By Cate Costley
Ms. Costley is a recent graduate of Middlebury College and a 2014 Shepherd Intern. As a History major at Middlebury, with a focus on rural American women and their untold stories, Costley strived to understand the experience of groups often overlooked in the arc of American history. While at Middlebury, Costley also engaged with the local Vermont community through serving warm, healthy meals at weekly Community Suppers. At Community Supper, she sought to hear and understand the often-overlooked stories of the rural poor. Both Costley’s academic interests and her commitment to service led her to apply for the Shepherd Internship at St. Anne’s Mission on the Navajo Nation in eastern Arizona. Working with and serving this community on the reservation aligned with her desire to hear and amplify voices that have been largely disregarded throughout history and too often remain unheard today.
“I believe in the power of the open sky, and I believe I must embrace that horizon and define its possibilities,” writes Cate Costley. “The open road and the open sky can be lonely, sad places, too.”
Open roads, open skies, open arms, open eyes. To me, a highway stretching to the horizon is more than an expanse of pavement and blue sky. To me, that highway and the sky above it are symbols of hope, independence, and resilience. I believe in the power of the open sky, and I believe I must embrace that horizon and define its possibilities. The Shepherd Internship Program allowed me to explore the possibility of working with young people on the Navajo Nation, and that experience has launched me on a sustained journey of service, teaching, and exploration of voice and identity with Native youth.
It all began when I boarded the Amtrak train at the dusty station in Albuquerque, eyes alight with hope and anticipation. “Next stop: Gallup!” the conductor called throughout the train cars. As the train chugged toward Gallup, I peered out the windows and watched the blur of power lines, livestock fences, and sheer mesas go by. After two hours on the train and an additional hour in a truck traveling over rutted roads, I finally arrived in Klagetoh, Arizona. Klagetoh is a 250-person community in the south-central part of the Navajo Nation; it’s no more than a gas station, a patchwork of dirt roads, and a mustard yellow chapter house. For the next two months, Klagetoh was home.
After graduation from Middlebury in May 2015, Cate Costley, returned to the Navajo Nation, her SHECP Internship location, as a Teach for America teacher.
Each morning, my fellow Shepherd intern, Grace Holland, and I plunged into our work as Youth Outreach Leaders at St. Anne’s Catholic Mission. A cobalt sky greeted us and a fiery sun baked the brown earth and sage scrub as we began planning activities for the children who trickled into the mission’s playground starting at 7:30 AM. Each morning, I was amazed by the vastness and remoteness of the reservation – its beauty and its austerity. The openness of that sky opened up feelings of empowerment and hope within me, but also feelings of uncertainty and confusion. In Klagetoh, I embraced the joyfulness of the community’s kids, but I could not fail to see the utter lack of opportunities for employment and stable income. Although it was energizing to rise each morning and engage in work that was real and meaningful, I also saw the enormity of dysfunction on the reservation and I felt small and insignificant in the vast web of injustice and oppression. For these reasons, the open road and the open sky can be lonely, sad places, too. For me, Klagetoh was also tinged with solitude and sadness. I felt the isolation that came from being an outsider on the reservation, and I felt the despair that came from the community’s poverty and dearth of material resources. Nonetheless, the open sky also teaches resilience. It pushes me to look for the beauty on the horizon, for the hope amidst the hardship. It is a constantly evolving and unfolding journey.
The road that brought me to Klagetoh has now led me to Kirtland Central High School – a high school on the northeastern border of the Navajo Nation. Now, I rise each morning and greet 160 students as they enter my English classroom every day. In my first semester of teaching, I have often struggled to understand where my students are coming from and how best we can move forward together. I have sometimes struggled to connect with my colleagues and my students’ families. I have grappled with my identity as a Teach for America corps member. In my experience, Teach for America has provided limited support and guidance, and I have not felt a sense of a cohort. For these reasons, I do not know if I will continue teaching. I have felt more deeply and fully the loneliness, solitude, and uncertainty that tinged my experience in Klagetoh, and I do not know how long I can sustain this work and living situation.
But I keep coming back to hope, independence, and resilience. For my students, and myself, these are the things we are seeking to learn. Through conversations, literature, poetry, lyrics, artwork, and projects, my students and I are seeking to define the open sky and the possibilities on the horizon. We are seeking to define our identities and amplify our voices. We have read Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle and asked questions about the truth or falsity of the American Dream. We have read a fictionalized account of a Navajo Code Talker and discussed the importance of preserving Native languages. We have written poetry about identity and we have encapsulated our life stories in a project called The Six-Word Memoir. Each day brings new obstacles, questions, and connections. Some days are better than others. Some days are really hard.
Ultimately, I do not know where the open road leads next. As I daydream, watching cloud shapes unfurl across the western sky, I often think about the role of writing. Perhaps writing could fulfill my continued desire to hear and amplify the voices of individuals and communities that are often overlooked. Perhaps journalism could open up new horizons and options for me to learn and serve. Despite the uncertainty of the road ahead, I am grateful to the people and programs that have given me opportunities, inspiration, and support: my family, my professors at Middlebury, my mentors at the Shepherd Program, my students at Kirtland. Despite the challenges of my current work and living situation, I do believe the horizon awaits, and it is filled with possibility.