The Road North

Karen Petersen

© Copyright 2023 by Karen Petersen

Photo of a book cover.
Photo of a book cover

 The main road to Espanola–a town north of glamorous Santa Fe, New Mexico--held a sense of promise that was consistently affirmed by the splendid landscape as Janet drove along. 

Unfortunately, it was not fulfilled by the destination. The town itself was a shell of a town, filled with fast food joints, rundown buildings and an overall air of hovering decrepitude which was like a bad stench that never quite went away. 

She was on her way to teaching a class in English composition at a small school in a Southwestern town that was the drug overdose capital of the country. But the hour-long journey north was something else entirely. 

The road climbed slightly as the car left Santa Fe, and Janet gasped as she reached its apex for there before her was a panorama of snow-capped mountains and ancient eroded mesas that suddenly put puny humanity in its place. It was humbling, and being a city girl, she’d never experienced the power of the natural landscape to transform--until now. 

It was exhilarating to drive through this beauty–and the vast blue sky, filled with billowing clouds, had a sense of divinity and omniscient presence that gave her a feeling that anything was possible, anything could be accomplished. 

The sun shone down on the hot summer emptiness of the earth, dotted with silver grey chamisa and golden grasses as the road made its way through one Indian pueblo after another. Except for the casinos and gas stations the pueblos remained largely hidden from sight. They wanted it that way, and she understood why. 

Just outside the town of Pojoaque there was a traffic sign announcing the historic turnoff to Los Alamos, whichsent a shiver through her as she passed by. That lab, once secret, had been formed during World War II for the design of nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project.Since then, let’s just say that the place had diversified. 

As she traveled north, Janet couldn’t help but notice all the big shiny immaculately kept RAM trucks: obnoxious, domineering, ready to run her off the road. In this part of the world they seemed to be an expression of frustrated Hispanic machismo and power, although many were driven by Native Americans too. Regardless, it was clear there were a lot of angry men around with nothing better to do than intimidate female drivers with smaller cars. 

Frenetic Mexican ‘banda’ music on the car radio announced the Espanola town line, as traffic slowed down to a crawl out of respect for the sudden 35 mph speed limit and hidden cop cars waiting to jump on the unsuspecting motorist with a massive speeding fine. The music, primarily brass and percussion, like a German oompah band gone wild, was so feverish and enthusiastic Janet couldn’t help but grin. 

The school where she was going to teach was a modest concrete building just off one of the main roads. It wasn’t anything special the way the Ivy League colleges and prep schools were back East, reeking of old money and privilege; rather it was a simple and practical building–the kind of place where one could get a basic education if the desire was there. 

As Janet walked into her classroom she saw that the students were all on their cell phones. None of them looked up at her, and none expressed any curiosity. Janet’s heart sank. Several of the young girls had so much makeup on they could have been mistaken for streetwalkers in any city in the world. Plucked eyebrows, teased hair, skin tight clothes and fake black eyelashes so thick and heavy they looked like they were wearing masks. And perhaps it was just that–a facade of twisted beauty pleasing to the surrounding macho culture that hid away their real selves--for later in the semester when several of them came in without makeup and in regular street clothes Janet saw just how very lovely they actually were. The difference was stunning. 

As she wrote her name on the blackboard she saw several students look up expectantly. The rest remained glued to their phones. “Okay, everyone,” she said. “Time to turn off your phones or they will be confiscated.” That got their attention. No one wanted their lifelines taken. 

She handed out a sheet for their names, goals, and home addresses. She saw a number of the students lived on the pueblos.  

One student, who lived on the 800 year old San Juan pueblo, now called by its original Tewa name, the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo–the ‘place of the strong people’-- called himself Rabbit Boy. The roster listed his name as Jonny.  

I see a number of you live on the pueblos.” she said. “How many speak the native language there?” 

Only one hand went up. It was Jonny, the Rabbit Boy. 

Why is that?” she asked the class. 

One student said, “There is no one left to teach us.” 

 Another said, “My friends make fun of me if I try. They want to fit in with the rest of the world.” 

A third said, “I can understand it when my grandmother speaks but I can’t speak it myself.”  

Well,” Janet said, “Think about what language is. Look around you. Let’s take those amazing mountains who watch over us as we drive about. It is we humans who named them, who allowed them meaning, who allowed them by naming to be as mountains, for without us this landscape would just be dwelling in the silence of the universe like so many other worlds. I’m sure there are some languages that have many words for all the different types of mountains there are–similar to the Inuit who have over one hundred words for snow. So do you all see that language, and naming, helps us to exist beyond a world of grunting and finger-pointing?” 

The class giggled. “Each and every language has a world-view,” she continued, “which is the most important reason not to let that language die, because when it does that world view is mostly dead, and that’s a terrible thing. Each and every world view adds to the richness of the human experience and our understanding of the world around us.” 

She looked over at Jonny, the Rabbit Boy, the only one in the class who was bi-lingual. 

