Ramblings of a Ranger- Rudy, the Sun God
From the Summit Lake Ranger Station log book, Lassen Volcanic National Park: My last evening at Summit Lake this year (or summer). I ran this afternoon up to Cliff Lake and climbed up the rocks on the south side... the big, blocky fragments of cliff face were fun to leap and jump across. In the lake there were thousands of 'boat oarsmen' water swimmers and hundreds of fat, wriggling pollywogs to pick up from the shallow, warm water... it was a quiet and peaceful time- time to reflect on the tall trees and water, reflections on the lake, reflections in my heart. I truly love this place, this time, this precious life... I think I prefer the fast and furious drive of life- I can't help it! I probably should be concerned about how unprepared I am for the coming year to teach, but it will all come together.
So, I'm a teacher at a little school in Monrovia, California, one of those life years, and I teach fifth grade and I will tell you about Rudy, my Sun God. Though I love it, this clamor of kids, this wild flow of energy and youth, I dream a lot about being back in Lassen Volcanic National Park for another summer... especially as summer nears. These kids, this particular class, and I, are going to go to Lassen Volcanic for a week, coming soon, but in the meantime there are all of the things to go through for a school. I can't imagine a better time than to be taking a class of beautiful students away to my most beloved spot on earth: good ol' Lassen Park- what a blending of my two worlds!
In the meantime, the daily grind must be ground, in this last full school month of May: the math and reading and writing and sciences and history and current events and... and state testing, testing, one... two... three...all those hoops to hop through. Somehow the staff of 4th and 5th grade teachers puts together a 'western days' spectacular and we are all to present some type of dance production, to break up the monotony, create a diversion. And there comes a dull, hot, smoggy afternoon when I have to watch seemingly endless square dances and Virginia Reels, while tinny music scratches and wavers out of the crappy sound system.
If this is 'Western Days' with good ol' cowboys and Indians, then where are the Indians... I mean, Native Americans? I wonder. Yes, an example of a Native American celebration is sorely needed... oh, that would be my class, still in the classroom, finishing and preparing, awaiting their turn.
See, when we were faced with this project, my class of mostly Hispanic kids decided, (partly because I wanted them to), to do something native. Not one other class deviated from the norm, the typical production: a white-culture, European-centric, yee-hah! square dance... even though our school populations are skewed mightily towards brown-skinned Hispanics. Eventually, we settle on a simple circle dance, a Sun Dance, a blending of Southwestern Indian culture. We do a little research, get the general feeling tone going and cobble together something unique.On a few afternoons we mark out an area on the blacktop, go through the motions, the steps, keeping it pretty secret... I want to 'blow away' the other classes and teachers... gosh, nothing competitive in me at all. (Well, maybe just a little, though mostly I compete against myself, wanting to be the best I can be!) I have some brightly colored sands in little jars and we will use them to line out the circle and other symbols.
The thing, the event, the day of the dances, gets close and my students get excited... even the few black and white kids are totally 'into' it. I love these times when I can just be a facilitator: you know, let the kids do the learning and teaching to each other, while I stand back and just move group to group, helping out, keeping the flow going. And then, there is Rudy. Tall, willowy, thin Hispanic kid, kind of quiet; there is something ethereal about him, something dreamy... Rudy needs to be the Sun God, the center, our leader in this, says everyone and I mean EVERYONE! (I think so, too). Okay, Rudy it is!
And it is finally that day, the Western DAZE extravaganza. Right after lunch I have my class come in early from recess to prepare. They are jazzed! When they will willingly give up recess time for class, well, that's a big deal. Some questions of the past two days: Can we braid each others's hair, ask the girls. Yes is the answer. Can we use feathers and beads and paint our faces, they all ask. Yes, I reply(It's poster paint, non-toxic and easy to wash off and use...) Can the boys take their shirts off, so that their upper bodies can be painted? Um... yes, I tell them (though I may hear about that one)... and while the first classes of students get ready outside to present their performances, my class hides inside, working together like the team I want them to be. I remember a scene from the movie 'Dances With Wolves', when the Lakota Sioux were getting ready for the big buffalo hunt, getting ready physically, emotionally, spiritually, quiet and focused and intense and that is where my class is at right now: not one soul is off task, not a person is goofing off, but there is easy laughter and fun... the room crackles with good energy, like the brief calm as a lightning storm nears... something big is going on.
I have to make my excuses about why my class is not watching the other dances, for which I am viewed a little suspiciously, BUT, I am the new guy, I am young and dumb and full of ideals and ideas... at least I am staying outside to help with the sound system... my students? well, I trust them and my teacher aide is sitting inside, but hardly needed, these folks will NOT let me down!... except for peeking in the door a few times, I let them do their thing.
Finally, the last bedraggled western-garbed group of kids wilt their way off the shimmering blacktop. Isn't this over yet? I can read on the pained faces of parents, other adults, my principal, Dorothea, the crowd of students, all ready to be done with it. I see a few people starting to wander away... we're losing them, doctor! and then I announce my class and push the button on for the Carlos Nakai Native American flute music. Claudia, my little organizer, is watching out the classroom door, and I signal her to come on, bring the team.
