“You drive back home to Flagstaff every Friday night, right?”
A student asked me this one evening. Sitting as we were in Chinle, well inside the Navajo Nation, and a hundred and sixty or so miles away from Flagstaff, we both knew that he was describing a rather long drive late at night after a long week. Normally, I would be leaving just around 9pm and I could expect to get into town shortly before midnight. I’d been doing this for years, and I think most of my students knew about it. I wondered, why was this student asking me about it now?
“Do you ever see anything strange on that road?”
It seems, I learned that night, that a significant stretch of the road I was traveling was known for skinwalkers. From the reaction of his classmates, I gathered, this student wasn’t the only one curious about my experiences on that drive. I had only recently come to learn that the ghost of a small child was rumored to walk the halls of the school where I taught evening courses. Being stubborn enough to keep class the full time on most evenings, I was frequently the last person out of the building. I hadn’t seem this apparition either. Nor had I ever heard his footsteps in the hallway
It was an interesting moment, a conversation that reached across cultural boundaries, and did so in an unusually personal way. We weren’t discussing official Navajo Educational Philosophy or touching on any of the well known themes of Navajo ceremonialism, economics, etc. Were were discussing neither any part of Navajo culture nor any themes from western education in the abstract. This was a student who actually believed in skinwalkers asking me if I’d seen them myself, knowing full well that I didn’t. It wasn’t just that I was white. He knew, as most of my students knew, that I am an atheist and generally skeptical of all things purportedly supernatural. He knew this, and chose to raise the subject anyway.
This didn’t strike me as a confrontation so much as an expression of genuine curiosity, and an effort to communicate across cultural barriers and well-established differences of opinion. He wanted to hear about my own experiences on a road known for its share of scary stories. For my own part, I was as curious to see what stories were told of the road as he was to see if I had one.
But of course I didn’t have a story. None at all.
…which was a bit awkward.
Don’t get me wrong. Nobody’s world view came crashing down that evening. My students and I just sat there in an odd silence, each contemplating the next step in this conversation. I suppose some of them must have been trying to decide, as I was myself, just how much we wanted to get into this? We could have taken it in all sorts of different directions. Finally, a student offered the following; “Since you don’t believe in skinwalkers, they probably wouldn’t bother you.”
I think I started to put together an argument, even made the first couple sounds of a reply which would probably have involved questions about the meaning of his words or the nature of his reasoning, and then I hesitated. I couldn’t help smiling.
“You know. I think I can agree with that.”
Everyone laughed, and then it was time to say goodnight for the evening.
You never really know when you will find yourself in agreement with people whose thoughts differ so very much from your own.