Alexie

 
Indian Education By Sherman Alexie

Indian Education

By Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie, the son of a Coeur d’Alene Indianfather and a Spokane Indian Mother, was born in 1966 and grew up on the SpokaneReservation in Wellpinit, Washington, home to some 1,100 Spokane tribalmembers. A precocious child who endured much teasing from his fellow classmateson the reservation and who realized as a teenager that his educationalopportunities there were extremely limited, Alexie made the unusual decision toattend high school off the reservation in nearby Reardon. While in college, hebegan publishing poetry; within a year of graduation, his first collection, TheBusiness of Fancy dancing (1992), appeared. This was followed by TheLone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), a short story collection,and the novels Reservation Blues (1995) and Indian Killer (1996),all of which have garnered numerous awards and honors. Alexie also wrote thescreenplay for the highly acclaimed film Smoke Signals.

 

First Grade

            My hair was too short and my U.S. Government glasses werehorn-rimmed, ugly, and all that first winter in school, the other Indian boyschased me from one corner of the playground to the other. They pushed me down,buried me in the snow until I couldn’t breathe, thought I’d never breathe again.

Theystole my glasses and threw them over my head, around my outstretched hands,just beyond my reach, until someone tripped me and sent me falling again,facedown in the snow.

Iwas always falling down; my Indian name was Junior Falls Down. Sometimes it wasBloody Nose or Steal-His-Lunch. Once it was Cries-Like-a-White-Boy, even thoughnone of us had seen a white boy cry.

Thenit was Friday morning recess and Frenchy SiJohn threw snowballs at me while therest of the Indian boys tortured some other top-yogh-yaughtkid, another weakling. But Frenchy was confident enough to torment me all byhimself, and most days I would have let him.

Butthe little warrior in me roared to life that day and knocked Frenchy to theground, held his head against the snow, and punched him so hard the my knucklesand the snow make symmetrical bruises on his face. He almost looked like he waswearing war paint.

Buthe wasn’t the warrior. I was. And I chanted It’sa good day to die, it’s a good day to die, all the way down to the principle’soffice.

 

Second Grade

BettyTowle, missionary teacher, redheaded and so ugly that no one ever had a puppycrush on her, made me stay in for recess fourteen days straight.

“Tellme you’re sorry,” she said.

“Sorryfor what?” I asked.

“Everything,”she said and made me stand straight for fifteen minutes, eagle-armed with booksin each hand. One was a math book; the other was English. But all I learned wasthat gravity can be painful.

ForHalloween I drew a picture of her riding a broom with a scrawny cat on theback. She said that her God would never forgive me for that.

Once,she gave the class a spelling test but set me aside and gave me a test designedfor junior high students. When I spelled all the words right, she crumpled upthe paper and made me eat it.

“You’lllearn respect,” she said.

Shesent a letter home with me that told my parents to either cut my braids or keepme home from class. My parents came in the next day and dragged their braidsacross Betty Towle’s desk.

“Indians,indians, indians.” She said it without capitalization. She called me “indian,indian, indian. “

AndI said, Yes I am, I am Indian. Indian, Iam.

 

Third Grade

Mytraditional Native American art career began and ended with my very firstportrait: Stick Indian Taking a Piss inMy Backyard.

As Icirculated the original print around the classroom, Mrs. Schluter interceptedand confiscated my art.

Censorship,I might cry now. Freedom of expression,I would write in editorials to the tribal newspaper.

Inthe third grade, though, I stood alone in the corner, faced the wall, andwaited for the punishment to end.

I’mstill waiting.

 

Fourth Grade

“Youshould be a doctor when you grow up,” Mr. Schluter told me, even though hiswife, the third grade teacher, thought I was crazy beyond my years. My eyesalways looked like I had just hit-and-run someone.

“Guilty,”she said. “You always look guilty.”

“Whyshould I be a doctor?” I asked Mr. Schluter.

“Soyou can come back and help the tribe. So you can heal people.”

Thatwas the year my father drank a gallon of vodka a day and the same year that mymother started two hundred quilts but never finished any. They sat in separate,dark places in our HUD house and wept savagely.

Iran home after school, heard their Indian tears, and looked in the mirror. Doctor Victor, I called myself, inventedand education, talked to my reflection. DoctorVictor to the emergency room.

 

Fifth Grade

Ipicked up a basketball for the first time and made my first shot. No. I missedmy first shot, missed the basket completely, and the ball landed in the dirtand sawdust, sat there just like I had sat there only minutes before.

Butit felt good, that ball in my hands, all those possibilities and angles. It wasmathematics, geometry. It was beautiful.

 

Atthat same moment, my cousin Steven Ford sniffed rubber cement from a paper bagand leaned back on the merry-go-round. His ears rang, his mouth was dry, andeveryone seemed so far away.

Butit felt good, that buzz in his head, all those colors and noises. It was chemistry,biology. It was beautiful.

