“There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.”
Lots to share, but where to begin. I suppose I can start with basketball, the activity that has dominated my life for the past two months. Our season ended during the first week of March. As previously discussed, out team made it to the district tournament in Bethel. Districts are a pretty big deal out here. Basketball is king, and many villages empty during this weekend of basketball as people travel to Bethel (some by plane and many by snow machine) to come watch the games.
We arrived on a Wednesday after school, with three caravans (9 person planes) taking the boys and girls teams, along with coaches and chaperones. The games started Thursday morning and went through Saturday evening. Unfortunately, the boys had a pretty poor showing, losing our first game handily. Once you lose a game you no longer have a chance to go to Anchorage for states. Sadly, our team never got back up from our first game and lost to a team we should have beaten in the second round. But, even though we played poorly, the trip was still a lot of fun.
It was crazy how many people traveled to watch the games. Many people came in from my village, and it seemed as though other villages must have emptied completely as their cheering sections were relatively huge. The games were organized in sessions, with one session lasting for four games. After the session, people had to exit and pay a reentry fee. This was done not only to make more money for the school, but also because they physically could not fit enough people into the gym. It was busting at the seams, with people standing all around and evening sitting in the bleacher isles. Thus, offering different sessions allowed those who were shut out or had standing room spots a chance to get a good seat.
I couldn’t believe how many people were lined up waiting for the late session on Saturday. These people started lining up at around 11:00 in the morning for a session that didn’t open until 4:00 P.M. They were lined all the way down the school hallway, and they just sat there and waited all day (as you can see in the video I posted). They were waiting for the late session because the championships were going to be that night, so if you went in for the early session, it was not likely you would get back in for the evening games. The line was there all day so students from Bethel High School were walking up and down the hall with carts to sell pop and snacks. I have never seen anything like it for high school basketball. I am really glad we made it to the tournament so we got the experience of playing in front of that crowd and witnessing the frenzy.
I very much feared returning to school with basketball ending. Basketball served as a great ‘pick me up’ on days that were particularly challenging and frustrating. With basketball gone I was afraid that I might end up getting down about things and not recovering. Hanging out with the older students was great and a much needed break from 7th graders. However, since basketball has ended, I have been doing really well. I have this strange thing called ‘Free time’ (pun intended) that has popped up. Not only that, but I now have more time to put into planning which has resulted in better lessons and better behavior from my students. I am finding it hard to believe that the third quarter just ended and that there is only about two months of school left. Basketball really made this semester fly by.
I have been using my newfound leisure time to have some fun. Last weekend was one of the best times I have had out here. My friends Jonathan and Jason invited me to come play basketball in a men’s tournament in a neighboring village called Eek. We traveled by snow machine across the tundra on a forty-mile trek to Eek. It was relatively warm (20 degrees or so) so I did not have to be too concerned about dressing for the bitter cold, which was nice. Jason came over, I grabbed the school snow machine, and we went to fill up the gas (which cost me 40 bucks at $7.50 a gallon). He then went over a few basic things and we were off.
I’d being lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Heading off into the tundra where there is nothing for miles and with low visibility can be a bit daunting. Especially traveling with seasoned Yupiks who drive a snow machine upwards of 70 mph. I was hoping we’d go a bit slow for my sake, and we did. Parts of the trip were a bit unnerving, like crossing the Kuskokwim river, where there were large patches of water amongst the ice. The person leading us drove out, found a safe path, then gave us the thumbs up to follow. Later I learned that the ice is still about 5 feet thick, and that the only danger is going into a larger puddle and losing you snow machine. There is not chance of falling through the ice. After about 15 minutes of driving I was feeling pretty confident. We probably averaged around 30-35 mph on the trip and peaked around 50. Most of the way was pretty smooth, but there were rough patches and times where visibility was low because of fog. It was incredible to drive along in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around us but white tundra and scattered shrubs, and my friends knew exactly where to go. After about 5 minutes of driving I completely lost all sense of direction. I joked with Jason that I was lucky to have him as my ‘Native Guide’.
Once we arrived we unpacked our stuff and hung out until our game. I can’t remember what I was saying to Jason but I was messing with him about our drive and he replied with, “Shut up, I know you were scarred”. And I thought to myself, “DAMN! How did he know?” We were there until about midnight, then we packed up and drove back home.
The next day we went back again, and we ended up winning the tournament. It took us until about 4 in the morning though! Not to mention I almost got in a fight with a player from the other team. It was the championship game, and we decided to play a triangle and 2 (man/zone) defense with me guarding one of their better players. This guy was getting frustrated because I was playing tough defense on him and he wasn’t scoring so he purposely bounced a ball off my head. I responded instinctively by pushing him, and the refs did not call a foul on either of us. For the rest of the game we were pushing each other around and playing physical, to the point where Mark’s wife Lisa called me over and said, “Jeff, I have been watching you and you need to settle down. You are turning into a native”.
There was a really bad storm while we were playing our games which meant the trail that we followed to travel to Eek was lost, making our ride home (which, remember, was at 5 in the morning) a bit more challenging. Jonathan led the convoy of over 10 snow machines; Mark was next, then Jason, and then myself. We drove for about 20 minutes until we stopped and Jonathan pulled out a GPS device to try to figure out exactly where we were. Without a trail to follow, they could not be positive that we were heading in the right direction. We continued to drive for a while more, then stopped again to check the GPS. As we stopped I was reflecting about not only how cool the experience was, but also how lucky I am to have made the friends I have made. Of all the people who traveled with us, Jonathan, one of my best friends in Tunt., was the one in front, the one with the most skill and knowledge to lead us home safely. Pretty great that of all the people I could have become close with, I am friends with guy that makes the trail for the rest of us to follow safely home.
My friends here have been the main force pulling me to come back for another year. Leaving means likely never seeing them again, and it seems like a slap in the face, as if their community and their way of life do not have enough to offer me so I pack up and go after only a year. But lately, the kids have been a force in that same direction. And even my job in general. I have been a better teacher since basketball has ended, and my kids have been better students as a result. I am having fun, and I am really starting to find it hard to imagine resigning and leaving this all behind. EVERYONE says your first year teaching is by far the hardest year, and on top of that, I have had to adjust to living in a remote environment, in a different culture, away from my friends and family. So, knowing that next year should be easier, coupled with the fact that I will be teaching grades 7-12 in a nice classroom leaves enough hope that next year will be smoother than this one (yes, that’s right…next year I am supposed to have a real classroom that is attached to the school and everything!!).
The decision to teach here again or resign seems to be much harder than deciding to come here initially because now regret is more likely to be a factor. Coming here, I knew that pretty much no matter what I would have no regrets. I was right about that. I think it was a great decision. However, deciding to come back for another year (or not) can definitely result in a certain degree of doubt as next year rolls along. However, at this point, I am feeling pretty good about where I am and what I’m doing, which is why I am on the verge of signing the dotted line. It’s not an easy decision and not one which I make lightly, but I have given it plenty of thought and I think it is what will ultimately make me the happiest. Time will tell if I am right. But in the mean time, I look forward to returning here in August and instead of arriving to curious stares I will arrive to two seemingly simple words that are loaded with deeper meaning: