11. On the Trail of Culture

Up: Contents Previous: 10. A Vacant Desk Next: 12. Reading Leads to Writing

[page 155]

-- Edward H.

IF ORDER is its first law, heaven can never be in a country one-room school. One person's time just isn't enough. The thirty-first of March is now on its way out and I have only begun to cut the stencils for the March issue of Little Cowpuncher. Shortage of time (yes, and space) is incongruous in this environment. There are localities in America in which the terrific rush that drives me is probably a commonplace. Here on this vast Arizona semidesert at this lonely cattle water, among slow-moving animals and people to whom leisure is as instinctive as respiration, I am a curiosity.

When I first came Ramón and Pancho sometimes asked me if I would like a horse to ride after four o'clock. My percentage in finding an hour or two for outdoor fun

[page 156]

discouraged them. They have given up trying to entertain me in any way except by singing to me beyond the partition. My-Mother and the girls used to come to my room evenings to visit, making themselves quite at home, as if I were but a guest in their house, fingering the things on my tables, asking many questions. Evidently my distress, as I perched on the edge of a table, itching to get at my papers, was clearly transmitted. They don't come any more.

When my typewriter, the first ever to click in the wide silence surrounding Poso Nuevo, began its initial staccato in these quarters, there were bug-eyed spectators crouching outside the screens on my window and door, for it was hot weather and I was the only one on the ranch choosing to spend the after-supper hours indoors. Now the typewriter bangs away unnoticed after the boys in the next room have laid aside their guitar and are tired of their horseplay. They don't object (I'd know it if they did!) no matter how long past midnight it continues.

The neighbors are tolerant, asking only non-interference in their own affairs. They are not rushed. They were never rushed in their lives. Their time is not cut to bits by clocks and ground out to them grudgingly. They work in easy tempo. If the washing, gardening, cleaning, rope-braiding, embroidering, or any other task doesn't get done before dark, there is mañana. They don't want anything that will cost their birthright of sitting in the sun when the weather is cold, or in the shade when it is hot.

Living close to nature, they are not subjected to the disintegrating influences of shop windows and high-powered

[page 157]

advertisements. Beans and flour are reasonably cheap. In the country areas of the Southwest clothes are chiefly covering. And one can keep warm and dry without a great deal of trouble most of the year. These people don't have much, but in the main they live in contentment and revel in the fantasy of hope. Apparently, to them, whether you have goods and money is merely a matter of accident.

At any rate young and old of the country people here accept their life-long poverty with resignation. They can't understand people who storm the firmaments by sheer human activity. They watch me curiously, as they would a caged squirrel running on his treadmill. If I retire during daylight hours, close the door, and draw the oilcloth curtain across the small window, they pad up and down, front and back, as if to figure out the meaning of this unusual occurrence. At times, fighting illness, fatigue, and depression, I am near the point of blessed sleep—even if the sun hasn't yet set—when one of the kids, usually accompanied by two or three younger ones, comes tapping at my door. She brings wild flowers, almost stemless, clutched in a hot moist hand. Or perhaps a handful of small sticks for kindling. Or that is the propitious moment a middlesized girl comes asking for aspirin, rubbing alcohol, shoe cleaner, baking powder, sugar, a cup of lard, a can of tomatoes, or a bottle of lamp oil. When I close shop and lie down I suppose they wonder if I've blown up at last.

They may be right in expecting that. There isn't room on this table for all the papers, books, devices, and gimcracks I want it to hold. There isn't room in this

[page 158]

twelve-by-twelve space for all the eating, sleeping, bathing, laundering, storing, living, and working I try to crowd into it. In fact, human life is considered short because there isn't room in it for a person's aims, not to speak of hopes and dreams.

It is ridiculous to be so cramped for space here in this vast corner of North America. The truth is that the limits that crowd and hinder me close in from many sides. Here is my immediate problem: there isn't room in eight pages of Little Cowpuncher for all the stories and drawings that my children have originated and turned in for printing. I must fret over selecting materials and cutting them to required size, knowing that this will hurt some feelings and discourage some ambitions.

