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MCG, a Chicana feminist, for sure, teaches community college English

Monday, January 7, 2013


MG and White Tiger guitarist after playing a party

My mom was sleeping it off -- coming down hard off some shit, but I had to get her signature on a note that I wrote about why I had been absent from my TRAILS class -- a class that taught responsibility, teamwork, and outback hiking skills, and culminated in a four day hike in Yosemite.
Strong students had been specially recruited for the TRAILS class. Being recruited for the class was not just based on grades or being a straight A student. TRAILS students were expected to demonstrate a particular kind of integrity, and I had been chosen along with: my best friend Amelie Sanchez, Matthew Johnson the straight A, former football player who was nice to everyone and who had spent sophomore year history class staring at me from across the room, athlete and best all around, Gail Morning, a Me-wuk friend and fellow Indian Club member from elementary school, and several others.
“Consider it an honor to be chosen for this class – an honor,”  Ms. Somerwell would repeat often throughout the year, at least once a class period when we first began.
“Mom,” I said quietly, hoping that it wouldn’t take much to wake her.
“Mom,” I said again, but she didn’t even stir.
I leaned in toward the mound of body under the covers and looked for the slightest movement: a muscle twitch, an inhalation, an exhalation. Had I seen something? I wasn’t sure. She was a sound sleeper everyone knew that.
“Mom,” I said, grabbing her where I thought a shoulder might be and giving her a good shake.  “Mom, wake up, I need you to sign this note.”
I had had bad cramps, too bad for school, so I wrote my own note, as I often had to do. I couldn’t bring this note in late either, for TRAILS students were not allowed any unexcused absences the entire semester, and we had all signed a contract in which we agreed to this important stipulation, among others. A late note would be met with suspicion, and any unexcused absences would result in not being permitted to go on the four day, three night hike after spending an entire year learning how to cook on single burner camp stoves, tie special knots, read topographic maps, use compasses, and how to clean bacteria from water using a portable hand pump. With a groan, mom rolled over -- "Mom, sign this note please," I pleaded, sliding a pen into her right hand. Finding the notepaper, she scribbled out ragged version of her signature, grunted, and rolled back to sleep.
Awake and lucid mom’s friends like her for being loud and fun. I didn’t see anything fun about sleeping for more than a day already. She was also known for saying every version of the word “fuck” possible. Fuck, fuck you, fucker, fucking, mother fucker, and when she smoked what she thought was some really good weed, or accidentally whacked her finger with the blunt end of the hatchet while chopping kindling, “Fucking-A!” To her delight, her friends called her “Wild Woman.”
While hanging around in town with friends, people would pass by me and say, “You’re Wild Woman’s daughter, aren’t you? How’s she doing?” or “Is she at the house right now?”  I answered the same each time. People thought I was stuck up.
“I don’t know.”

