Mary Strachan Scriver

Oct 12, 2021

5 min read


The next archive I’ll sort will be about education and most of it will be discarded as racist, old-fashioned, and irrelevant. Maybe half was identified as “how to teach Indians” as though they were some separate category, because people made money by claiming this. None of them were Indian. A few married Indians.

These were not like Adolph Hungry Wolf and John Hellson who didn’t just marry tribal people but lived on their reservations with their families. Rather these “experts” married assimilated but enrolled women and lived in cities. But I ignored them and taught as I had been taught in post-war Portland, except for using the “Enjoying English” series of textbooks meant for everyone — not yet letting Texas and California as the biggest markets dictate everything. So my kids memorized the linking verbs and the prepositions just as I had in Agnes Carter’s 8th grade class.

One of my bad character flaws is being too idealistic, which often takes me useful places. I was not limited to grammar and usage as defining “English” because my undergrad education included “Language and Thought” as explored by Hayakawa, then a little far out and now taken for granted. We were touching on what developed into the muscular field that became semiotics. ]

”Semiotics is an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated. Its origins lie in the academic study of how signs and symbols (visual and linguistic) create meaning. It is a way of seeing the world, and of understanding how the landscape and culture in which we live has a massive impact on all of us unconsciously.”

Vividly I recall a young man in the class who could not get his head around the idea that things could be “gray”, neither black nor white. We joked about plaid or polka dots or checkerboards. Dean Barnlund, our patient professor, worked hard to persuade this guy, but part of the problem was that to him the implication was that the categories meant good or bad, and the morality of it meant that he just couldn’t allow ambiguity or context. It was 1957 and he was thinking like today’s Republicans.

These were the days when Whorf’s idea hit us, about the SW tribes whose languages did not use a subject/verb English world view, but mostly used participles and gerunds to express a world in process. Not chairs but sitting or “chairing”, not God but godding — another way that philosophy kept invading “English.” College grads in the School of Speech read Saussure and Korzypski. Today they’re masters of the French Algerian disciplines of Derrida and Foucault. Learning a new language does not mean learning the names of the numbers or colors, as if in English speaking kindergartens, but rather being open to a separate place-based way of seeing the world.

But I couldn’t use this until many years later and then had a lot of development to make up. This was also a time when it was preached that teachers should create their own materials and curricula. It took a lot of pressure off the budget, putting it all on the copy machine. Everything was leaving the structures and assumptions of the past. The sexual revolution prompted by effective contraception meant that the long cold winters were better survived by pairing off. Bob and I had been so much together for so many years that we were taken for granted, but half-a-dozen others were semi-covertly shacked up. The School District lawyer (I’m not sure who it was then.) was kept busy. He advised that firing teachers for fornication would be embarrassing and invite lawsuits, but that if they froze the salaries of the wicked, they would probably leave. This proved to be true.

The other instance was the second English teacher, a graceful, handsome, educated man who never had a girl friend and who made the mistake of coming on to a male student. The lawyer told the superintendent to call the teacher to a school board meeting and suggest that he was homosexual. “If he punches you out, he’s not gay. If he resigns on the spot, he is.” The teacher resigned and moved to Australia.

Bob Scriver was the local city judge, the Justice of the Peace, and many people’s high school band teacher. No one wanted to offend him. I taught another year with a frozen salary, and then resigned, telling Bob that either we got married or I would leave. (I thought about Australia and even sent for some info.) His proposal consisted of presenting the Browning Mercantile wholesale jewelry catalogue. We chose a high quality solitaire worth $500 which seemed like a lot. After we divorced I sold it for grocery money and could only get $200. Much of the marriage seemed to be about that ring.

But this shifting of cultures revealed my real connection to English — not teaching anybody, not even Indians, but rather writing. I had always wanted to be a writer. None of my teaching archive has anything to do with becoming a writer, though I was always hoping a student would catch fire and begin to write. A few did.

The high point of my teaching career was using a book called “Origins” which was about the roots of words, and I was inspired to use the Total Physical Response method then energizing language learning by combining the spoken and written word with gesture and touching. That is, when we looked at the word part that was at the beginnning of “balloon” and “bulge” we stood up and acted it out. I hope I kept that book.

I would teach English in an entirely different way now, leaving out all the stuff about the names of grammar parts and going to things like word order in sentences, how English is dependent on arrangement. I would begin with the clumps, like prepositional phrases and appositives, and do a lot of things like presenting a sentence and asking for parallels. Or seeing how many rearrangements could be made and how they changed implications. There are some excellent books out now. And even if not teaching on the rez, I would always point out how that other language is organized. More than that, I would locate how that language responds to the ecosystem as English does not. I will never teach English again. Out goes almost everything.