 

Oh, do you remember thosesweet, almost innocent choices that the Indian boys were forced to make?

 

Sixth Grade

Randy,the new Indian kid from the white town of Springdale, got into a fight an hour after he first walked intothe reservation school.

StevieFlett called him out, called him a squaw man, called him a pussy, and calledhim a punk.

Randyand Stevie, and the rest of the Indian boys, walked out into the playground.

“Throwthe first punch,” Stevie said as they squared off.

“No,”Randy said.

“Throwthe first punch,” Stevie said again.

“No,”Randy said again.

“Throwthe first punch!” Stevie said for the third time, and Randy reared back andpitched a knuckle fastball that broke Stevie’s nose.

Weall stood there in silence, in awe.

Thatwas Randy, my soon-to-be first and best friend, who taught me the most valuablelesson about living in the white world: Alwaysthrow the first punch.

 

 Seventh Grade

Ileaned through the basement window of the HUD house and kissed the white girlwho would later be raped by her foster-parent father, who was also white. Theyboth lived on the reservation, though, and when the headlines and storiesfilled the papers later, not one word was made of their color.

 JustIndians being Indians, someone must have said somewhere and they werewrong.

Buton the day I leaned out through the basement window of the HUD house and kissedthe white girl, I felt the good-byes I was saying to my entire tribe. I held mylips tight against her lips, a dry, clumsy, and ultimately stupid kiss.

ButI was saying good-bye to my tribe, to all the Indian girls and women I mighthave loved, to all the Indian men who might have called me cousin, evenbrother,

Ikissed that white girl and when I opened my eyes, I was gone from thereservation, living in a farm town where a beautiful white girl asked my name.

“JuniorPolatkin,” I said, and she laughed.

Afterthat, no one spoke to me for another five hundred years.

 

Eighth Grade

Atthe farm town junior high, in the boys’ bathroom, I could hear voices from thegirls’ bathroom, nervous whispers of anorexia and bulimia. I could hear thewhite girls’ forced vomiting, a sound so familiar and natural to me after yearsof listening to my father’s hangovers.

“Giveme your lunch if you’re just going to throw it up,” I said to one of thosegirls once.

Isat back and watched them grow skinny from self pity.

 

Back on the reservation, mymother stood in line to get us commodities. We carried them home, happy to havefood, and opened the canned beef that even the dogs wouldn’t eat.

Butwe ate it day after day and grew skinny from self pity.

 

There is more than one way tostarve.

 

Ninth Grade

Atthe farm town high school dance, after a basketball game in an overheated gymwhere I had scored twenty-seven points and pulled down thirteen rebounds, Ipassed out during a slow song.

Asmy white friends revived me and prepared to take me to the emergency room wheredoctors would later diagnose my diabetes, the Chicano teacher ran up to us.

“Hey,”he said. “What’s that boy been drinking? I know all about these Indian kids.They start drinking real young.”

 

Sharing dark skin doesn’t necessarilymake two men brothers.

 

Tenth Grade

            I passed the written test easily and nearly flunkedthe driving, but still received my Washington State driver’s license on the same day that Wally Jimkilled himself by driving his car into a pine tree.

            No traces of alcohol in his blood, good job, wife and twokids.

“Why’dhe do it?” asked a white Washington State trooper.

            All the Indians shrugged their shoulders, looked down atthe ground.

            “Don’t know,” we all said, but when we look in themirror, see the history of our tribe in our eyes, taste failure in the tapwater, and shake with old tears, we understand completely.

            Believe me, everything looks like a noose if you stare atit long enough.

 

Eleventh Grade

            Last night I missed two free throws which would have wonthe game against the best team in the state. The farm town high school I playedfor is nicknamed the “Indians,” and I’m probably the only actual Indian ever toplay for a team with such a mascot.

            This morning I pick up the sports page and read theheadline: INDIANS LOSE AGAIN.

            Go ahead and tell me none of this is supposed to hurt mevery much.

 

Twelfth Grade

            I walk down the aisle, valedictorian of this farm townhigh school, and my cap doesn’t fit because I’ve grown my hair longer than it’sever been. Later, I stand as the school-board chairman recites my awards andaccomplishments, and scholarships.

            I try to remain stoic for the photographers as I looktoward the future.

 

Back home on the reservation,my former classmates graduate: a few can’t read, one or two are just givenattendance diplomas, most look forward to the parties, The bright students areshaken, frightened, because they don’t know what comes next.

They smile for thephotographer as they look back toward tradition. The tribal newspaper runs myphotograph and the photograph of my former classmates side by side.

 

 Postscript:Class Reunion

            Victor said, “Why should we organize a reservation highschool reunion? My graduating class has a reunion every weekend at the PowwowTavern.”

 

Saint Paul Public Schools, District 625 | 360 Colborne Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102|651-767-8100|communications@spps.org | NON-DISCRIMINATION NOTICE