Soft

Spring in the arctic is soft. It happens gently, so that without thinking too much about it you’re wearing your sneakers and then sandals to school every day and you’ve stopped building fires altogether. You can’t figure out how you could ever have been skiing on the same trail that is now six inches under water. Was that only last week? You go out to pee at two in the morning, it’s sunny with a pink glow to the north, and you can hear the river a quarter-mile away shushing like a giant slushie. Mud is everywhere. The dog dries out in the house and leaves sand art on the floor.

We had a beautiful final ride in ANWR a few weeks ago. There wasn’t much snow, but it was sunny and warm enough that wet boots didn’t matter too much.

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Arctic Village is dealing with loss right now, and it is hard to know my place as a neighbor-teacher-outsider. I want to lend my strength as the community, especially the young people that I love, deals with grief and loss, but I am not confident that I know how.

The loss is twofold.

A few days ago, an elder passed away. “She was our oldest elder – she was 95!” L told me. Every such loss is tragic: elders have irreplaceable traditional knowledge and wisdom. This is a time of upheaval and change for Gwich’in people, and that knowledge and wisdom is a source of strength and hope. Such a loss is devastating for the community and for the culture.  “She died of a broken heart,” folks said, “she was so sad after what happened.”

A young man, twenty years old, her grandson, took his own life last week. I did not know him and do not know his family well. I do know the kids he grew up with, and I am afraid of the impact that this will have on them.

The suicide rate among Alaska Native men in their twenties is more than ten times the national average. I have heard more experienced teachers speak again and again about the domino effect that a suicide can have in a village.

It is not my place to try to explain this. Any explanation I tried to give would oversimplify a complicated story. My role in this is to help my students find empowerment in a very hard world.

But I have been bad at it.

When we found out what had happened, I held the older kids in my classroom so that we could insulate them from the tragedy for a few minutes. When adults from the village arrived, we (the staff and community-members) broke the news. After a few words and a few moments of silence, the other adults left, and I was alone with the kids. They were absolutely silent. I have never heard them like that.

“Do you want me to put on a movie so that you guys have something to zone out to, or is it better this way?”

“It’s better this way.”

That was my great offering. A movie. They sat for an hour until we dismissed school. Before they left, I told them that I loved them, but I could feel the words, like a stack of pancakes hitting the floor, falling flat for them in the empty air.

I have not been the best… what? this year. I was going to say teacher, but that’s not what I mean. I have been a perfectly good teacher. Maybe I have not been my best self this year. I have tried to do too much too fast. I spent a lot of time recovering from, planning for, or going on adventures. It has made me happy. But. In Venetie, I would have been giving that time to the kids – going walking or making cookies or working on the prom or planning awesome art projects. We built momentum, the kids and I. And that made me happy. This year, there have been no cookie nights. Nobody ever asked for them, and I felt it wasn’t quite right to offer. There was no prom. The play was awesome, a bright spark, but it wasn’t enough to get a real fire going.

If my heartfelt “I love you” fell flat for the kids, it was for the same reason that this school year fell flat for me: I didn’t give it the dimension that brought last year to life in Venetie: my personal time and space and passion. These are things that are not in my contract, that no one has the right to expect of me, but that, freely given, have let me fall in love with what I do and let me be who my kids need me to be.

I will not give up the time that I spend in the woods with Geoff and Daazhraii. That time makes the world crisp at the edges and centers me in myself.

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I will not give up, the way I did this year, the commitment that brings my work to life for me and makes a real difference for the kids.

I haven’t figured it out, but I am facing the question: How do I give the kids the best of me without selling myself short? How do I get what I need and still give enough?

For Geoff, this spring was a bitter exploration of this question.

He got a letter late in March asking him (us) to stop traveling on tribal land without either obtaining permission from the council or bringing a tribal member.

He was devastated. Geoff has been camping and snowmachining in Arctic for several years now, and to suddenly have this happen was a real blow. It is hard to live in the village, fall in love with the land, give your time and energy to the kids – above the call of duty, and then have the rug swept out from under you. It makes you feel awful and unwelcome and unappreciated. It hurts.

