The Rats Who Went to School

by Administrator on 6 December, 2019 Turquoise Tails 58 Views
The Rats Who Went to School

by Michael Farrell Smith

I remember attending a half-day kindergarten class at Curry Elementary, in Tempe, Arizona, in 1986, with Mrs. Falconer, our teacher, her in a plastic-backed chair in our colorfully decorated classroom holding a book, looking down at perhaps 20 cross-legged children looking up, including me—skinny, unkempt, brown-haired, crooked-teethed, a kid who already liked to read and explore. Almost every day, Mrs. Falconer would read us all a book before leading a related art project or activity, and that day’s book was Pack Rat School, then 30 years old, a picture book by Laura Atkinson that was inspired by events that had happened in a little stone school beside a little stone church, 439 miles northeast, in Juan Tomás, New Mexico.

Juan Tomás, a hamlet in the East Mountains that lies roughly between NM highways 337 and 217, was founded long after the 1819 resettlement of Carnuel, in Tijeras Canyon, likely after the 1868 founding of nearby Cedro. Circa 1870, Juan Tomás was a bean-farming community, named for ranch-owner John Thomas, probably by Mexican-American workers and/or neighbors. Juan Tomás—an English name in Spanish—reveals a history crossed with racial, national, cultural, gender, and class lines, making Juan Tomás, in a way, someplace central, a microcosm.

If a huge clock were superimposed over a portion of the East Mountains, with the I-40 Zuzax Exit sitting at roughly 12 o’clock, Sedillo would sit at about 1 o’clock, Juan Tomás at about 5 o’clock, Cedro at about 6 o’clock, and Tijeras would be up around 9 o’clock. All four were once “buffer” communities, offering the Middle Rio Grande Valley’s Spanish-and-then-Mexican residents the thought of protection against the Navajo, Mescarlero Apache, and other Native Americans unhappy about being displaced from their ancestral lands. Anthropologist Linda S. Cordell writes in her 1980 book, Tijeras Canyon: Analyses of the Past:
Once the nomadic [Native Americans] had been forced onto reservations, the Tijeras Canyon communities [including Juan Tomás] lost their character as buffer outposts. Because of poor roads through the canyon they continued to be a rather isolated network of villages and hamlets, unified by their common heritage of the land grant and by the dense network of kinship that prevailed among most families.
This unity, Cordell continues, began to erode in the 1890s as a result of two factors: the loss of land-grant lands, including to Cibola National Forest, in which locals continued to graze livestock until the end of World War II; and a declining local economy brought about by the end of a mining boom and area railroad construction.

Still, the residents of Juan Tomás farmed, ranched, logged. They worked, they celebrated. By 1955, when children from the mountain schools created the treasured book Fiestas in Our Mountain Villages, Juan Tomás had for decades had its own roughhewn stone Catholic church—complete with bell tower—and little stone school just to the south of it. A young Lucy Nieto attended the school, and she writes in the book about the fiestas held in Juan Tomás on June 19 and 20 of that year that San Juan Nepomuseno was the patron saint, that the new mayordomos, Carlos and Carmelita Jaramillo took over from former mayordomos Benito and Anita Martìnez, and that, “The church was painted blue inside and had new flowers.”

While teaching at Juan Tomás, Laura Atkinson, who graduated from the University of New Mexico with degrees in art and education, had helped the area’s students create Fiestas in Our Mountain Villages,  and she also wrote the afterword for a 1971 reprint. While there, she and her grade-school and middle-school students had also enjoyed some amusing experiences, thanks to the antics of the wood rats who lived in and around the schoolhouse. Apparently, the wood rats were in the habit of stealing the children’s pencils and crayons, and their thievery forms the basis of the story Atkinson tells in Pack Rat School. Published March 12, 1956 by Steck Co. of Austin, Texas, the story revolves around Tug and Lug, twin pack rat brothers who receive their early education in the schoolhouse. Atkinson also provided the black and white illustrations for the book.

The University of Chicago Press’s Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books dismissed the 71-page $2 book, writing “[The rats’] adventures are too long-drawn and are never very funny,” but the ten schoolkids of Juan Tomás, according to a December 20, 1956 Albuquerque Journal article about the book, liked it enough to capture a pack rat and give it to Atkinson in a handmade glass-and-wood cage, in a special presentation in Tijeras. “Mrs. Atkinson said she was very pleased with the gift and said she’d show him around to the other schools after the holidays,” the article concluded.

