Not that cuddly

dsc05284Now and then, one of my fourth graders holds out his arms for a hug. I have a third grader who rests her head against my arm when I lean over the desk to help with classwork. Those of you who know me well are probably chuckling. I’m not all that cuddly. I don’t bite or anything, I’m just stiff.

When a girl is crying in the bathroom, male teachers find the nearest lady and say “go talk to her.” It’s universal. They all do it.

I try. I go in and assess the situation. I watch her cry for a while, arms around her knees in a dark corner, or I listen to her sobs echoing off the porcelain in a locked bathroom stall. I try “what’s up?” and “can you tell me what happened?” but then, inevitably, I blurt out something like “can I get you a glass of water?” I’m terrible at this stuff.

That’s middle school, and I’ve accepted my awkwardness there. Now, though, for the first time since I became a teacher, I’m working with elementary students. They cry a lot.They get knocked down in gym and they cry. Their dads make them wear their snowpants so they cry. They get assigned seating and they cry. They get caught lying and they cry. I dole out hugs and band aids now. Once, I picked up a cool rock from outside for a girl to press against the hurt spot on her face. She looked so silly, holding that big rock to her eye, and she carried it with her for hours.

Working with younger students is a mystifying cocktail of sweetness and ickiness and fun and unsolicited intimacy. They talk about the hard things at home. They pick their noses. They hug. They spill. They sing along with stupid videos. They like to shout the answers. They have pockets full of little toys. They are sticky. They forgive quickly, and I’m grateful because this is a steep learning curve for me. I don’t know how much is too much to expect, so I expect too much. I don’t know how to fix bumps and scrapes and tears so I ignore them. I don’t know how to decide who gets to sit on the couch so I do the mean thing and say “nobody!” In spite of my growling and snapping and my ignorance and helplessness in the face of tears, they bounce in smiling every day. I’m baffled and delighted by their enthusiasm and their trust.

We have such a long way to go together this year. My elementary class (grades 3 through 7) started the year resistant to writing more than a few sentences. Now they look forward to the days when I post a painting on the smartboard and let them write about it. They love to write stories, but not a single one of them can use punctuation at all, and one of them still misspells his own name sometimes.

I want to teach them to write. For starters, I want them to write understandably. Later, I want them to write expressively. How can I teach them what a sentence is, though? Punctuation feels as natural to me as blinking. How can I teach them to spell? I don’t remember the right things to say, how the ‘e’ makes the ‘a’ say its name, how you need to change the ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es’. How can I teach the one kid to spell his name while I prepare the older girl to take her classes with the high school next year? I have no idea how to do this. It feels like I’m starting from scratch with these kids, and on the one hand, I’m thrilled to have the chance. On the other hand, I’m desperately intimidated. They’re so vulnerable, and I’m not that cuddly.


Not that cuddly (I’m wearing a life jacket and trailing a rope just in case the ice broke on the crossing, just in case you were wondering)






With no snow on the ground and the lake frozen solid, we had to get creative about drinking water last weekend.


Geoff chopped a supply of ice out of the slough and the fragments littering the surface made walking treacherous and hilarious.


Icebergs make the best drinking water.

Ice britches


To get to camp this weekend, Geoff and I had to wade across an ice-cold, waist-deep slough.

It’s October, and things are in full swing at school. We’re short-staffed and holding it together by sheer willpower. This time of year is always like that.


Whoever made the crossing first lit a fire on the other side to melt the ice from between our toes. On Saturday, Geoff did this while I whimpered on the other side, looking dubiously at the ice at the water’s edge. “You’re the one who likes to get outside,” he called from the other side, and I made it across on laughter. Yesterday, I went in first, eager to get it over with.

I missed my best friend’s 30th birthday party this weekend, and talk among college friends of a New England New Years has me a little homesick. When I have free time, I miss the company of these beloved people with whom I have so much in common.


We went by canoe last time and set up camp on the far shore of the lake.

I have learned to say “it’s snowing!” in Gwich’in, (ah-shee) though no significant snow (zaa) has stuck yet.


Now the lake is frozen too solid for boats and not solid enough for skis.

The kids in Arctic Village are sweet – maybe a little too sweet – it makes me wonder when the other shoe will drop. I have a really eccentric third grader who makes me laugh every single day.


