A free education in rural Wyoming half-a-century ago meant that children under 16 were supposed to go to school every day. They also were supposed to return home from school and during the interim to cause as little disruption as possible. That many of these children weren’t particularly keen about learning to read well, or multiply and divide, or remember who crossed the Delaware and who wintered at Valley Forge quickly became apparent to the teachers who were trying to educate them.
Like most of her confederates, my fourth-grade teacher dealt with the recalcitrants by seating them at the back of the classroom, which, for each grade, had to accommodate more than 40 students. Her name, if I remember correctly, was Miss Ritter. She was a stocky, energetic woman with a sharp voice and impatient way of jerking her shoulders when she was irritated. The back-of-the-class students (mostly boys) irritated her because they did not pay attention to the lessons, made rude sounds and carved on their desks with pocket knives.
Some of the front-of-the-class students (mostly girls) also irritated her, but their irritations triggered less shoulder twitching. I, on the other hand, drew harsher scoldings. The teacher, I once tried to explain to my parents, wasn’t as smart as she thought she was and occasionally I had to correct her. Yes, I admitted, sometimes that caused some of the other students to laugh. Or secretly voice their approval.
My parents advised me to be more tactful. Like most 10-year-olds, I didn’t listen to my parents. Besides, some of my front- and middle-of-the-class friends insisted I was a great comedian and applauded my behind-the-teacher’s-back antics. The teacher was not as appreciative as they were when she discovered what I was doing. Abruptly, her shoulders jerking more than usual, she sent me to the back of the class.
I was to stay there, she said, until I proved that I could behave.
I stayed there a long time.
Exactly why I was accepted into that back-of-the-class subculture I’m not sure. Perhaps, in part, it was because I had been about to embarrass the teacher. Fourth-graders possess an instinctive sense of “with me or ’gin me.” My showing up the teacher certainly was a point in my favor. And I realized, without being told, that the longer I stayed in the back of the room, the greater would be my victory. Even though my friends were all front-of-the-roomers, I decided to turn what was intended as punishment into a personal accomplishment.
The town children, a core group composed of the sons and daughters of trades people, full-time sugar factory employees and the more prosperous farmers, sat in the front rows. Behind them an intermediate mix of kids from the Catholic orphanage bumped elbows with youngsters who came by bus from the little farms that supplied the town with pork, eggs and potatoes. Many of them were Russian immigrants of German descent who had come to Wyoming around the time of the Bolshevik revolution. In the very back sat the Mexican kids, some of whom had been born in Wyoming or Colorado but who still spoke Spanish at home.
I spoke no Spanish. Nor, I discovered, did I speak the same language as the kids from the orphanage. The words we used, though similar, did not describe the same things. What to me always had been straightforward, simple concepts—"supper," “home,” “dad,” "vacation"—aroused different feelings for them. And I had no way to incorporate “Mother Superior,” “bed check,” “delousing,” “Hail Marys” into my frames of reference.
I listened with awe and curiosity as my new friends described their tightly regulated dormitory life. When I asked Martin Amicich, who sat just in front of me, if he ever was going to get to leave and go live somewhere else, he merely shrugged.
“Where else is there?”
“Maybe somebody . . . ?” I had no way to finish the sentence. As I heard him repeat “There’s nobody who wants me,” I tried to picture what life would be like without a mother or a father, an allowance, a room of my own. I imagined the two of us going off together to find his parents, or find some people to become his parents, but I had no idea how to go about it, and neither did he. One of the things he then told me stayed with me forever.
"Some of the kids, you know, have folks somewhere. They couldn’t take care of their kids so the kids had to come to the orphanage. Their folks write letter sometimes or visit. It’s awful. When they leave, the kids cry. Sometimes they want to kill themselves.
“I’m glad my folks don’t come. If they did, I’d tell ‘em to go away. It’s hard enough without making it worse.”
