Before I started my job this year as librarian and English teacher on the Tohono O'odham reservation, I visited the campus. A teacher looked me over and said, "You better come in that library like a gangbuster."
gangbuster? Having just turned 25, I must have looked as young as I
felt. But I'd studied Native American poetry and wanted to teach on
a reservation -- to see firsthand what I had only read and thought
about. But I'd come to a battleground. The Tohono O'odham
reservation, extending across southern Arizona, is where most of
the 146 deaths of illegal border-crossers took place in 2002. On
the 100-mile round trip I took daily to and from the reservation, I
always saw someone pulled over by the Border Patrol, and about once
every week I saw illegals sitting in the shade, waiting to be taken
back into Mexico.
I worked for the Indian Oasis
Unified School District, which runs three public schools just a few
miles north of the Mexican border. About 1,000 students were bused
from all over the reservation, including two students who crossed
the border every morning to attend school.
not surprising that what happens outside of a school finds its way
in. A "code red" was announced over the loudspeaker during the
third week of school. That meant we were to lock ourselves in our
rooms, a precaution for a "Columbine-like situation." We waited in
the library for two hours while the Border Patrol scoured the
school for some illegals who had ditched their car in the high
school parking lot, then run from agents. The kids were bored.
"Read a book," I suggested. Nobody was ever found; our school day
Later in the quarter, we learned that
our high school would be labeled "under-performing." Most of us, as
new teachers, had no idea what this category meant. We learned that
Arizona labels all schools to comply with the federal Leave No
Child Behind legislation. Schools that score below a certain level
are given three years to show progress. A failing label results in
None of us were surprised.
Though we'd been teaching for only six weeks, we were already worn
down. Discipline policies toward the kids were strict, teachers
were encouraged not to complain and the desert heat, reaching up to
110 degrees daily, made us listless.
teachers watched us struggle with a little sympathy and some
bitterness. Teachers rarely received supplies; there were no books
for ninth-grade English, the class I was teaching.
Two days after we found out about our
under-performing status, the Arizona Daily Star published an
article about our predicament. The state Board of Education had
voted to withhold about $30,000 per month from our district because
of accounting problems that had persisted since 1999. The state
cited more than two dozen instances of the school district's sloppy
bookkeeping and failure to follow state accounting guidelines.
These failures included not following competitive purchasing
guidelines, not properly inventorying items, and lacking control
over cash, resulting in the risk of theft.
Though the district had a budget larger than
most public schools, the only evidence of this was our new gym.
That same week a student had been skipping a
computer class held in the library, hiding in the reading room
while his teacher took roll. I asked him what was wrong. "Every
time I finish the program, it makes me start over until I get it
right. I have been doing the same thing for weeks." I walked over
to the teacher as he was calling this student's name. He looked
around the room, and without lowering his voice, said, "He is a
failure, anyway." When I approached the student again, he repeated
what he'd heard: "Don't you know I'm a failure? I have no future."
Other teachers told me that the students could
not learn. Though I met many talented and dedicated teachers,
others who shouldn't be in front of a classroom were allowed to
remain out of necessity.
searched for drugs and weapons, I began to ask myself why a kid
would act out at my school. Looking out the window and hearing the
sirens of the Border Patrol, I was quickly reminded that our
classrooms were within a war zone.
responded to the district's troubles by turning in a petition with
over 1,700 signatures, forcing a recall of the school board. Yet
while a new school board is a start toward reform, deeper problems
remain. The teachers and students who struggle to teach and learn
under these conditions every day should not be forgotten.