The little “magazine” is not intended, as anybody can see, to afford journalistic training. Even providing language exercises is secondary. The high aim is literature—an attempt to hold the mirror up to life as we live it here, a record of what happens to us—something we can smile over nostalgically in years to come. Of course I want its influence to play a vital part educationally—that is, to bring some of the big world (through letters, subscriptions, visits) over the mountains into this makeshift schoolroom. To do this its scope must be varied enough to interest many different kinds of people. We want children to like it. And grownups. We want to amuse Easterners who wonder about our ways, and Westerners who know our ways well and have perhaps served their day as little cowpunchers. We want to be read by families and neighbors in this community,

[page 159]

many of lowly status in learning; and by friends famous as educators, editors, authors.

This is the Library Books Issue. It is our spring roundup of individual reading lists, and a presentation of certain volumes chosen by pupils for spontaneous book reviews or reports. To save cutting too drastically, I'll have to use another dollar's worth of paper, making a twelve-page issue. Well, the subject is books, the very foundation of schools and learning. Most of one page will be used to list the grades, the individuals and the number of books each has read this year. That is, supplementary books selected from the 211 volumes brought out from the Pima County School Library to this date. Grade One (four pupils) has 46 primary books to credit—Chelo topping the list with 20 books read. There are 83 books listed for Grade Two (5 pupils, including our lost Frances.) Víctor is the entire third grade. He has read 19 library books. In the fifth grade, Arturo and Pancho have read 22 books each, and Inez Jane, here only half the year, has read 19. In the three upper grades, Mary wins honors with 76 volumes; Socorro and Herlinda are close runners up.

So my pupils have been incited, persuaded, nagged, and forced into reading; some of them (sweet triumph!) really like to read. No psychologist is needed to tell a mother or teacher that reading is the hardest thing there is to learn. To read skillfully, purposefully, thoughtfully, critically, is still an outstanding accomplishment. Nor is it easy to convince children that reading is the most important subject offered in school curriculums. If they enjoy

[page 160]

reading they may have a guilty feeling that they are neglecting more important lessons. Country children are inclined to prefer arithmetic and spelling, subjects definitely prescribed in textbooks so that they can be attacked in a cut-and-dried manner.

Happily there are always a few natural readers like Chelo. She has a good memory, a desire to please, and a gift for comprehending the mystery of sounds and symbols. Mary must have been like that in her early classes. When I got her last year (seventh grader) all I had to do was provide her with books and say “Bravo!” Víctor and Arturo “savvy” and if the interest is kept alive each will go through a volume profitably. Many of the others, some willing enough to try, have been drags on this trail to learning's green pastures—prodded along each day with bribes and penalties.

One of the spurs is that under this teacher no child in school above the first grade will be promoted unless his record shows that he has read at least 18 supplementary books, preferably from the county library. To offset this do-it-or-else regulation, there are three substantial annual prizes from teacher: first and second prizes for the most books read during the term, and a special prize for the one having the most reading credits based on the difficulty of books read in relation to his grade. This arrangement has drawbacks. How can I know that a child has read an entire book? I make an effort to give a reasonable, if hasty, oral examination of each book brought up to me for posting in my ledger, but this is a time-consuming process. Usually I judge by my knowledge of the pupil and the length of time he has had the

[page 161]

book. Fudging creeps in, but it is not significant. To one familiar with the practices of university classmates of good repute, it is not shocking when a Mexican child cheats on some of the more verbose chapters of English literature. And three cheers for authors who write books that children really like to read!

Now and then an incentive is offered for the reading of some particular book. Last spring we concentrated on Mrs. Montgomery's masterpiece, as this excerpt from Little Cowpuncher manifests: ‘‘ E. B.'S GUESTS AT THE PICTURE SHOW

Monday, April the 8, we went to Tucson after school to see “Anne of Green Gables” at the Plaza Theater. Mrs. Bourne told us that when we finished reading the book she would take the ones who had read it. Socorro, Ramón, Edward, Frank, and I read it. It was a thrilling show. Anne, spelled it with an “e,” was a little orphan girl. And an old man and old maid, they lived at Prince Edward's Island in Canada, took her out of the orphanage to live in a house of green gables. She had a great imagination, and put names to everything she saw. We liked the show and all had a good time. —Mary Hernández


What of the money spent for gasoline, tickets, sandwiches, and sodas? What of driving a second long stretch (the return fifty late at night) after Monday's pre-dawn arising? No le hace. It was worth it. If I remember correctly Socrates supplied refreshments and diversions to his scholars. A reading teacher has no off hours. A country teacher is on twenty-four-hour duty. When a long day closes and I lie yearning for sleep, problems still buzz in my head. That backward child. What can I do to help him learn to read?