I felt that I understood what he was trying to express. Life is hard. Not just sometimes—every day. By contrast, my life seemed pretty easy. Oh, I had my problems, but life itself wasn’t a problem; I didn’t perceive it as being hard. Once Martin told me, “Well, good things happen, you know, football and jokes and sometimes we get candy bars,” but those few bright spots didn’t change his overall perception.
He wasn’t the only back-of-the-roomer who felt that way. Carol, like Martin, lived in the orphanage. Tall, slender, otiose, she seldom spoke to outsiders and never had spoken to me while I was a front-of-the-roomer. With my change of status, she became somewhat communicative. One recess, seeing her alone, I sidled over to talk to her. At a loss for something to say, I asked her if she would be happy when she grew up and could leave the orphanage. She peered at me as though I’d just popped out of a hole in the ground speaking Chinese. In a voice that could have sliced through steel she told me, “I’m never happy. I never expect to be.”
I tried to assuage her, I remember, but she only shrugged. Walking home that afternoon, I realized how banal my cliches must have seemed to her. Even when things weren’t going well, I expected a happy future after I left home and could travel and make money and fall in love and marry and have children of my own. Carol had no such aspirations, although many of the kids who lived in the orphanage did. Some, in fact, openly said they were cared for better there than they’d been cared for at home.
Both Carol and Martin, more than other back-of-the-roomers, connected with the Mexican kids. Often at recess Eddie Rodrigues and Martin wrestled, raced or played mumbly peg with each other. Eddie was at least a year older than I, a stocky, round-faced youth who could throw a pocket knife with amazing accuracy. Martin made fun of him because he spoke English with a heavy accent and pronounced such words as “teacher” and “T-shirt” the same way: “teeshur.” Because Eddie went to church at the orphanage I mistakenly thought he lived there. He corrected me with a jovial, “I weesh I did. To have the monjas [nuns], they take care of me!”
“You would like to live there?” I asked him—a bit incredulously, I think, because of the stories Martin and Carol and other orphanage residents had told me.
Eddie laughed. “I could sleep in a bed,” he told me. “Eat three times a day.”
“You don’t sleep in a bed?”
“Sí, sometimes. If my sisters let me. But usually on the floor.” Seeing me struggling to comprehend, he explained, “The house, it is very small. Not room enough for all of us. In the orphanage,” he rolled his eyes, “there is lots and lots of room.”
Eddie would have done much better in school if his attendance hadn’t been so poor. He was often absent for weeks at a time, which threw him behind the rest of the class, especially in mathematics. When I asked him about this, he answered, simply, “I work.”
Work was the bane of fourth-graders. We all had to work. Shovel snow. Wash dishes. Pick tomatoes. But “work” for Eddie, I was to discover, meant something different than it did to me. Challenged to a weekend wrestling match, he shrugged. “I lose; I will be working.”
Immediately somebody laughed and called him “chicken.” He responded with the challenge, “I not scheeken. You think I scheeken, you come work weeth me.”
Needing (I felt) to prove myself to my fellow back-of-the-roomers, I bicycled the three-and-a-half miles to the farm at which he and his family were thinning sugar beets that Saturday.
At first I didn’t recognize Eddie. He had a hat pulled low over his eyes, his blue chambray shirt was stained with sweat and the old boots he was wearing were caked with mud. He introduced me to his dad and some of the people working with him, several of whom were only slightly older than he was. They gave me a hoe, and I joined them, working the rows beside Eddie and some other migrants.
Though not a farm kid, I was independent and athletic. Even so I couldn’t keep up with Eddie, especially as the day got warmer. My back began to ache from the constant bending and rising, swinging the short-handled hoe. I continually had to swipe at my eyes in order to see through the sweat. Finally I had to give up. The foreman wanted to pay me, but I told him to give the money I earned—maybe $2—to Eddie. I barely was able to bicycle home and arrived so exhausted that I couldn’t even eat.
