Continental Divide

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Kurt Caswell’s memoir describes his year teaching in a place of violence, despair, doubt… and hope.

Teaching language arts to middle school students on a Navajo reservation is not for the fainthearted, as Kurt Caswell demonstrates in this probing memoir, In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation. Caswell, whose essay collection, An Inside Passage, appeared earlier this year, describes driving his pickup truck through a torrent that threatens to wash him over a cliff edge and seeing an angry student take aim at him with a shotgun. When he shows a movie in the school library, boys diddle each other under the tables. But his most harrowing experience is when an eighth-grade girl lowers the school bus window to tell him, “I hate you.” Renee is a bright, diligent student, one of the first Caswell finds himself rooting for. Her words cut so deeply that Caswell “knew then that I didn’t want to teach at all.”

To his credit, Caswell has avoided writing the kind of book that would show readers the sunny road back to optimism from such a dark place of despair and doubt. Quoting Camus—“What gives value to travel is fear”—he invites us along on a journey of more downs than ups. After throwing out his lesson plan, he finds solace in nature, taking long walks through the desert with his dog. He judges himself harshly; and yet, from a disastrous field trip to teaching Romeo and Juliet, we see him begin to connect with students. He connects with readers, too, creating narrative tension through ongoing self-appraisal and close observation of a magical, heartbreaking world few of us will experience first-hand. Descriptive passages augmented by research broaden our understanding of Navajo country, and Caswell’s conversations with not only students, but also his girlfriend and a fellow teacher, deepen our bond with him.

Caswell centers his recollections on concerns about division: a divided America, a divided self. At twenty-six years old, he’s caught between the urge to move on and the allure of home, between ideals of a meaningful education and the reality of failure, between a need for independence and a desire for community. The New Mexico high country is a place of austere beauty, but the lives of impoverished people stuck in tiny villages at the end of rough, sometimes impassable dirt roads seem ugly to Caswell. In his view, students at Borrego Pass School are poor because they lack options; nothing in their lives has prepared them to imagine a future beyond the rez. By comparison, Americans from middle-class backgrounds are wealthy even when they have no money. Racial distinctions become shorthand for this difference: Borrego kids dismiss fellow Navajos as bilagáanas—whites—if they speak English more readily than Navajo and have spent time in cities.

Caswell finds the gulf between him and his students impossibly wide:

This was a violent world, one that stole energy and hope from its people, beat them down, and then kept them down, possibly forever. There must have been something else here too, something soft and caring, something safe and loving, something good that held this community together. If so, I could not, as yet, see it… But why, I had to ask, did I so readily witness the cruel and violent face of Borrego, and nothing of the other side? Why would a community like this one show me, a stranger, this dark part of itself, and hide its best qualities?

In the Sun’s House never answers those questions directly, but Caswell gives hints of reconciliation. There’s the time a local man, recognizing him as a teacher from the school, shows him a hidden corn cache, a Chaco ruin that’s probably 800 years old. Renee writes a good paper and then follows Caswell’s advice when he tells her how she can make it better. Typically, the Borrego kids add an “s” to English words, saying “laters” for good-bye and “for really reals”—just once, Caswell shows himself in conversation saying, “Yeah, for reals.” It’s a nice moment, and all too easy to overlook—like a flower in the desert.

At year’s end, Caswell walks into the desert intending to return some Anasazi potsherds he’s picked up on his rambles. He wonders why he’s leaving Borrego (for a new job teaching at a private boarding school), but he feels ready to go. He sets some pieces on the ground, asking himself if he’s ever really seen them; certain details in the pottery have escaped his notice until that moment. With characteristic honesty, he confesses to a last-minute decision to keep the biggest, most beautiful pieces for himself. In the Sun’s House is full of such admissions—and for me, that was his secret to erasing the distance between reader and author.

Karen Laws lives in Berkeley, CA. Her story “Paolo’s Turn” appears in the Summer 2011 issue of The Georgia Review. You can follow her on Twitter @karenlaws. More from this author →