Published June 1, 2020
Why I Teach English
by Irvin Morris © 2021
First, the easy (maybe flip) answer: It’s what I am most qualified to do. I mean that’s what my training is. My academic background. I suppose that begs the question, is there a reason for going down that road in the first place? Focusing on English, or rather, writing. In English. Because that’s the other language I use.
So there’s that background of colonial influence. Being “forced” to learn and use English, the dominant colonial language in my homeland. The other reason, the one having to do with my interest in story/storytelling, is more related to my Diné upbringing. The environment, worldview, etc, that I was brought up in.
It’s interesting that I’m making that distinction. Drawing that line. Learning and using English on one side, and the Diné aspect on the other side. Maybe there’s no line at all. Just an awareness that’s there’s a difference. Parallel paths. That they’re somehow distinct and separate, but coexisting within me.
Anyway, being a bilingual/bicultural person I have this built-in dialogue between the two worlds/experiences that I know and live in. A dual perception of reality. They’re separate but not separate. The English/colonial side is privileged in the world outside the rez. It’s necessary/advantageous to know and master and use. The Diné side feeds/expresses my soul. It is the more intimate one. The colonial one is utilitarian. It carries privilege in the outside world.
Maybe this is why I want to pass along/share that understanding. If not the understanding, at least the skills? Because I understand it is necessary. Then there’s that idea from Gerald Vizenor. His term, “Word Arrows.” It is a tool and weapon. Knowing the oppressor’s language/mind. Know your enemy. We need them (words) to survive, to confront, to overcome, to challenge, to affirm, to validate, etc.
It’s not all about enmity though. Knowing English/the colonizer’s world, broadens my experience and vocabulary of beauty, those things that are universal. The humanity beneath or despite the brutality. Literature and Art. There’s strength in that, oddly enough.
Knowing the light as well as the dark coming from the other side of the world. The more you know, the better prepared you are to deal with various situations. To have the language to decode and respond and reshape. With strength, dignity, understanding, humanity. But back to why I teach English.
Well, it’s my bread-and-butter. I don’t know math, science, etc. Language is what I’m drawn to. It’s my anchor. My rock. As far back as I can remember, I have been immersed, have immersed myself, in the wonder of language.
One of my earliest memories is coming across a book in my grandfather’s hogan. I was alone. The picture is so vivid. The way memory will magnify things. I don’t know where everyone is. I am alone. I don’t remember what time of day it is. Not night, though. That would not have happened. Anyway, the book, I think, was "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Wonderful illustrations. The writing (though I certainly didn’t know that word then) was a mystery. The text, the hieroglyphics. I must have been around 2-4 years old. Before I started school. Maybe that’s why I was alone. The rest of the kids were in school. I was entranced by the pictures. Though I couldn’t read the text, I knew there was something going on. That there was a story there. I sensed it and responded to it.
This was confirmed years later when my mother would read to me from an old family bible. I wish I could remember what the very first word I read was. I was surrounded by story/stories every waking moment. It just was. Maybe that’s the connection. The one bridge that existed between my world and the other world. Story. Language.
If you peeled back the layers of a culture, at the very core would be language. Words.
In the following years, my connection to language, my fascination with language, never waned. It just grew. When I entered school and learned to read, the flames were fanned, grew. It seemed to come naturally to me. I didn’t struggle as much as others in my classes. Oddly enough, earlier, when I was being introduced to the alphabet, I was confused and frustrated. The teacher would stand in front of the class and sing/shout out the sounds of the alphabet which was strung out in flash cards along the top of the green chalkboard. Squares with the letters centered on each one, from A to Z.
The teacher was facing us, which meant that as she drew the shapes of the letters in the air, the letters were reversed. The shapes she drew in the air did not correspond to the shapes of the letters lined up above the chalkboard. They were backward. We were instructed to trace the shapes of the letters in the air as she recited the alphabet.
I was confused, but swung my hands anyway, creating my own swooping letters. I was confused but intrigued by the oddity and mystery. I sang out, “A is for apple…B is for Baker.” I had no idea what I was doing. I envied the other kids who seemed to have caught on. I was too embarrassed to say I did not get it. I felt dumb. There was no mention of Diné bizaad. This was a wholly different world.
A ‘magical” place with plastic toys and novel foods and rules. White people. Mrs. Riley with her white moustache and smoker’s cough. Phlegmy coughing jags. Hack/spit into a tissue. Minty breath drops. Later, we read “Dick and Jane.” "Oh, oh, oh! No, Spot, no!"
