A ctenophore the size of the sky just reached out of the stars and swallowed this planet I’m standing on! I’ve never seen purple in the aurora, or a whole sky of pale pink. I stretched my arms out and looked up, and from fingertip to fingertip, all I could see was frothing, billowing curtains of northern lights. My crappy pictures don’t begin to do it justice, but maybe they can feed your imagination a little. This was one of the most magical things I have ever seen. This rivals the Cataloochee fireflies and the dolphins making comets of themselves in the bioluminescent indian ocean. Nights like this swell my heart, blow the top off my imagination, and make my ribs resonate with the blast like a pipe organ.
Cosmically speaking, there are a lot of neat things going on these days. The aurora is supposed to be good on Thursday, which is exciting as it hasn’t been spectacular for a while. The equinox was a few days ago, launching fall in other places and winter here. Last, but not least, there is supposed to be an eclipse tonight. I am going to have to go out this evening to watch the eclipse. If last night’s moon is anything to judge by, it’s going to be pretty spectacular. The moon is supposed to be rising mid-eclipse, which could be really strange and special, but might be hard to see. Some thoughtful planning is in order. I wish I had access to some high ground.
Yesterday, Terri, Ben and I went for a hike out beyond the gravel bar on a quest for a view of the mountains. We never really got there, but we had a nice walk and a campfire dinner of baked potatoes and apples. On the way out, a local guy on a four-wheeler stopped to talk and warned us about leaving the village without a gun. We were carrying bear spray and making plenty of noise, but folks here are very cautious about wildlife, and he hated to think of our needing a gun and not having one. We did see grizzly tracks and scat, and the bears are known to hang out by the gravel bar where the dog salmon are spawning now. After our friend took off, we stopped by the gravel bar for tea and to watch the fish, which are huge and numerous. Apparently, a large portion of the world’s population of these salmon come back to our slough. They’re called dog salmon because folks around here use them for dog food. I let two kids out of school early the other day to take in nets and feed dogs. The fish are clearly tired out, sometimes rolling a little sideways in the current. They’re two feet long, and all muscle. They have to thrash a bit to get through the skinny water, and they sound like a herd of caribou splashing through the shallows. Sometimes you can see their dorsal fins sticking up out of the water, even when they’re completely still and silent. It’s totally strange. Our friend found us there, watching the salmon drift in the shallow water, and pressed a rifle on Ben, just in case.
The three of us walked a while beyond the gravel bar before we lit our fire. I wanted to hike to someplace new, and the weather was perfect: forty at least, with day-old snow on the ground and blue skies and sun.
We wound up walking home in the dark, which I haven’t done before. I walk within the village after sunset often, but I haven’t ever been out beyond the firebreak after sundown before. It was new, and new was just what I wanted from my day yesterday.
Friday’s snow has stuck, the first to last more than a few hours. We’re due for more on Tuesday, so this may be it, folks. My kids begged me for a hike on Friday, and I gave in with pleasure. There’s something magical about walking in falling snow, and it’s not something to miss out on when the opportunity comes knocking. When we got back, I opened the classroom windows and we watched snowflakes blow in and dissolve on the carpet.
After school, I went out alone and followed fresh fox sign around a pond beside the old airport runway. It’s the kind of thing that has to be done alone, a very personal pleasure. I walked out to the pond on purpose, knowing that there’s a fox that hangs around near there, thinking I might pick up his trail. After some bumbling around, I did, with deep satisfaction. The snow was only a few hours old, so I knew with certainty that the prints were fresh. I followed the fox’s tracks until they doubled back on themselves and I lost them under my own garbledy old boot prints. By that time, I was ready to move on to other things anyway, so I walked on up the runway.
I’ve been eating well, and walking out often. School is great and I’m mostly happy. I miss having friends around, but some of my favorite people have called me up lately to say hi, and that’s been awesome. If you tried me yesterday and I missed you, try again! I still can’t make outgoing calls, but I’m in touch with the phone company about it, and when their technician gets back from moose hunting, I think the issue will be resolved.