We always try to be careful and respectful of the land and people. We don’t take wood from people’s wood yards or waste caribou meat. We never leave trash behind – we often pick it up.

I think it is evident in my writing that I feel a spectacular reverence for the lands and waters around Arctic Village.

But it is tribal land, and our traveling on it – our living on it, even – constitutes trespassing.

I never thought to ask if we were stepping on anyone’s toes. I guess we thought, if we thought about it at all, that our awesome work with the kids and our long-term residency exempted us from rules that might apply to, in Geoff’s words, “yahoos from Fairbanks who are just coming out for the weekend”

Privileged assumption much?

And yet.

What prompted this edict? It could be any of a number of things. I get lost in wormholes whenever I try to pin it down. A concern for our safety, a personal conflict, a kneejerk reaction, an exercise of authority, a bid for new revenue, a devotion to the rule of law, a sense of pride?

It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like looking at myself as someone who has been kicked off of tribal land. I don’t think of myself as that disrespectful or inconsiderate.

And yet.

It’s not something I have the right to feel offended by.

The tribal government has the right to ask us to stop traveling outside the village on tribal land, plain and simple. It is fair, but it still stings.

So. We are writing a letter requesting permission to camp on the east bank of the Chandalar during our river trip this summer. We plan to invite Geoff’s good friend, a tribal member, to travel with us more, now that we have a second tent. As a gesture of goodwill and of our commitment to the kids, we donated a large sum to the student activities fund, which pays for student travel. Next year, regardless, we will travel primarily in ANWR. The land to our north is beautiful, and we have been talking about maybe shooting for the continental divide.

Right now, though, it is spring. I am in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from all of my responsibilities and quandaries. I have the summer to grapple with the hard stuff. Maybe by fall I will have it figured out. Maybe.

Field Trip!

The Arctic girls left Anchorage last Saturday night after the NYO athletes’ pizza party. By the time we hit the road, it was after ten, so by the time we got back to Fairbanks it was five in the morning. I noticed, as we drove through Nenana in the early dawn, that the tripod had fallen through the ice since we were last there, only a few days before. The river was open, a passage suddenly made of liquid water.

At the hotel, everyone slept a few restless hours, then we went to Wright’s for an 8:00 check in. When the girls’ plane took off at 9:00, Geoff and I went back to the hotel and crashed for a few precious hours, then he and I returned to Wright’s to pick up the Venetie group at noon.

We ran a few Fairbanks errands and celebrated A’s birthday at a hibachi grill, then turned around and drove the kids down to Anchorage.

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Geoff fell asleep about ten seconds after we switched places. He didn’t have much success making lesson plans.

That was hard. It’s hard to be with kids all day every day, and to do it with all the added stress of traveling and feeding them and making sure they are safe is a monumental feat. I have a newfound admiration for parents. It felt like I never had a moment alone, not even to eat or sleep. I don’t mean to give the wrong impression: I had a great time. It was just a long great time.

We had some great roadside stops

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Between Fairbanks and Nenana

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Just beyond Healy (C didn’t want her picture taken – she hadn’t composed her yuckiest face yet)

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On a windy Monday in Whittier

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South of Denali

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In two weeks we put almost exactly 2,000 miles on the van, and, for the most part, it was pretty easy riding even with eight kids and all their gear in the vehicle. We saw a couple of moose on the road, but they were never problematic road moose, and I learned that Geoff has a working knowledge of approximately 80% of the rest areas and 60% of the gas stations in Alaska.

We cruised through a mountain to get to Whittier, and C calculated down to the second how long it would take us to travel through the tunnel at 25 mph. If there hadn’t been a car in front of us, we probably would have hit it dead on.

The worst part was when G got carsick on the ride up from Seward. She was miserable, and there wasn’t much we could do for her. We’d been whalewatching that day, and she never really got over the rocking of the boat.

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Ponchos for everyone!

