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A decision was made and on a cold Saturday morning my older sister, Gloria, bursts into my room full of eagerness and authority and says, “We’re taking a trip, Mom wants you to go, so hurry up and get ready!”
I’m moving about sluggishly, still trying to awake fully. I ask my sister in the midst of a yawn, “Where are we going?”
She responds, “We are going to Phoenix we’re leaving ASAP and we’ll be back tomorrow.” I didn’t ask for any more details as Gloria left and shut my bedroom door.
I contemplate whether to go or not, since it was Super Bowl weekend. Knowing my sister, I know we won’t get back in time for me to watch the game. Still, it is a chance to get out of Gallup and escape the cold weather that moved into the area two days ago. Phoenix means warm weather and a chance to get out of town for a while.
The warm weather is enough for me to make up my mind as I go about leisurely packing an overnight bag. Gloria’s ASAP usually means an hour or more. When it comes to family, she is usually on Indian time.
Two and a half hours later we are on I-10 headed west towards Phoenix, Arizona. Gloria, my oldest sister Ellen, and my niece are all crammed into the back like sardines in my mom’s compact, brand new Chevy Sonic. I’m driving and my mom is riding shotgun.
As we’re headed out of town, Mom is settled into her seat and my niece has her headphones on and is looking out the window. My two sisters are chatting among themselves, talking about family and relatives, catching up on the grapevine with occasional bursts of laughter. I listen in when something interesting catches my ear. As I enjoy listening to the chatter behind me, I think about how as sisters we should be close, but we are not. I mean, that in a sense, we don’t call each other or hang out with each other every day. As kids growing up, we all occupied the same house, but we all didn’t confide in one another or talk about boys or what is going on in our heads. We all were at different stages in our lives when growing up.
My oldest sister, Ellen, was getting out of high school, while I was just entering high school. Gloria, the middle sister, was two grades ahead of me. She had already established her own friends, while I was getting to meet new people. My sisters and I dealt with our own problems in our own ways. I don’t know why, now that I think about it. Some things just work out that way.
Even now, as adults, we hardly convey our feelings about ourselves to one another—about how we are feeling and the problems we are facing. Everything is done on the surface, never delving deep.
So, as I listened to my sisters talking, Gloria brought up the boarding school we all went to as children. We went from first grade to eighth grade at Somewhere Boarding School in New Mexico. She dredged up some old memories and told about the abuse she suffered at school. It wasn’t just physical abuse, it was also emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse. Ellen and I could relate since we all suffered at the hands of the very people that were entrusted to take care of us while we were attending school.
As we all told our stories and recounted the many names and faces we encountered during our years at Somewhere, it was evident to me that we all went through the same abuse but each coped with it differently. Ellen handled the situation by confronting everyone who tried to bring her down, she didn’t back down to her aggressors and fought back physically and
verbally. She was tough as she recounted fighting with everyone, boys, girls, teachers, and dorm aides. Ellen got into trouble with everyone. Through it all she said it made her all the more tough emotionally and psychologically as a young adult.
My sister Gloria also suffered the same abuse and watched her peers and friends also suffer at the hands of the same people. She coped with it by involving herself in sports: basketball, volleyball, softball, anything, just as long as it gave her a chance to be away from the dormitory. It was also a chance to go to different places around the reservation she didn’t know. Gloria loved playing sports as long as she had a ball in her hand ,she escaped the confines of boarding school and all that came along with it. She believes now that if it weren’t for her sports, she may not have made it through school.
I went to the same boarding school as my sisters. I went from first grade through eighth grade. I was very young when I was dropped off at school. I remember crying and wondering why my parents were abandoning me at school. Those early years at school were all a big blur. As I learned how to read, I escaped into my books. I recalled being in between rows of books at the library always reading. I immersed myself into those books and emerged around seventh grade when I finally decided to re-enter the world of reality and got involved in sports. Playing basketball and softball gave me a chance to leave the dorms away from the madness and be among my peers, without being scolded for being an unworthy child.
And so that’s how we survived our boarding school. This is only our story; I can’t imagine the untold stories out there. Despite all the terror that we went through, in some ways it made us stronger. They may have broken pieces of our soul in boarding school, but we made it and that accounts for our tough spirit.
Bernice Coan is from Blackhat, New Mexico. She is Tsi’naajinii, (Black-Streaked-Wood People), born for the Tl’ogi clan, (Hairy Ones People) and is currently enrolled at Navajo Technical University where she is majoring in computer science with an emphasis in information technology new media.