"Sion & Straley"
Girls in the Rezhood
(Note: this can be considered a companion piece to:
I teach at a public high school near the Arizona-New Mexico border within a tribal reservation.)
From polar corners of the Rez reside Sion and Straley. They are both my students. Both should be seniors, but Sion will need an additional year’s worth of credits to graduate. These two are like beams of black light; they streak across reality, combining the surreal with the all too real. I can’t tell you their last names. There are probably many other things about Sion and Straley I can’t tell you, because I can only tell you what they tell me. And behind Sion’s carefully concealed cool and Straley’s unbridled exuberance, much undoubtedly remains unsaid.
Here is some of what I know: Sion, age 17, is bored, angry, musical and pierced. With long black hair, she is more pierced than anyone I have ever crossed, either in person or on video. “Skewered” is the term that comes to mind. At last count, she had 27 piercings on her nose, eyebrows, lips, tongue and ears. Without the piercings, she wouldn’t be her. She wouldn’t look the same, feel the same or be the same. She seems comfortable with herself, more so than most teenagers. Comfortable and poised far beyond her years. Yet troubled too, with an icy exterior veneer that is tempered only occasionally by a guarded smile.
Sion’s fantasies all revolve around escaping the Rez. She said she sees barbed wire around it in her dreams. She doesn’t sleep much, she says, saying no more. Her pauses fill in the gaps. She smiles and her dark eyes hint at nightmares she’d rather avoid facing than sleep through. She speaks in a detached manner about her neglectfully drunk mother and three abusively drunk step-brothers. Her resentment remains just beneath the surface as she seems to fight back anguished memories. She’s determined to break the chain. The way she says it – icy, like steel, like she’s telling herself and not me - makes you certain she won’t fail. I ask if getting pierced hurts. Her dark eyes flash and meet mine only briefly, then she looks away. “It only hurts for a second,” she says flatly. It’s obvious that other events in her life have hurt for far longer. And unlike the piercings, that pain gave her nothing she wanted afterward.
Straley, 18, is an accidental punk. She likes the music, the energy and the excitement, but she isn’t dark or brooding. With her black hair streaked maroon, she’s closer to bubbly than surly. She tells me of guitar chords she's learning and asks about far-away cities I’ve been to, wondering if there is a place for her there. I tell her sure, always room for another person with dreams and passion in a big city. And when I mention that she could see live music and meet other people with her interests, she brightens up further. Straley dreams of LA, but feels like it’s too big and scary. Denver is a safer bet. I tell her I’m going to see U2 in Denver this summer and she smiles. She can see the blue skies in her mind as she heads down the highway toward her destiny, leaving one set of mountains behind for another.
Sion has an escape plan. Incongruous as it may seem, she thinks of joining the military as a way out. This is a stretch, I tell her. No piercings, yes sir, no ma’am, discipline, orders, a Spartan existence. Sion’s moods change quickly and unpredictably, like the strong western winds, and discipline and routine are not her strong suits. She rebels against each frequently at school. Then she mentions San Diego and the possibility of becoming a pierce artist. Sounds more like you, I say. She smiles, and then the smile quickly fades.
Straley tells me about her boyfriend in Albuquerque. He’s 20 and works at an oil change place and at a gas station/ convenience mart. He wants to marry her this summer. She is putting off answering no, but she knows that’s what the answer will be. Her sisters married young, had kids young and Straley witnessed their dreams die young too. Straley is bound for Denver, Seattle, El Paso, and God knows where else. She mentions possible destinations with a reckless abandon, like she’s happily shooting at targets with a machine gun. I tell her San Antonio is nice and that leads to a discussion of the nightlife of nearby Austin, its music, clubs, street scenes, and the University of Texas blocks away. She likes the sound of it. For the moment, Austin is her escape as the images flash across her mind.
Sion wears black every day. Most of the kids at school do too. But Sion looks like she was born wearing it. I’ve had suburban kids affect a goth/ emo/ punk rock pose before, many times in fact. But Sion could shame them all with a mere glance while striding by. She’s the genuine article. Again, she has no choice but to wear black, no option, no pose to fall back on. She is this.
If Straley showed up wearing a daffodil t-shirt, on the other hand, I wouldn’t bat an eye, although any such display of vibrancy would likely send her classmates into apoplexy. Straley wants an Oakland Raiders tattoo-another de rigeur sign of fashion among these students. The black and silver, the name Raiders, the faux-macabre-Halloween-freak-show crowd that fills the Oakland Coliseum, it all fits too well here. I notice that every time my students sketch, the result is a skull, a black heart, a black rose, the Raiders logo, a skeleton, or something similarly bleak. I asked for artwork to spice up my fetid classroom décor and received 30 skulls in various states of decomposition.
I ask Straley, seriously now, what’s after high school for you? She evades the question, instead telling me of a “pregnancy pact” made by two of her classmates. A quizzical look crosses my face. I’m thinking it’s a pledge they made to each other to avoid getting knocked up while still in school. Regrettably, it’s not that. If one gets pregnant, Straley clarifies, the other promises to as well. Terrific. The Rez needs two more teenage mothers prone to quit high school and two more children born with two strikes against them like it needs more gang graffiti on the charred and abandoned mobile homes.
The poverty here is selective. Consumerism runs rampant on the Rez, but basics often get skipped over in the process, as pragmatism isn’t generally a priority. Most students have an iPod, a fully loaded cell phone and expensive basketball shoes. Ramshackle, half-finished homes are adorned with satellite dishes on the outside and flat-screen televisions inside. But propane here is expensive and to pay for these electronics, heat is often foregone. A student tells me that inside his house it hit 38 degrees the night before. You see no braces on any student’s teeth - Straley is missing a prominent tooth up top, on the side - and while many have eyeglasses, many others do without, squinting in class at the words on the chalkboard.
I walk to the office to get some coffee during my free period. Sion is perched on the couch there, and smiles at me contentedly through her black lipstick. There’s been some trouble, but she’s calm now. The storm has passed but she informs me she won’t be in class today. She’s being suspended for ditching first period. School obviously bores her to the point of annoyance. I try to engage her in class about various topics – police searches, the rights of the accused, what it’s like to be Native American in this country – all to little avail.
When Sion and Straley go home each weekday, no one is going to ask them what they learned in school today or what homework they have tonight. Sion is content to basically live alone for stretches at a time and Straley lives with her uncle and his second wife and their newborn son. These girls are left pretty much to their own devices after school, running the gamut from getting high, drunk, tattooed, pierced, or even pregnant with their time. But these two avoid the most serious pitfalls and live to ponder life outside the Rez for another day. The biggest lesson they’ve learned so far came not from a teacher or textbook, but from their own eyes and experiences here. They’ve decided that selling jewelry and getting loaded in the Rez aren’t the future they want. Now if they can only plot a road map out of here, somehow traversing the barbed-wire along the way.