Bloom Where You Are Planted

In 2010, I lost my teaching job. In my two years at the school, I had established a fabulous rapport with my students and the faculty. I enjoyed preparing creative and dynamic lesson plans that perfectly followed the assigned curriculum. I hadn’t been the subject of a single complaint. I attended every faculty and department meeting. I was always on time. I had received two positive evaluations from the vice-principal. I took my students on field trips and invited guest speakers to my classroom. It was my best teaching experience, and I planned to stay at the school until I retired.

But things don’t always work out the way you planned. It didn’t help that the unemployment rate was 12% in the state of California and schools weren’t even hiring substitute teachers. It was very bleak, to say the least.

This was more than just losing a job; it was a blow to my ego. Still, I knew deep down that something very “big” was happening in my life. I just had to figure out what it was.

Rather than get angry or seek revenge or retaliation, I sent resumes all over the country. I don’t really know what led me to do that; I just knew that I was called to leave California, even though I didn’t want to.

After a few days, I got a reply back from a little tiny Indian school in Montana. The idea was so far out of left field, I laughed out loud. I don’t like the cold and I never had any desire to go to Montana. But I wasn’t getting any other responses from other schools — just this Indian school.

When I mentioned the idea to friends, they all thought I was crazy, mostly because it was too cold and the idea of moving to another state seemed so ludicrous. Desperate and with no other opportunities, I traveled to Montana for an interview. I went in with the idea that I would eliminate the possibility, yet the interview was flawless and they hired me. With less than two weeks before school started, I decided to pack my belongings into a U-Haul and move to Montana.

There was one glitch: I couldn’t drive a U-Haul. I always drove small cars and the thought of driving a U-Haul to Montana was daunting, to say the least. My good friend Dolores spent three days driving me and my three cats — Tiger, Juanita, and MooMoo — to the reservation.

The next day, I set off to school to begin my new teaching assignment on an Indian reservation. As soon as I heard the names coming over the PA system — Bucky Old Elk, Rosalia Badhorse, Jade Three Fingers — I thought to myself: “This is going to be like no other year.”

Immediately, I immersed myself into the culture. I went to powwows, sweat lodge ceremonies, and healing ceremonies. I signed up for a class at Chief Dull Knife Community College: The History of the Cheyenne People. I went on field trips to the Battle of Little Big Horn, the Fetterman Battlefield, and Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site.

While I enjoyed visiting the historical landmarks and battle sites of Montana and Wyoming, I had a battlefield of sorts in my classroom. Even with eighteen years of teaching under my belt, my students challenged my teaching methods and my philosophy of education every step of the way. In addition to my classroom difficulties, I was off to a rocky start with the principal. As if that wasn’t enough, I was in for the most brutal winter that Montana had experienced in 50 years.

I walked to school every morning in the dark, sub-zero gloom that only a Montana winter morning can provide.

I didn’t understand why this was happening to me, but my friend Paul helped open my eyes. He told me that I was there to do something “special” for those kids, and I would be in Montana for as long as it took me to figure it out and follow through.

Until that moment, I thought I was being punished — and I didn’t even know what I had done wrong! Paul had set me in a new direction to find out my real reason for being on the reservation.

A few years prior, I was teaching at Daniel Murphy High School in Los Angeles. The school was closing down and the principal wanted to capture the essence of the school in a time capsule video. Since I was teaching Broadcast Journalism, she put me in charge of the project. Luckily for me, one of the parents was a director/producer; he helped me and my students produce a documentary about the school. I really loved making that film and I wanted to continue working in that field, but as my life unfolded I ended up working on an Indian reservation a million miles away from the entertainment industry.

And then one day as I was walking home from school I thought of the adage “Bloom where you are planted.” I looked down at the frozen ground and semi-jokingly muttered “Thank you, Lord, for giving me such fertile ground to bloom in.”

Suddenly, I had the thought that maybe I could do a documentary with my students about life on the reservation. The idea was very “outside the box.” The school had no studio, camera equipment, or editing software, but the librarian came to my rescue and ordered a camera. When I mentioned to the principal that I wanted to do a documentary about the school, he gave me the green light.

By this time my philosophy of education based on patience and compassion had won my students over. So together, we set out to produce a documentary. I had students in front of the camera and behind the camera. They interviewed teachers, administrators, students, and alumni. One of my students, Liz, asked me if she could edit the documentary. I was a bit leery about letting a 14-year old edit my film, but I took a risk and gave Liz a few scenes to edit; much to my amazement, Liz had a natural gift for editing.

We showed our film, We Shall Survive, to the entire student body on the last day of school.

The principal offered me a contract for the next school year, but I felt I had accomplished what I was supposed to do on the reservation. Dolores came back to Montana, rented another U-Haul, and drove out to the reservation to bring me, Tiger, Juanita, and MooMoo back to Woodland Hills. I couldn’t have gotten through my time on the reservation without my cats.

There is something about the love of an animal that will get you through your toughest times.

When I got home, I still didn’t understand the full impact of all that I had gone through.

I entered the film into the Oxnard Student Film Festival, where it won in the News and Documentary Division. I got a trophy and a T-shirt. I thought, “I went through all that for a trophy and a t-shirt?”

The following year, Loyola Marymount University accepted We Shall Survive to be included in its film showcase.

I relished the recognition, but I still didn’t understand why I had been through my Montana winter.

When I questioned my whole Montana experience, a friend of mine told me, “Maybe it was to help other people who are going through something similar.” At first, I laughed: “Yeah, right. When someone loses their job, I can help them pack up the U-Haul and head to the reservation.”

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had a story to tell. I began telling my story “Bloom Where You Are Planted” at local and regional conferences; eventually, I spoke at several national conferences, including the National Indian Education Association Conference. At every speaking engagement, I was amazed at how many people came up to me afterwards and said, “That happened to me” or “That’s what I went through.” My story gave them a sense of purpose, a confirmation that they were not alone in their own personal journey of determination and survival.