But I knew she was at the house. She was always home, at least physically.
Later, I’d get back to the house to find the same person who asked me questions in town sitting on the couch, my mom in her chair nearby, and a plume of smoke wafting around their heads. Sometimes they’d both be sniffing and wiping their noses, quiet for a moment while I’d pass by and go up the ladder to my room in the attic.
Sometimes, I’d put the needle on the The Clash’s London Calling album that was usually sitting on the turntable and turn up the volume so it shook the floorboards and ceiling over their heads. The distinctive guitar intro pounded its fist in the air.
         I didn’t so much as choose TRAILS as it  chose me. Even after a month or so in the class, I wasn’t sure if I should have taken it as one of my precious elective courses, but being specially invited to take the class gave me recognition for something other than my spiky hair, heavy eyeliner, or my mother’s habits. But I didn’t even like living in a small town in the mountains, and here I had elected to go hiking in Yosemite for three nights and four days with two high school teachers once the school year was over. While applying Deet to ward off mosquitoes and worrying about getting our food in a tall tree, so as not to attract black bears, all my friends would be on their third then fourth night of partying, drinking wine coolers and hanging around down in Crystal Falls or Jamestown. I didn’t know what I was going to miss out on, willing to miss out on, or what I had elected to be a part of.
I only knew that Ms. Somerwell and Mr. Nicholson were my two favorite teachers, who taught two subjects in which I excelled: English and History. Mr. Nicholson was my Honors English teacher. An avid runner and backpacker, Mr. Nicholson wore jeans and t-shirts in the classroom and had an easy way with students. Ms. Somerwell, also an avid backpacker, taught history and English. Even though both Ms. Somerwell and Mr. Nicholson were communist hippie types, she was more formal in her knee lengths skirts and blouses and a bit older. Ms. Somerwell was both brilliant and absent minded, and her teaching style more straightforward and serious than Mr. Nicholson’s, who was inclined to humor. Together, they were a great pair, and in his or her own way, each made sense of learning for their students.  Another class with my two favorite teachers together seemed like a great idea, but was I really interested in learning how to pack light, to tread lightly on the earth, by staying on the man made trails and packing out all my garbage, cook dehydrated lentil soup, or snack on gorp all day long? I actually did care about preserving the land, for I had been in Indian club, and had learned all about the power of mother earth from the tribal elders and from my own mother, but I was also sixteen. I cared more about hanging out with my friends, and boys, and going to punk shows at The Farm in San Francisco whenever I could, and playing music in my own band, Bitchfight. We played parties with a local heavy metal cover band that had a black lead singer but called themselves White Tiger. As perplexed as I was by their name, I forgot all about it whenever I saw their super talented and attractive guitar player, Timothy Hill. I wanted to care about the TRAILS class; I really did. But I was feeling pulled in so many different directions. All the different sides of me not always fitting neatly together leaving me feeling ragged and torn.
I stopped for a second at my mother’s door before stepping over the threshold, expecting her to stir or say goodbye. That didn’t usually happen, but I didn’t want to miss it. She wasn’t going to wake up again until we had been in school for two or three hours already. The house was quiet. I had helped my sister get ready for school and shooed her out the door about thirty minutes previous because she had to be to school before I did, and she had to walk, just like Amonie and I had done, unless it was raining, snowing, or below 50 degrees. On these cold days, mom would get out of bed and put on her bathrobe, pull on her men’s work boots, her mass of black curls flat on one side from the pillow and drive us to school. Once at the school, she never got out of the car, but she would wait in the car, waving until we got safely to the sidewalk.
Most Monday mornings, she’d have been asleep all of Sunday, after being awake since Thursday or so, sewing, listening to music, and sitting around the front room with various greasy-haired dudes, or her gravely-voiced female friends, and an occasional woman with a missing tooth who popped over to cop a little of what mom had around that week. Sometimes on Thursday nights late, I’d have to climb down the ladder from mine and my sister’s shared attic bedroom, and tell mom and her friends to turn down the music, usually Pink Floyd’s, The Wall, and to “shut the hell up” because my sister, brother, and I had to go to school the next day.
For some reason, I decided to wait until after class to give Ms. Somerwell my absence note. In class we had been talking about the importance of the buddy system, especially during the unguided, off trail, cross-country trek that we were required to do in pairs during the hike, the one that went off, in the end, without a hitch because it wasn’t all that long or all that hard after all. The plan was that Mr. Nicholson was to go ahead of the group and wait for the unguided, cross-country pairs to make their way to him, using a map and compass, while Ms. Somerwell waited behind, sending a new pair on their unguided trek every twenty minutes, or so, until we all met up with Mr. Nicholson, at which point Ms. Somerwell would make the trek herself to where we were all indeed waiting for her at the end. We had already learned how to use the snake-bite kit and other first aid techniques specially designed for hikers. And it was impressed upon us how important it was that each of us really learn and practice each technique, for our buddy’s life depended on it. I understood the buddy system.
After class, I waited for the other students to file out of the portable classroom, and handed Ms. Somerwell the note.
“Here’s my absence note,” I said, handing the note to Ms. Somerwell who was standing absent mindedly by her desk, looking as if she couldn’t remember what she was about to do, as she often did.
“Oh, yes, thanks, Michelle,” she said, opening the note and taking a look at
what it said.
I  studied her face, as I usually did when she wasn’t looking at me directly. She described herself as being from the East Coast, and she looked like a couple of my mom’s female friends from the East Coast: brunette, pointy nose, and pale, fragile looking skin around the eyes, sagging a bit around the mouth. She was a small-framed woman, a little plump, and cute with eyes that twinkled or flashed depending on her mood.
She furrowed her brow.

“I had bad cramps,” I said, “I’d much rather be at school.”
“This isn’t your mother’s signature,” she interrupted.
“Yes, umm, she did sign it, but she was like, um, asleep. I had to wake her.”
“This is not your mother’s signature,” she said again, still staring at the piece of lined paper in her hands.
“I wrote the note, and my mom signed it,” I said, trying to sound confident. I was glad that I had waited until after class to hand the note over at all.
“ I didn’t expect this from you, Michelle. Frankly, I’m shocked.”
My mind raced for a better explanation, and I wondered how the buddy system was going to work with an odd number of students on the hike.
“I’ll have to take his up with Mr. Nicholson.”
I wondered what it would be like doing the unguided trek alone.
“I am disappointed,” she said, looking me straight in the eye.
I didn’t say anything. I could feel the blood rushing to my face.
“Really disappointed.”
Suddenly, being able to do the hike felt really important; everything was on the line. I opened my mouth to speak. The bright hollow floors of the portable classroom stretched out in all directions around me.
I was holding my breath now, waiting for Ms. Somerwell to say something more, but she didn’t.  


  1. This is one of the major ways I figured out authority wasn't my friend, when people in positions of authority thought I did something wrong even when I didn't. Ugh!!! This brought back a lot of memories and emotions....

    What happened in the end? Did your mom talk to her and explain? Did they shame you out of the class? Did life just go on?

  2. Thanks, for the comment! In the end, I did go on the hike, after my teacher spoke with the other teacher, and I think they had me get another not from my mom, explaining that she had signed her name, only it was messy because she was half asleep when she signed it. The teacher, I guess, didn't really know how bad things were going for me at home probably because I was good at holding it all together, but it still stung when she accused me of lying.