some time to spend alone together. Our priority was not wasting too much time; we amused ourselves with computers or books while waiting. She sat, still and calm, content that her time there would mean more time for her son to learn from his grandmother. Family time and learning from elders, even though she was not the one experiencing either of those, were more important.
Another example of interesting cultural effects was the casual acknowledgment of traditional taboos. There are some things that Navajos do not talk about or look at, such as snakes (at all times), spiders (except in winter), coyotes (except after the first frost), and bears (sometimes, in specific situations involving bears leading people astray). There are different reasons for these which I am not entirely sure of, except that talking about snakes invites danger. There are also very specific ideas and customs involving death: you don’t speak the dead person’s name (in order to let them go), you don’t look at or go near dead bodies. Some of the ceremonies performed by medicine men in order to rectify the breaking of these taboos can cost $4000 and are a really big deal. Whether people follow them or not depends on how traditional they are, with elders generally being more traditional. The woman I was talking with seemed pretty modern: she had running water in her house (some people don’t, either involuntarily or because they value the tradition of hauling water), had traveled to Canada and other states, and used to live 20 minutes outside Albuquerque before she moved to the reservation. Maybe these are bad measures of non-traditionality, I really have no basis for knowing. But still, the taboos were very real: she told me about a museum she went to and couldn’t tell her mother about, because there were mummies (which are, after all, dead bodies). There was a little pride in her voice when she talked about going to see the mummies, so wanting to learn and see something new that she put aside the taboos. Although I had heard of taboos and cultural differences, I mostly thought they would be subtle value differences or dramatic language ones; I hadn’t considered these specific and detailed practices that touch so many aspects of random life.
So obviously the fact that my flight was delayed a further two hours and the fact that I’m sleepy in that this-feels-meaningful-but-maybe-in-the-morning-won’t-seem-so-profound kind of way have aided my reflections in length if not substance. My actual interview with the principal and school board was bizarre, incredibly short and confusingly organized (especially in that no one’s interview seems to have gone anything like anyone else’s), and I don’t think I really got much out of it other than sometimes stuff won’t make sense to me. But all in all, I think the 9 hours I spent driving, waiting, waiting, interviewing, waiting, and driving some more were a valuable experience. I learned a lot.