“Gladiator” Resurrection

This YA novel that I’ve rolled around in my head for twenty years would be called “Prairie Gladiators,” which was partly inspired by the shot in the movie “Gladiator” (2000) — which was then recent — showing the home-loving warrior trailing his hand through fields of wheat. But also because the phrase of ignorant whites for Native Americans was “Prairie N — r“, not because they were enslaved but because to the ignorant what counts is the responding emotion when a word is used. None of them had any awareness of history nor regard for racism.

I never heard any of the boys in this problematic small town high school class use that phrase. In fact, they weren’t much prone to cuss. They were more into the obstinate defiant mode with an overlay of self-righteousness. They enjoyed opposition and knew that no teacher or even administration could really control them, the same way delinquents believe they are too young to be severely punished. Most of them had parents who had no better success controlling them and some had parents who really didn’t care.

What they didn’t understand was that administrators are political and will throw teachers under the bus to please the politics of townspeople who don’t have kids but want winning teams. I evaded the boys by joining them — listening and trying to figure out their issues — but there was no way to evade the girls. One of them was the granddaughter of the man who originally hired me in Browning in 1961. This is a story full of irony.

There were two other English teachers. One was really a biology teacher who kept the peace by buying a box of donuts every morning. The other one had to get a past English teacher to help her correct her grammar worksheets — she had majored in French literary theory.

The past English teacher had confronted the rebels, saying he would flunk them, so the administration created a business computer class and redefined that teacher to be the business teacher only. The boys never took those classes. A non-athletic student was already working with Cisco. When he had been teaching English, this teacher emphasized Dostoeyevskian writing, which attracted the best students. They tended to despair of the world, but have done well since. They had strong families.

The boys themselves were far more assorted than one might have thought. One was a handsome arrogant citizen of Ireland who rose one day, declared the class far below his standards, and walked out. The administration transferred him to another class but not long after that the young man was notified he had inherited land in Ireland and left to claim it. I have always respected Irish education with its high standards imposed by the Catholic priesthood. They had no trouble maintaining suffocating control.

A young woman with a lawyer father occasionally dropped advice for me. One boy, unusually big and very funny, was somehow protected. His classmates never gave him any trouble. The girl said it was because his father was part of a notorious motorcycle gang they feared and told me the father’s name. He was a boy I had taught in Browning many years earlier — he rode a horse then. He was not mild and obedient but I liked him. I laughed and laughed.

At one point I decided that the problem was that the boys had hearing damage and scheduled tests for us all. I was the only one who had some loss. Not much — just high frequencies.

One troublemaker sat in the back of the room and every day asked to be excused to go to help the coach. I always let him go, which puzzled him. He was looking forward to a confrontation because he had a powerful father he assumed would eventually take me down. He wasn’t likely to learn much in class.

Two boys had divorced mothers but were affected very different ways. One was desperate to succeed at sports to achieve prosperity for his mother and himself. He was a descendent of Natawista, a Blackfeet woman who was wife of Culbertson, an early developer of Montana as a steamboat captain. As his translator, in summer Natawista plied the Missouri with him and in winter she wore a red silk dress at their estate in St. Louis. The great-great grandson was only vaguely aware of this since it would not help him get an athletic scholarship to a good school.

The other boy sat in the front. He was intelligent and handsome with Latin blood. His mother was very pretty and stylish but my daughter-advisor said I wouldn’t really understand him until I met his father. The son was only a faint reproduction of that striking and potent man. She was right. It was only too late that I realized that the boy had been sexualized and burdened with anxiety. It was the end of my employment.

In the on-going class attempt to throw me off balance, the boy sitting behind him leapt up and declared, “X is jiggling his balls in class and I want to know what you’re going to do about it.” I put the offending boy on detention. At that point I didn’t know that another boy worked in the principal’s office and was intercepting all the detention referrals so no administrator knew his long history of difficulties. Also, it didn’t mean much to me that detention prevented him from playing in a crucial ball game.

The superintendent came to argue me out of the punishment. At first he was diplomatic, but then suddenly he “broke” and screamed at me for endangering his job. The boys HAD to win this game and they needed this particular youth. I quit. The principal was very pleased.

The boys were mystified. They had grown fond of me but had no concept of who I really was or that anyone unlike the people they already knew could have any separate identity at all. I was not real, just interesting, which was a accomplishment in itself. Finally the team did not “go to state.” The coach retired.

There were other sub-stories. The librarian who always had a coffee mug in his hand which he offered to let me taste to prove it wasn’t spiked. The boy who lost his temper at a tournament and smashed a trophy display case in what might have been “roid rage.”

The “English teachers” soon moved on to other schools and more fitting jobs. The principal was given an award to increase her prestige so she could also move. The superintendent left. One evening a mother who had been more observant than I expected, called me up to say, “They’re all gone. Our high school is a happy place once more.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Mary Strachan Scriver

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Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.