In Washington State, where I relocated from Los Angeles with my mother and new step-father in 1965, I was always a transplant - either enchanted or despicable, depending on perspective. “I wish I had a year-round tan like yours,” a teenaged step-cousin told me; I think it was her attempt to be nice. “Mexican turd,” hissed another step-cousin, a boy my age with small blue eyes and skin the color of lawn mushrooms. Looking at photographs of Wickersham Elementary School in Buckley, Washington, where I went to 2nd and half of 3rd grade, I remember one of the places this transplant was given temporary sanctuary. In a third-grade classroom on the ground floor, an elderly woman named Mrs. Freeman taught; she wove her silver hair into a crown every day, and her role as a teacher was second only to her role as a healer.
It was Mrs. Freeman to whom I entrusted my first painstakingly handwritten story, “How the John Rabbit Family Lived in the Tall Grass,” with its tale of bunny love found, family formed, babies born, the awful hunting season that laid waste to it all – and the strange resilience of Mr. Rabbit to start again, with a new family, only to face the same threat. Perhaps it was the happy ending I tacked on; a little girl saves the rabbits by taking them in as pets. Perhaps Mrs. Freeman knew a writer trembled before her, too shy to speak in class but crying out for an audience.
Whatever her reasoning, Mrs. Freeman gathered our small class around her chair, and read my story out loud. A rare ray of sun streamed in the narrow window beside us, dust motes alive on that solar highway. A soft braided rug beneath us held the circle of suspense as she read each page with a storyteller’s skill. I was as entranced as my classmates at this presentation.
Somehow, having this beloved woman read my words out loud gave them authority, enchantment, power. I was seven years old. I had already been raped. I had told no one. We still lived in the same trailer park as the predator stalking me and other girls my age. Did I say this classroom was a sanctuary? It was nothing less than salvation.
Wickersham Elementary was an ancient dark red brick mammoth of a building, leftover from the Buckley's logging heyday; the worn stone plaque by the massive double wooden doors was engraved with the date “1914.” Inside, the interior was haunted by those long-gone pines cut and stained dark, shaped into polished wood floors, a sweeping staircase with curved bannister to the upper floors, heavy doors with wavy glass windows for each classroom, tall wainscoting, solid pine trim and window casings. This building had educated generations of children whose fathers were loggers, pioneers, business entrepreneurs. I was often lost in that building, and when I wasn’t, I was afraid of getting lost. In Mrs. Freeman’s room, though, I was safe. I was seen. I was - along with all of my classmates - loved.
Wickersham Elementary was built 58 years after, and six miles west of, "the decisive battle of the Indian War fought at Connell's Prairie," according to historical records. I was the only Indigenous student there in 1967-68. Torn down in 1973, about 4 years after I left, the building stood for 59 years on stolen land bloodied by murder, constructed of massacred trees hundreds of years old. Old historical society photos show logs bigger than the trucks hauling; photos that break my heart in ways even my Indigenized English can't speak. But look. There is a tiny seedling in that classroom. A little girl who has been transplanted again and again and again, whose roots keep being pulled up and set down in earth far from her homelands. That seedling is loved in that building. She holds onto her story. That story is the root that can never be severed. That story takes root in the woods and fields of Western Washington. I'm still telling that story.