Category Archives: Cotulla

My Favorite Cowboy

When he walked through my classroom door for the first time in August 1988, the start of his seventh grade year, Jorge Navarro was a tiny little third-grader-looking thing. But one of the first things he ever told me in English was that he was a cowboy.

He had two older brothers. Sammy was an eighth grader that year, and Jose was in tenth grade. So, I already knew his brothers. Big strapping lads. They didn’t speak English really well and couldn’t read. But they were smart in a pragmatic, workman-like way. They all three came from a ranch down in Encinal, Texas. Fifteen miles closer to the Mexican border than where I was teaching in Cotulla, Texas. But they were not Mexicans. Their grandparents and parents were born in the USA, and their great grandparents, and possibly further back than that had lived on the same ranch-land all the way back to when everything South of the Nueces River was Mexico. These were Tejanos. Proud Americans from Texas. Hard-working, dedicated to the ranch owners who paid them to do what they loved, getting the most agricultural benefits possible from the dry South-Texas brush country.

Jorge was, at the start, a little man with a big voice in a small package. He was smarter and could read better than either of his brothers. He could even read and translate Spanish, which, of course, was his native language. And he had strong opinions that you could not argue with him about. He was a cowboy. That was opinion number one. He not only rode horses, he fed them daily, curried them in the morning to loosen the dirt and stimulate the production of natural oils that kept their coats shiny, and he even told me about the times he bottle-fed newborn colts when their mothers were sick.

And he strongly believed that a boss, or a teacher in my case, should never ask someone to do something that he didn’t know how to do himself. That was opinion number two. And he held me to that standard daily.

You should never use bad language in front of a lady… or a teacher, was opinion number three. He had a temper though. So, unlike most of the other boys, on those days when he lost it, he apologized as soon as he was back in control of himself. It made the girls giggle when he apologized to them, but that was an embarrassed reaction. He impressed them. They told me so in private afterwards.

He had a cowboy hat in his locker every day. You never wore a hat inside. Strong opinion number four.

And when he was an eighth-grader, he almost doubled in height. But not in width. He was what they call in Spanish, “Flaco,” skinny as a rail. He was taller than me by the time in mid-year when he started competing like his brothers in rodeos. And he was good. Something about the way his skinny, light frame could bend and twist under stress allowed him to stay on a barebacked horse longer than his brothers, or even the older men. He was pretty good at roping steers too. But it was the bareback bronc riding that won him trophies.

This is not a story about someone overcoming hardships to succeed. It always seemed like Jorge was blessed with it from the beginning. But it was the fact that he did what was needed every single day without fail. You could depend on it. He had a code that he followed.

The drawing that started this story is one that I did for him. I gave him and every member of his class that asked for one a copy made on my little copier at home.

And he taught me far more than I could ever teach him. Jorge Navarro was a cowboy. And you couldn’t argue with him about that.

Leave a comment

Filed under autobiography, Cotulla, cowboys, education, heroes, Paffooney

Art Day Art

These are ESL portraits, a quiet Chinese girl and a pencil-chewing Hispanic girl inspired these two, but they look nothing at all like this picture.

I have been doing most of these Saturday art posts from my WordPress library of images. I generally try to organize around a theme. Having exhausted myself at Vivian Field Middle School yesterday, school-ish pictures are my theme for the day.

I have a tendency to think in pictures, and these are all school thoughts of one kind or another.

Basketball practice when I was a high school freshman inspired this picture of Brent who was an athletic young friend of mine I went to practice with.
Being a school teacher is also being a story-teller. That is essentially what this picture is about.
If this much-used picture looks familiar, it is because this is what teaching looks like through my eyes. Reluctant Rabbit holding the big pencil is me in my teacher-self. The students are Amanda, Ruben, Fernando, and Flora.
Kids don’t literally go to school naked, but metaphorically they do. They have no secrets from a teacher who knows them well from talking to them and reading their classroom journals. Talking about themselves out loud or in writing is how little people make themselves into bigger people.
This classroom portrait is a picture made from my own classroom in Garland, Texas.
Some of the characters in my school-ish pictures are actually me and my own school-aged classmates and friends.

Some of my favorite students over the many years in the classroom were major nerds.

I liked them mostly because they were the same exact species as I was when I was a monkey-house-aged student.

Monkey-house is a synonym for Middle School.

Wally shared my obsession with Japanese anime and could draw them better than I could. He was a major nerd. And a totally enthusiastic learner whom other students treated like he was radioactive. I always had time for him when he needed to talk to someone. He was a teacher’s kid at a time when my own son was still little.

This is a class picture from AeroQuest, a novel series about a teacher in space. All of these kids were based on real-life students I had in class once upon a time. One of these kids, pictured as a blue alien, was actually Wally.
So, now I need to post this post as there are next things happening on my schedule. Like these silhouette students, I need to get there on time.

Leave a comment

Filed under artwork, autobiography, Cotulla, education, kids, nostalgia, Paffooney, pen and ink, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

Teacher Dreams

wonderful teaching 2

Last night I dreamed I was standing in front  of a classroom again.  But it wasn’t a nightmare.  I had clothes on.  It wasn’t a comfortable situation either.  It was a new teaching assignment with a new classroom and new students I had never met before.  And I had been given no time to prepare my classroom or write lesson plans… and I was late.  The students were already there.  Nervously staring at me, their new teacher, a total goofball-looking goon with a gray beard and goofy Mickey grin on his silly-stupid face.

