The Way I Was Taught
By Glenn Schiffman
Roots & Wings Publishing | 2014
Reviewed by Jane M McCabe
The Way I Was Taught opens with one of the best lines in all of literature: “Halfway through my tenth walk around the sun, I was charged by a bull.”
Glenn Schiffman is a colleague of mine—we belong to the same writers’ group that meets every Wednesday night in Studio City (LA). His work first attracted my attention when he read sections of the novel he refers to as his “rock and roll” novel (he was a truck driver for various rock groups that toured the country during the 1970’s). From the get-go I have loved his uniquely poetic voice—he is the real deal. The Way I Was Taught is a gem of a coming-of-age memoir.
Glenn was raised in a Western border town of an American Indian Reservation (the Onodowaga, more commonly known as the Seneca) where his father was chaplain at the orphanage. He has lived with the Onodowaga off and on and counts them among his relatives.
When he was 9 ½ years old, he was warned to stay away from a bull in a neighbor’s pasture, but the bull got loose anyway and charged him. As he raced towards the door of his cottage, the bull swerved to the left, where his pregnant mother happened to be lying in a hammock. It gouged her in an eye, causing her to abort the baby and to temporarily go mad. She returned to her parents in Philadelphia. Then, when his father was gone, he was allowed to live with the One Knife family on the reservation and was indoctrinated into their ways.
Hunter, as he was called, was a gifted child, fascinated with fire and given to seeing imaginary people. He developed an extensive vocabulary at an early age, and when still a child possessed remarkable powers of observation:
“In good weather after school I skidded down the hard clay bank to the south side flats to watch fascinating men in Mickey Rooney hats and collarless shirts churn white flakes [ground from flatcars of hooves, leg shanks and membranes] into fifty gallon metal barrels of glue. Other men with names on their shirts and pencils behind their ears, who lived in the tree-lined part of town, drove machines that loaded their barrels of dry glue onto box cars bound for plywood mills, book binding plants, [to make] shoe soles and other useful household items.
“From near the loading docks of the tannery I watched a crane lift crates of burlap-covered hides of horses, mules, hogs and cattle from flatcars freighted from the General Mills slaughter house in Buffalo where (I heard it said) neck bones, entrails, pulped spines and belly meat were canned as dog food.”
The matriarch of the Indian family with whom he lived was Minnie, referred to as Gramma, a woman of insight and empathy who understood Hunter in ways that his white relatives did not. She lived with her father, Haksot Jake, her two daughters (when they were home), Norma and Mavis, Mavis’ son Nick and Norma’s son, Oskee.
Oskee had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome and was severely retarded, plus he had a cleft pallet and a deformed nose. When he was five years old he was rendered deaf from scarlet fever.
The Indians are “Earth People” who teach their children traditional ways, language and logic, including witchcraft, evil spirits and a matter-of-fact relationship with death and dying. Minnie saw Hunter as a “prayer of the Earth.”
The “Clay People” are white people—the Onodowaga think that whites are made of the clay from the desert, but they are made from rich forest hummus. Haksot observes that Knowledge is a Woman and Wisdom a man, that the Clay People had left the woman out of what’s sacred. “The way, the truth, the light, but no woman, no heat. Three’s not a sacred number,” says Haksot. “I’ll take a four-legged stool any day.”
One night, when Hunter was sleeping in Nick’s bedroom, he had a strange dream—he was in a forest setting when someone ethereal struck him hard with a paddle or a turtle shell four times across the shoulder blades. He fell into quicksand, and, as he was working his way out, the fat face of an Old Woman asked him if he wanted to die now. “No!” he said, “not now.”
The author tells us that Indians take their dreams much more seriously than white people do—they maintain that dreams never lie. Minnie is shocked when she hears of Hunter’s dream—she understands that this strange white child has a special kinship with the Onodowaga.
I felt Glenn’s presence strongly in this memoir. I could see exactly the way he might have hitched up his pants when he was nine years old, how he might have scrunched up his face when there was something he didn’t rightly understand, and how he might have smiled a crooked smile when he found something funny.
Despite his deformity, Oskee loved everybody and everything. He especially loved the frogs that flooded the meadow after a heavy rain. “Oskee is a pure soul,” Gramma says. “He’s not a person the way we are…. The only thing Oskee feels is kindness. The way he helps other is by being kind. We didn’t teach him to be kind. He just is kind.”
In 1952, when Hunter, Haksot and Oskee were hunting frogs at Little Ghost Creek, Hunter lost track of Oskee and the boy was found drown in the pond. He died trying to save the frogs. He was buried on the reservation. Haksot sat for four days beside his grave to ensure Oskee made it “to the other side of the woods.”
“The One Knife family took it all in stride. Hardships and misfortunes such as this were much too common on the reservation. Every family suffered in some way. The people weren’t fatalistic or even resigned; it was more that they had backbone. They stood up to all of it.”
When he was 11 years old Hunter learns of his parents’ intention to divorce and that his mother intends to sue for custody. The fact that his father let him spend so much time on the reservation does not help his case. At the book’s end we assume his mother wins custody and he is taken to Philadelphia.
We are left wanting more, a sure sign of a good read.