We walked in, maybe three miles in all over trackless tundra, dodging ponds.

I do miss the kids I taught in Venetie. They were like family, and they had a great deal of personality. I got to see them for a few hours when I was on my way into Fairbanks for a dental emergency a few weeks back, and they’ve grown taller and stronger and so much more mature since I left them in May.


Geoff carried the chainsaw in, which was no picnic.

In Social Studies, the high school has been doing CNN Student News every day, as usual, and practicing for the National Geographic Bee. The upper elementary class has been learning countries like crazy, making giant leaps from the beginning of school when they didn’t know their continents and oceans yet. I’m surprised at how much I find myself enjoying the younger group. They are so earnest and fun-loving, I can’t keep myself from playing a little every time they’re in the room.


But when we arrived, late in the evening, the arctic oven was waiting patiently. Some varmint had gotten into our supplies and dumped out the gas, but I’d packed in plenty for one night, so we were still able to run the chainsaw.

In English, we’re focusing heavily on writing. I’m allowing the kids to turn in as many drafts as they want to, and they’re keeping me hopping with their constant requests for feedback. I have a separate reading class where they practice reading aloud, discussing, and analyzing their novels in written responses. The whole thing is going well. I’m trying to keep a writing sample from each student so that I can see their growth between now and the end of the year. I hope they grow. I think they will.


We built a fire outside to warm up, and then busted out the chainsaw to do wood for the tent.

Weekends, though, are the best. Nothing can compare to spending days out beyond the edges of the village, picking a way through the tussocks and noting the fresh prints of wolves, spending nights under the aurora listening to the fire wheeze and the lake ice ripple and buckle.


In the arctic oven, we shared a caribou dinner. When I went out to brush my teeth, the lake ice groaned and snapped with a sound like a jumprope whistling by my ear. Phtheewwwwwww! It was ghostly and strange, with the aurora in green scraps overhead.

Someday, I’d like to spend more time out there at this time of year. I want to note how thick the ice gets before the muskrats stop plowing through it. I want to listen to the ice and learn to tell time by its shifting. Two-day-weekends are just not adequate (see me using today’s vocabulary word?).


I woke up chilly in the night and started a fire in the cold stove, then went out to pee and chop more wood. I was ecstatic over that small handful of wood, frosty-barked in my bare arms as I crawled back into the tent.


I am not an arctic badass yet, but I’m getting closer every day, and wading through that slough again in the gathering dark last night earned me a merit badge for sure.


It was full dark by the time we returned to the village. This morning, the river was icing in swirls and whorls.

Oops Pie


By far, the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me happened on Monday.

Last weekend, Geoff, Albert and I borrowed a canoe and took off for an adventure. We were camped a ways up Deadman’s Creek, and we spent all of Monday hiking in the tundra and berry picking at the base of the mountains. We’d just gotten back to camp, tired and sore from picking our way across the tundra, and were sitting down to eat some dinner before heading back to the village when search and rescue showed up. A complete surprise.


“Yeah, your Dad called the troopers,” one of the guys said. I looked down at my feet, silently wishing the ground would split open so that I could fall in and be swallowed up by a new slough. Stupid-girl Slough.


The details don’t matter much, just that it was a communication breakdown and entirely my fault. The searchers were good-humored about it, glad to find us all in one piece. What a first impression I must have made, though, moving to Arctic and causing such a stir within a week. There was a sign posted out in front of the school when we got back “No school Tuesday September 6th until Teachers are Found.” Wright Air flew over the river looking for us, and Venetie was all stirred up on my account. Board members called the superintendent. Kids cried. Geoff’s mom found out and told her neighbor and he managed to get a prayer circle going in West Virginia. What a mess.


But all things, even embarrassing things, pass, I guess.

I made pie the other day from the blueberries we picked on Monday. They were shriveled up and sweet and purple on the red-leaved bushes, and they made my fingertips and teeth blue. That Tuesday morning the mountains were dusted with snow (we motored through a nasty little rain-squall to get back to the village, and it was cold and awful, so it stands to reason it’d be snow a few-hundred feet higher), so I think that was the last of the season’s blueberries. Embarrassment pie, mortification pie, sweet, delicious, wonderful, blueberry-major-oops pie. dsc05140