10. A Vacant Desk
AGAINST ALL INCLINATION I have been trying to work tonight. I must work, for work is the panacea for distress. Tonight I can't stay with it. Twice I have yielded to interruptions. Without really needing to, I went into the schoolroom to sharpen all my pencils. And a little while ago I went out to close the car windows. It isn't likely to rain. It was just something to do to keep from settling down under a cloud of gloom. Duty compels me to sit here at the cleared corner of the little table by the cook-stove and go over today's school papers. When the children write something original or do an assignment meriting an honor grade they are eager for a verdict. They can't wait!
Papers should be handed back while interest is hot. Besides, they pile up quickly. The history workbooks must be checked to be ready for the next study period. Tonight I must read a few chapters in Wells Brothers, The Andy Adams book sent to us by Mary Kidder Rak, our friend who wrote Cowman's Wife—a good book about ranch life that I am reading aloud to the school. I need to read the new book in advance so I can confine reading-aloud periods to about twenty minutes and still give the listeners the best of the book. And this week is especially demanding because it is Little Cowpuncher week. There are stories to sift for material; stencils to cut on the typewriter.
The night is hustling by. I loiter at my tasks, my will smothered by disappointment over my little lost Frances. She is gone—snatched away forever. When I took the flashlight and went in to sharpen pencils I stood by her desk staring at it—unwilling to accept the fact that from now on it will be empty and she will be somewhere else. Dear Frances, my blonde little cowpuncher—wherever she lives she will be missed when she moves on.
For the school morale it seemed best this morning to tell the kids that maybe we'll get Frances back. Can a whole school be shattered by one child's being forcibly taken away? This one seems to be. Our group is dispirited, our hearts sore because Frances has been abducted
The special hurt is that everybody knows she did not want to go, and that she is not better off for going. It is clear to all of us that she was happier in this isolated community living with Licha and Charli—her aunt and uncle—than she had ever been in her life. The Aroses say that Charli and Licha are going to court to fight for her. Pascual suggests that I might help them. But no, I realize that the situation is hopeless. Her abductor was her mother. No matter how incompetent or unworthy, a mother has law (and often public opinion) on her side.
Pancho broke the bad news to me this morning when he ran out to open the first gate. “‘May Wess’ didn't come,” he said, leaping on the running board, sniffling in the way he has when he is nervous. The announcement hit me. I knew what it meant. Frances hadn't missed a day all year. Absence could only mean that the disaster threatening her since last December had finally arrived. I drove on through the other two gates without saying a word. Pancho didn't look at me or speak again.
I have never seen her mother, but I have heard much gossip about her. Socorro told me about the way she acted in December when she came to Licha's house to take away the child. “She is what you call a flapper,” Socorro confided, and I knew what she meant.
The incident she related (which I verified later) occurred the afternoon following Socorro's saint day—a Saturday not long before Christmas. My-Mother had given a velorio [a candlelit evening fiesta] for Socorro here at Poso Nuevo. Frances came with her aunt and uncle from Palo Alto. The prayers, singing, and patient waiting for tamales lasted until midnight. The rest of the night was spent in dancing. Next morning Licha and Charli took My-Mother and the older Aros boys and girls home with them for a turkey dinner. The Hernández family, on their way back from Tucson that Sunday, were invited to stay for the feast.
That afternoon while most of the company were resting (there are about a dozen rooms in the Palo Alto ranch house) in anticipation of the feast, Frances's mother (Licha's younger sister) came out in a taxi with her new “husband” to get her daughter. She had been writing saying that she had married again and she wanted the child to go to live with her. But Frances did not want to go. When she was small she had lived with her mother
So Licha wrote saying, “Do not come for Francisca because she does not want to go with you. She wants to stay at Palo Alto where she has a good house and good clothes and good food and a clean warm bed and where she can continue going to Baboquívari School where she is happy.”
The afternoon that Victoria (her mother) came, Frances ran and hid inside the big house. Her mother called and called, but she would not come out. At last Licha told the child to go together with her and tell her mother that she was contented and did not want to go away. This enraged Victoria. She grabbed Frances by the arm to force her into the car. The little girl cried out to her aunt for help and Licha took her other arm and held her—the two women shouting and struggling for the terrified child, who, in the hearing of the shocked neighbors kept crying: “¡No quiero ir! ¡No quiero ir! (I won't go! I don't want to go!) Auntie, save me! ¡No quiero ir!”
The men walked over to take part, and Victoria's companion began to scold her for the way she was behaving. He said he had not paid eight dollars for a taxi to bring her out to the ranch to fight, and if the little girl wanted to live with her aunt they should leave her in peace.
He took hold of the distraught woman and pulled her into the car and started the motor and left. But Victoria stuck her head out of the window and screamed threats. Socorro told me that she said, in front of all the people there: “She shall not live with you. You will never have her! I will kill her myself before that can happen!”
