Free Alaska

A few photos from my first week and a half back in Alaska. Reflecting on how I felt at this time year one makes me realize how far I’ve come since I first got here. I was a wreck my first year, week 1. Incredibly overwhelmed and confused not only by teaching but by life in the village. Now, in year 3, I’m, finding it easy to adjust back to life here. When I come back in the summer to Ohio it can often feel like I never left, and the same goes for when I return to Tunt. Strange though that now when I come back here it too feels like going home. 

 Things have been going really well so far. Our new house has come together well, and having my friend Eli (who transferred here from another village) really adds to the house dynamics. The first week of school has been relatively stress free and successful; our new principal has been great to work with and the kids have been really well behaved as most were eager to get back to school. Hopefully the trend continues…

After school today Mark and I went out on his boat, looking for seal for him to hunt or to spot some moose before the season opens in September. No luck on either of those, though we found plenty of tracks and traces of moose. We also came across some brown bear tracks, as seen in the picture (next to the prints of my relatively tiny paw). Must have been a huge bear.

All is well in Tunt, just wanted to give a quick update and share some pictures of the new house. Hopefully I’ll feel inspired to write something compelling soon. Until then…

- Jeff

Spring time is my favorite time of the year in Alaska. The weather starts to turn, daylight grows longer and longer each day, and, most importantly, geese, swans, and cranes start to arrive, which means bird hunting. It is easily my favorite activity out here, 

Last week, I had an interesting expereince. My good friend Iluq and I went out at around 9 in the morning to the coast of the Bering Sea. It was about a 45 minute boat road from the village to the point where he decided to anchor the boat along the coast. The tide was near its highest point, likely getting ready to head out. We grabbed our gear and marched out to the tundra for a full day of bird hunting, which generally consists of creating a blind with sticks and netting, setting up decoys, and using different calls to attract the various kinds of birds. 

After around 10 hours of hunting, we caught around 15 birds, including a swan, a crane and a species of goose called speckled-belly (or white front). We decided to head back to boat around 9:30 to catch the tide as it came back in. Our boat had since been beached during low tide. When we got back to the boat, it seemed like the water might make its way back to the boat in a half hour or so with the rising tide. WE joked about how it would suck if the water came up close to the boat but never actually made it to us. What wasn’t funny was that our joke turned into reality. As we watched the tide roll toward us, it started to go back out before it reached our boat. We scrambled to try to get the boat to the receding water, which was about 10 feet from out boat, We were on soggy mud, making it really difficult to move the heavy, prop-end of the boat. We tried to get the boat up on large pieces of wood so we could push it out towards the water, but all of efforts failed. We were stuck…

I looked at Iluq and asked, “What do we do next?” He said we should make a shelter and collect some wood, which is when I realized I was going to have a story to tell. We went to collect wood, but found very little. So, he got to work on making the shelter and I hiked out to the spot where we had been hunting earlier since I knew we had collected a bunch of wood to build our blind. By the time I got back with wood, he had built a make-shift teepee using a tarp and the boat oars inside of the boat. The space inside the shelter was no bigger than 3x6, if I had to guess. Luckily he had also brought a camping stove used to boil water. We used it inside our shelter all night as a heater, and it did a pretty good job for the small area. I think the temperature outside got down to the high 30’s or low 40’s, so we were glad to have the heat. Iluq was able to get enough reception to send a text to his wife to let her know we were not going to make it back in and that we were fine. She, in turn, let my roomate Patrick know. We went on a Sunday, which meant I was not going to make it to work on Monday. Good thing we were able to send the text or the school staff probably would have been pretty worried. 

So, to make a long story short, we had a fairly restless night, and an anxious morning waiting for the tide to come in. We had a delicious beak fast of spam, cheese and crackers, cooked over the stove. Thankfully Jonathan packed extra food and water just in case. We made the most of our morning, grabbing our guns and trying to get a few more birds before high tide. It came up pretty fast though, and before long we were pushing off into the water and starting on a cold, foggy ride home. 

