Dordt College News

Leanne Jelgerhuis Gillson

January 15, 2010

What Leanne (Jelgerhuis, ’76) Gillson worried about more than anything when she left the Midwest for New Mexico’s high plains was the fact that Rehoboth Christian School had openings in all of the first four grades—all of them.

She wondered whether she was walking into some kind of shooting gallery.

In July, when she made the trip west, the barren landscape looked nothing like the royal emerald land back home. Parched and jagged, the high desert looked so forbidding that she came to think she’d made a huge mistake in leaving a second-grade job in Fulton, Illinois, on the glorious watery banks of the mighty Mississippi.

When she arrived on the Rehoboth campus in mid-summer, the place looked like it could use a bit of a makeover. Her arrival was, she says, something of an inauspicious start.

That was thirty years ago. At Rehoboth Christian School, she’s become a fixture, a beloved veteran kindergarten teacher, the first face students come to know at RCS.

As a kid, she’d been fascinated by Rehoboth mission slide shows in her home church in Orange City, but she’d never thought about going there until a colleague at Fulton, a sister of Ron Polinder, the Rehoboth superintendent, invited her over when her brother visited. With his own abundant enthusiasm, Polinder did a sales job that convinced her Rehoboth was exactly where she wanted to be.

Those doleful first impressions soon vanished. “As soon as I started meeting people,” she says, “things changed because everyone was welcoming—teachers, and so many others. They were very helpful.”

“Things changed,” she says. That might be an understatement, for Gillson will not hesitate to tell you that, having arrived in a region of the continent that likes to call itself the “Indian Capital of America,” she found herself in a whole new world.

I try to ask myself, what is in my own way of life that is so wrapped up in my culture that I think its Christianity--but isnt? I need to think more about that. but I want to know, says Leanne Gillson. (Photo by James Calvin Schaap.)She didn’t think of herself as a missionary, just a teacher, the classroom walls of Rehoboth Christian School just another place to hang a growing collection of bulletin boards. “I look back now and think that I was so young, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t read very much ahead of time to prepare myself for what was coming, either—for the whole reservation world. We were encouraged to read one book—and that was very good—but other than that, I didn’t know anything.”

The change began in church, Ft. Wingate CRC, a little congregation of whites and Native people and a handful of mixed race couples that locals call “Dutchajos.” Born and reared in a Christian home, Gillson had never had any trouble confessing the name of the Lord Jesus Christ; but when the Ft. Wingate church decided to do some door-knocking evangelistic work, she had to testify to that faith openly and almost promiscuously, something she’d never really done—and she had to do it to people she knew little about, the Navajos.

Ice cold, slam-the-door-in-your-face evangelism it was, and the experience begat a change in her that helped her see God’s world in totally different ways. A family in a trailer, she says, asked them in, then listened intently to their gospel message. When she’d finished, the Dad simply told Leanne and her evangelism partner that what he believed and what they believed were one and the same—except he used peyote, the drug, to worship the Lord. Theirs was the white man’s faith; his was the way of the Native people. Two different paths to the same God.

It was not difficult for her, back then, to argue; she had been raised on doctrine, on the catechism. She told him that she didn’t need some kind of drug to worship—and neither did he. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled, telling her again that she was talking about a white man’s religion, not his.

That was in the early ’80s. Today her response would be the same, with one hefty difference: Today, she wouldn’t argue; instead, she’d listen. “At that point in my life, I was far more black-and-white about things,” she says. “I came to New Mexico thinking there was this side, and there was that side, black and white. And now,” she says, “to me there’s so much more gray.”

Some might see that change as a loss—of rectitude, of righteousness, of faith itself. But Gillson discovered, in nearly thirty years on the reservation, that a significant portion of her own education—formal and informal—arrived in her heart and soul in platitudes, in visions of the narrow way, in perceived righteousness. Coming into indigenous culture has made her question many things.

“I was quite judgmental, quite critical,” she admits, a smile on her face. “Things that were different than what I thought was right, even what I thought was ‘Christian,’ didn’t necessarily turn out to be,” she says, in the world where she lives.

But the lessons have not always come easily. “I’ve learned to take the veneer off. I had that veneer over me—‘this is the right way, so I’d better be that way.’ Not really thinking about it, but just assuming that the way I was taught was the right way, the only way.” Now, she says, “I want to be more transparent, much more. And if you’re black and white, it’s pretty hard to be transparent. I don’t immediately judge.”

That is not something the teacher learned by teaching. The teacher had to become a student in many ways, including devoting an entire week of every year to visiting the homes of the kids who become her precious kindergartners. In Gallup and on the reservation, she sits and listens.

When she started, she had an agenda. She’d go to some reservation home, an hour away from Gallup, with a list of things she had to say about the child’s preparedness. But that’s changed too. Today, she simply visits Mom or Dad, goes to listen, to learn. That week before school starts, she says, teaches her more about her students than she could ever have imagined. That week teaches the teacher how to teach.

Today, kindergartners aren’t particularly scared of school or the teacher. They walk in and start to bang around, laugh and scream and holler. If you visit Gillson’s classroom, you may well be surprised at the measured volume of the place—the atmosphere created by a teacher who’s learned that speaking quietly and lovingly to five-year-olds creates real classroom benefits. The kids are busy at their tables, drawing pictures and—nose to the grindstone—writing words they’ve just learned in boxy letters they’re immensely proud of. Now and then there’s a disruption—they’re kids, after all, five-year-olds. But by and large they seem almost to discipline themselves.

“Leanne Gillson knows how to talk to kids in this quiet, encouraging way,” says Polinder, the man who hired her three decades ago. “She knows her stuff and is constantly trying to improve her own teaching, putting in the extra hours it takes to do so. She is a leader on our staff and is dedicated to our Rehoboth families and community.”

Years ago, in northwest Iowa, the Jelgerhuis family had sheep. One year, when it was really dry, she says, her father kept those sheep in a pasture full of weeds, convinced that if those sheep were hungry enough, they’d finally eat the weeds they so scrupulously avoided. They didn’t. They almost starved to death.

When she moved to New Mexico, Leanne Jelgerhuis Gillson remembers wondering how all those Navajos and Zuni could have sheep out there where there seemed to be nothing green, nothing to eat at all.

What she had to learn, she says, is that people there have different breeds of sheep and pasture them in wholly different ways. What she had to come to understand, she says, is that finding a new way of life shines a strange light on what she’d always thought was the only way to pasture sheep.

Perhaps what makes Leanne Gillson a great teacher is that she has never stopped learning about the most fundamental truths of her life. “I try to ask myself,” she says, “what is in my own way of life that is so wrapped up in culture that I think it’s Christianity—but isn’t? I need to think more about that. But I want to know.”

As all of us do. The best teachers just may be the best learners.


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