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Sea otters!

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Not puking yet, but it won’t be long.

A lot of the kids had never seen the ocean before, and we got to see it up close and personal. We saw  a Steller’s sea lion catch and eat a big salmon, and we saw a humpback whale blow only feet away from the rail of our boat.

The kids loved it – when asked what they’d most enjoyed about the trip, most of them agreed that the whales were the coolest. Those kids that weren’t puking did, anyway.

We had some other great adventures too.

We spent a night at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, sleeping between the sea lion and the seabirds. C unintentionally set off the door alarm at about 10:30 and I nearly had a heart attack, but other than that we had a great time. They loved the touch tank and the feeling of having the place to ourselves after dark. The SeaLife Center rehabilitates marine animals, and they had two baby otters in their care while we were there, and they were outrageously cute. I loved the octopus and the puffins with the funny old man hair.

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The touch tank at the SeaLife Center was very popular.

On Wednesday, we visited the Anchorage Museum, which I think is wonderful. The Imaginarium is a great science lab playground, with loads of giant bubbles and live animals, and the displays about Alaska’s native communities are well-made and incredibly informative: each case has a computer at the end with information about every object, including a transcription of elders discussing the object’s significance and provenance.

After that, we took the kids to see Broadway’s Peter Pan, which I was a little afraid they wouldn’t like, but which they wound up loving. The flying and dancing and swordfighting looked like great fun, and the sets were beautiful. C spent the whole show whispering questions into my ear, and P swears that if her dad doesn’t get her tickets to go see Beauty and the Beast next spring, she’ll cry.

I’m for bed now. I have some recovering to do before this week hits full force. It’s graduation on Friday and Prom on Saturday, and then suddenly it’s the last week and school’s out for summer. Somehow, I need to find time to pack up my house and my classroom to move up to Arctic and the next big adventure. Madness!

It happened so fast!

At the moment, I’m in Anchorage with a group of girls from Arctic Village. This is their annual Native Youth Olympics field trip, and I’m the female chaperone, borrowed from the next village over.

There’s no snow on the ground here, and it rained on the way down from Fairbanks yesterday. There are tiny green leaves on the trees.

On Sunday I put the Sassy White Bravo away for the last time this season. When I get back to Venetie in a week and a half, there won’t be snow on the ground. I returned my skis to gym storage, too. It was a hard day, Sunday. It seemed like winter would last forever, and then suddenly it was over.

As a last hurrah, Ben and I and our visiting student teacher, Addie, took the SWB on its most epic adventure so far. We rode out maybe six miles to the north, the farthest I’ve been along that trail, and started a fire. Terri had given us a foil packet of moose meat, so we set it in among the coals to cook while we went skiing.

It was a gorgeous, warm sunny day. The snow was thick and slick and slushy, and we flew over it fast and sure, hatless and gloveless in our t-shirts.

On the way back, I skied behind the snowmachine – a handy way to move a third body, and a lot of fun. You fly back there, bumping over the ice at a ripping ten or fifteen miles per hour. The trail opened up and I practiced skiing off to the side of the machine in an open area that had been solid ice hours earlier. It happened so fast – all of a sudden I was flying face-first into the deep slush. My skis had sunk into the heavy snow and hooked. I pitchpoled and wound up with ice in my teeth.

I was fine and came up laughing. It’s hard to hurt yourself in the deep, thick, pillowy white spring snow.

But oh, it happened so fast, this spring. It’s suddenly almost summer, and the goodbyes have already begun: Goodbye, snow. Goodbye, skiing. Goodbye, kiddoes.

And goodbye, Venetie.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be teaching in Arctic Village next year.

Still. It happened so fast.

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Beautiful northern lights at midnight last week

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Spring Carnival

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the women’s snowshoe race

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skiing on Big Lake

I’m on my way to a new adventure, but I’m savoring every moment I have left with my kids and in the village, and lingering over the small farewells.

