Long-time Chinle history teacher retiring

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, April 13, 2012

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

Chinle HIgh School history teacher Lenny Reed poses in his classroom Tuesday. Reed is retiring at the end of the school year, after nearly four decades at Chinle High. He also taught a sociology class at Diné College.

The 5,000-odd Chinle residents who learned American history, economics or sociology from Lenny Reed over the past 38 years have Reed's lack of athleticism to thank.

When Reed graduated from Northwestern Oklahoma State University with a major in social studies and a minor in art back in 1974, "I applied at like 70 places in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado..." he said. "The first question was always, 'What do you coach?'"

Reed could never come up with anything.

"I'm the most unathletic person you'll ever meet," he said.

Fortunately for Reed, and for Chinle High School, Reed's godmother had helped finance the education of one Phil Kraus, who was then assistant principal at Chinle. The godmother leaned on Kraus until he agreed to hire Reed.

"I signed my contract in Oklahoma without ever seeing Chinle," recalled Reed, 60. "My godmother had given me a pamphlet about Canyon de Chelly. I thought, 'Well, that's only a few miles from the school. How bad could it be?'"

Reed could not have imagined.

Upon arriving in Chinle, he was assigned to live in a singlewide trailer with a roommate, like all the single teachers at the time.

"He was a Goldwater Republican," recalled Reed. "When I hung up my picture of Bobby Kennedy, I thought he was going to explode."

That was when Reed decided to join the Chinle Education Association.

"I just thought that was discrimination against single people, to force us to live with a roommate they picked out for us," he said.

With the union's help, he was able to get that rule overturned the very next year.

Reed has been a card-carrying member of the CEA ever since, having served in various capacities on its governing board and for eight years on the board of the Arizona Education Association. He received the union's Human and Civil Rights Award, which he displays on his classroom wall, in 2003.

"That's my Nobel Peace Prize," he said.

But back to 1974. He soon found his conservative roommate was the least of his worries.

"I walked into my classroom and it was half of the doublewide trailer that housed the auto shop," he said. "There were grease stains on the floor. There was a wall through the middle separating my room from the auto shop. There were about 30 student desks, my desk, and that green file cabinet," he said, pointing to a three-tiered file cabinet he still has in his current classroom.

"A teacher came in and tried to take the file cabinet," he said. "I didn't let him, even though it didn't have anything in it."

It was August and hot. Reed had noticed a swamp cooler on the roof, but when he tried to turn it on he discovered it was broken.

"I put in a work order about once a week until finally someone from maintenance told me it didn't have a motor," he said. "Someone had walked off with it. So when it got hot, I just opened the big garage door to my room."

There was no chalkboard and no bulletin board.

"When I complained, they gave me a hammer and told me I could strip whatever I wanted to out of a singlewide they were getting rid of," Reed recalled. "I got a blackboard, a bulletin board and a pencil sharpener. I had to hang them myself."

The high school, which was in a separate, county-based district from the elementary, was constantly feuding with the southern part of Apache County for funding. Reed's second year, a round of paychecks bounced when St. Johns didn't come up with the funds.

'A great adventure'

Chinle itself was dismal. There was a small grocery store, a post office on a muddy little hill where "when it rained, you would come out from getting your mail and see your car had slid to the bottom of the hill," Reed recalled.

There were "a couple of places where you could get a hamburger, but no place to get a nice meal."

Flemming Begay's restaurant was the local teacher hangout. It had large picture windows, and one day Reed looked out to see a goat standing on the vinyl top of his prized Oldsmobile Cutlass.

The saving grace was Canyon de Chelly.

"Early on, the superintendent's secretary, Martha Kimbrough, had told me, 'When things get bad, you go to one of the overlooks and look out at the canyon,'" Reed recalled. "'It will make your problems seem insignificant.'"

It was advice Reed uses to this day.

"I do believe Canyon de Chelly is one of the most sacred, beautiful places in the world," Reed said. "I prefer it 1,000 percent over the Grand Canyon."

The kids were different back then.

"When you gave them some free time, they were always talking in Navajo," he said. "When I first came, I don't remember seeing a Navajo smoke a cigarette, wear shorts, or a Navajo woman wear something that showed her cleavage. Now you see those things all the time."

The teacher population has changed too. When Reed started, there was one Navajo teacher at Chinle High. Now they comprise about half the faculty.

In the 70s, teachers tended to be young singles in search of adventure. Over the years, "the district started hiring more middle-aged married couples," Reed recalled.

"I think we lost a lot of energy doing that," he said. "Married couples with families don't have time to volunteer to sponsor student council, or decorate for the dances."

Reed has changed too. He's come to love and appreciate Diné culture.

"I've had a couple of ceremonies done when I was going through a hard time," he said. "I always carry a pouch of corn pollen in my car."

In his nearly four decades in the classroom - both as a high school teacher and a part-time sociology instructor at Diné College - Reed has seen various types of education reform come and go.

"When I first started teaching, they gave me a textbook and said, 'Go teach,'" he recalled. "Now you have people who never set foot in a classroom telling you what to do."

But the thing that saddens him the most is the "emasculation of the union."

"We used to negotiate," he said. "Then it was 'meet and confer.' Then, very gradually, they stripped us of representation on every committee, including the housing committee and the calendar committee."

The union has always supported school board candidates who pay lip service to teachers' rights, Reed said, "but then they get in there and they turn against us."

Still, he supports the union and believes it's the only way teachers will start winning their rights back.

"I don't see how anyone can walk into a classroom these days without the association behind you," he said.

Although Reed has been openly gay throughout his teaching career, it's only in the past three years he agreed to help sponsor a gay-lesbian-straight alliance at Chinle High.

"I've never been one to snap the flag in the classroom," he explained. "I always said I would never sponsor a GSA until one of the students approached me about it. Finally, one did. But I told him, 'You have to have more people. I'm not doing it if it's just you.'"

The club is now called the Diversity Alliance, and includes students and teachers of different races and cultures in addition to sexual orientations.

"It's a good thing," Reed said. "I hope it keeps going after I leave."

He may come back to check, but in spite of his love of teaching, Reed is ready to leave the profession. The recent strictures of No Child Left Behind have taken some of the fun out of it, he says, and he wants to indulge his love of travel while he's still young enough to enjoy it.

And though he wandered into Chinle sidelong, "It's been a great adventure," he said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."

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