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Jan 12, 2016 | The Rev. Cynthia Caruso

Why I Pray for My Zuni Students

I have the gas fire on this morning. Candles are lit, although one that uses a tea light is out. I have prayed for all on my list except my former Zuni students, those 5th graders whom I taught the last year before seminary. They made my life hard, those kids. I was an intruder, and they rarely let me forget it.


Once, when I began to teach them science, the second semester, (I who had never taught any science and who had no energy for experiments and all the preparation that had to precede them) Haven shouted, “I wish we had a REAL science teacher!” I replied, “Well, I wish I had REAL students.” Touché.


By the time I arrived at seminary—and began to worship at All Saints’ because it was walking distance from seminary—I was worn out from defending my heart. But I knew all those kids’ names, in alphabetical order by last name, by heart because I had recorded their grades for 10 long months (lots and lots of grades in an elementary classroom!). Christy, Keera, Keisha, Nathan...


When seminary classes began and I started attending morning prayer in the chapel, there was always a time for saying names during the prayers of intercession, and I said the names of my students, all 23 of them, ending with Vaughn, the wiry boy who wrote in his journal that I was his best teacher because I had taught him 7 x 8 = 56. Brittney, Johnathan, Haven...


Five days a week I said all those names. The tiny seminary worshiping community adjusted, never hinting that I was taking up too much time, always allowing a space long enough for me to pray for those brats. Brianna, Danielle, Christopher, Shanice...


It was Shanice who grabbed me by the hair—luckily my hair was short—when I refused to let her get out of line as we walked to lunch. The incident was captured on the newly installed video cameras, and it was because of the cameras, showing some of the “good girls” cheering, that I knew the depth of their dislike. I was so shaken by the incident I hid in my room during lunch that day, trying to quiet my banging heart. Aaliya, Lorenda, Karli, Ashley...


On October 12, Native American Day in NM, all the classes and the teachers danced in the bright sun, to drums. Parents came to watch. My students dressed in their Indian clothes, wearing huge family squash blossom necklaces and belts with engraved silver buckles, and one girl, Keisha, wore a jingle dress. It was during this preparation for the dance that Lorenda’s mother told me how much her daughter enjoyed my class. I would never have known from Lorenda, but at the end of the year, she gave me a pair of needlepoint turquoise earrings that her grandmother made.


We read six of the Harry Potter books together that school year. I read aloud as they followed along, and they did follow along. I scanned the room every few seconds, to make sure. Corey, Janae, Lori, Lathen... The only student whom I caught not reading was Janae. I would stop and wait for her to notice I was no longer reading aloud, and the kids would say, “JANAE!!” and then we would continue. But every time I asked if they enjoyed reading, they would say, “No,” even though their eyes were locked on the words. Jessika, Sylvia, Tanisha, and Vaughn.


We had finished the second Harry Potter book and were planning to watch the movie, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It was also Keera’s birthday, and her mother was bringing food and a birthday cake to share. But that Monday night there was a knock on my door at 9. I had been reading in bed, but I grabbed my robe and opened the front door. My principal, Ms. Freedle, was standing there.


“Is Vaughn W. your student?” she asked. I nodded. “He hung himself tonight.” I quit breathing. After a few seconds, I asked, “Is he dead?” and she nodded, turning to walk back to her apartment on the other side of the scrubby lawn.


Vaughn. Ten years old, in foster care with his brother and two other girls who were sisters, but not his. Bullied in his foster home and on the street. That Monday night he ate dinner with his “family,” then went into a closet in the grubby HUD home, and hung himself. I didn’t know if I could bear it.


All day Tuesday the counselors, the tribal governor, and tribal police talked to my softly crying students. “Tell us, if something is wrong. We can help.” But they were wrong. Vaughn had talked to our school counselor, and nothing had changed. In that windswept, barren outpost there was so much alcoholism and drug addiction, so little hope and so much despair, that even children were beyond help.


There was a second student suicide a week later, a high school student. The therapist in Gallup, whom I had driven over icy hills to see—paid for by the school district—told me that we could expect more suicides, that that was what usually happened in Indian communities. One suicide spawned more.


When I finished the year, in May, I took with me some addresses and all their names. I couldn’t change their lives, but I could pray, and I still do. Every day. Christy, Keera, Keisha, Nathan, Johnathan, Brittney, Haven, Brianna, Danielle, Christopher, Shanice, Aaliyah, Lorenda, Karli, Ashley, Corey, Janea, Lori, Lathen, Jessika, Sylvia, Tanisha, and Vaughn.


Caruso is associate rector at All Saints, Austin