Gideon sent me a box of honeycrisps, which arrived just after school dismissed on Friday. I can’t wait to share them with the kids on Monday. The two who were still around when the box came in said (and I quote) “wow! How juicy!” and “I think… that is the best apple I have ever eaten.” They go crazy for fresh fruit, and really fresh really good fruit is unheard of. It’s freaking awesome. Here’s a picture of apples in the snow:
Today, Jake and Shannon are taking me out shooting, and I’m excited about it. If I’m going to be an Alaskan, I guess I should learn to be comfortable with firearms. Later, when there’s more snow, I’m going to learn about snowmachines. Terri and I are talking about going in on one together, and now that my boat’s sold I think I can commit to that. Why not? I’ll for sure be able to get out to the mountains if I’ve got ski power, and that could make all the difference.
Okay, this is shameless, but things are dire! We really need a teacher for grades 3-5. Things got screwy and the job didn’t get advertised, so we’re stopping the gap with a sub, and worrying about what will happen if we get stuck without a teacher and are forced to consolidate (it will suck. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen). Here’s the job posting (finally) on ATP. The details are a little screwy, but the district is kinda like that. Things aren’t perfect here, administratively speaking, but for the most part, they leave us alone in our classrooms, and that’s something, anyhow.
The job, right now, is grades 3-5. There are maybe twelve kids in those grades, the bulk in fifth. The classroom is spacious, purple, outfitted with a smartboard, a sink, and big windows that look out onto the playground. There is an ipad for each student, and there are enough laptops available in the building for word processing projects. The internet is a little slow and occasionally unreliable, but you get used to it. Several of the students have IEPs. Special ed services are inconsistent here. You will probably have an aide.
Why you should come:
- This place it outrageously strange and beautiful:
- You will make a difference: these kids are desperate to love and be loved, and when they are loved they learn. It’s amazing. If you can love the kids, you can make outstanding things happen for them in a very short period of time.
- Hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, any kind of outdoor adventure you can imagine, right at your fingertips, maybe more than you’re prepared for.
- I have a big box of board games and nobody to play with.
- Great pay, great benefits. Nice, new, warm teacher housing with running water.
- It’s an adventure. Few people can say they live north of the arctic circle in a fly-in village.
- The community and the school have had conflicts in the past, and there’s not a lot of trust there. We’re trying, and this is getting better.
- The staff is stressed always and grouchy sometimes. This is a pretty hard job.
- You will be (unofficially) expected to help with after school activities.
- The kids are way behind. They don’t start school with much prior knowledge, and they’re often stuck with teachers who aren’t really invested in them.
- Special ed is not readily or consistently available here.
- It’s lonely.
- It’s difficult and expensive to leave to go shopping or to a movie or just to get some space.
- It’s hard to take sick or personal days because your colleagues have to cover for you (there are not really any subs).
- You will always be an outsider in the village.
Why you should do it anyway:
Why not? It’s awesome. Challenges and opportunity go hand in hand: here, you have the chance to make your experience into whatever you want it to be, and that’s pretty unique.
Come teach with me!
Drip, drop, drip.
It was warm today. Chunks of snow hurled themselves over the eaves and hurtled past my classroom windows at startling intervals all day long. Icicles drizzled melt water into the pitted snow below.
Yesterday, Shannon and Terri shanghaied me after school and took me to Big Lake on Shannon’s new snow-go. I was sandwiched between them, my cold face buried in the fur ruff on Shannon’s jacket. The narrow, icy trail slipped and skittered under the roaring snowmachine, and I felt my knees grip harder, skittish and too-cautious as always.
When we got there, I looked up and around at the expanse of white and blue and space in every direction. I could feel the mountains yarding on my heartstrings across the ice. I have to get up there, once at least, before I leave the village for good. I should have taken pictures of the mountains: If I had, you could probably see the words “come hither” stenciled in the sky by their ridges. I did, I think, or maybe it was just a whisper from inside the part of me that loves to want just for wanting’s sake, and lingers, grinning, on windy precipices, tasting salt.