Precious Saturday time for personal activities, I spend instead in the stuffy county library pawing over

[page 162]

misused books that have been handled, many of them, for years by young hands bearing germs of scabies, impetigo, granulated eyelids, and trench mouth. These weighty boxes of books have to be loaded, and unloaded, and reloaded on my journeys back to Pepper Sauce Canyon and on down to Poso Nuevo.

Last year, before I won my battle for book reading, the library project was disheartening. After I had struggled to pick stories to fit into twenty-odd different capacities and tastes, and set the heavy box on a front desk and called up the children by grades to get a book, I had to stand and see the volumes dug out, glanced through for pictures, and tossed back; or carried off and forgotten so that Friday afternoon had to be interrupted by frantic searches for the “libraries.” Except for Mary, at that time the only way these children wanted to read was to drone aloud in my ears a few paragraphs a day.

There came an afternoon when in desperate attack I made every kid in the room spread a library book out on his desk and duly turn the pages while I stalked up and down the aisles armed with a long hardwood ruler. Impulsively I snatched Robin Hood out of a boy's hands, flipped the pages to the meeting with Little John, and began reading aloud as I walked, skipping incomprehensible passages, translating English into Spanish, making full use of whatever dramatic power I was born with. They listened! They applauded! That was the turning point. Every afternoon from then to the end of the book I read a few chapters aloud, rejoicing in the interest displayed in the young faces turned my way. Before the year ended we went through eleven books in that way.

[page 163]

At first I perched on a front desk, keeping an eye watchfully on my audience. Later I could move back behind my desk to my big chair, still maintaining interest and order. “Books,” said Isabel Paterson “afford a valuable extension of living.” For the little cowpunchers the extension began in Sherwood Forest.

This year I have read aloud a variety of books. Some old favorites such as Little Lord Fauntleroy and King of the Golden River; and some non-fiction: for instance, Mary Kidder Rak's Cowman's Wife. There could have been a longer list if I hadn't chosen, at Socorro's request, that great old romance Lorna Doone. It took many weeks to read it together, but we loved it. At thought of that book I am reminded of that cold wet December Friday afternoon that I sat, my chilled feet wrapped in a sweater, in the car in the arroyo at Fresnal turning, reading to Mary and Edward (who were hitching a ride to town) of how John Ridd rescued Lorna during Great Britain's greatest, most destructive blizzard. The all-day rain had melted the snow on the Baboquívaris, and we were stuck in the muddy roaring flood in the dip.

It was my fault. To the right, where I should have been, not two feet from the tires' passway, there was about a 4 foot deep dropoff. The swift, dark water shot over a low cement curbing and poured down into the lower stream bed with such force and clamor that I was scared, and veered left, skidded in the sticky red mud, and plunged into the dip where the flood had cut a twenty-inch jumpoff into the road. We screamed, the car settled, stalled, couldn't pull out. The water gurgled over the running boards. Taking off my boots (Edward

[page 164]

is susceptible to pneumonia if he gets wet and cold) I reconnoitered. There was nothing to do but wait for a car to come along and tow us ashore. The nearest house was ten miles away. Darkness was less than two hours off. And it still rained.

We wrapped up in coats and blankets and I read Lorna Doone aloud for an hour. No car showed up. I had kept an eye on a stone on the opposite shore and saw that the water was gradually receding. It was raining on us, but not in the mountains where the arroyo headed.

The light faded. The cold increased. Absently, as I closed the book after a long chapter, I sighed and murmured: “Oh, God.” Remembering the kids, I added plaintively: “help us out of this river!”

Then I stepped on the starter, just in case, and lo, out we went.

“Just as you were praying,” said Mary happily.

