The Round Dance

I didn’t know how to spell Carl’s real name, but most of his Mohawk friends called him what sounded like “Duh-tay.” Embarrassed that my students would laugh at my pronunciation, and worried about what little authority I had as a young student teacher who was placed in this tenth grade classroom for ten short weeks, I usually avoided calling on him in class, even when he spent three whole periods wadding up tiny pieces of paper to throw into the hood of his friend’s gray sweatshirt in the row in front of him. Carl never tried to connect with me either, although I did make stern eye contact with him once when I caught him giggling at the Mohawk phrases that his friend muttered in the back of the classroom one day, knowing I wouldn’t understand. Carl bowed his head and immediately stopped giggling.

Carl never handed in his essays on time, and they were never completed in true essay fashion. Sometimes he just made bullet points or put each new sentence in a different font with its own color, size, and formatting. His ideas always made sense, I noticed, but they were never presented in a way that was easy to follow, and they certainly didn’t fit the methods I had emphasized in class all week—a hook, background information, a thesis; a topic sentence, a quote, an explanation, a transition; MLA citations; a conclusion. The Regents and Common Core tests in the spring would not condone his bullet points, his fancy fonts.

I wrote my feedback in blue pen on the bottom of Carl’s papers. “You have some great ideas here,” I scrawled. “I loved your logic about Macbeth fulfilling his own prophecy. But since you turned this in late, and since you didn’t use the essay format I described all week, I can’t give you full credit.” I always gave him the opportunity to turn his bullet points into an actual essay for full credit and I always suggested that he come see me to talk through his ideas before the next assignment was due. He never showed, though; only continued to sit quietly in the middle row of my classroom, him refusing to participate and me refusing to call on him, each of us hiding a secret embarrassment until my time in his classroom neared its end.

* * * *

Carl, along with 22% of the student body, identify as being Native American. Most of these students lived on the nearby St. Regis Mohawk Reservation that straddles New York State, Quebec, and Ontario (also known as “The Res”); and some of these students had already picked up jobs at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino or local gift shops, where they sell beaded necklaces or homemade dreamcatchers. With such a large Native American influence in the school, I was confused, then, about the five day vacation we were granted for Thanksgiving. It seemed wrong to celebrate an unspoken genocide, to give thanks to the people who, at least on the Akwesasne Reservation, still suffered from the effects of white colonization.

For instance, I noticed that many of my students wore the same clothes to school every day (a reflection of the nearly 44% of families on the Res who are below the poverty line) and barely any of the Native parents attended our parent-teacher conferences in early November (calling to mind the fact that only 37% of the people on the Res have received a degree higher than a high school diploma). How could we dedicate five whole days to relaxing in front of our widescreen TVs in the midst of turkey comas, lazily giving thanks for the white privilege that still disadvantaged thousands of people, some of whom would be lucky if they were able to find enough food for their children without the free lunch program provided by the school?

Much to my white students’ chagrin, but to my excitement, the school’s Mohawk Club hosted a Native American Day celebration for everyone to attend the day before Thanksgiving Break. “This is racist,” some of my students said. “Why can’t we have a whole day dedicated to white people?” I gave my stern look—the same one I always directed at Carl or his Native classmates when they made their jokes in a language that most of the rest of the class, including me, could not understand—and made my classes attend each event.

First we went to the fashion show that one of my quiet students from 9th period zealously emceed; she announced that her name meant “She Who Brings the Snow,” and I felt awful that I hadn’t known this beforehand, hadn’t bothered to ask, not even in a creative writing prompt. What’s worse is that, just like with Carl’s real name, I didn’t know how to pronounce her Mohawk translation. And for the sake of appearing in control, instead of the unsure student teacher I was—a 21 year old pretending (with a few strokes of mascara and ironed khaki pants) to be a grownup—I never called on her, nor Carl, nor most of the other Mohawk students, in class. Perhaps that was why she had been so quiet during English.

Two of my students, Tiana and Bailee (whom I called on frequently in class because of their American names), performed in the fashion show, and I was surprised when “She Who Brings the Snow” announced that Tiana’s mom sewed most of the outfits, stitching ancient patterns into the vibrant dresses. With her frequently worn volleyball jersey, black leggings, and Ugg boots that matched most of the white girls’ wardrobes in my classroom, along with her American name, I hadn’t imagined Tiana being closely tied to her heritage until I saw her shimmering in her mother’s handiwork on stage. Similarly, Evan, an eloquent student who planned to study abroad in Sweden the following year, wore brown feathers on his head in my 8th period class, adding a full foot to his already tall form. And when we all crowded into the cafeteria to eat the free lunch that the Mohawk Club made for the whole school, Bailee helped serve the bread, corn soup, and strawberry drink. There was so much I did not know.