I opened the window over my sink wide today and let the sound of the ice and snow, first slipping and scraping on the metal roof, then falling in white sheets to smash on the ground in a snow-cone splash, slip into my kitchen over the log-deep sill.
It’s been an exhausting week. The shattering ice confused with the chattering of the girls and made a little white noise for me rummage in to find a smile. They mixed their own cookies while I made a pot of curry and arbitrated disputes over who would get to choose a cookie first. They laughed and left their wet snowpants in puddles on the floor and hung their grubby socks to dry on the ledge of my open window and tracked muddy prints all over the floor and made me happy.
Yesterday evening, C came by to tell me that her sister wouldn’t be able to make it to school today. P would have to stay home and babysit the four-year-old so that their auntie could make it to work. We walked over to the school in the dusk light and got P’s math book and independent reading so that she wouldn’t fall behind. “I will never have kids” said C. “It isn’t fair”
The village is grieving and drinking and grieving. A young man passed away last weekend, and everyone is reeling. I knew the man, who used to cook for the school. He played country music too loud and grinned and danced along when I’d bop by in the middle of my crowd of kids, mouthing the words and playing mini air guitar. One of my boxes wound up at his house, and I met his newborn baby and his wife on one of my first days in the village.
The kids have been sullen and sleepless. No one is taking this well, and those whose families live hard have retreated into silence to bear the living harder.
Today, the body was returned to the village. Nearly everyone met the plane at the airport. My class chose to go, and we rode packed in the back of the red school pickup, bending our heads against the wind. We hopped out of the truck and joined the crowd of people standing in the melt-glittery white light of morning. Everyone looked up as the fat plane ripped the blue sky open overhead. When the long wooden box was lowered out of the plane, the young men lifted it and began to walk the mile or so back to the village. The rest of us followed on foot, the fourwheelers and snow-gos growling behind. As one man tired, another stepped in to take his place bearing the dead. A skin drum beat time all the way to the village, and a man’s husky singing voice rose above the footfalls and engines and quiet talk of the crowd. Halfway home, an obviously intoxicated man stumbled into M, a severely autistic high schooler. M looked at me with silent, confused, helpless big brown eyes and tried to step away. Another boy dodged behind me until the man fell behind us.
The men of the village carried Earl right up the steps of the church and through the front door. Everyone stood inside in winter coats. After a few short prayers, a murmured amen, everyone left. I took my students back to class.
Yesterday, one girl wrote in her writing journal that the brilliant, multicolored northern lights of this past week have comforted her. She feels like they’re a message from her uncle on his way to wherever he’s going, a silent promise that it will be okay.
For steel-eyed sixth grader, C, it’s not enough. She’s angry and righteous and pained. She blames alcohol. Drinking has been ripping up the village like a wrecking ball these past few weeks. She wants the council to get together and stop it. “They used to check planes and raid people’s houses that did it, but they don’t do nothing now.” I want so badly for her to have the voice to scream it all someday and be heard, but for now she can’t, and it’s ripping her apart. She is so small and her feelings are so big. This place puts awful burdens on children.
Tonight, Terri, the lower elementary teacher who lives next door, banged on my window. “Come look!” she shrieked, “it’s incredible!”. I gathered my robe around my legs and stepped barefoot onto the porch. It was warm today, and the night was bearable for a long moment.
I stood slackjawed until the cold bit too hard into my toes and my bare knees had goosebumps.
Moments later, I was flinging pants and a coat and a hat on.
Have you ever laid back in a spinning playground tire swing and watched the northern lights ripple and unspool from green to pink in the sky? They unwind across the velvet stars like skeins of acid yarn. They flutter and shimmer like handlebar ribbons in the summer. Night lights for people in the cold.