“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”
I cannot believe that I am approaching the end of the first half of the year, this my second year in Alaska. The stressful days leading up to my original decision to come teach here were almost two years ago now. Time really does fly when you become a ‘real person’ with ‘real’ responsibilities. I think as you grow older you begin to learn why people use clichés all the time; they are mostly true.
This school year has been another journey of highs and lows, although the peaks and valleys have been less drastic. The highs have been lessened as my sense of wonder and overall naivety have diminished, and the lows, while not entirely avoided, have been mitigated as my experiences from last year and some different circumstances have made me more resilient to the difficulties of living and teaching in rural Alaska.
I have been much more comfortable teaching in the high school, with classes cycling in and out between periods, bringing in fresh faces every 52 minutes, rather than having to entertain the same students all day, everyday. Though I thought that teaching nearly all social studies classes would make planning and teaching much easier, as it turns out I really do not know much more about most humanities subjects as any other (besides government which I am starting to think I would be happy to teach continuously). In fact, I sort of miss teaching a variety of subjects, especially math. Unlike social studies, it is simple to teach; show them how to do it, guide them through practice, then allow them to practice on their own, and repeat.
In any case, teaching history has had it’s challenges. You try teaching the founding of the United States in an engaging way to Yup’ik Eskimo students who, when queried about the country they live in, confidently respond, “Alaska!” Most kids here have no American identity whatsoever. And why would they? This village (and region) is a bubble. It is easy for me not to think beyond the village; now imagine being born and raised here. It reminds me of Plato’s ‘The Allegory of the Cave’ in many ways; though that is not to say that our reality is ‘realer’ than those of the people who live in Tuntutuliak. Just a different cave, casting different shadows.
The isolation and lack of traditional perspective is part of what makes teaching so difficult here, but simultaneously, it is what makes it rewarding as well. I feel like I have so much to offer at times because my experiences and point-of-view is so different. In the same way, I also have much to learn from them as well.
Speaking to the idea of ‘perspective’, I am beyond excited for an opportunity I sought out in August and was recently selected for for this spring that will offer a mind-altering experience to some of my students. The Alaska Humanities Forum, which is the same organization that brought me out for the C3 Cultural Immersion Program (before I moved to Alaska) has a program called the Sister School exchange. The basic idea of the program is to enhance relationships and understanding among Alaskans by offering an urban-rural exchange program. One urban school and one rural school are paired to ultimately share in a cultural exchange, with each school sending 1 teacher and 5 students to go to school and live in the other setting for 1 week. See this link if you’d like to know more:
Sister School Exchange
So, this April the five students I hand picked for the experience will be hosting a group from Juneau in Tuntutuliak for 1 week, and then I will bring them to Juneau, where they will each live with a host family (and student) and go to school for 1 week. Imagine how mind-blowing it will be for a kid who thinks Bethel is big and scary (population 7,000) to go Alaska’s capital (population over 30,000 and the 2nd largest city in the USA by land area). This kind of experience can fundamentally change these student’s perspectives by bursting the bubble that they live in and allowing them to see and experience the world that is beyond the only one they have ever known. I could teach for 30 years in the Lower 48 and never have such a great opportunity to be a part of this kind of a paradigm shift in a student. I cannot wait.
As I write this post, my final two days of school before winter break are approaching. Basketball is in full swing, and students and teachers alike are ready for a break, I am excited to get back to Ohio and see friends and family, but am not itching to get out nearly as much as I was last year at this time. In regard to my future here, I find my mind stuck in the all too familiar state of indecision. In many ways, I feel that this year is it. I am still unsure about teaching, and I remain afraid that other aspects of my life may pass me by if I choose to stay here too long. In many ways, it seems silly to return to a place where teaching is essentially my life when I don’t know if I even want to remain in the profession. Not to mention the days where the stress of the job and lifestyle bring me to the point where I wonder what the hell I am doing here. But then, there are the relationships with students and friends that continue to tug me back in the other direction, along with the feeling that my presence here is really valued and would truly be missed. There are so many cases here where you can see and feel your impact on the school or community; you can reflect and think ‘if not for me this would not be happening’. In many ways, I feel as though my ‘value add’ is much greater here than in it would be in Ohio or in any other school. But, I will ultimately choose what I think will make me happiest in the end. The fact remains that I will not be here forever; there is too much of myself that does not exist here; and I am afraid to become complacent with where I am and what I am doing. It is easy to continue on the path that you never really intended to take in the first place, just because the path exists; all the while knowing that so many alternatives await, but are less tangible than the reality experienced on a daily basis.
Since I fail to express myself as precisely as I’d like, and others before me have said it better than I ever could hope to, I’ll end how I started, with a quote from Thoreau:
“I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”
See you in less than a week, Ohio!