Occupational Hazards

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so much more than just the cold!

1. Parasitic Arthropods

Our cabin is currently sitting empty with the windows open. Last time I checked, the temperature upstairs was about -5. I never actually saw a bedbug, but I have a distinctive line of bites along my ribs.

Kids bring bedbugs to school, along with head-lice, pretty frequently. A few weeks ago, I had a kid raise his hand in the middle of read-aloud. I glared, and he put his hand down. A minute later he threw his hand up like Arnold Horshack and waved it in the air. All it took was a raised eyebrow and he burst:

“I found a zhii!”

That is one of my hundred or so Gwich’in words, so I did what most people would do if someone loudly announced that they’d just picked a louse out of their hair- what everyone else in the classroom did – and stared slack-jawed.

He looked back, totally ingenuous.

“Umm. Go to the office.” He left. I tried to play it cool and get back to read-aloud, but he came right back in.

“Um, where’s the office?”

“Katie! Go tell Katie!”

Katie’s our administrative aide and she’s worth her weight in gold. She quietly arranged a school-wide head check and called parents.

After a while my student came back into and helpfully notified us all that “nobody should sit there. [He had] dropped it.”

All that is just to say that parasitic arthropods are just part of classroom teaching. What are you going to do? It’s really a wonder we’ve never had bedbugs before.

We threw the mattress in the yard last week, and a day of forty-below took care of that. Freezing the house at a temperature of zero or below for a few days will kill any bugs or even eggs that are left inside. We had to move the canned goods and perishable food out of the place, but there are no pipes to freeze. It’s a perk of arctic living.

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ice on the windows so you know it’s cold: bedbugs begone!

2. Trauma

I realize I am just beginning to understand trauma: it’s the dread I feel with the coming of dividends and holidays – times of heavy partying; It’s the sick feeling I get when someone who doesn’t usually visit the school shows up in the middle of the day. So often those visits mean that someone – a student’s cousin or a parent – has died.

This fall, I taught for two hours with the knowledge that two of my students had lost a parent that morning. They had no clue, just went about business as usual. I held everyone in my classroom, escorted kids to the bathroom, made sure no one snuck a device under the table and got on social media. I tried to keep it light, have fun, not let on. It seemed to take years for the kids’ grandma to come and get them. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

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meanwhile, the sun is rising again, a little longer each day

By the time these kids hit middle school, they’ve seen far more tragedy than I saw in the twenty-five years of my life before Alaska. I have only been around for a few years, but already my gut is twisted with it all.

Trauma clouds the vision and tragedy is what happens when someone gets backed into a corner and can’t see a way out. Tragedy is what happened to both these boys, one of whom was my student. I try not to let myself dwell on it, but I have had a hard time letting it go.

3. Polar Bears

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This is Not a Polar Bear

Jim is my neighbor, the father of a whole pack of young Arctic Village girls. He came by the school to pick up his daughters and I got to hear this story firsthand while the girls got their winter gear on. I just about lost my cool when I heard about this: it was the same weekend I was out thinking I was so badass for patching up the Bravvie all alone in the wilderness. I would have felt a lot less badass if I’d known there was a polar bear prowling around the area.

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And after I fixed it, practically under the nose of a ravenous bear, my ride found the strength of ten Bravos, plus two! (this is how we haul school trash, these days)

**Polar bears aren’t really an occupational hazard. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. This is just a ridiculously nifty story.

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 Things I have done so far today (1 pm)

I have…

  1. Cleaned up a mysterious pee puddle in the girls’ bathroom (in front of the shower, nowhere near a toilet)
  2. Instructed a girl to “come back over here and wipe [her] loogie off the outside of my trash can.”
  3. Called the clinic to see if we can get a health aide to do a talk on basic hygiene while a child puked in my (other) trash can
  4. Called said kid’s mom because he puked in my trash can
  5. Asked Geoff to give the aforementioned kid a ride home because his mom had no fuel in her machine
  6. Sent more than half the kids in my class home sick, most on foot
  7. Wiped down all of my desks and chairs with bleach
  8. Wheeled a chair out of the room because it smelled like someone had pooped on it
  9. Arranged for someone to have a talk with the stinky-bottomed child
  10. Administered a state standardized test

Update (3:30 pm)

I have now, in addition to the previous items,

  1. Taught two kids to play Dominion
  2. Lost my temper with an adult (understandably, I think. It’s been quite a day)

Venetie Volleyball

On Thursday, six kids from Venetie flew to Arctic Village to play volleyball. We’ve been planning this for a while with their principal, and I’ve been looking forward to it since it was just the germ of an idea.

