Geronimo Arechiga

Honored Native Youth: Geronimo Arechiga, present whereabouts unknown. His mother is (?)Margaret(?) St. James, Sisseton-Yanktonais Dakota Nation, Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation, South Dakota, usually resident in Minneapolis or St. Paul.
Person Offering this Honor: Paula Giese, Minneapolis, MN
Honor is for 1993-94 school year: (1) Science and computer achievement and (2) Teaching me something very important.
Jump to Computer Lab Photo--You can jump back up here, too.
Geronimo was in 7th grade last year, at Heart of the Earth AIM Survival School, Minneapolis. This is an Indian-controlled K-12 school founded by AIM-member Indian parents in 1972, controlled by an elected board of Indian parents ever since, with most staff also Indian. It receives no regular funding, but must write an 8-foot shelf of proposals each year, with each coming year's budget a lottery, results unknown until midsummer, for the coming year. I was working there half-time, on a project for which I'd obtained funding for the school, creating a hands-on science lab and a good computer lab, and culture-centered educational approaches for using them. I kept the small prototype lab of 6 computers open 20 hours a week.

Kids had no regular classes there. They crowded in whenever they got permission from their teachers and at recess and after school. There was nothing they had to do, though I used the software I'd obtained to evaluate it for purchase (and plan how to integrate it with culture-based learning) to teach anyone anything they were interested in learning, as well as seeing what they did do with no pressure to do anything in particular.

Geronimo here re-receives the award I was able to give him only privately (as explained below) and receives a special award for "Student who taught me the most." I didn't give him that award last June, because I thought it would be meaningless unless presented before his friends with the honor speech that accompanies it.

Geronimo did not return to HOTESS last fall. I don't know where he is now. It is my hope his friends or relatives may see this, here, tell him about it, "Hey, Geronimo! You're on computer!"and arrange for him to see this.

The story is long, because the whole situation contains much that should be thought about by educators and others involved with Indian young people. There's a certain human interest to it, too.

Here's the story:

Last year, there were no regular computer classes at HOTESS, kids did what they wanted, which was (for many) to line up and wait to play games on the 6 computers in the wretched hole which was the "prototype computer lab" for testing equipment and software that I later obtained funding (DoE, Title VI) to buy for the school. I logged their time on sign-up sheets, and the computers were set up also to record what they were doing. At year-end, I gave 16 computer achievement awards to "upper division" (grades 7-12) students--but not to Geronimo, because he wasn't in school after our school powwow on Memorial Day.

Geronimo and his 2 younger brothers had been in custody of the Ramsey County Child Welfare Department. Right at year-end, they took him from one foster home and put him in a temporary shelter (and kept him out of school). His caseworker went on vacation right then. I had a hard time with the bureaucracy even finding out where he was. The bureaucracy stalled me around until school was actually out and the caseworker returned from her vacation. I was able to visit the shelter and give Geronimo his yearbook (which he'd forgotten in my car when some kids rode over with me to set up our computer booth at the powwow), as well as his framed certificate for outstanding science achievement, a T-shirt like the top 8 computer achievement students all got, and a large school button (I'd made these on the lab's color printer bought for the prototype lab).

But I didn't give him his Mystery Hero award then, because it was just another button, meaningless, I thought, without the honor speech before his friends at school. I would give it to him at the first school Pipe Ceremony in the fall, I thought. But Geronimo did not return to HOTESS last fall, and neither did I. So I'm doing the award speech here, where maybe 20,000,000 InterNet users (instead of 250 HOTESS students and 40 school staff) could maybe see it.

The special award was a button that said MYSTery Hero around the edge in bright yellow. A high-quality color print for the button center was made by computer-editing a screen captured from the MYST CDROM software. The button shows the MYSTery Island's clock tower. You need to understand this software a bit, to understand the award.

MYST has been called the most beautiful computer program ever done, but it is also very mentally challenging, with many hard puzzles you have to discover and solve to make progress through the story. The story takes you to past, present, and future of this mysterious, isolated island, which you fall into, through a magical book. To solve the puzzles, you have to read books in MYST's main-island library, use a telescope and camera and figure out constellation patterns at certain dates, start up a wood-fired steam boiler, turn on electricity to the spacecraft by starting an electrical generator and correctly routing current. You have to solve a clock-calendar puzzle to get into the clock tower on a little offshore island.

