12. Reading Leads to Writing
ANOTHER MONTH IS PASSING. It is April. Tonight, looking over material to illustrate the page of rhymes we've done for our March issue, I am pleased to find a sketch Edward made of a man roping a bronco. I don't know when he did it, or why; but it fits. The little cowpunchers could rope a bronco easier than they could catch and tie down in conventional form the imaginative ideas that range through their heads. It was fun to see them struggling to write verses. Working out seat lessons for the little ones, now and then I peeked over the row of books on my cluttered desk to watch the combatants in the literary field. A face screwed up in dark concentration would suddenly break into light as an idea dropped from the blue. These little rhymes, trivial as they are, represent
As a way around this roadblock, speaking casually, I told him to write a few sentences telling what he had seen out in the pasture, and what he thought about it, because I wanted to see if he knew where to use periods and capitals. Nervously sniffling, he picked up his pencil to show me what he knew about punctuation—and I liked what he wrote.
When I was doing the spade work today on the rhymes lesson, he sat deeply concentrating on a library book. I took the hint. Poetry, even in thinnest brew, cannot be forced through stony filters. Víctor and Luis gave up also. And Ysidra. But young Bill Emery made the grade.
There is gallantry in this little fellow. After he came to us I met one of his former teachers. She said that he had been moved and buffeted around until he was behind in his grade but she didn't have the heart to fail him. She said she used to feel like holding him on her lap while teaching geography (it was a departmental school) to his fellow-pupils. He is nine, small and frail, but spunky. His white skin and pale eyes are striking in this crop of brunets—more so than Inez Jane's or Jack's. They tan but he doesn't.
The little Emerys descended on us last January, leaving a city school with special teachers, equipment, and social services to live at an abandoned mining camp off in the Sierritas—with no apparent ties in the community to which they have come. Their mother is dead. Their father is a disabled veteran—which is all the information I have about him. The children say he stays in town, then they clam up. They get up before day, walk a mile to the bus stop, and ride nearly three hours a day over rough roads to attend our school, and they seem happy to do so.
At first the newcomers weren't welcomed with pleasure. I imagine that many women who have many children (until they adjust to the confusing prospects) greet the advent of the next ones with desperation. When Pascual announced that some new “childrens” from a “mine” above his homestead were going to come to our school I had to bite my tongue. I wanted to cry Oh, no! I've got more than I can take care of already!
Few of these skies fall upon us. But the little gringos actually appeared. The ethnic problem didn't worry me much, although of course it is there. My Redington School taught me that in a country school Latins and Anglos mix successfully with advantages to both. For several years I preferred to have Mexican pupils exclusively. They seemed more in need of my services, and the Anglos were likely to have parents satisfied with the status quo and opposed to innovations. But America is a melting pot. We have to work with what shows up.
On the bus the new kids became acquainted with the Hernández and Badilla children. When the bell rang they tried to sneak in without creating a stir. But Lalo, quite at ease and wanting to be clever and at the same time friendly, came forward to introduce them.
All of us—even I—accepted the newcomers warmly. It was obvious they were used to hardships. Wary of questions, murmuring “I don't know,” it was plain they had been cautioned about giving family information.
The myth that primitive people are inherently polite was probably begun by travelers going about the earth seeing only surface behavior. No person is born polite. Courtesy is acquired by long exposure to precept and example. People in lowly circumstances are too engrossed in sustaining life to take on refinements. Of course our youngsters here have learned certain traditional expressions sanctioned by their elders to murmur to strangers. They are not customarily polite to each other and to others who fall within their power. Living in the house with a large group of young country folk like this, you wince at the names they call each other, at the way brothers and sisters snarl and shove for food and comforts, and the abuse they are used to heaping on their helpless animals.
Surprisingly, in view of some of the hardships of their lives, these mothers are wont to indulge their children. The six youngest Aroses have nothing to do but eat, sleep, go to school, and amuse themselves. The younger Hernándezes and Badillas have no tasks to assume when they reach home. Socorro and Mary, sixteen and fifteen, let their fingernails grow to absurd lengths which, Edward observes, proves they do not have much work to do. They beg for new shoes and dresses as if these things were procured by persuaison.