But his face was impassive and completely blank. He seemed miles away and unreachable, almost as if he hadn’t heard her at all. It startled her. 

As the class got up to leave, Janet asked Jonny to remain behind. Like many young Indians he had cut his lustrous black hair short and hidden it with a baseball cap. He stood by his seat, uneasily shifting from one leg to the other. 

So do you expect to be eaten by this class?” she asked, referring to the Tewa legend of Fox Man and Rabbit Boy. 

 Jonny looked surprised, surprised that she, an outsider, would even know the legend. 

Maybe,” he said, in a voice so quiet and small she had to strain to hear him even though he was only a few feet away. 

But Rabbit Boy got away,” she said smiling. “So what are you worried about? This is your chance to see what’s out there. Then you can figure out what you want to do with that, right?” 

He shrugged, his wide face blank again, unreachable. 

 “What name would you like me to call you in class?” she asked. 

He shrugged again, his eyes veiled. 

How about RB? Our secret name for Rabbit Boy but it sounds like a rap name,” she said laughing. 

Yeah,” he answered, again in that small, quiet voice. “But that’s good. I like it.” He smiled slightly. 

At the next class, the assignment had been to read and write up a commentary on Native American writer Sherman Alexie’s essay, “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” It was about his love of reading and learning and how he managed to transcend stereotypes and bullying from both sides to get an education. The class all turned in work and Rabbit Boy’s writing showed there was intelligence and talent behind his almost invisible demeanor. But in subsequent classes it was as if he’d jumped off a cliff and died. He didn’t participate or do the reading and the assignments. All his work was always late.  

One day she asked him to stay after class again. “What’s going on?” she said. “You’re failing now.” 

I have a lot going on,” he whispered. 

Like what?” she asked. 

My cousin is sick and I look after him. I have no time,” he said. “And I have no desk at home. I have just a tiny room with a bed and a chair, and there are ants--a lot of them. I don’t like to be there.” 

Janet didn’t know what to say. “What about the library here? Can you come in each day and do your work there instead?” 

Yeah, I guess,” he said. Another shrug. 

Tell me your class schedule and we can try and figure this out,” Janet replied. “You’ve got to get your assignments done for all your classes otherwise you’re not gonna make it.” 

They went over his schedule and she put together a plan where he could come into the library to read and get his assignments done. But somehow Janet had the feeling she was missing something, something he would not tell her. 

The following week 75% of the class failed the first vocabulary test. No one had bothered to study. Jonny had been one of the few who passed. 

Still waters run deep indeed, Janet thought. But that was a brief flare in the night sky. After that his work just didn’t materialize and when called upon in class it was clear he hadn’t done the reading. He was just filling an empty seat at this point. 

Janet felt it was time to talk to Elizabeth, the Department Chair, a drained and exhausted looking woman in her late 40s. For Elizabeth, it was all about sacrifice--sacrifice to her children, to her students, to her job. Her own needs, if she even really knew what they were anymore, just didn’t matter. It was almost as if she could not allow her self to exist and actually make demands on the world at this point in her life. 

But that quality of sacrifice made her a great administrator, ready to tackle the paperwork and minutiae that others shrank from. And Janet knew Elizabeth could help with her student, one way or the other, with some kind of formal advice. 

How are you finding your time here?” Elizabeth asked. 

Janet had wanted to say that the mostly white faculty she’d met so far seemed distant and exhausted. 

In the Writing Center for all to hear, one had been openly contemptuous of the work ethic of the few token black students that had been shipped in to bolster the school’s flagging basketball team. 

That attitude had shocked Janet but she’d said nothing. After all, who was there to tell? She was only filling in for a semester. 

She had really wanted to say to Elizabeth, “Aside from the blatant stereotyping and racism of some of the faculty, and aside from the fact that I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of student laziness and apathy, I’m doing really well!” 

But instead Janet just replied, “I’m finding a few of the students challenging and was wondering what you think might work to motivate them.” 

Elizabeth smiled an all-knowing smile. Clearly she’d been down this road before, but Janet wondered if after all the years of working there and a need for job security had left Elizabeth with blinkers on, unable to face the harsh realities of the place. 

She told her about Jonny and how unreachable he seemed to be.  

Some of our students just don’t make it,” Elizabeth said casually, seemingly without being able to really grasp what that actually would mean in a remote place like Espanola. 

Janet suddenly felt that courses in social work should be mandatory for all the faculty in these kinds of environments. She looked at Elizabeth. 

There’s a reason Espanola’s called the drug overdose capital of the country...” she said carefully. “A lack of hope can ruin a person. We shouldn’t give up on any student.” 

Yes, yes, I know, and we do the best that we can,” Elizabeth replied impatiently. “But it’s always about money–there is so little to go around here. In your case I would try and motivate him by getting a copy of a wonderfully inspirational book called ‘Touching Spirit Bear.’ If your student makes it through the midterms, you can give it to him as a reward...” 

Yes, but HOW is he going to make it? Janet thought, suddenly realizing Elizabeth didn’t have an answer any more than she did. Even though she was the department’s chair, as a middle-class white woman her entire life had been far, far away from this world. 