Inside the clock tower is ancient machinery. You have to pull 2 slot-machine-like handles to make 3 gears line up showing a number combination you already found out about at the top of the library. Just 7 pulls and the gear-drive counterweights are on the ground--you must wind them up and start over. So you have to find the right combo of "pull the left handle---pull the right handle" to make the gears line up the numbers 2,2,3 (or whatever the one winning combo is ) in just 7 pulls. Numbers arranged around each gear's rim always start in the same positions.. Each full pull revolves 2 of the 3 gears at once by exactly the same amount--different for each of the 2 turning gears--in opposite directions for the 2 handles. Gears all start in the same positions when the machinery's wound up for your 7 pulls at its handles. Kind of like an antique slot machine, but no chance is involved here--you can solve the puzzle only by finding the right combo of gear turns, seemingly by the order in which you pull the 2 handles, the 7 times you're allowed. The software explains none of this. You wander around a beautiful, mysterious world, and perhaps you discover what to do, where to go, what questions or situational puzzles this mysterious world is really presenting, not in language, but in the way things are--and they are very different in the different worlds of MYSTery Island's history. You have to experiment with everything, even to understand what the problems or puzzles actually are.

I'm not that big a computer game fan, actually, but I had to play all the long, complex storygames (which I feel encourage student ingenuity, problem-solving, and most of all, persistence and follow-through) so I could help the students when they got stuck. Since I have no Mac at home or in my office, and the 6 computers were reserved for the kids whenever they were there (pretty much whenever I was), I stayed long hours after the kids had gone, playing through all the long story-games, so I could give them little clues to get past really sticky parts. Myst certainly has some, and I hadn't gotten very far on the mysterious, mist-shrouded island after getting the CDROM of it.

One day in spring, Geronimo was in the lab after school. He was waiting for a ride from someone, so he hadn't taken the school bus. He had started to play Myst. I was working on budget and year-end reports, but I noticed, side-eye, he was moving right along in it. A bit later, I noticed from the sound of the clock-tower machinery that he was stuck inside there--just as I'd been the night before. After he'd done a lot of trying, I peeked over at the computer. I saw Geronimo was peeking at me, wondering about maybe a hint? .

"Don't look at me!" I said irritably. "I beat my brains out on Myst last night, 4 hours right there in that clock tower where you're stuck, when I should have been working on budget. I couldn't do it."

GULP!!! Educators say (and I agree) you shouldn't discourage students from hard stuff! At least I had sense enough not to mention that for about 1.5 of those 4 hours I did a mathematical proof (trying to logically work out the strategy) in combinatorial logic that the problem presented by the 3 gears rotating the way they did to a certain combo of numbers in 7 pulls of the 2 handles is impossible, cannot be solved (then I went home and got some dinner)...

Geronimo wasn't discouraged, by my admitted failure. With renewed determination, he went back to pulling the handles to make the gears line up, thoughtful pauses after each pull, little explorations for hidden gimmicks and the like, and I went back to my budget. Persistence in the face of hard problems is an important character trait to encourage in young people. So if he wants to beat his head against the problem in that tower, OK.

Some time later, from the nearby Mac I heard whirrs, clangs, etc., indicating that Geronimo had made something happen. I rushed from behind my desk and peered over his shoulder. The huge gear wheel out on the island promontory--that I'd never been able to make do anything--was revolving. Steps and a trapdoor were revealed. Geronimo had solved the clock tower problem that not only defeated me, but that I thought I'd proven mathematically was impossible to solve!!!!

Yay! I watched with excitement while Geronimo went over to the secret stairway...which turns out to take you through a time machine, into Myst Mystery Island's world of the future. Geronimo's ride came not long after, so he'd only begun to explore the future there. He saved his position and left. I, of course, was naturally shamed to ask him how he'd solved the clock tower problem (which I had a real, genuine, true and valid proof was impossible).

Too bad for the budget. I immediately went to the Myst machine and jumped to the clock tower, where I'd been stuck in my own game the night before. There I beat my brains out again for a while. Finally, it occurred to me to try not pulling the handles down quite all the way. Ay! Different number combos come up when you do that! It's not like slots, where a handle is either pulled or not-pulled. These handles are ratcheted! In due course, guided by Geronimo's success, I, his alleged computer teacher, was also able to enter the world of the MYSTery Future. Following the trail of a youth who didn't know I'd proven what he'd done was mathematically impossible! And who solved it by trying something I hadn't considered.

Was my proof wrong? No it was right, if each pull on the clock tower machinery resulted in a certain kind of turn of the gears. The logic of this is binary, 2-valued. But Geronimo experimented with those handles and discovered there are several different ways to pull them, each one resulting in different numerical combos coming up on the turning gears. The logic of this is multi-valued, branches on a decision tree depending on ratchets and their outcomes, not just handles and their pull-order. Geronimo went beyond my own actions and my math, to discover how the clock-tower machinery really works. That combination of persistence with a hard problem, and exploratory actions when you've beaten your head against the obvious approaches to that problem for a while without success, led him to the world of the future, containing (in the MYST game, as in reality) still more difficult and complex challenges.