When she showed me how tight her jeans were, I felt guilty. I wear jeans, my girls wear jeans, so she wears jeans. It seems she has only one pair which she washes each week-end and they have grown too tight for her, squeezing her in like a wasp. They are not cow country jeans. They have a wide belt with three buttons to one side of the placket.
I reached down and undid the buttons, assuring her that I'd “git” the first smartie who made a crack. So. Inez Jane must have new jeans whether school keeps or not. She deserves to be rewarded. And to be loved. She never gets so deep in work or play that she doesn't keep an eye out for her family. She leaves her map-drawing to see that slow-poke Jack gets his writing lesson. She nags Bill about his arithmetic, trusting to luck for her own, and holds up the bus to see that he gets credit for the library book he has read. She and Bill read at home by lamplight. She makes Jack read aloud to her if he can keep awake after an eleven-hour day. She sets the alarm, she tells me, at four o'clock, to get breakfast and lunches
Inez is really thrilled by our Little Cowpuncher and its concomitant activities. She likes all our extra-curricular doings, particularly dancing—which we have taught her. It is comforting to feel the loyal spirit in which she attempts any assignment, although writing is not easy for her. (Is it for anyone?)
But soon after they knew each other she began to call him Jack. When he saw her he fell in love with Betty for she was pretty. They went horseback riding that evening and had a good time. But Betty's father wanted her to marry a rich man and she wanted Jack only.
Trying to fit our writing to the calendar, some of our “authors,” on Valentine's Day, took a shot at romantic fiction. Volunteers were called for, and they were given time and a free rein. These school-crafted love stories were written by ranch children who have listened to Lorna Doone, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Ramona, and various other romances, as well as viewing at least a limited number of movies.
Mary's shows the influence of the cinema. The dash and assurance with which she tackled the task came right out of Hollywood. Socorro hasn't seen many movies. Her story is more traditional. Both stories amused our subscribers. I shall treasure them and remember how good my girls were to make the effort. It was work.‘‘ ROMANCE OF A LONE WOLF COWBOY
Once at an Arizona roundup there were lots of cowboys and among them there were lots of jokers. There was a nice, quiet boy there named Frank López. He was always apart from the rest. The boss seemed to like him so he gave him a job to work at his ranch.
The day the roundup was all over the vaqueros grew wild for they were going to town to spend their money. At town everybody had a girl friend so they all had a good time. They ate and drank and danced and sang. Except Frank. He stood alone. All the girls stared at him for he was a handsome cowboy. Then the boys made a plan to play a joke on him whom they nicknamed Lone Wolf. When he got ready to go they had the joke all ready to play on him.
One of the girls at the party—Dorothy—had a friend, a pretty sweet bashful girl just come from Texas. Adaline was her name. Dorothy agreed to the boys' plan so she went home early and asked Adaline to come to her house to stay with her. When they were about half the way Adaline felt something wrapped over her and she heard a gruff voice say: Don't make a sound or I'll plug you. And finally she felt herself lifted on a saddled horse.
Well, the boys were telling Lone Wolf not to go so soon, to wait for them. But finally they let him go. And he was riding home thinking of the party. He didn't like the girls there because they were real crazy and lovable with all.
Suddenly he heard a cry for help in the dark. He stopped and listened. Soon he heard it again, coming from a little ditch. He went right away for he heard it was a woman's voice. He lit a match and saw a pretty girl binded to a tree. They stared at each other. She blushed and said: Won't you please unbind me?
So Lone Wolf smiled at her a very romantic smile and went to untie her. She was very cold so he built a fire and wrapped her up in his coat. He asked her questions and she told him that she was from Texas, that her mother died and the rustlers were stealing her father's cattle so they sold their ranch and cattle and came here, for her father had a ranch in Arizona also. He told her what was the name of the ranch. She said it was the “A Slash B” Ranch. Now it happened that was the ranch where he had the job. So they became friends.
Then a whole lot of cowboys and girls got down and started teasing them. We better get the ceremony over with, said one. They had a judge there but he was dressed like a cowboy too so they did not know he was real. Lone Wolf cried: You can't play jokes like this on a strange sweet girl. And farther more it is serious because she was kidnaped.
It happened that there was a roundup and nobody but the boss knew there were three girls near the camp. But there were three brothers there looking for wives. One day while they were at the roundup the sisters were out walking. When they became tired they sat down to rest a little. While there they heard horses prancing along the road.
