Unlike Thomas Wolfe’s protagonist, George Webber, in “You Can’t Go Home Again,” who returned home after writing a novel which upset his family and his hometown’s denizens by exposing the nature of the town’s failings, I’ve always been met with warmth and approbation when I return to Wagon Mound, my home for 11 years. Of course, I haven’t written a novel about the place.
Nevertheless, no matter when I’ve returned to the village, I come away with good feelings.
Last week, a long-time resident, Lawrence Martinez Sr. passed away. Although I have been gone from Wagon Mound for more than 30 years, I remember him well; he was an exemplary gentleman, was quick with the repartee, and always willing to help the community, and I wanted to pay my respects to his family.
Well, I got more than I expected. You see, Wagon Mound, N.M., a small, rural village along Interstate 25, is a place where one can really get to know one’s neighbors. There’s not much going on there, relatively speaking, but what goes on generally becomes everyone’s business. What else can one expect in a community of about 350 souls?
Let me clarify.
Forty-two years ago, I began my teaching career with a state-granted emergency certificate. Nearing graduation from Highlands University, in 1968, I was approached by one of my former education and English professors, Ruth Mattila. “Lupita, how would you like to teach in a small school nearby?" Well, I wasn’t certified, but that didn’t seem to bother her. She was willing to recommend me, so I did the paperwork, submitted the application, etc., and soon was contacted by the then-Superintendent, Zack Montoya. He became my landlord, my boss, and a true friend. Wagon Mound accepted me graciously.
Now I digress, as my initial intent after earning my degree was to join the Foreign Diplomatic Corps and see the world. Well, as foreign as I got was Wagon Mound. I say this in jest, of course, because this lifeline cast to me at that time was a beginning of the rest of my life, a good life, might I emphasize.
“Green.” Yes I was, but I was determined to do the job and to do it well. Less than three days after receiving my diploma (even missing one day of teacher orientation because I had to walk the commencement line), I began as the new English teacher in Wagon Mound.
I found that my schedule spanned eighth through 12th grade English instruction, including speech instruction, which I had to learn right along with my patient students. I had received a fine foundation in my discipline from the Highlands’ English Department, so I wasn’t too worried about being able to succeed.
What I hadn’t been schooled in, however, was life. I’d never been on my own. Now I was. I learned so much from this experience in Wagon Mound — believe me.
I learned how to climb the Wagon Mound without falling 40 feet and how to ride horses bareback. I learned that the children I was there to teach were wonderful — mostly respectful — and that their parents were, too. It was hard to understand the attitudes of the adults — they seemed to respect me, to look up to me. I learned to humbly and graciously try to deserve their respect.
To make a long story even longer, but to get back to my recent visit on the occasion of Mr. Martinez’s passing, my going there in 1968 was the beginning of 11 years of joy for me, a joy which was revisited last week. It became a joy which had followed me when I left in 1979 and has been revisited each time I have gone back.
At Mr. Martinez’s service, I encountered many of my former students as well as adult acquaintances made through the years. You see, I met my knight in shining armor there, married, raised my two children there (for a while, until we moved to Las Vegas), and was very much fulfilled personally and professionally throughout those years.
During and after the service, many of those wonderful children now-turned-adults greeted me with the same warmth they exuded when they were teenagers. Gosh, these graying 50-somethings, some with grandchildren older than mine, they were once my “kids.”
Anyhow, they gave me a warm welcome, as did the townfolk. I thank them for that.
Yes, you can go home again.
Lupita Gonzales is an educator and member of the Optic Editorial Board. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.