In Navajo culture, your identity is shaped by your clans. When meeting new people, you introduce yourself by your clan and trace it all the way down to your maternal grandmother’s. This means you will almost always find same-clan relatives anywhere you go. Out here, you will never be alone.
When I moved to New Mexico, I left my clan. I left behind a rich network of women. My relationships with my mother, aunts and grandmother were intertwined with phone calls, shopping trips and breakfast at Einstein’s Bagels. Our clan was a warm support system that always offered too much food, too much advice and too much commentary on my hair.
As expected, I miss it everyday.
But what I did not expect was to find a new set of women in New Mexico. These women are the teachers, paraprofessionals and clerks at my school. They are not glamorous. They are not rich. They herd sheep in the morning before work and they drive an hour to attend classes at night.
They are also my mentors, guardian angels and, really, my surrogate clan mothers in a place where I have no family. And from them, I have learned many things.
“Mrs. Smith,” a special education teacher, is my guardian angel. She was the first person willing to teach me how to read and write an IEP. She gave me my first pack of horse stickers for my students, she taught me about the rodeo, and she taught me about men (“Watch how they treat their mothers,” “Observe how they get mad” and “Don’t get married too fast”).With her two broken arms and tendency to forget things, she reminds me that heroes are hidden in everyday corners of life. And sometimes just down the hall.
“Mrs. Barney,” the other special education teacher, is my grandma. She tells me dirty jokes (“Hitchhike for a ride? I just pull my skirt up and show some leg.”), she implores me to stop working so late (“Stop working so late!”) and she yells at me for letting hair fall into my eyes. (“I don’t care if it’s fashionable. Pin it up or I’m going to do it for you!”). She’s been teaching for almost five decades and still hoisted an armchair over her shoulder when I moved last summer. (“Mrs. Barney, my mom said I shouldn’t ask a grandma to help me move furniture.” “Tell her I’m a rock.”)
From the records clerk, I get bear hugs and was coached to tell people that I had allergies when my eyes were red from crying over my boyfriend after he moved abroad. From another assistant, I have learned to always keep family close, physically and spiritually. From the counselor, I have learned that pure kindness is never wasted, especially on children. From the teacher down the hall, I have learned about Navajo culture and acquired an assortment of “I Love Teaching” accessories.
And then, there’s my assistant. She has been my surrogate mother for the past year and a half. From her, I have learned to teach. I may be the supervisor who signs her leave slips, but it’s I who sometimes sits back during class to watch how she disciplines a child. And observe how she teaches a boy with mental retardation how to use a calculator. From her, I have learned to slow down and use a ruler to make straight lines. She has taught me that it is worth it to trace stupid stenciled letters and to cut out intricate snowflake designs. She has taught me to be patient. To speak in low tones. And to always smile. She gives me mortifying lectures on dating and teaches me how to identify depression in teenagers. When I drive too fast and pass her car on the highway, she calls my cell phone to scold me. And when I get homesick and lonely, it’s she who tells me that she’ll be my relative.
When I leave New Mexico, I will be leaving my new clan. I will leave behind a rich network of women. My relationships with my colleagues are intertwined with reading strategies, field trips and lunch around the conference table. I am forever grateful for their welcome and support at this school where few non-Navajos stick around. They may not replace my family, but they still offer too much food, too much advice and too much commentary on my hair.