At this noise they wanted to run away but imagine what they saw—three handsome boys on horseback. These girls had never talked about love to any boys so when they got acquainted they talked and they talked until it was getting dark. Each girl had fallen in love with a cowboy.
The next day the boys looking very handsome in their best costumes came to see their ladies. The youngest brought a letter to Beauty's father in which he wanted the consent to be married with her. The father was very angry and in a rage ran for his suitcase to get his gun. He said he did not want his daughters married to cowboys. While he was gone each girl mounted a horse with the boys and ran away with them where they lived.
When they arrived there was great excitement. On February 20, 1870 the three boys and girls got married at a wedding that lasted three days. Afterwards they all lived together happily. When their children were about eight or nine years old they went for a visit to their grandfather and grandmother and begged them to be contented and to come and see them. When the old man saw what the children were saying he became sad and wanted to see his daughters even if they had married against his wish. So he went with the children and the grandmother went too.
There is a cowboy now working for Mr. Manning who before he got married with his wife he liked another girl very much. He was working for La Osa Ranch when this happened. This girl lived at a ranch far from there.
One day all of the cowboys went to a roundup and he—instead of going to the roundup he went to visit his novia. When he came to the camp at last his father said, Where were you? Why didn't you come in time for supper?
Three days past and he was anxious to see his sweetheart again. So when all the cowboys started on the circle he followed them a little and then what do you think? The young cowboy went to see his girl again. This time he stayed three days.
So they galloped very hard. But they didn't find anything so they came home very tired and hungry. They took off their saddles and came to make dinner and there was a big surprise—a cake on the table. The girl had come and made a big cake for her sweetheart and her brother.
It was Juanita's birthday.
She was dressed very pretty.
She made a fiesta.
Her sweetheart was going to the party
but he didn't come.
She waited and waited.
Then she got a horse and went to look
for him and found him in
the arroyo with a leg broke.
She help him and he get well and they
They had a big wedding.
—Marcela Hernández, Second Grade
One day there were two sweethearts.
The man was a cowboy and every day he
came to see the girl.
The man is Jose and the girl is Maria.
They like so much that when Jose do not come
to see her she cry.
One day he came for Maria and they don't
let her go.
Then she ran away and they marry and
have a big party and live
on a ranch.
They are happy.
—Frances Salazar, Second Grade
There was a cowboy and his name was Joe. Every day he went out to herd
the cattle. When he came back his wife would have a big pie or a cake.
One day she cooked a big turkey for dinner.
That day he took me riding with him. It was fun.
But when we came back his dog named Wolf had got in and he ate all the turkey.
—Bill Emery, Fourth Grade
These primary stories were greatly influenced by the compositions of my Redington pupils—the original “little cowpunchers”—in our tiny school in a remote corner of the San Pedro River Valley. There, working happily together (with the support and encouragement of the mothers in the district) with our lessons, our library books, our tests, our pottery, our excursions, our dancing, and our Little Cowpuncher, we created an organization so alive that its influence will still be shining when all of us who participated have become but shadows of memory.
In perfect spring weather those wonder-working children at Redington went out—each one alone under the April skies—and brought me back specimens of original poetry. (Yes, poetry.) I tried the idea on the Baboquívari eighth graders with these results: ‘‘ MESQUITE TREE
Under the shady green mesquite
I feel the breezes of the great
They whisper in my ear, and seem
to say “Spring is here.”
I sit in the cool shadows
And try to think of spring—
Spring with its beautiful weather,
And beautiful flowers and trees
Moving in the light wind
like fairy wings. —S. A.
The ocotillos on the hillside
Are tall dark maidens on a stage
Dancing with April breezes.
As they sway and dance in rhythm
The red plumes lightly held in
Spring and dive like the play
Of flying cardinals. —E. H.
I like to see the birds in the mesquite tree,
Swinging from branch to branch,
Singing softly to cheer the earth.
All the little children go out
To see the birds springing,
Flying like soft dark leaves. —M. H.
One day at noon Mary, Socorro, Edward, Ramón, and I took a book of language exercises and spent most of the hour hammering out a little poem. Socorro timorously suggested the first line. We struggled over the second and third, and had to go to the dictionary for “ominous.” When the piece was finished, Edward drew a picture for it.‘‘ SAHUAROS