But the crazy thing is, I could’ve done the job.  I have faced the first day of classes 31 times.  I know how to do the job and do it well… from memory.  I know first-day procedures better than any other lesson type I have ever done.  And I got good at it over time.  In fact, I reached a point in the 1990’s where I told a colleague, “You know, if I had to pay the school money to let me be a teacher, I would do it.  But please don’t tell them that.”  And I worried for real a few years later when she became a guidance counselor, because that is only a step away from administrator, and in Texas they would definitely pay you nothing if they could legally get away with it.

Teacher

But the dream wasn’t totally a regret dream or filled with sadness over having to retire.  I have been in the situation of that dream before.  I started my teaching career in a poor South Texas school district.  The junior high supply budget was basically the money from the Coke machine and whatever the principal had in his pocket (which was usually lint).  I have taught classes with more students in them than there were desks to sit in.  I have taught classes with no textbooks.  I routinely bought things to use for lessons with my own money and made things with my goofy-cartoony art skills.  I have taught a number of times directly out of my memory and imagination with no books or notes to turn to.  An experienced teacher has got skills.  So I woke up from my dream feeling good and satisfied.  It was the feeling you get from a job well done.  The kind of satisfaction you get from thinking on your feet and still managing to come up with the right answer.

I wish I was still teaching.  I could not move my achy old body through rows of desks now if my life depended on it, so I can’t go back in a classroom, but I still wish I could.  Maybe I can clone myself and convince a younger me that teaching is not really the totally terrible idea it seems as a career, especially in Texas.  But maybe now it is only the stuff of dreams… and goopy wish-fulfillment posts by a slightly insane former teacher.

Blue and Mike in color

2 Comments

Filed under Cotulla, dreaming, dreams, humor, kids, Paffooney, teaching

Those Were the Days

FrontPagePhoto1Cotulla,_TX_Historic_District_sign_IMG_7715_1_1_1

Pictures from picturehistory.comwww.edb.utexas.edutexasescapes.com, and lbjmuseum.com

My personal history as a school teacher begins in the 1981-82 school year in a little town in South Texas called Cotulla.  Without realizing it, I was following in the footsteps of former U.S. President LBJ.  Really!  It’s true!  To prove it, here is a picture from the LBJ Museum showing the big-eared, jug-headed goofball with his class of Mexican American Cotullans.

246771l

His class looked a lot like my first class, only a lot smaller.  I was hired by the new junior high principal to be the 8th-Grade English teacher for Frank Newman Junior High.  The school had basically imploded the year before.  Gus the janitor told me that the previous principal had been robbed several times, with kids breaking into the main office in the middle of the building during the middle of the night.  They even broke open the safe.  Some of the same kids I was supposed to teach had been arrested for assault the previous year, and some of the kids were caught making babies in the school cafeteria.  I went into the same classroom that the previous year’s seventh grade class had used to drive poor Miss Finklebine out of teaching for life.  They had set off firecrackers under her chair.  They threw erasers and chalk at each other.  They almost got away with murder…  In fact, they may have gotten away with it.  Miss F was never heard from again, and I found a very long list of self-destructive rantings (in the form of discipline reports that had apparently never been turned in) in her desk that threatened the lives of several students whom I knew for certain had survived because they were in my eighth grade classes that year.  I don’t think they tracked her down and got her… but what they did to that poor woman’s mind may have pushed her over the edge.  I had a tough year that year.  The two boys who threatened to beat me to death with a fence post they picked up when I was marching kids in a line to the cafeteria, El Mouse and El Talan, both went to prison withing five years of being in my class.  Both of them are now deceased.  El Mouse by suicide after the Texas Syndicate wrecked him in prison, and Talan was shot and killed by a rival drug dealer while his wife and family looked on.  I hope you are not laughing at the moment.  I do often exaggerate for humorous effect… but that is not what I am doing here.

20131015_tttr-cotulla-126

Cotulla was once a wild west town, probably worse than anything Hollywood ever put up on the silver screen.  Former Mayor and descendant of the town’s founder, Bill Cotulla, once told me that they had six-gun shoot-outs on Front Street in the 1880’s.  I met Mr. Van Cleve the former Texas Ranger whose picture is in the Waco Texas Rangers’ Hall of Fame because of the border machine-gun shoot-out in the 1940’s.  In fact, I taught English to his grandson.  The school, just like the town, was a tamable thing.  I spent the next 23 years of my life there teaching mostly Spanish-speaking kids about the wonders of English, literature, and writing.  I saw the school go from a rough-and-tumble wild beginning into a program that routinely out-performed other small schools our size in everything but Math.

LaSalleCountyCourthouse113TJnsn1

I know that you may find this part difficult to swallow… in the same way a goat has never managed to swallow an entire school bus… but my fiction books about school kids in Iowa are really mostly about characters I knew and taught in Cotulla, Texas and only slightly merged with the white-bread Iowegians I grew up with in Rowan, Iowa.  Texas and Iowa have more in common than you might think…  Me, for one thing.

Leave a comment

Filed under autobiography, Cotulla, teaching, Wild West