Dedicated Crow Creek teacher mourns students she lost to drugs and alcohol

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STEPHEN, S.D. - Marcia Wofford has a lifetime filled with memories of gifted students who passed through her classroom doors, but on a warm and windy day in late April she tearfully remembered more than 38 students who died in drug- or alcohol-related incidents since she began teaching on the Crow Creek Reservation 16 years ago.

Wofford left at the end of an assembly in the Crow Creek Tribal School gymnasium as the entire student body and staff at the reservation boarding school took an afternoon to remember the former students.

For Wofford, a veteran teacher of English and literature, the event brought back bittersweet memories of talented students who met untimely ends. She struggled, tearfully recalling how she tried to keep a teen-age boy from dropping out of school.

Seeing young people with so many possibilities struggling with such problems may be one of Wofford's greatest challenges.

Each teacher has at least one student they recall with great emotion. Wofford remembered a young man who started his writing career at a Sioux Falls college. His life was cut short when he fell to his death from a dormitory window after a night of drinking. She mourned throughout an interview.

Wofford keeps many of the stories written by former students. They are all that remains of those 38 who linger in her memory and other students who crossed her path.

"I just couldn't bear to throw them away," she said.

The 58-year-old teacher, originally from Fort Smith, Ark., said some of her most gratifying experiences have been watching young people graduate college and return to the reservation as mentors.

"It is one of my greatest thrills. I'm seeing more and more of my students graduate, come back and make a difference."

While Wofford could teach any place, she chose the Crow Creek reservation after spending three summers vacationing in the area. She is familiar with the issue of low pay. Her parents were teachers in Arkansas where the pay scale was extraordinarily low until the 1980s when state officials made it a priority to raise teacher pay.

Even though she might earn more somewhere else, she said she remains because of a special connection she feels for the people in the area.

"This is the journey that God has given me."

The last summer she and her husband stayed on the reservation, she found herself resisting her return to a teaching job in Missouri.

"It was like we were leaving our heart somewhere."

Wofford's husband, Larry, a minister who had been a teacher, decided to return to Crow Creek with his high school sweetheart and teach at the reservation school.

Faced with students who suspected she might soon depart, Wofford found herself having to prove her commitment to boys and girls who told her teachers quickly came and went.

"This one kid looked at me and said, 'How long is it going to take for you to leave?'

"I said, 'Is that a question or a challenge?'"

Fifteen years and many stories later, Wofford continues to challenge students with literature incorporating its relevance to Native culture.

"I really do love these people. I love what I teach and whom I teach. We've always had a deep love and respect for the Native American people."

While she knows her students won't always immediately embrace what she brings to the table, she hopes they gain something from the experience.

"I don't expect them to like everything we do, but I just want them to understand it is something that can be used."

A recent example was including literature about the Holocaust in her contemporary literature course. When the course began, students really didn't understand the relevance of the stories until Wofford noted parallel events in the history of Dakota culture.

"Suddenly they found themselves being drawn in as they learned about the Jewish people, as we compared the traditions."

Two of her students, who had received high marks in school, later visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Wofford said she had to overcome the obstacle of numerous moves to finish her college degree and realize her goal of becoming a teacher. She and her husband married immediately after she graduated from high school, so they lived on a meager student's income while he was finishing his degree.

"I always liked teaching and my parents were teachers. When I entered college my freshman year, I knew what I wanted to do."

Her first two years of college were at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Her husband, a sophomore, was in college on a basketball scholarship and studying to be a teacher. They lived in a small, low-income apartment doing everything imaginable to make ends meet.

"I mean to tell you we did without a lot of things," she said.

The couple met in Fort Smith when her husband, then a high school senior, moved to the northwest Arkansas town to finish his high school education. He was going to school in Little Rock when schools closed during desegregation battles as the state attempted racial integration. To finish his senior year, he was forced to move to Fort Smith where his grandparents were living. They had to formally adopt him before school officials would allow him to finish the school year.

Wofford said she understands the prejudice Native students face because her roots were in an area where a different racial group was targeted.

"I grew up in an area where there was a lot of prejudice, but I was taught not to be prejudiced."

The couple moved to Little Rock after they were married when her husband returned to a summer job. Then they moved to Downing, Calif., where he took a teaching job. She attended the University of California at Long Beach for two years.

"I still wasn't finished with school because every time we moved, I had to satisfy new requirements."

After two years, the couple moved again and Larry Wofford entered a ministry program at a Bible college in Missouri.

"I transferred one more time, to Southwest Missouri State University. It took me five years, but I wasn't going to give up."

When she graduated, she started teaching in Springfield, Mo.

Today she said she loves teaching subjects that inspire her students.

"This just isn't a job for me. I would like to try to make a difference in the lives of my students in some small way. I love watching them and want so much for them because they are bright and so creative.

"When we are doing literature, poetry or a short story, we learn something from the beauty of the poetry or the short story," she said.

"One thing I love about teaching literature is while I have to meet the same standards, ... I can use different vehicles to get there. You have to use different approaches to hold their interest."

Although high school students balk at studying language composition, she gives them an example of what it is like to read authors whose original pieces were poorly punctuated.

One was William Faulkner, who wrote brilliant stories that were horribly confusing because of poor punctuation and run-on sentences.

"I'll take out William Faulkner's originals, and say, 'This why you need to be able to punctuate.'

"It is so confusing to read Faulkner because they have never been taught how to read Faulkner without the punctuation. All of the anthologies have taken care of that. He is a great writer, but he is not easy to read when you read it the way he wrote it."

Wofford, who loves to hear of the achievements and adventures of former students, said she would love a reunion of all of them.

Some have returned to Crow Creek school to work and she is teaching the second generation of students whose parents sat in the desks in her classroom years ago.

"They used to kid me and say if you stay here long enough, you will have our kids.

"Little did we know that was more than just being teased."