River Trip Journal 7

Later 7/13:

Stevens Village was like a beautiful ghost town full of fireweed, foxtails, and ripening raspberries. We walked all along the main streets in the still, hot, hazy evening and didn’t see or hear a soul. There were no dogs barking or chainsaws in the distance.

Finally, I knocked on a door, and a friendly, smiling young woman sent me down the road to “the house with all the dogs” to talk to the agent about picking up our package from the plane. The agent walked us to the post office where she had left my box. We chatted about folks from Arctic that we both knew, and about how the families with kids have left Stevens because the school closed a few years ago.
“How many children are there in Stevens?”
“None. They all went to Fairbanks.”
Isn’t that strange? A whole community with no children. I saw a toddler on a four-wheeler with a young woman. How heartwrenching it must be for everyone when the kids leave.

DSC06467

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.

DSC06117

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.

DSC06134

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.

 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)

Weekends are Sacred

Last Wednesday night, Geoff and I left school to meet a late flight. We were stoked – it was a good surprise, an unexpected extra flight from Fairbanks that was carrying the rest of our gear from break. We arrived at the airport and hopped out of the truck into the -20 degree evening air expecting five or six boxes and a backpack. Geoff wasn’t even wearing a coat – it was supposed to be that quick. What we got was a backpack, five or six personal boxes, and about eight-hundred pounds of freight for the school. A lot of it was perishable.

We’d had no idea this stuff was coming. No one from the district called, and the airline hadn’t notified us. The maintenance guy, who usually picks up freight for the school, had gone home for the day (after making sure that nothing was coming in on the plane – the regularly scheduled, dependable morning flight). We couldn’t leave that stuff up there – the tomatoes and lettuce were already half-frozen.

We did what we had to do, lifting box after box into the back of the truck until it was overflowing: we lost boxes a couple times on the ride back to school, but frozen chicken patties don’t suffer too much from that kind of treatment. When we got to school, we unloaded and put everything in its place – the frozen stuff in the freezer, the fresh stuff in the refrigerators, and so on.

This wasn’t according to plan, and it sucked.

Evenings are precious. They are for skiing and working on snowmachines and cooking and playing games and preparing for a weekend in the woods and watching movies. They are also for planning and grading and doing dishes and other necessary chores that allow us to ski and eat and camp and relax.

We powered through the stacking and unstacking, packing and unpacking and went home to eat leftovers. Thursday and Friday passed as all days must eventually pass. When the last kid left the building on Friday, we each heaved a sigh of relief.

That night, in the middle of cooking dinner, I heard a plane. “Plane?” I said, surprised to hear one coming in at 6:30. “Must be a MedEvac,”

“No one has called for the truck,” Geoff replied, sharing my thought. Sometimes we get called when an injured person needs a ride to the airport because the school has the only working truck in the community and the injured person needs to lie down or can’t be transported by four-wheeler. Now that there’s snow on the ground, though, the community should be using a sled.

The call came fifteen minutes later. A whole planeload of freight for the school, mostly canned goods, which will explode if left outside.

Did we…

  1.  Pretend we never got the call and swear never to answer the phone again, leaving the cans to burst on the runway?
  2. Give up our Friday night and go haul freight until our fingers froze off and our backs buckled?
  3. Quit our jobs and move to Iceland?

Geoff put his foot down. Evenings are precious, but weekends are sacred. We have a right to use our weekends as we see fit, to go camping or just choose to not answer the phone. They can’t rely on our being on call every minute of every day.

For the next hour, Geoff negotiated with the agent up at the airport, the maintenance guy, and the Superintendent. It still sucked, but somehow it got taken care of without our ever leaving the house.

There is so much on a teacher’s shoulders already, and I’m witnessing firsthand the toll that added principal duties can take. We’re struggling to find a steady Gwich’in teacher, and we’re down from four classroom aides to two. Our copier is broken, we’re almost out of paper, and we don’t have enough computers. We can’t get sick because we don’t have any substitutes, our kids’ attendance is at about 75%, our special education students haven’t received services for years… Add to that some late-night emergency deliveryman work and you’ve got a camel swaying under its burden.

There’s no easy solution, but there is this:

DSC05428.JPG

The sky was gorgeous this weekend, and I actually managed to go out skiing yesterday. I went as far as a creek thick with overflow, then turned back toward the fiery pink mountains and the warm home lights and warm chimneysmoke of town.

Geoff has finally got his snowmachine fixed, and we’re ready to start breaking trail toward Venetie. We’ll pack up the tent and the rifle and load the sled, then spend the weekend working our way south, keeping eyes out for caribou and good campsites. I am so ready.

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.

dsc05371

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.

dsc05374

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.

dsc05379

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).

dsc05396

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.

dsc05403

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.