Just like the Real World. Just what I want every student to learn--both the persistence even when no one's cheering you on and you seem to be getting nowhere (because that's the Real World, often enough you've got to stick to it, even though no one cares, or they actively discourage you) and the exploratory ingenuity. On anything hard. All real science is like this, math, computer programming, anything involving purely intellectual problems. (Social problems are different, political, don't usually yield to reason or creativity or persistence, etc.)

For this reason, I made Geronimo a special button, commemorating both the MYST scene of his triumph and what he taught me by it. I regret this button--unique in all the world--was taken from a bag of other award buttons I'd made for students on Awards Day. If you see someone wearing such a button, they're not entitled. It's Geronimo's, as is this award speech, from my notes on the speech I would have given, had the Welfare Bureaucracy allowed him to attend school on Awards Day, last June 3.

Geronimo did receive (as a mere physical object) another award, a framed certificate of science achievement. He had agreed to help me evaluate--from a young person's viewpoint--an entire computer-based science mini-course unit on biology and environment (a CDROM). This program is pegged by its authors as being for grades 8-12. The student must answer a question every 2-5 screens, and take little quizzes when the end of each of its 4 units is reached. Geronimo finished it in half the recommended minimum time (8 weeks) and his overall average score for the in-progress questions and the quizzes was what the program's authors consider low 10th or high 9th grade science achievement. Geronimo had never taken a science course.

Working with this high-school science computer program, Geronimo inspired another student, Toni Thompson, also a 7th grader, to try it. She finished it in about the authors' minimum time of 8 weeks, her score being a solid 9th-grade level. Both received framed science achievement certificates, Toni's at Awards Day, Geronimo when I finally located the shelter Welfare had him in after school was out.

HOTESS had a program where students could get grades and transcript credit for high-school coursework, for special projects deemed to merit it by some teacher. I attempted to put 1 science credit of A on both these students' report cards and transcripts, but the HOTESS high school principal wouldn't allow it. He said 7th graders were not eligible, just grade 9 and up. "No one ever looks at Middle School transcripts," he told me. (I feel that students and usually parents see student report cards, and other schools and teachers may see their transcripts.) Both those students should have been credited for computer-based science course work they both completed. Both of them did it for fun, not credit, but that's even more to their credit!

There's a reason I hope Geronimo's present teachers might somehow find out about this. Near school- year-end I spoke to his last-year's math teacher at HOTESS, a nice non-Indian lady who has good rapport with the kids, and is a good teacher generally. I wondered how Geronimo had done in his math classwork, because it seemed to me we had a potential genius here, who ought to be encouraged with challenge and some extras. Her response amazed me.

"I thought maybe he was a little...slow," she said. Geronimo is quiet until he gets to know you, and I imagine he was rather bored with 7th grade math, which was being taught at about 4th-grade remedial level, necessary for many students then. But in his case, there should have been math enrichment and challenge work. Many Indian youth are shy and quiet with most adults until they get to know you and open up. This is unlike most non-Indian extra-bright kids, who are often talkative and intellectually aggressive, especially the ones talented in math, who actually may be and know they are quite a bit smarter than their teachers. Probably many Indian youth doubt that such a thing--to be smarter (intellectually, not street-wise) than one's respected teacher(s)--is possible. Probably many whose inherent talents may be mathematical might not even be aware of their talent, because all they ever saw of math is remedial-level arithmetic.

Geronimo Arechiga foreground and Toni Thompson photographed for the yearbook in the HOTESS prototype computer room in January, 1994, when both were 7th graders. They both have jackets on because this miserable hole was an uninsulated walled-off box formerly the balcony of the school basketball court. Though there was heat into it, when the north winds blew in sub-zero January and February, it actually got down to about freezing in that room, so I relaxed the rule of "No jackets, parkas, food or beverages in the computer room" since everyone had to wear jackets in there for 2 months.

So, I hope this honor I belatedly offer for Geronimo--that's his given name not a nickname, in case you were wondering--may have some kind of inspirational value for others, even if he never learns of it. Of course what I really hope is he learns of it and can see it here and feel proud of his achivements--science and computers, and the one for which I would have given him the MYSTery Hero award.

TOP of

Last Updated: Friday, March 01, 1996 - 11:07:58 AM