We laughed, and laughed again, not so merrily, two minutes later when I stopped to put on my boots and along came a man in a truck and kindly asked if we needed any help. Since then we call that place “Lorna Doone Dip.”

Of course in writing book reports and keeping reading records, the children do not include the books we read aloud. Among their stories I must condense to use are these: ‘‘ NOTES ON BOOKS FROM THE PIMA COUNTY LIBRARY
‘‘ I.

I have read to now 27 books this year. I know they are few but the reason is that I haven't enough time to read. My father runs the schoolbus 70 miles around trip each day, and we have to go all the way with him. We get home very late. After I get home I have

[page 165]

to do my everyday chores in carrying water from the canyon up about one hundred feet deep and awfully steep. I also cut wood and carry it and do other things. We eat our supper by the light of lamps and have to go to bed early to get up at five o'clock to start to school next morning. If you read while going on the bus as my sister does you get dizzy and hurt your eyes. In school I am busy all the day. That is why I have not read more books.

I have enjoyed books by Madeline Brandeis like Little Tony of Italy, Little Anne of Canada, Little Tom of England, Little Dutch Tulip Girl, Bah, the Little Indian Weaver. They are easy to read and teach about different ways of living of many races of people. I also caught a few words in foreign languages from them.

But the book that I read that I liked best was Wild Life of The Southwest by Oren Arnold. It teaches the ways of living of all the animals of the Southwest. It tells in what part of the country certain kinds of native animals are densely populated. It teaches how to treat wild animals. It tells what are their real names and what the names mean. The armadillo from Texas—it means a coat of armor. The roadrunner is called paisano which means a native in Spanish. It tells the adventures of some cowboys hunting lions and gives the name of the famous government hunter Frank Colcord who has killed 500 lions. It also tells which animals are to be killed and which not. The buzzard should be protected. The lion killed. The book has beautiful pictures. I copied some of them in water colors to hang on the wall at home. I wish I could own the book.
—Edward Hernández

’’ ‘‘ II.

I have read 42 books since I started school this year. The last book I read was Stories Pictures Tell—Book Seven by Carpenter. It tells about famous artists that made beautiful pictures of little Dutch girls and others. Long, long ago these famous artists liked to draw and paint. Some of them were very poor and drew people in the streets and old people and ragged children. Some of them made pictures of rich people and kings and princesses and little princes. These artists when they were little they liked to draw very much. When they grew up they became famous and made lovely pictures that lasted until now. —Herlinda B.

’’ ‘‘ III.

I have read 21 library books this year. Some of them are The Wee Scotch Piper by Madeline Brandeis. George Washington by James Baldwin. Cedric the Saxon by Strange. Moufflon by Luise de la Ramee and The Tailor of Gloucester which goes like this—“Out stepped a little live lady mouse and made a courtesy to the tailor. Then she hopped down off the dresser and under the

[page 166]

wainscot. The tailor sat down again by the fire warming his poor cold hands and mumbling to himself.” —Pancho Aros

’’ ‘‘ IV.

One of the books Mrs. Bourne read to us and I have read it to myself is Cowman's Wife by Mary Kidder Rak—a true Arizona author.

She is an educated woman who married a cowman and went to live in a ranch where she had many exciting adventures. She was not only busy in the house making bread and butter and cooking and entertaining. She learned how to ride horses and work cattle.

She even went to look at the traps. And she was always hoping that nothing would be caught in them. Once near Christmas time she found a dear little fox terrier dog and saved it from the trap and took it home for a Christmas present.

For pleasure she went to a dance in a school house, and it was a little sad because she had to go home before tasting any of the nice cakes though she brought one herself to the party.
—Mary Hernández

’’ ‘‘ V.

I have read 28 books. Three Little Kittens. Little Red Riding Hood. Humply Dumply. Little Dog Cracker. Magic Boat. And Many Book One and Book Two. I have read much books but I don't remember. —Marcela, Second Grade

’’ ‘‘ VI.

Wells Brothers by Andy Adams is a story of two orphan boys who had a little homestead on the plains of Texas in the times of the big herds they used to drive over land for thousand of miles.