Though I never wanted to go back to the beet fields, I’d gained a new respect for Eddie and a new definition of the word “work.” My respect increased even more after he dealt with the bullies who’d begun molesting me. That spring a pair of older boys (sixth-graders I believe) had started to threaten me. I evaded them by detouring around the block on which they lived, but a few days after my beet-thinning experience I ran into them on my detour. They pushed me against the side of a garage and took my pocket knife. They told me I was lucky they didn’t beat me to a pulp. I didn’t tell my parents about it, but I did tell Eddie’s sister.
Eddie’s sister obviously conveyed the information to Eddie. The next day he led me to a corner of the playground where one of the bullies was waiting for me. Something seemed to have happened to the bully’s mouth, for it was all swollen, and to his conscience, for he returned the pocket knife. When I asked Eddie if he’d done something to the bully he laughed.
“Somebody more bigger did,” he said with a wink, and I remembered the older boys who’d been working with him in the beet field. “Never try to do stuff like that,” he advised. “Always there is somebody more bigger than you to make you pay for it.”
Although most of the kids from the sand hills outside Torrington did not have to leave school to work in the fields like Eddie did, many of them (including the girls) worked every day for their farmer fathers. There were hogs to slop, chickens to pluck, onions to plant, barns to clean, fences to repair. School for them was always secondary, even if their parents insisted that they attend classes and bring home their report cards.
Most of these farm kids came to school in one of the district’s few buses, each of which made two trips each morning and each afternoon, taking those who lived closest to town on the first circuit and those who lived farther away last. As a result, those who lived farthest away had to hang out in the school yard for nearly an hour before and after school. As I got to know some of them better I began to hang out with them, especially as the weather warmed.
The farm kids displayed a worldliness about animal life that the town youngsters didn’t possess. The farm kids could talk about shoveling manure or slaughtering pigs or a cow’s afterbirth with as little emotion as they discussed their clothes or the contents of their lunch boxes. Yet some of them, like Donna Hansen, had little or no concept of a world beyond their farms, the town and the North Platte River.
Donna was at least two years older than I was and had older brothers and married sisters. Like Eddie Rodrigues, she somehow had missed a year of schooling and been forced to repeat the second or third grade. Her parents were Danish immigrants and very strict. For some reason they wouldn’t let Donna have jewelry, even the cheap dime-store kind. I often shared gum or candy with her, and when she had a dime or quarter that one of her sisters or brothers had given her she would buy a bead necklace or little ring and give it to me to keep for her so she could wear it in class.
Despite her intellectual shortcomings, Donna was honest and good-hearted. She wanted to know why I wanted to stay in the back of the room (“If it was me and I could sit up front I would.”) and what my home life was like. She was the only girl in the class to befriend Diane, a farm girl like her. Diane suffered a speech deficit, a form of bradylogia, that made her seem retarded because she spoke so slowly.
Once when I asked Donna if she didn’t find Diane difficult to listen to, Donna shrugged. “Each one of us’s got something wrong with us,” she told me. “It ain’t her fault. Nobody’s perfect. Just what’s wrong with some people’s back inside them, where you can’t see it so easy. But it’s there. God put it there.”
Donna was the first of my new companions to ask for help with her lessons. Eddie’s sister was next. By Easter I’d become the informal tutor for most of Miss Ritter’s back-of-the-room recalcitrants. Deciding, I guess, that my will power wasn’t going to cave in, Miss Ritter began suggesting that other front-of-the-roomers help those who “are having trouble with their lessons.” I might have taken this as a further sign of victory had she not told my parents that my move to the back of the class had been good for me, and that thanks to her, instead of continuing to be a clown and a behavior problem, I had “grown into being able to accept responsibility.”
Robert Joe Stout is a freelance journalist, fiction writer and poet. He currently lives in Mexico after a career as a magazine editor, newspaper reporter, editor and columnist and government property tax accountant. Algora Press brought out his The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives, _a mosaic of Mexican faces, places and experiences,