As midterms approached Janet realized there was a bad energy to her class that try as she might she just couldn’t turn around. Over half the class turned papers in late-- if they did them at all–and most had to redo the tests because they failed. Only two of the students really seemed to care, and those girls were bright, motivated ‘A’ students who easily belonged in the Ivy League or at Stanford. But the reason they’d chosen to stay in the region had nothing to do with education and everything to do with family and local tradition. Family stayed together, period. 

Such a shame, Janet thought. By the midterm 25% of the class had either dropped out or been dropped by Janet. 

 She had done them a favor because that way they could retake the class again, and not have a failing grade on their record. And once midterms were over almost another 25% were gone. 

Janet had never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, one of the students whose time had come to be dropped was Jonny the Rabbit Boy. But somehow she couldn’t bring herself to do it. 

She called him aside after class and said, “We have almost a week’s break now. Do you think you could make up your missing work and redo your midterm by the endof next week?” 

He smiled confidently. “Yes! I have a place to study now,” he said in an almost normal tone of voice that she could actually hear without straining. 

Where?” she asked curiously. “I won almost two thousand dollars at our casino and they’ve given me a room for free!” he said proudly. 

She was stunned. How bizarre! 

Well if that works for you...” she replied uneasily. “It will all be due next Monday, ok? It’s your last chance RB, truly it is.” 

He nodded solemnly, and at the time she thought he really meant it. 

The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men... 

Next Monday came and RB came in late. His body was present but only that–mentally he was far away. 

He had purposely taken the farthest seat to her left, just beyond her line of sight, and did not participate. Janet couldn’t tell if he was sleeping or navel gazing without turning around, so it was extremely annoying, and a strangely aggressive act on his part which undermined her authority that the rest of the class noticed. 

When class was over, she turned to him and asked, “Do you have the work we spoke about?” 

And he answered, “No,” in an almost defiant tone, his flat brown face and eyes showing nothing, nothing at all. 

Do you have any of it?” she asked incredulously. 

No,” he said again. 

She shook her head in disgust.  

Well, guess I’ll go back to my deer dancing,” he said sarcastically. 

What?” she said. She slammed her books down on the table and cried out in frustration, “You’re out RB, do you understand?   You’ve got five ‘F’s and you just failed the midterm. Why are you even here? It’s a waste of your time and a waste of my  time!” 

So now I’m going to withdraw you from the class to save you. You get to run away from the fox after all–but are you any the wiser for it?” she said angrily. 

He turned his back on her without a word and lumbered down the hall slowly, his presence neither here nor there. He might as well have been a ghost. 

The school isn’t going anywhere, in case you want to come back one day,” she shouted after him. There was that shrug again.  

Damn him. Why hadn’t he taken the chance she’d given him? 

As she was walking out to her car in anger one of her other students approached her. He was a tall Hispanic boy who was trying, off and on, to do well. He had moments of truly gifted insight in his papers but his work was often late and disorganized. However, he responded to her attempts at helping him, and that was gratifying. 

Oh, miss...?” he asked timidly, coming up to her. 

She was already by her car. On the seat was the book “Touching Spirit Bear” that she’d bought for Rabbit Boy as a reward if he’d turned everything in that day. She saw it and wanted to cry. She felt like such a failure. 

Yes” she said tightly, turning to him and trying to smile. “I know you’ve been struggling with Jonny in the class and I just wanted you to know something.” he hesitated. 

 “Yes??” she said. “Well, we don’t know for sure but we think he’s homeless,” he said. 

It was as if the wind had been knocked out of her. So that was what he hadn’t been telling her. 

Uh...thank you for letting me know,” she said suddenly embarrassed, and got into the car heavily. 

The weeks dragged on, and the class, now almost cut in half, seemed strangely empty without the silent presence of Rabbit Boy lurking nearby like an admonition. She wondered how he was. 

She had tried to bring the rest of the world to them all, off in this small forgotten corner of America. But except for those two ‘A’ students and a few others, no one cared. Most of these kids belonged in some kind of trade school. They weren’t interested in academia. No one wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist, or ponder existential ontologies. Most of them really didn’t even want to learn to write well. What was the point? This was the age of texting! They all seemed to have forgotten what she’d told them at the beginning of the semester about language and naming and world-views. 

At the semester’s end, the final ride back to Santa Fe through the mountains and pueblos near Espanola was almost as exhilarating as the ride there had once been. 

But now the massive landscape itself seemed immovable, almost mocking her in its dominance. The vast drifting sky, no longer picturesque, seemed to unravel into an endless chaos, and the tension between those two worlds created a kind of battle in her spirit as she drove. 

When she got home she stared at the Spirit Bear book still on her front seat that she’d gotten for Jonny, the Rabbit Boy, after the midterm. No longer naive, she got out of the car and uncomfortably walked around the garage looking for the large box marked Yard Sale. She finally found it, and sadly tossed the book in. 

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