Pascual did not know that Socorro had told me about it. Soon after the holidays he called me aside and warned me that there might be danger of someone's coming to take Frances from school. He said that as a member of the school board he would assume responsibility for her protection if he were present. But in case he should be working on the road or helping the Aros vaqueros, he urged me on no account to let anybody, no matter who it was, take the little girl away.
I thought it would, and determined to defend Frances to the fullest extent. She and I have had the most pleasant relationship. She likes our school. She likes our singing and dancing. She loves listening to me read. She pays close attention to the story and tells it in Spanish to the little ones on the bus and to her aunt and uncle when she gets home. It would take a court warrant served by an officer, I vowed, to get her from my care.
For several weeks I was uneasy, and kept asking Socorro for developments. As weeks ran into months and no further attempt was made to abduct her, my hopes turned to assurance. I figured Victoria had given up. Now suddenly, only eight weeks before the end of school, it happened.
This morning when I stopped in my parking space under the little tamarisk all the pupils came running to the windows to tell me excitedly that Victoria had kidnaped “May Wess.” Nine o'clock came. The bell was rung, the flag saluted, the national anthem played on the victrola. Nobody felt like singing. Nobody wanted to settle down to lessons. They wanted to tell me all about the calamity—as if I could do anything about it!
It happened yesterday, Sunday, at the Santa Cruz Church in Tucson, just after Frances was confirmed. For several weeks I had known that some of the little cowpunchers were preparing for confirmation. Frances, Chelo, Ysidra, Arturo, and Víctor were the candidates from our community. One night Pancho and Ramón, the rascals, with exaggerated inflections and uncontrolled giggling fits, went through the whole ritual, questions and responses, across the partition from me as I sat brushing my hair in silence. Licha bought Frances a pretty white dress and slip, white shoes and socks, and made her a thin soft white veil. Thus arrayed, I imagine Frances had no difficulty in fancying herself an angel. She is a born actress.
After the ceremonies, the little girls ran out of the church ahead of their mothers. Licha had been madrina to My-Mother's baby Evangelina who was christened that morning, and was carrying her godchild in her arms, walking slowly down the aisle beside My-Mother. When Frances passed out the door several paces ahead of her aunt, there awaited Victoria. She snatched the startled child by her right arm and left shoulder (Arturo demonstrated for me), dragged her to a car that was waiting at the churchyard gate and whisked away with her. The
I don't know who first began calling Frances by her school nickname. When I had been here a few days last year I noticed that the children were calling her something in Spanish (I thought) that sounded like Mei-Ues. When I asked what it meant Socorro, surprised that I did not recognize it, repeated the word slowly a few times: “May-Wess, May-Wess.”
She is. She's a natural blonde—with a glamorous personality. Her many names testify to her charm and versatility. Christened Francisca, she is called Frances, Quica, ‘Jita, and Mae Wess. Bill recognized her gifts before I did. When he came down to introduce me to my new charges and help me register them the first day of school, after they were dismissed for recess he said: “You know which one of your pupils I like best? The little blonde.”
Soon she wanted to take home a bunch of flash cards we use for teaching sight words. I hesitated, saying they might get spoiled in transit. She quickly explained in Spanish that she would wrap them in paper and keep them perfectly clean. She took thirteen cards with words on both sides; next morning she knew every one. It wasn't long until she was reciting in Marcela's class.
But after the holidays her progress got another of the setbacks that had plagued her. Her aunt had a baby, a tiny little boy with no grip on life. He lingered on, in poor health, all spring. There would be two or three weeks when Frances missed school because they were in town having the baby treated by a doctor. When the baby died her aunt did not return immediately to the ranch. Frances's schooling ended for the term as she stayed in town to help and cheer her grieving aunt.
Her immediate forebear on the paternal side does not seem to be a matter of record. (She bears her mother's surname.) But whoever the father was he surely was Anglo. She has the coloring, the wide-apart eyes, and tall slender figure of the Northern peoples. And she has their grit, their storied daring and vivid imagination. Probably my worries are unfounded. “Mae Wess” will get along.
For the time being, I imagine, her mother and her associates will do whatever they can to win her favor—which won't be too hard. She is fond of pleasure and flattery. I hesitate to admit that she has been impressed by the fact that her aunt has bought more clothes and toys for her than her mother did. The eternal female. Or, perhaps, the eternal child!
Whatever happens to her, the loss is ours—mine, the school's, her playmates' and fellow pupils'. In so many ways she was the piquant dash in our combination of little cowpunchers. Everyone accepted her popularity. Perhaps because she had been living as an only child in a household of adults, she looked upon school as an
Last fall she started a fad of christening parties for dolls. Disappointed to find that the other little girls did not name their dolls, she organized a party and stimulated Eloísa, one of Chelo's big sisters, into making christening robes and to help make cocoa and cinnamon cookies. The festive afternoon the whole school seethed with scarcely suppressed excitement. The unusual stir and all the whispered comadres and compadres made me know that something was up. They were wild to get through with reading, writing, and spelling lessons, and begged that the older pupils be allowed to hear their lessons. Dismissed early, the girls, who had worn best dresses that day, put their arms around each other and skipped down to the Aros sala where Edward had built and decorated an altar for them. From Little Cowpuncher:
Wednesday afternoon, when the little boys and girls went out of school they had a party to christen the dolls of Marcela and Teddy. Eloisa made little white dresses for the dolls and my mother made some viscochuelos and they had chocolate to drink. They invited the big ones and our teacher to the cute party.
