six + one = six


I spanked him and it hurt. But when he cried, I was a little dismayed. Indians—even ten-year-olds—were supposed to be a stolid people who evinced bravery. That his demeanor in pain should be that of the cigar store Indian was one of our first misconceptions of Indian ways.

When the boy left the room, I tried to analyze my surprise at his freely spent tears. Any Indian that I had ever seen neither laughed nor cried. I recalled the nickels of my boyhood. Each was engraved with a somber, feathered Indian so stern in visage and so penetrating, yet oblivious to the buffalo on the other side. Being non-Indian and knowing so little about them, perhaps I had unconsciously claimed an exclusive right for white people to display basic human emotions. And when our Indian boy first told us that his name was David Jensen, that too took us aback. How strange, I thought. Surely he had another name: Little Eagle or Stalking Deer. My reflections were stilled when David came bounding back into the room.

“Dad, can I have a ten-speed?” A bicycle, I surmised. How quickly they learn!

He was truly amazing—no sullenness, no remorse over his punishment scarcely ten minutes before. His resiliency and happy nature were appreciated and respected, because there would be times ahead when being an Indian would spawn questions that would be difficult to answer.

The ten-speed bike was out of the question, as was the pinto pony David had requested the day before, and for quite the same reason. But he never tired of asking for things and never seemed disappointed when his whim wasn’t satisfied. Another misconception was dispelled: no brooding, silent boy our David, when things wished for didn’t materialize. He honestly seemed to believe that because we were white, lived in a house with electricity, and had a bathtub with water running into it, his wish and its fulfillment were all one.

In contrast to his pleasant and cooperative ways, David was sometimes disobedient. He did, in fact, have a bicycle, one that our son had outgrown. It had only one speed, as did a larger model that our son in turn had inherited. But a passion for cycling off the asphalt was the cause for David’s initial spanking. He repeatedly rode his bike through vacant lots. And while that bit of open country was more congenial to his nature, the bicycle tires balked at such rare freedom. Nevertheless, punctures made by rubber-loving thorns were dutifully repaired for several weeks. Patience evaporated, though, when the latest joyride chalked up a score of seventeen separate punctures.

Without any resentment, David carefully saved two allowances to buy a new inner tube. Regretfully, the mutilated tube still had a lot of bounce and turned up later in the guise of a slingshot, which provoked later unpleasantness.

From the day he came to live with us, David ingratiated himself with the neighbors by knocking on their doors, introducing himself, and asking whether he could watch their television. His dark, warm eyes were easily worth a cookie and a look at their television set. The visits were short, because David visited six neighbors within an hour; and they all seemed helpless to resist the novelty of his own invitation.

Word of David’s foray came to us secondhand, and we were incredulous more than embarrassed. Only four hours before, we had picked him up at a staging point where several hundred Indian children had arrived to meet their foster parents and their families. There had been absolutely no clue as to the extrovert side of David’s personality during the forty-mile drive home. In fact, he had been singularly quiet. Opening gambits by the six of us hung on the air, and only occasionally had David offered some bit of information about his family or home in Arizona.

We called him David and he called us Mom and Dad from the beginning without affectation or self-consciousness. And while he was without guile, David was aware of our beaming countenances when he so addressed us. But his was the harder adjustment. We had to learn to live with just one new personality, while he had to fathom the six of us.

Never treated as a guest, David had his regular jobs to do. He was a steady worker but saw no need for tidiness. At home, where he lived with his family of eleven, a large wicker basket was placed centrally inside their hogan. Into this lidless coffer went everybody’s belongings—shoes, knives, dresses, shirts, toys, rope, the lot. And it was David’s mother who made the deposits several times a day or whenever it became too difficult for her to navigate through the room in the course of her housekeeping duties. This also explained David’s absence of selectivity in dress. He appeared for breakfast some mornings wearing some pretty bizarre outfits. At his home, looking for proper clothing sizes wasn’t nearly as important as being swift on your feet in the morning. And the number of clothes fished out of the hamper took precedence over variety.

Light switches were a positive delight to David. He would flip them several times when entering or leaving a room, smiling at either their magic or with the hope that he could catch them asleep.

