I believe in free public education at all levels.
In the last year before school consolidation, I taught nine students in a wood frame schoolhouse, way out on the hard red winter wheatfields of northwest Montana.
There was no school bus. The students were delivered to the chapped building by wind-wrinkled mothers smelling of diesel, clabbered milk and manure, who drove stubnosed grain trucks and Pontiacs with singing shock absorbers. Through the slumping panes of the teacherage’s kitchen window, I forecast the day’s attendance by counting the dust plumes that boiled out of the Sweetgrass Hills and converged on the section-line roads.
I had long hair and had seen the world beyond Great Falls, so I was a bug in a mayonnaise jar to the kids, to be viewed through a shell of cautious politeness until it was determined whether I raised welts or spat stinky fluids. The younger ones softened first. By Columbus Day we were claiming a corner of Rasmussen’s wheat field for our school by planting a flag in the dusty stubble. Shortly afterward I was J.D., one of the gang, to most of my students.
But not to Waylon, who, at age 12, had read most of Louis L’Amour and believed it possible to live as a gunfighter. Hormones were gathering behind his dinnerplate-sized belt buckle. He focused on fair Sylvia’s scant breasts during history class. To Waylon I was an outlander, an agent of change, someone bent on jamming mathematics between him and his bull-riding future.
In the puncture weeds at the perimeter of the pea-gravel parking lot were several ant mounds. Waylon’s courtship of Sylvia consisted of carefully working his freckled hand and lower arm into an ant hill, until it was swarming with a black scurry, then chasing her around the schoolyard yelling “Ant Arm Man is going to get you! Ant Arm Man is going to get you!”
During one such episode of cowpoke foreplay, Sylvia went down hard on both knees against the lip of the concrete pad that anchored the flag pole. Restrained tears fogged her glasses. “Darn you, Waylon. I’ll get you.” These were strong words from a fundamentalist farm girl who dressed as her grandmother had.
Waylon booted rocks down the road ahead of us. I was angry. I told him to cut the crap, to try a little tenderness, that Sylvia was in pain because he had worked an old joke one too many times, and that I didn’t like pain, intentional or accidental. He’d better settle down before I called in the big dogs, his folks and Sylvia’s. Waylon tipped back the bill of his tractor hat, checked the clouds, flashed a coyote grin and said, “Yes sir, Mister Smith, sir.” That night a cold front sneaked over the Canadian border and covered the schoolyard with a foot of snow.
For Christmas I bought each student a harmonica. By Valentine’s Day, with Sylvia sitting first chair, we were a one-song band, playing “The Streets of Laredo” to an audience of aquarium guppies. Science afternoons were spent in model rocketry, firing chunks of balsawood and cardboard way, way up into the huge crystal skies. Physical education occurred when we trudged through the snow a mile downwind for the space ship retrieval.
A wind that smelled of crawdads whistled up from the Missouri River breaks in early April. Overnight the snow was gone.
One sunny morning, after the yellow clay had dried enough to permit play, Sylvia and Janet asked if they could take the new canvas bases outside and design a softball diamond. Sure, but keep in mind the windows and the thistles.
Each team had a pitcher, a first baseman and a couple of roving fielders. I was both teams’ catcher. Waylon captained one group and chose Sylvia, Janet, and the two first graders for his team. Sylvia was unusually aggressive in demanding that her team bat first.
Of course, Waylon was the leadoff hitter. He punched the first pitch through the hole where a shortstop would have been, a clean single, but the girls knew Waylon so, as he wheeled up the baseline toward first, Sylvia and Janet yelled “Take two, Waylon! Take two!”
When he made the turn, going for the double, they changed their chant to “Slide, Waylon! Slide! Slide!” and he slid headfirst into a busy community of red ants that had recently been covered by second base.
He came up swatting, spitting and slapping. He was a tough little hombre, but I could see that he was in trouble with this situation, so I hustled him toward the four-seater outhouse. I left as he fought with his belt buckle. Sylvia sat smiling in the swing.
A month later the job ended. On the last day of school, as I was boxing the artifacts of my teaching career and packing my truck to head toward Alaska, I looked out into the schoolyard and there by the flagpole sat Sylvia and Waylon, holding hands while they waited for their rides back into the Sweetgrass Hills.
J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.