Building a Blanket Fort

I was offered a job today, one that I really want.
It’s a secondary teaching job in Venetie, Alaska, a village above the arctic circle in the Yukon Flats.
I am frightened of bears and of bush planes and of seventy degrees below zero.
I’ll be going alone and I’m terrified of that.

DSC01356Over Thanksgiving, I built a blanket fort with some friends. While everyone else was asleep, we reshaped the world. We took the furnishings of sleep and stayed awake to hang them over our heads, pinning this fabric of an improbable, inverted landscape to the ledges with makeshift fasteners and friction and gravity. We whispered our giggles and slept in absurd contortions, grinning.

DSC01347My greatest fear is of going to bed early, of giving up on things before I’ve even begun. I’m accepting the job offer.
Everything comfortable in my life is going to turn upside down.
Maybe my glee is childish, but I’m exhilarated: I’m remaking my life into an adventure again.
Wish me luck.

A week of summer school

I am wildly excited about summer school right now.

Background info: Summer school at Lee has turned out to be only fifteen teaching days, and I will teach only eleven of them. Today was my seventh. I am teaching ninety minute blocks twice a day primarily to groups of students who scored below proficient on their eighth grade benchmark assessment. Like most students whom I have taught, they struggle with basics of mathematics like adding and subtracting integers, multiplication facts, long division, operations with fractions and decimals, and reading for comprehension.

On Monday, I nearly lost my stuffing. My lessons had gone poorly, though I’d been on top of behavior, and I was still remediating the objective (order of operations – not even in the ninth grade curriculum) that I had scheduled for the first day of class and my attempt to give them a hands on activity to introduce variables had totally backfired. I’d been gone for four days, my students hadn’t completed the practice that I had left, and they were acting out, tired of doing the same type of problems over and over again. I was feeling frustrated, ineffective, and angry with myself. I felt exactly like someone who was being paid very, very well to knock down a well-built brick wall by hurling herself against it. I felt like an oppressor befuddled by passive resistance (Lee County’s students are students of Gandhi, not of mathematics).

On Tuesday, I kicked my rear into gear and taught a lesson on solving equations, which I love to teach. I tied it so thoroughly to the foundation we’d laid in order of operations that my kids couldn’t help learning a pinch or two of new material.
I had a student follow a set of written directions to walk a path through the classroom, then had the class direct the student back to her starting position. The class intuitively did this by reversing the directions she had followed, starting with the most recent step. I recorded their instructions and had them make observations on the activity (we undid the last thing first – all the directions are backwards!). Next, I had the volunteer rewalk the original path, then scrambled the directions that her class had used to help her navigate back to start. She wound up in a totally new location. We solved some two-step equations for practice.

Yesterday, we practiced order of operations and solving equations for a while, then I had them writing expressions based on stories, which carried us through the day.
“Looks pretty good, but don’t forget to define your variables, D”
“Okay. R = Rufus”
“What about him? His height? His bank balance? How many hairs he has on his tail?”

Today was the bomb, though. I taught a mediocre lesson on function notation, but it had them solving three-step equations with a story. My first period wasn’t so into it, but the second group killed it. They killed it!
“Raise your hand if you can tell me the story of this problem and solution… Okay, A”
“Selena worked ten hours and after splitting the money with her mom, she had $51”
“Awesome, girl. Isn’t it amazing that I can tell you all of that just by writing i(10)=51?”

“What do we need to do first?”
“Figure out what happens to x
“Okay…”
“It gets divided by three, you subtract two, then multiply by negative six”
“Good work with order of operations. Now what?”
“Reverse the steps: divide by negative six, add two, multiply by three.”
“Go kill it. Remember to keep the see-saw balanced”

Crowning moments of the day:

  • I had only one student in my second group who didn’t choose to stay after class to finish the challenge problems.
  • I overheard two kids arguing about who had done better in my class today. One of them was a consistent underachiever who’d really caught on today.

Days like this make me love my job. Days like Monday make me want to flip burgers. Teaching is awesome, but by golly it’s no cakewalk.

Here’s a snap of Mr. P in action.

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