* * * *

The last event of the day was the Native American Social in the gym. A group of male singers called the Kanienkehaka Ratirennahawi stood in the center circle of the freshly waxed floor with homemade drums, feathers on their heads and authentic moccasins on their feet. They called out the steps for their ancient group dances, chanting a tune that all the Native students found familiar; pounding their drums as if heartbeats, dancing around the gym in intricate and calculated shapes. From the bleachers, where I sat with my students who refused to participate in the Social, I watched the lines of students paint beautiful patterns on the floor, their moccasins weaving in and out and around and growing wide and then squishing back up small again, the drums beating faster and the steps pounding harder and I was entranced, smiling.

I noticed that, along with many of my Native students, Carl participated in all the dances, his round figure mixing among his friends and his long, dark rattail french braided perfectly down his back—a style that I only remembered seeing him wear on the first day of school and later on picture day.

During the last song, “The Round Dance,” all the participants linked hands and stomped around the gym in a giant circle, their feet dancing in perfect sync, a pattern they all seemed to know without thinking. Most of the students I sat with—nearly all white—crossed their arms and stared at the blank white wall behind the dancers, ready for the final bell to ring and for Thanksgiving Vacation to begin. I still watched the dancing with a smile and fascination.

“Miss S.!” I heard my name above the chanting, the drums, the feet stomping. “Miss S., you gotta get down here!” I looked around until I could locate the speaker: a boy dancing in the circle, holding hands with his friends, a dark french braid falling down his back. Carl opened up the circle and beckoned for me to join him. There was no time for me to feel self-conscious about everyone in the gym watching me or wonder whether or not it was acceptable for me to hold my students’ hands, or even question why Carl, of all students, invited me to dance, because before I knew it, I was running down the crowded bleachers and jumping into the circle, asking Carl to teach me the right pattern for moving my feet in time with Kanienkehaka Ratirennahawi’s drumming as we moved around the gym.

“Watch my feet,” Carl said gently. They crisscrossed and stomped intricately. I tried to copy him, giggling at my failed attempts, as Carl said, “You’re doing good, Miss S.” I didn’t correct his grammar, just as he did not correct my steps that were messing up the circle’s syncopation. We became one being, holding hands and dancing in the circle, round and round, where he and I were both the teacher and the student.

* * * *

The next week, after Thanksgiving Vacation—my last week of student teaching—Carl handed in his final essay on time. His sentences were formatted into paragraphs. He used Times New Roman 12 point font (black ink) through the whole essay. He even included proper MLA citations. “Great improvement!” I wrote in blue ink at the bottom of his essay. “I’m very impressed. Thanks for all the hard work.”

On my last day, I said a general goodbye to each of my classes. Some students gave me an individual goodbye and a few offered me hugs that I reluctantly returned, my education professors’ voices echoing in my head: Never hug your students! It can be misinterpreted and you might get fired for sexual harassment. Carl didn’t say anything, though. He still sat quietly in his chair in the middle row, he not talking and me not calling on him. The final bell rang and my students walked out of the classroom just like they did every day and just like they will continue doing for many days to come. It was the last time for me, though. “Have a good weekend,” I said out of habit.

In the hallway, on my way to the parking lot, I saw Carl one last time. He was grabbing his backpack from his locker, but slowly turned as I walked by him. “You did good, Miss S.,” he said quietly.

“Thanks…Duh-tay.” I awkwardly tried out the sound of his Native name, embarrassed that I waited so long to say it for the first time. “You did pretty good, too.”

We smiled politely at each other. He nodded, then turned back to his locker. I continued walking towards the parking lot, remembering the Native American Social from the week prior; remembering the comfort of Carl dancing next to me, showing me how to properly move my feet; remembering all that my students have taught me in my short time in their classroom; remembering that the most successful teaching comes from a shared bond, a connection, an attempt to understand—a link in the circle of stomping, moccasined feet, dancing round and round—from becoming one being where there is no real distinction between who is doing the teaching and who is actually the student.

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