Misery of the Sixth and Seventh Grades Remembered
(Memoir Excerpt © 2019 Steve Russell)
My first attempt to physically drop out was in the sixth grade, and that was behavior outrageous enough to come to my mother’s attention. My truancy made my grandparents miserable that I would not attend and it made me miserable that I was disappointing them — but not as miserable as wasting my days on pointless repetition from teachers and ridicule from other students.
In the middle of the sixth grade, my mother took me into custody and hauled me away to Odessa. This was only the second time I spent time with her, the first being the early disaster in Pampa. I was anxious about how Odessa would work out but curious what it would be like to live with people who had a normal income.
My second experience of living with my mother gave me the opportunity to finish elementary school at Dowling — like many other schools in Odessa and in Texas, named after a Confederate States of America war hero. Dick Dowling’s derring-do at the Battle of Sabine Pass — something I only learned about when assigned to his eponymous school — made his story exciting to sixth graders — sort of like Davy Crockett minus Crockett’s appeal to principles greater than self-interest.
The Confederacy, I was beginning to notice, produced more colorful characters than the Union. But I thought then and now that treason is treason, and it’s not the kind of thing that should get schools named after the perpetrators.
I have two recollections of Dowling, the school. First, my fighting got much better there. I gave as much as I got, for a change. The other memory is a fad of the sixth-grade boys — everybody had a switchblade knife. They were cheaply made but they were real. I can’t think of any reason for the fad except that the knives were easy to acquire and pre-teen fashion was influenced by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Marlon Brando in The Wild One. I’m happy to report that I never saw a switchblade used in a fight.
In Odessa, a two-income family could do well, and my mother kept books for small businesses while her husband fixed and reconditioned magnetos, which were necessary to the ignition system of the pumpjacks that dotted the landscape of the Permian Basin. With its dual income, my step-family was able to afford a home on the side of the highway with no honky-tonks and less crime. It even tried to capture one of the two major status symbols for people living in and around the Chihuahuan Desert.
My mother and her putative husband did not have a boat parked on a trailer in their driveway. Boats were commonly kept for show even though there was no place to put a boat in the water for 100 miles in any direction.
They did attempt the other evidence of prosperity in the desert, a green lawn. A green yard without resorting to dye is a serious challenge where the native vegetation is creosote bushes, prickly-pear cactus, tumbleweeds and stunted mesquite trees. They kept up the pretense in the front yard by wasting prodigious amounts of water, but the back yard was a lost cause.
In Odessa, I naturally read the newspaper, the Odessa American. It was there I first encountered the idea that men could, in a sense, own women. Lots of men subjected “their” women to physical discipline with little interference from law enforcement. That was the light end of tolerating violence, but there was a heavy end that made periodic appearance in the American. It was reading news reports of spousal killings that taught me all unlawful homicides were not murders. If a man had been cuckolded, jury verdicts made prosecution for murder futile, with some murder cases ending with a conviction for manslaughter and some with complete acquittals in the face of what sounded like overwhelming evidence. The same privilege of killing the paramour of a spouse and the spouse did not extend to women.
I was not put off by the ramped-up violence of Odessa. It was fascinating to read a newspaper where gunplay did not always rate the front page like it did in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. I never got any closer to the rowdy part of Odessa than reading about it and driving past on the way somewhere else.
Odessa became a serious punishment for ditching school in Bristow both because Odessa offered nowhere to go with books and because the desert was not my natural habitat. I missed green things.
I don’t remember anything about my grades at Dowling, but I was allowed to enroll in seventh grade the next school year, which means I broke even in spite of playing hooky and I was still on track to graduate in 1965. In my mind, the immediate problem was not when I graduated or even if I graduated but rather how to get home.
The experience of being taken against your will is not improved by a blood relationship to the perpetrator. I managed to make enough earnest promises to my mother that I would shape up and at least attend school that she was willing to let me get back to Bristow and blessed greenery. I think she figured that if I just showed up, I would pass.
My begging and wheedling were done with all the good faith I could summon at that age. I was making promises about high school on the cusp of entering the junior high school (as they called middle school then), the seventh grade.
My promise to improve my attendance did have some shelf life. Memory may be failing at my age, but the worst seventh grade conduct I can recall was going to class with a hamster in my pocket. My sense of shame over that, alas, is not about disrupting the class but rather scaring the hamster. That confession shows my good behavior was purely instrumental. The only value I had internalized was the felicity of keeping clear of the Permian Basin.
Race as a value, positive or negative, had to come up in those years. The kids in Odessa did not understand me to be Indian, but just that I had a weird name, and adults did not try to steer me away from the college track until I first provoked them by disinterest in school. Still, Odessa would never be home.
Back in Bristow, the integration mandated by Brown v. Board of Education was not without friction among the students and there was a bit of sparring with words and with fists between whites and blacks. Like the rest of the Indian kids, I stayed clear of those disagreements. We had always been allowed to use the white facilities, with the possible exception of the country club (about which I am not informed). Only those of us who paid attention to national news understood what a big deal integration was in some places.
The disconnect between integration as I understood it by reading the news and integration in my daily life is my dominant public policy memory of that time. Other than that, I have a few vignettes that take up more space in my long-term memory than anything in the curriculum.
There was a seventh grade teacher who had been persuaded by the eugenics movement at its apogee before WWII and was still preaching it. While the text of his sermon was about IQ, there was a racist undercurrent. I didn’t know the history of eugenics and so I didn’t know that the racism did not start out hidden. We — the Indians and the blacks — got the message when he spoke about the dangers to the gene pool in interracial marriage, even though he said it without a claim of white superiority. I was the product of an interracial marriage and I had never before thought of myself as a pollutant in the gene pool.
Another memory involved a seventh grade English class, the only time I remember passing one. I was naturally headed for a failing grade because I would not do homework, when the teacher fell ill and withdrew for the rest of the year. She was replaced by the mother of one of the kids who had been a classmate since first grade. She took me aside and made an offer that if I would read books on at least grade level and write book reports, she would restore some of the points I had lost for not turning in homework. That bargain zipped me right to the top of the class.
She may have figured in my third memory of that year, unless I am mistaken and this happened at the beginning of the eighth grade or even the ninth grade, both of which I started in Bristow. The location of the classroom I know, and that says Middle School. I promised to do the best I can and that’s all I can do.
We had elections for student “offices” that had the names of real offices but there were no real institutions to go with them, so it was hard to take the exercise seriously.
One of the new classmates we acquired when the black school shut down was being passed through the system by social promotions. He appeared to be mentally challenged at a time when there was no special education for black kids — I’m sure the teachers would point out we barely had anything for white kids. There was a special education house, but it was either segregated because it was private and Brown did not apply or the black kids’ parents could not afford it. He was a good-natured fellow, but he could not read or write or do simple arithmetic.
We elected him class secretary. He would be responsible for writing down the minutes of our meetings, if we ever had any meetings. The teacher kept us after class and began to scold us for making fun of him.
I raised my hand and she paused her tirade.
“We weren’t making fun of him, ma’am. We were making fun of you.”
To her credit, she seemed to grasp the absurdity of competing for imaginary offices in a nonexistent organization. She let us go and I don’t recall there being any more nonsense about student government. The kid we had elected secretary never had to take any notes and he was tickled plumb to death at the positive attention he got.
The seventh grade was my last clean finish of a full grade in the Bristow schools. From there, I would attend two eighth grade schools and three high schools before finally putting an end to my war with public education.