But, of course, the story never concluded. Laura Atkinson continued writing, including a children’s book about Albuquerque’s Old Town. Pack Rat School went out of print. The church sold and the school fell into disrepair. The village became a hamlet, a “bedroom community,” somewhere to live while working elsewhere. People moved away. That little kid delighted by Pack Rat School in Arizona grew older and moved nearby—with teenage friends, I would climb the abandoned church and descend through the belfry into a no-longer-blue-painted space that would soon enough become private property and be beautifully restored as a private home (be respectful and leave the residents alone) but whose walls in 1996 were then painted with upside-down crosses and pentagrams and other classic-rock-inspired graffiti.
In corners and under benches, pack rats and field mice nested, but I didn’t know then that two parts of my life were being stitched together by a common past, childhood to adolescence—three parts actually, as I’m writing about this story now, as an adult. And of course everything is connected, and you live in a world that contains Juan Tomás just as much as I do, and the stories that led to it led to us all, and everything that is now leads us all to something else.

Once the nomadic [Native Americans] had been forced onto reservations, the Tijeras Canyon communities [including Juan Tomás] lost their character as buffer outposts. Because of poor roads through the canyon they continued to be a rather isolated network of villages and hamlets, unified by their common heritage of the land grant and by the dense network of kinship that prevailed among most families.

This unity, Cordell continues, began to erode in the 1890s as a result of two factors: the loss of land-grant lands, including to Cibola National Forest, in which locals continued to graze livestock until the end of World War II; and a declining local economy brought about by the end of a mining boom and area railroad construction.

Still, the residents of Juan Tomás farmed, ranched, logged. They worked, they celebrated. By 1955, when children from the mountain schools created the treasured book Fiestas in Our Mountain Villages, Juan Tomás had for decades had its own roughhewn stone Catholic church—complete with bell tower—and little stone school just to the south of it. A young Lucy Nieto attended the school, and she writes in the book about the fiestas held in Juan Tomás on June 19 and 20 of that year that San Juan Nepomuseno was the patron saint, that the new mayordomos, Carlos and Carmelita Jaramillo took over from former mayordomos Benito and Anita Martìnez, and that, “The church was painted blue inside and had new flowers.” She goes on to list the musicians who played guitar, violin, banjo, and accordion, noting that, “The music is always very pretty at the fiesta.”
 

While teaching at Juan Tomás, Laura Atkinson, who graduated from the University of New Mexico with degrees in art and education, had helped the area’s students create Fiestas in Our Mountain Village,  and she also wrote the afterword for a 1971 reprint. While there, she and her grade-school and middle-school students had also enjoyed some amusing experiences, thanks to the antics of the wood rats who lived in and around the schoolhouse. Apparently, the wood rats were in the habit of stealing the children’s pencils and crayons, and their thievery forms the basis of the story Atkinson tells in Pack Rat School. Published March 12, 1956 by Steck Co. of Austin, Texas, the story revolves around Tug and Lug, twin pack rat brothers who receive their early education in the schoolhouse. Atkinson also provided the black and white illustrations for the book.
  

The University of Chicago Press’s Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books dismissed the 71-page $2 book, writing “[The rats’] adventures are too long-drawn and are never very funny,” but the ten schoolkids of Juan Tomás, according to a December 20, 1956 Albuquerque Journal article about the book, liked it enough to capture a pack rat and give it to Atkinson in a handmade glass-and-wood cage, in a special presentation in Tijeras. “Mrs. Atkinson said she was very pleased with the gift and said she’d show him around to the other schools after the holidays,” the article concluded.

But, of course, the story never concluded. Laura Atkinson continued writing, including a children’s book about Albuquerque’s Old Town. Pack Rat School went out of print. The church sold and the school fell into disrepair. The village became a hamlet, a “bedroom community,” somewhere to live while working elsewhere. People moved away. That little kid delighted by Pack Rat School in Arizona grew older and moved nearby—with teenage friends, I would climb the abandoned church and descend through the belfry into a no-longer-blue-painted space that would soon enough become private property and be beautifully restored as a private home (be respectful and leave the residents alone) but whose walls in 1996 were then painted with upside-down crosses and pentagrams and other classic-rock-inspired graffiti.
In corners and under benches, pack rats and field mice nested, but I didn’t know then that two parts of my life were being stitched together by a common past, childhood to adolescence—three parts actually, as I’m writing about this story now, as an adult. And of course everything is connected, and you live in a world that contains Juan Tomás just as much as I do, and the stories that led to it led to us all, and everything that is now leads us all to something else.

Author

admin

Administrator

Most Recent Articles

Testimonials

No testimonials. Click here to add your testimonials.