These two boys were very poor and were just going out to look for jobs when something happened. They made a trail hospital because they had to take care of a wounded man. That was their start in the cattle business because their patient and the boss helped the boys to get some cattle and range for them so they could have a ranch.

They were brave honest boys and would not give up until they did what they started to do. They held their cattle in terrible blizzards with no fences or mountains to help stop the herds. The book gets better as it gets longer. I liked it very much. —Ramón Aros

’’ ‘‘ VII.

From the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was a mongoose that licked all kinds of snakes. Two cobras snakes

[page 167]

were always bothering him. Their names were Nag and Nagaina and they wanted to eat little birds and to kill the white people.

Nag was always wanting to kill Rikki-Tikki-Tavi too but he was too smart. At last the little mongoose killed Nag. And Nagaina was very sad because she was a widow. Rikki-Takki-Tavi said You are not going to be a widow any longer. So he killed her. —Arturo Aros

’’ ‘‘ VIII.

The Snow Baby was one of the books I liked best this year. It is written by Josephine D. Peary. It is a true story with real photographs of a little girl who was born far north among the Eskimos. She was a very bright and friendly little girl. —Víctor Aros

’’ ’’

What has been the effect of the book-reading I have imposed on my pupils for almost two years? What has been my aim in insisting that every one read books in addition to text books? I can't claim it as a method to give efficiency in the Arizona schools' course of study, but it helps. Reading always helps.

Our superintendent gave standard achievement tests to all the children in our county schools for six years. She found that non-English-speaking children were taking two years for the first grade, then doing as well as any others in the tests up to and including the fourth grade. Beginning with the fifth grade they were falling behind. She suggested that this drop might be overcome by stimulating the children to read, hoping that library books might balance the lack of home advantages.

My best readers—Mary and Edward and Chelo and Víctor—make the best test scores. But to carry out a purposeful program for each grade and pupil, we would have to have passing tests as a goal. And where would the time come from?

I have another aim which may be described fairly well by calling it culture. The dictionary defines it as “The training of the mental or moral powers, or the

[page 168]

result of such training as shown in intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual development.” I believe reading can excite thought, imagination, and appreciation, and refine personalities. Such a goal cannot be reached in a few months; but I think even the surface-scratching possible in less than two years is worthwhile. I can see the changes in attitudes that literature has brought toward school activities, toward each other, toward animals (Oh, the need for that!) and toward the world beyond the children's immediate knowledge and environment.

Just one little story, Ouida's Moufflon, has changed for the better the lives of the dogs and cats in our district. To my knowledge, no little puppies or kittens have been carried off into the desert and abandoned within the last year. I have not seen outrages such as happened to Leo my first week here. Leo was a cat who wasn't wanted. The teacher preceding me had left him. The kids brought him to me and said he was the teacher's cat—mine. But I had two little dogs in my room, and two canaries in the schoolroom. I declined the cat. Late one afternoon I heard terrified cries of a tormented cat above a commotion in the back yard. I tried to ignore the situation, for my own status in the locale was none too secure, and I hesitated to start a contention right off the bat. But it was impossible to ignore the screams and choking moans accompanied by shrill, wild laughter from young barbarians. I forced myself to look out of my window. The biggest boy had lassoed Leo and tied some tin cans to his tail and was wearing him out by jerking, choking, and dragging. When the cat got to his feet, the boy yanked the rope and ran a few steps causing the victim to choke and drag in the dust, yowling and moaning.

[page 169]

An enraged woman flew out of my door and around the house.

“What are you doing to that cat?”

“Just scaring him.” The boy's insolent eyes were on a level with mine.

“Why do you do such a brutal thing to a helpless animal?”

“So he will go away. My-Mother does not want him.”

“HE IS MY CAT! Give him to me!”

Among other unpleasant episodes before Moufflon came to Poso Nuevo were ill-matched rooster fights at which the whole family, big and little, followed the bleeding gladiators around the yard yelling: Mátalo, Mátalo, and unprintable additions. And there was baiting, tormenting, and torturing of coyotes caught in traps and dragged up alive for indulgencies in brutality which were supposed to condition the dogs to killing varmints. I ran out one morning in pajamas, face grease-smeared, hair tousled, and demanded a golpe de gracia for one of these victims.