He actually bolted from his chair the first time he heard the telephone ring at suppertime. And when one of his brothers, who was also on the placement program, called him on the telephone, it was strictly a solo performance, with his brother carrying the lead. David said not a word but fixed the phone to his ear, and with rapt attention would have left it there had not the dial tone alerted us that the monologue was over.

During our first meal together, we asked David what he liked to eat, observing his thin and stark features. He replied that at home they ate mostly fry bread and potatoes, and we marveled at his sound teeth on such a meager diet. We’d have to cut down on sweets, that was obvious. His appetite was horrendous.

“Yes,” he would have more meat, milk, and potatoes; and “more salad and bread please.”

“Certainly.”

More of this and more of that. We sat there goggle-eyed, all the time pressing more victuals on him to see if there was some limit. There was none. It was several days and many meals later before David understood that there would be other meals and still others after that.

We were grateful when he began chewing his food instead of having it disappear into a bottomless maw.

It wasn’t long till we learned that David had a flair for mimicry, striking poses, and repeating things that our other children said. Because his vocabulary wasn’t extensive, he said some things that made us rock with laughter. When we told him why we were laughing, he joined in. He had a great sense of fun and was a good sport.

During some childish rivalry one evening, our second daughter uncharitably called David a nincompoop. A moment later, when he was miffed with the same sister, he said, “You’re a Lincoln coop.”

A concept of time and also the relationship of numbers in the abstract were the most difficult things for David to grasp. He was not used to a regimen of suburban living, with its car pools and staggered departure times. Often he could be found just before schooltime still lying on his back in the bathtub, a sponge on his stomach and his toe plugged into the faucet, examining leisurely the minutia of the ceiling paper.

We were quite pleased with how well David achieved in most school subjects. He was a good reader but careless in his handling of books. In spelling he was average or above. He loved to play, so recess and physical education period were a breeze. However, the other children liked to tear his clothes, and we believe that he encouraged them. He was outstanding in art. His splendid sketches of horses would have excited the envy of an accomplished artist. We would often find David’s horse sketches tucked into books or lying on desk or dresser tops. Arithmetic, however, was chaotic, both at school and at home. His teacher either assumed that he was well grounded in numbers or she overcompensated for his Indianness by not pressing the issue.

Whenever I came home from work and saw a multiplicity of objects on the table—oranges, carrots, toothpicks, or beans—I knew that it was arithmetic time for David. But alas, that tangible bridge into the abstract world of numbers was difficult to cross. Countless cardboard pies were divided fractionally. Clocks with movable hands were provided. Dominoes were used to make a game of it. When my wife’s exasperation became too intense at his lack of progress, I took compassion on her and tried my hand at a simple problem in addition. In an even tone I began:

“Now David, if we put twelve of these apples here and take seven more out of this box to add to them, how many apples do we have altogether?”

“Seventy-two,” he shot back quickly with a desire to please.

I tottered from the room with a greater appreciation for my dear wife.

Sometime later while working in the yard, I asked David to run see what time it was, forgetting for a moment his numbers block. I tried to call him back but was too late. He returned shortly and said that it was four-thirty. I followed him back into the house, and it was four-thirty on the dot. David grinned at my consternation; our eight-year-old daughter had taught him to tell time one afternoon. And that was the way he learned many things, in his own time and at his own pace.

It was in the third year when David came back for school that we began to understand what he had been doing for us. We had genuinely missed him through the summer, and we were apprehensive that he might not climb down out of the bus, toting his sky-blue, metal suitcase. Sometimes the Indian children didn’t return. But there he was with his temporary shyness, as hugs were made all around. It was difficult not to be possessive. Our reunion meant a tearful farewell for David’s parents, who had sent most of their children to the “land of opportunity.”

We had become accustomed to his expressions of appreciation. Habitually he thanked Mom for the nice dinner. Sometimes he would pat one of us on the arm as a token of what he felt. Seldom did he solicit any display of affection from any of us. When he did, it was always with an engaging shyness. He had entered into the give and take of our family life without many bruises, and we were glad to have him there, if only on loan. He taught us much.

We have no desire now for David to take on all of our non-Indian ways, and we don’t want his cultural heritage to be extinguished. We would rather help him to share in life’s opportunities, shouldering those responsibilities that could help him to become a better person among his own people or in our own frenetic world. Whatever his choice, our lives will have been blessed by his coming to our home.

[illustration] Art by Merrill Gogan