One of the dolls was name “Shirley,” and one was “Helen.” Frances was the priest. Lupe and Chelo were the godfathers of Marcela's doll, and Pili and Chelo stood up for Teddy's doll. I cannot explain the ceremony as I did not see it. I had to thresh beans. Now the little children are calling each other “Comadre” and “Compadre” because they are godparents together. —R. A.’’
This theatrical performance had consequences. A few weeks later Licha bought Frances a new doll so that she could have her own christening party during Thanksgiving vacation. This kind of inventive art is new to the children of vaqueros. Most of the young Mexican-Americans I have tutored have clever hands because all their lives they practice patting out intractable dabs of dough into thin round tortillas—a skill to command respect. Also the girls learn early to use a needle expertly. And the boys' supple fingers make fine ropes of intricately braided rawhide strips, or tightly braided strands of stout hairs from horse tails.
My six-year-old Chelo is a skilled seamstress. For Christmas she made me a pretty red silk pincushion with lace ruffles and my name, “Eulalia,” embellished with flowers, embroidered neatly in outline stitches. Her handwriting is smoothly flowing, definitely controlled. Marcela and Teddy draw well, write well, and make attractive pottery of the native clay we sometimes play with for “Art.” Frances does not have that peculiar quality of hand-eye coordination. Her gifts seem to be the Anglo-Saxon rather than the Latin type. She would rather read books, learn riddles and folk tales, write stories, and
Short of time, I have had to limit the storytelling to Friday afternoons. She counted the days and never let me forget. She knew all the folk stories, rhymes, and riddles in Spanish that were to be heard from her school-mates, uncle, and aunt. She liked to tell stories, too, and to write them. When the older pupils began handing in stories for Little Cowpuncher, she handed in stories too. And if her literary contributions did not come out in the paper she interviewed the editor! As it is hard to write the simplest story without running into spelling blockades, her compositions were usually dictated to Arturo, Mary, or anybody who had time to spare. She stood by her secretary and dictated aloud. Noisy? Oh, yes. But there are things better than silence.
Once she was dictating a Spanish tale, “Juan Sin Miedo,” to Edward. It went on and on until, having filled four pages of scratch paper, he cried: “No. I'm not going to write any more for you. I quit. I'm going to do my arithmetic!”
Why should it mean so much for a teacher to lose one of her pupils? Why can't I say: “Now there is one less to struggle with,” and make sensible use of the extra minutes? Wouldn't that be the professional attitude? But my little Frances was taken by force. We all feel the sorrow. There was no fun, no enthusiasm in school today.
When you give your heart to children you can expect it to be broken. You always lose them in one way or another. When I had a schoolroom in the city “system” I used to raise a howl when my pre-first-graders were promoted and I couldn't pass on with them to continue teaching them to read. At peak enrollments the powers sometimes promoted me at the same time as my precious pupils; but gave them to another teacher and handed me a group started by someone else. This was done arbitrarily. I was paid to teach the course of study.
My sister says I suffer a misplaced maternal instinct. What do you do about it? Is affection for the young under your care a fault? Perhaps love is always selfish. It is no less sincere. In losing this little girl the structure of the school, the patiently built-up morale, has been genuinely disrupted. This unit of human relationships, created by daily application, imagination and much work, has suffered what seems like irreparable loss. Lessons will go on. Interesting and pleasant things will happen. But we'll never be the same without our “May Wess.” No day will pass that we do not miss her, and worry about her welfare and happiness.
The second grade and I were close together up in the little alcove between my desk and the supply closet, their small chairs crowded close to my big one. I glanced down at the eager faces, shining with interest, shook my head, and raised my book for the lesson. But Frances had an inspiration. Poised and sincere, she exclaimed:
Stacked here on the back of my utility table are piles of material the pupils have been handing in for the March Little Cowpuncher. Today they wrote about what happened to Frances. Here is Frank's: ‘‘ WHAT SHALL WE DO?
We miss MayWes very, very much. We miss her when we practice the dance we are going to have in May. She was the star here at Poso Nuevo. Of the little children now there are six boys and only five little girls for partners for the Maypole. We don't know what we shall do without her. She was going to be the Queen of the May. She is a good little girl and likes to hear stories and to sing and dance. She is a happy little girl. She is not very fat and not very thin and weighs 63 pounds. They say they are going to talk in Court as soon as her uncle gets his check. We hope she will come back again. She had been here all the days since school was open this year. She had not missed a day. —F. A.’’