Still later, I knew the “D” in Djakarta was silent. That Millet, as a name, was pronounced “Mi-lay.” Don’t ask me how I knew. Maybe I was gathering information from all over.
We had a color TV, the first, and for a while the only, console TV in the neighborhood. The neighbors used to come over and watch “I Love Lucy.” Uncle gave us the TV. He and his family were moving from Denver to Poston, AZ. The TV was in a Uhaul trailer and too heavy. It became another venue for stories, besides the movies we watched at the Chapter House now and then. Tarzan, the Three Stooges, Godzilla, Cowboys-and-Indians. We cheered the cowboys and booed the “Indians.” Villains. Savages. Oh, the irony. But that’s what we were being trained to do.
I never had the intention to teach English. It just happened.
Or maybe, more accurately, the path I set myself on (or maybe it was ordained before I was born), inevitably led to it. I don’t know anything else. It’s the only thing I’m “qualified” to do in the bilagáanaa world, which extends into classrooms on the rez. When you teach, in context of “education” in the bilagáanaa world, you are forced to constrain yourself to a particular field. You are expected or required to specialize. It just happens that I all the roads I took led to this. I never had a long-range goal. I never set out to be a teacher, though all the things I did, all the choices I made, and maybe even the coincidences (though some people say there are no coincidences), landed me in the classroom.
I totally bungled the placement test when I first enrolled, as a nervous 18 year-old high school dropout, at Navajo Community College in 1978. I won the annual creative writing contest. There was a $50 dollar prize.
The real prize was less tangible. Confirmation of my relationship to language and story. Even though I was a dropout, I could do this. Not that I ever had any doubt, really.
A pivotal development during my time at NCC was my introduction to native lit. Specifically, Ceremony by Leslie Silko, then others. Simon Ortiz, James Welch, N. Scott Momaday. A whole new world opened up. I dived in headfirst. I wanted to do that, too. Another important experience was taking a creative writing class. Getting positive feedback and just having a person genuinely interested in what I was doing, who encouraged me, who was simply just there, who provided a close-to-home example, provided crucial support at a critical time in my life. I have wondered what might have happened if I did not have that NCC experience.
There are several (probable/possible/likely) reasons I teach English these days. Now that I stop to reflect on it. Now that I have to put it into words. First, I have to say that it’s beyond important that I choose to teach English (writing, actually) at a tribal college. Teaching English at a mainstream institution would be a whole other thing. I do NOT want that. I did it before and fled. The hostility. The sneering frat boys, condescending sorority girls. Privileged attitudes. Kids whose fathers bought them houses so they didn’t have to live in a dorm. Entitled youngsters whose idea of having it hard was missing a weekend at Rocky Point (on the Gulf of California) because of schoolwork.
I was miserable. I was constrained by their traditions and expectations. I had to cater to them. Their canons. I was wined and dined as a candidate for the job, then once I was hired I was basically forgotten. I was left to fend for myself. I was one of two natives in the English Department, which was the largest on campus with over 50 faculty. The other one was N. Scott Momaday.
I teach English because it’s where my experience and interest and strengths lie. It should be understood that I am talking about tribal colleges specifically, when I say:
I teach English because I want to pass along what I have learned to native students.
I want to give them a bit of what they will need to navigate the world of academic writing.
I want to help them succeed.
I want to show them that it can be done.
I want to show them that there are rewards.
I want to help them learn, discover, empower themselves.
I want them to see the magic and beauty of language.
I want them to see that their unique perspective does not have to be sublimated.
I want them to understand that they can use language as power.
I want them to see that language is a source of creation.
I want to model (writing, being a writer, having a degree of success, etc.) so as to lessen the apprehension.
I want to help build up our nation.
I see writing as medicine.
Language is a source and embodiment of possibility/possibilities.
That they can write their own story, control their/our own narrative.
That an alternative narrative (other than the colonial one we are immersed in as a part of our education/indoctrination) is the antidote to all sorts of problems caused by colonialism.
That writing/narrative/storytelling is an essential part of nation-building.
That our stories have value.
That our stories have equal footing with other stories globally.
That our knowledge and experience—our dream—have intrinsic worth and value and beauty.
That our ancestors prayed for this to happen.
That literacy is a powerful tool and weapon.
That our language is our future.
That English, the language of our oppressors, our oppression, has aspects of beauty.
(I’ll stop here for now. Sorry to be so long-winded. Got carried away.) More to come…stay tuned.