Shortcut: Indian Education
Shortened version of the story:
By Sherman Alexie
My hair was too short and my cheap glasses were ugly. All that first winter in school, the other Indian boys would chase me, push me down, steal my glasses, and bury me in the snow. One Friday morning Frenchy threw snowballs at me while the rest of the Indian boys tortured some other kid. Frenchy thought he could torment me by himself, and most days I would have let him. But the little warrior in me rose to life that day, and I knocked Frenchy to the ground. I punched him so hard that my knuckles and the snow made bruises on his face. It looked like he was wearing war paint.
But he wasn't the warrior. I was. And I was singing It's a good day to die, it's a good day to die, all the way to the principal's office.
Betty Towle was our missionary teacher and so ugly that no one ever had a crush on her. Every day for two weeks, she said I could not go outside to play.
"Tell me you're sorry," she said.
"Sorry for what?" I asked.
"Everything," she said.
Once she gave the class a spelling test, but she gave me a test for 7th grade students. When I spelled all the words right, she crumpled up the paper and made me eat it.
"You'll learn respect," she said.
She sent a letter home that told my parents to either cut my braids or keep me home from school. My parents came in the next day and dragged their braids across her desk.
"Indians, Indians, Indians," she said and sighed.
And I said, Yes I am, I am Indian. Indian, I am.
My career in traditional Indian art began and ended with my first portrait: Stick Indian Taking a Piss in My Backyard.
When I was showing it to the other students in my class, Mrs. Schluter confiscated my art.
Censorship, I might cry now. But in third grade, I stood alone in the corner, faced the wall, and waited for the punishment to end.
I am still waiting.
"You should be a doctor when you grow up," Mr. Schluter told me, even though his wife thought I was absolutely crazy.
"Why should I be a doctor?" I asked Mr. Schluter.
"So you can come back and help your people."
That was the year my father drank three or four liters of vodka every day and my mother started two hundred quilts but never finished any. They sat in separate, dark places in our house and cried.
I ran home from school, heard them cry, and looked in the mirror. Doctor Victor, I said to my image in the mirror. Doctor Victor to the emergency room.
I picked up a basketball for the first time. I missed the basket, missed it completely, and the ball landed in the dirt. But the ball felt good in my hands, all those possibilities and angles. It was mathematics and geometry. It was beautiful.
At that same moment, my cousin Steven Ford sniffed rubber cement from a paper bag. His ears rang, his mouth was dry, and everybody seemed so far away. But it felt good, that buzz in his head, all those colors and noises. It was chemistry and biology. It was beautiful.
Oh, do you remember those sweet, almost innocent choices that the Indian boys were forced to make?
Randy, the new Indian kid, got into a fight an hour after he first walked into our school. Stevie Flett called him a pussy and a punk. Randy and Stevie, and all the rest of the Indian boys, walked into the playground.
"Throw the first punch," Stevie said.
"No," Randy said.
"Throw the first punch," Stevie said again.
"No," Randy said again.
"Throw the first punch," Stevie said for the third time.
And Randy took a step back and hit Stevie so hard in the face that he broke his nose. The rest of us just stood there with our mouth open.
That was Randy. He became my best friend, and he taught me the most important lesson about living in the white world: Always throw the first punch.
I leaned through the basement window of our house and kissed the white girl who would later be raped by her foster-father, who was also white. They both lived on the reservation, but in the newspaper, nobody mentioned their color.
But on the day that I leaned out through the window and kissed the white girl, I felt I was saying good-bye to my entire tribe. It was a dry and clumsy and stupid kiss, but I was saying good-bye to all the Indian girls and women I might have loved.
After that, no one spoke to me for another five hundred years.
In the boys' bathroom, I could hear voices from the girls' bathroom. I could hear nervous whispers of anorexia and bulimia. I could hear the girls vomiting. It was a sound I was used to after years of listening to my father's hangovers.
"Give me your lunch if you're just going to throw it up," I said to one of the white girls once.
Back on the reservation, my mother stood in line to get us groceries. We carried it home, happy to have food, and opened the canned beef that even the dogs would not eat.
But we ate it, day after day. There is more than one way to starve.
At the high school dance, after a basketball game where I had scored 27 points, I passed out during a slow song. My friends wanted to take me to the hospital (where a doctor would later tell me I had diabetes), but the Mexican -American teacher ran up to us.
"Hey," he said. "What has that boy been drinking? I know everything about those Indian kids. They start drinking really young."
Sharing dark skin does not necessarily make two men brothers.
I got my driver's license on the same day that Wally Jim killed himself by driving his car into a pine tree. He had a good job, a wife and two kids. And not a drop of alcohol in his blood.
"Why did he do it?" asked a white police man.
All the Indians shrugged and looked down.
"Don't know," we all said. But deep down we did know.
Believe me, everything looks like a noose if you stare at it long enough.
Last night I missed two free throws that would have helped my team to win the game. The high school I play for is nicknamed the "Indians," but I am the only Indian who ever played for one of their school teams.
This morning, I could read the following headline in the local newspaper: INDINAS LOSE AGAIN.
Go ahead and tell me none of this is supposed to hurt me very much.
On graduation day, my cap does not fit because I have grown my hair long. I am the best student in my high school, and I receive a scholarship to go to college. I try to remain calm for the photographer as I look toward the future.
Back home on the reservation, there are some of my classmates who can't read. Most are just looking forward to the party. The bright students are frightened because they don't know what comes next. They smile for the photographer as they look back toward tradition.
PS: Class Reunion
Victor said, "Why should we organize a high school reunion for the kids on the reservation? There is a reunion every weekend at the Powwow Tavern."