I got back and made it to work around 11:30 with a burnt red face, drowsy eyes and a story to tell. One of many, with more to come…

Some photos from the last few days in Juneau

More from the hike and the fish plant

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

I am in Juneau for the Sister School Exchange program that 5 of my students and I are participating in. Starting on April 12th, we hosted 5 students and 1 teacher for a week in Tuntutuliak. We are now in Juneau for our week of immersion in urban Alaska. 

The trip is off to a great start. We had an overnight in Anchorage on our way here, and the kids were hilarious. They were so excited to ride the escalator, take the elevator and ride in the shuttle to the airport. On our ride, a few actually put on the seatbelt that belonged to the person in front of them, and one person had the lap part behind her back.They were cracking up, laughing at themselves when I told them that they had it all wrong. They are so far removed from their version of normalcy; It is great to witness, especially since these kids most likely laughed and rolled their eyes as I attempted to learn and assimilate to their culture and lifestyle when I first came to Tunt. 

When we arrived at the airport in Juneau this morning the kids and their families greeted us. From there, the kids went with their host families and I got in my rental and followed my cooperating teacher to her place, where I will be staying for the week. We then had some time to ourselves to go on a nice hike on a beautiful trail that was part of a state park. Afterwards, we met the kids at a commercial fishing plant where one of the Juneau students dad’s  is a fisherman. We got to watch them unload the fish, and take a tour of the plant to see how the fish are broken down and prepared to be sent out across the world. 

The kids are seeming fairly homesick and hesitant to be alone with their hosts (and away from their friends from Tunt). It’s hard because I want to be supportive and do what I can to make them feel comfortable, but at the same time I want to challenge them to push their boundaries and step outside of their comfort zone. One student really was wanting to ditch her host and perhaps stay with me and the Juneau teacher, but I did not want to budge too easily (though it was hard, knowing that she is genuinely nervous and uneasy about staying where she is assigned). Give it a  day or two and I think they will all be settled in and their uneasiness will subside. 

Tomorrow they are supposed to go boating on a few of the host families boats to an island. The rest of the week, we’ll be doing so many different activities:  whale watching, hiking, visiting the glacier, visiting University of Alaska Southeast, speaking with the mayor, visiting a homeless shelter to learn about social serves in Juneau and more.

Bring on the paradigm shift.

“Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring…”

“Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring…”

Will I go back to Alaska?

ANSWER. 

Yes.

Thanks W.W.

Amidst a generous amount of reflection and uncertainty, I decided last week to sign and turn in my contract, thus committing to one more year teaching in Tunt. Many factors weighed into the decision, but let me first say that while I have decided to come back for a third year, the next school year will be my last teaching in rural Alaska. This endless and recurring cycle of ‘indecision-making’ every year is not something I want to keep revisiting again and again. For that reason, I have decided to make a commitment to an ‘exit strategy’ that I hope people here will respect and understand, that will allow me to plan ahead for what’s next, and result in what I hope will make the eventual departure easiest on me emotionally. Strangely enough, this plan was originally inspired by Derek Jeter’s announcement that he will retire at the end of next season. It started as a silly idea, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense (to me at least). I (in my admittedly self-aggrandizing way) imagine that by letting my friends and students here know that next year is my final year, it will make it easier on me and those who wish that I would make Tunt my home for the long-term. Instead of dropping the news abruptly next March, I am letting everyone know now that I’ll be walking away from this job (and the alternate reality, essentially). I hope this allows me to savor my final time here and to ease my way out.

So why did I decide to come back for another year? Besides the obvious influence of friendships I have formed, one reason is because I simply have no idea what I would do if I were to come back to Ohio. I am fairly certain that I will never commit to teaching as my career until I have experienced other potential career paths, or perhaps not at all. Though there are many incentives to teaching, I question my ability as a teacher, and whether or not another unforeseen option would be a better fit. With not knowing what to do next, coming back for one more year gives me the stability of a good job, while giving me time to plan my next steps. Not to mention that one more year will put me in a good financial position in that I will be debt free, opening up even more options (like pursuing another degree if I want).