The music, even through the lousy speakers, is really beautiful, and it catches the audience, reels them in: something different is happening... and here comes my class, but they are momentarily not my students, they have transformed themselves into something mesmerizing, magical. Two boys beat small drums to the time as this group of people step to the drums and march out, proud and brave, to the center of the blacktop. The girls' hair glistens and their braids are filled with feathers, with colored beads; the boys' and girls' faces are wonderfully painted, the boys' chests and arms colored with stripes and circles; and leading them all, Rudy: tall, with a yellow symbol of the sun painted across his brown chest, intense, his gaze fierce and powerful, carrying the day.
Into the center of the circle strides Rudy, and the rest of the students surround him. moving to the drum beats, and if Rudy is the sun, the rest of them are the planets and moons and asteroids, circling, stamping, dancing to his motions. The audience is absolutely still, the power of the flute, rising and falling, overpowering the sound system problems, the drums beating like lifeblood, like a million heartbeats, in our ears. The Sun God moves carefully, pouring out colored sands into symbols of the four directions, onto the pavement... he weaves a design of beauty. The dancing reaches a crescendo, the drummers increase the tempo of the beats, then grow still. I turn the music to a whisper... I had no idea this would be so rich, so strong a ceremony.
Rudy raises his arms to the sky, giving thanks for life, for our planet, for the riches we have. For all the world, I feel transported to another time, another place... some southwest mesa or pueblo or Aztec city from the far past. It is such a moment, with that skinny little boy raising his arms and encompassing everyone and everything. I can't explain it to this day, but those kids tapped into some spiritual power deep within us all.
And it's all over! YES! We nailed it... well, they did! My class breaks and runs back to our classroom, calling out a shrill cry of pure wildness and spontaneous joy. Back in the room, they are breathless, overwhelmed with positive energy. And I get to be there, to share their hugs and laughter and for this moment, for this time, no one is hungry, or poor, or overburdened, or struggling, or faced with a life of trouble. We are ONE!
My own private moment of triumph comes when my next door teacher, a long-time veteran of the classroom, and who is a gifted instructor, but also a little burnt out and jaded, approaches me. See, she and I have different philosophies: she guides and directs the 'GATE' kids, those who show promise and get extra attention, higher level lessons, to guide them to possible greatness. I believe that all kids deserve extra attention, and those without natural talent may just excel through their own hard work... we have butted heads, often. For once, this person is a bit humble, comes to me and tells me, without some biting comment, that my class was incredible, was beyond belief. "Dave, "she says, "when that kid (my little Rudy!) raised his arms and gave thanks, well, it was overpowering, it was so moving, I felt the prickles on the back of my neck."
Do you know what is the number one predictor of success for kids in a classroom? Not the curriculum, or the wonderful texts, or new technology (though these are also important); the number one predictor is the teacher and his/her energy, direction, love, experience, honesty, knowledge, and excitement for that group of motley little urchins. But IF that teacher has that power of success or failure for a group, in my mind, it works both ways: to see the potential of my kids, MY kids, realized on that day, and many other days, empowers me, makes ME feel successful... it is a two-way street. We all need and want to belong to some group, some thing greater than ourselves... that is a basic human need and evident in all the collections in which we place ourselves in life: family, church, clubs, sports, sadly, even in gang affiliations.
Those are some of the best memories for me, the times teaching and guiding people to love themselves, love the world, and, to quote Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the world. The chapters of our lives flow by, don't they? To look back on some great memories is so necessary, gets one ready for trials and triumphs ahead. I had many, many grand successes with students, and lots of tie-scores or even-steven draws where their future might go either way, and a few spectacular failures. All part of the game, I suppose.
Up near my beloved Lassen Volcanic National Park recently, I was camping along Bailey Creek and remembering some school adventures: the kids from this class must be in their late 20's? Early 30's? I wonder where my Sun God, Rudy, is? Where they all are, now. and I wish and pray for them: well and happy lives. Those reminisces got me to writing a poem about that racing creek next to where I was camped out:
This Bailey Creek, this roar of life and sound and water-cooled air... No gentle rain dripping off the eaves, no misty fog creeping through damp forests of silent trees, this... This water is crashing brightly, racing down from the deep snow drifts.. Tumult and praise! Tumult and praise! it shouts... careening into shadow, deep white foam and dark desire... Racing the sunlight to dance and tumble... Swirling, ever-changing, can't be held back, past smooth stone and tree root and time. A siren song sounds to me, the sparkling eddies of bubbled water, Water voices calling, hearken, Come join us, in our trek to the sea... to the sky... to the deep snow drifts. But my way lies down other paths, other places, before I will be free this shell and maybe then, A sun beam, a flower, a swirl of water, free...
In large ways and little ways, we can all be the change we want to see in the world, each and every day... please, for this day, help to make the world a better place, in some deed or word of kindness. Thanks for reading!