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Venetie and Arctic have a complex relationship. They are partners in land ownership and governance, but there is some animosity between them. Arctic gets a lot of visitors and attention from outside, and I think there’s a perception in Venetie that Arctic is kind of stuck up. Venetie is a rougher village. There seems to be more crime and drinking and ugliness there (though I am not convinced that this is as it seems). Arctic kids grow up with an aversion to things Venetie. When I wore my Wolfpack hoodie this fall, they would call me a “mutt” and make rude comments about people from Venetie. The kids from the two villages snipe at each other over social media, even though they have hardly met in person.

I love those Venetie kids wholeheartedly. I latched on to them over the year and a half I was their teacher, and they mean the moon to me. When kids here say unkind things about them (people from Venetie suck: so and so is mean) I take it pretty hard. This visit was an opportunity to chip away at that prejudice a little.

Thursday, we mixed the groups and played Shipwreck, a team building game where you have to get everyone on your team across the gym before the other team. The challenge: the floor is lava. We gave them tools, (rope, hula hoops, a single roller skate, a scooter) and we set up a few islands. It was great watching them solve problems and come up with creative ways to use the items.

Later, we had them work in teams to make and clean up after a shared dinner, and after dinner we opened the gym for casual volleyball for a few hours. Geoff and I had ordered a glow-in the dark ball, and I had all the kids sign it with highlighters. We set up black-lights on the stanchions and passed out glow sticks for wristbands, then turned out the gym lights. It was pretty spectacular. G’s teeth glowed in the blacklight.

Friday was tournament day, and there was a lot to do, but we took the afternoon off from preparations to get out and enjoy the suddenly warm (-15?) weather. I set some kids up with skis during PE and Geoff set some others up with snowboards. At 1:30 we headed out to the lake. The truck dropped us off beyond the airport, and we skied or walked the rest of the way.

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I skied, and it was blissful. It’s been too cold to ski most of this winter, not because I’m a pansy but because there’s a temperature at which skis just stick instead of gliding. I pulled ahead of the kids and took a picture of them all trekking in the snowmachine trail across the lake to the spot Geoff had chosen for a fire.

dsc05375Geoff drove his snowmachine back and forth, picking up kids in the sled and hauling them out to the fire. I bummed a ride down the lake and back once, before all the kids lined up to try it, whether on snowboards or skis. L was awesome on a snowboard. dsc05384They heckled Eddie, the principal from Venetie, until he got on a snowboard and gave it a try. C, a 7th grader from Arctic, rode backwards on the machine behind Geoff, giggling. The kids kept a great fire going the whole time, and heated water for tea. Everyone had a blast, and no one complained about the long walk out or the chilly ride back to school in the back of the truck.

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We were all exhausted by the time we got back to school, but the day’s activities weren’t done. I led a team in pizza-making, and sweet P from Venetie made cake for everyone to share.

After dinner, the moment was finally upon us. We scrambled to figure out the scoreboard, find a whistle, and organize the kids into reasonable teams (we had to have two teams from Arctic). At 7:30, the games began.

Folks from the village showed up and cheered for both teams, which made me glad. I admit to secretly cheering for the Venetie kids: I could see their nerves, their courage, and their determination clearly on their well-loved faces, whereas the Arctic kids were perfectly relaxed and at home. All the kids played great games, with Venetie losing to both Arctic teams by only a point or two.

After the two schools played, a village team was organized, and they played a few games against mixed student teams. I like that the kids ended the volleyball tournament by playing together. It reinforced what the trip was supposed to be all about (in my mind).

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The kids stayed and watched a movie in my classroom until midnight. I was dragging by that time, completely done-in by the long days. When the Arctic kids finally went home and the Venetie kids finally headed to bed (“bye,” said G as the Arctic kids put on their snowpants in the hall, “it was really nice to meet you”), I was more than ready to get home and into my warm, blessedly horizontal bed.

In the morning, I went over to the school to have breakfast with the Venetie kiddos before the plane came. They were still sleeping when I got there, so I got to read the note they’d written on my board and leak some tears before they woke up.

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A few Arctic kids showed up for breakfast, but they didn’t stay long, so I got to spend a little alone-time with my girls, and that meant a lot to me. The relationship I have with them is nothing like my relationship with the kids here. They feel more like family than like students, and I told them how proud I am of their courage, grace and humor. They gave me all the gossip – who has a new baby in the village, which Venetie girl has a crush on which Arctic boy and so on. A has matured so much since last year, and she is standing up straighter, proud of her bright mind and smile. G has grown into her height – she’s become a confident, stunning young woman. P is so much less volatile now, and she lets her kindness show through more. As usual, C is perfectly herself. I’ve really missed them.

Arctic is traveling to Venetie for a rematch in the spring. The girls are determined to give us a warm welcome and show us a good time. I can’t wait to visit and see what they come up with.

 

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.

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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)