Other reasons I decided to come back are more specific and job-related. One of my friends (Eli) who currently teaches in another village in the district put in for a transfer request and is taking a vacant position at our school next year. This is a friend that I’ve been on trips to Anchorage with several times, and who visited Ohio this previous summer. He will be an excellent addition to our staff, though at the same time I am sad to see my colleague he is replacing go. But adding a friend like Eli to the staff here is huge because the staff is so small. It’s exciting to think he will be here next year. He Patrick and I will potentially live together in one of the 3 bedroom homes that are here, thus adding to the dynamic of my home life (and reducing my rent). An additional factor for next school year is that my principal has decided to resign his position. While you never know what is going to come next, it’s exciting for the school to get a fresh start with new leadership. Along with these positive factors, I also have the incentive to come back to see a solid group of kids graduate. A few of the kids that will be seniors next year are some that I am pretty close with. I like the idea of seeing them through their last year, and coaching my 4 seniors in basketball. Coaching basketball continues to a positive force for me out here, allowing me to keep my sanity and stay entertained. I have really come to love coaching and think it’s something I would like to pursue even after I leave here. 

While I know my decision is heavily influenced by my daily reality and it might seem easier to simply decide to stay on the same path, I genuinely believe that this decision is the best one for me. I imagined coming back home without a plan, falling into some substitute teaching work as a final option, and regretting not signing up for another year. One more year will allow me to position myself in a better way for what comes next rather than if I blindly come back and pursue…pursue…who knows what. I have yet to feel regret with the major decisions I have made related to this job (Hah…‘Job’. Simply calling what I am doing a job seems like a gross misrepresentation). Hopefully the lack of regret will be a continuing trend; and in regard to this decision I am confident it will. These past two years have been filled with incredible experiences, both good and bad, unnerving and uplifting; knowing there are more lows to come no longer worries me; I have sung that song before, and I found my way back. It’s the unsung song that now lingers.

And “The powerful play goes on.”

But what is the next verse?

End of Semester 1, Year 2

“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!

Hello everyone.

First blog update this year. Sorry that I haven’t been too inspired to write so far this year, but I thought  I’d at least share some photos from some new experiences this year.

Coming into the year, I was hopeful that I would get to have some new experiences in the summer and fall months and I haven’t been disappointed. Native lifestyle is very cyclical, revolving around the different seasons and weather patterns more so than what we are used to in the lower 48. I was excited to come back this year for summer and fall cultural activities, knowing that I formed relationships with people who would be eager to take me along to have new experiences. Last year it was nearly winter time before I formed any real friendships, which meant that I did not get to go out on the river and fish or go boating, with the exception being the one time my friend Jason brought me for a quick ride (when I killed the muskrat). Thus, I was missing a key piece of the Yupik cultural experience.

This year, however, I have had the opportunity to fill in those ‘experiential gaps’ as I have gone out on the river many times over. I’ve gone fishing with a drift net, I’ve observed a seal hunt, I’ve picked berries, spotted a few moose from the boat while riding along, and went to different areas which I had not yet seen (like the mouth of the Kuskokwim where it meets the Bering Sea). All have been really interesting and fulfilling experiences that continue to make me appreciative of the friends I have made and the time I am spending here. Hopefully come winter time I’ll be sharing about my first caribou hunt. Hope all is well. Comments are encouraged! :)

- Jeff

My friend Jason and I went ptarmigan hunting this past week. A ptarmigan (silent ‘p’) is a small bird, larger than a dove and smaller than a chicken. We went out on snow machines and used Jason’s 22 and 12-Gauge. It was the first time I ever used a shotgun. Basically, you cruise around the tundra looking for a flock of ptarmigans. Once you find them, you approach them slowly and at a constant rate of speed, as not to startle them. Then fire away. Once you shoot, you collect your prize or lower your head in shame and then see where they fly to. Usually they stay within view so you can simply drive up and try again. 

Once you shoot them, you semi-savagely end their existence by wringing their neck. We caught about 8, and the fox of course. Later that night Jason came over to show me how to pluck, gut and butcher them. I marinated them overnight and baked them the next day. It wasn’t bad, but nothing I would ever really crave. But porcupine on the other hand. YUM!