One evening a few days ago Pancho, flanked by the little kids, brought a live woodpecker to my window just at dusk. The little boys had found her on her nest while out looking for wood, and had captured her. Pancho rescued her and brought her to show her to me. When I asked what he intended to do with her he answered: “Let her free.”

When she whirred off straight to the thicket where her nest was, we laughed. At present a flycatcher, unmolested, is also sitting on a nest of tiny eggs in a shed by the arroyo back of the house.

[page 170]

I remember when I first began to like Pancho. One morning at recess my little dog Cherry had a sticker in her mano and was hunkered down licking at it. Pancho, running out to the ballfield, saw her distress, stopped and picked her up, took out his knife and removed the thorn.

I don't know anything better than literature to promote civilized attitudes toward underdog life. If I did, I'd try it.

Eastern writers and city writers everywhere are unanimous in praise of range life and “characters” produced by outdoor environment. The general impression given is that the cowboy is about the finest person who ever walked the earth (if he ever did any walking!). Millions of pounds of pulpwood are used in exploiting his reputation. Even slick publications devote space to the lone, free individual who spurs and lashes his horse across the roughs, through spiney brush and cactus, over dangerous bluffs and gullies to practice roping, throwing, and hogtying cattle that as often as not do not belong to him. I have seen a horse white with the cruel spines of chollas which could not penetrate the rider's stiff leather chaps.

“Wait!” I cried. “Let's pull the chollas out of your horse!”

No. He says let him learn to dodge.

This ruthless young man is presented as a hero living an envious life in wholesome, uncomplicated relatively unpopulated scenery. Writers who have actually lived and worked with cowmen and cowboys see another side. Ted Bronson and Owen Wister give the good and bad of plainsmen and mountaineers. They lived with them. But they did not stay with them.

[page 171]

Why should a schoolteacher take on the job of trying to dim the cowboy illusion? Why try to weaken the chain of tradition that binds son to father so that the cowboy mores go on for generations? Why try to round the rough edges off the reckless “roving barbarians?”

The answer: there are better patterns to follow. The jaunty range riders are often not what they seem. Their bodies are seldom sound beyond their youth, and, as a rule, get little hygienic care. Their daily life and responses are primitive. Their future, speaking specifically of the scores who have come within my ken, is old-age destitution. As I read of the glories of cowboys and rodeo performers I wish the West-smitten authors would follow these individualistic persons to their homes and observe their personal habits, their speech and way of joking, their tyranny of their wives, their children, their hired help, their domestic animals and beasts of burden. If en vino veritas holds true, then this man is a savage—whatever his ancestry. He has no inhibitions. He is as free of inhibitions as the stratosphere is of gnats. He has a bandit's boldness and unscrupulousness. He has stubborn tenacity that has withstood generations of human development toward higher ideals. He is monarch of all he surveys. And I truly hope that his sons don't take after him.

Teachers must give their children an appreciation of the beauty and value of the environment which our forebears seemed to be doing their best to destroy. Where is the tree that some outdoorsman doesn't go after with his axe—for fence posts, maybe; or just because it is there? In campaigns to conserve forests, soil, wild life, and historical monuments, Westerners have not

[page 172]

been famed for cooperation. Considering the problem, I am grateful for the words of Stan Adler, noted for his quizzical wit in the pages of Brewery Gulch Gazette and Hoofs and Horns: ‘‘

I tangle with a heap of papers in the course of newspaper plugging, but Little Cowpuncher always gives me a wallop on account of a spirit which drives the paper along and which might be termed a sense of civilization. I was impressed with last year's stories of the horse who herded the kids to school and with the youngster who spotted the herd of deer but didn't want to mention the fact for fear that somebody would trek out and blast them with a rifle; and with the clinical treatment dished out to the indisposed goldfish.

Civilized intelligence is an unusual attribute in this world and its predominance in the outfit of the Baboquívari School is something for the book. There will be times, kiddies, when you will be ridiculed and ribbed by savage and stupid humanity for this attitude. But keep the spirit on the prod—because you are right and they are wrong.


Up: Contents Previous: 10. A Vacant Desk Next: 12. Reading Leads to Writing

© Arizona Board of Regents