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Monthly Archives: August 2014

After living in a decent-sized mid-Atlantic city for most of my life, it still feels odd to know that I can walk from one end of the village to the other in about thirty minutes. I’m also not used to being greeted by name everywhere I go. At least, most of the kids know who I am, even if I only barely recognize them. Given that kindergarten through twelfth grades are all located in the same building, this is hardly surprising.

I’m getting used to the sound of my feet on the boardwalks rather than on pavement or grass. Walking and going for runs around the village lets me see where the “old” boardwalk is gradually disappearing into the swampy ground. In contrast, the new boardwalk is made of wider planks and raised up on pilings. There are even small hills, bridges over little streams or the sewer pipes.

It’s not only the walkway that rests on pilings. All buildings are also raised off of the ground. Some structures have plywood “skirts” around their bases, but on most the pilings and beams are exposed to the elements. Depending on how high up the house is, some families use this area as a storage space; I’ve seen more than a few houses with the snow machine parked in this makeshift “garage”.

Pilings aside, most buildings are only one level. Actually, the only buildings I’ve seen with two floors are the school and the “old” school, which is now used for teacher housing and storage. Even so, stairs abound, because how else will you reach the door of your house? Four buildings also have ramps: the school, the post office, and both store buildings.

Even though there are two store buildings, they are owned and managed by the same people. One building is the “general” store, with an eclectic mix of items: Clothing, electronics, and toys share shelf space with hardware, tools, knives, and guns. The other building is the grocery store. By the standards of how and where I grew up, this store is tiny. I’m familiar with some items on the shelves, like cereal, boxed dinners, and canned fruits and vegetables, although the latter two items take up more shelf space than I’ve seen elsewhere. Then there are items that I have less experience with, like “instant” milk and freeze-dried fruit. Several refrigerators and freezers line one wall. There’s not really a produce section; what fruits and vegetables there are, if not frozen or canned, can often be found on the aisle end caps closest to the door. In addition to what’s on the shelves, crates of items are stacked in the aisles. If you want to know how much a particular item costs, don’t bother looking at the shelf labels. You’re more likely to find a price sticker on the item itself, but even that is not always the case. Prices on things can fluctuate rather quickly (based on the cost of the item, the cost of the fuel to ship the item to the store, and some other factors I’m not sure about), so often you have to just ask at the register how much something costs that day. I’ve already learned that it’s best to stop by the store on an almost daily basis, because you never know what they have. For the same reason, when they do have something you want, it’s often best to buy in bulk.

In addition to stopping by the store daily, I also make a run to the post office every day after school. No roads means no street addresses, which means that no mail is delivered to the houses. Instead, everyone in the village has a post office box. Before I even arrived, I shipped things to the post office care of the school, where they were held until my arrival. Another advantage to living in such a small community is that the postmistress knows everyone. Due to an issue with her computer, she couldn’t assign me a post office box when I arrived. Instead, people sent things to me care of “General Delivery”. When I would stop by in the afternoon, she would greet me by name and bring me my mail. Also, since there are no street addresses, the post office acts as the pick up point for any UPS deliveries. These are not as frequent. You see, to deliver to the villages along the river, UPS utilizes a hovercraft. Once they have enough for a full load, the hovercraft departs from the Hub and travels the length of the river, making stops at each village along the way. The days that the hovercraft delivers feel like Christmas, as you receive packages you may have ordered weeks previously. The last time the hovercraft came, it also brought several crates of fresh produce for the store, so it was a very special occasion.

Besides the nuts and bolts of living in the village, I’m also adjusting to the new climate. When I first arrived at the beginning of August, daytime temperatures reached the mid-60s Fahrenheit, dropping into the low to mid-50s overnight, and the amount of daylight was staggering. The sun didn’t set until after midnight, and would rise again around six in the morning. Now, about a month later, I’m lucky if the daytime high reaches the low 50s, and the overnight lows have dropped to the upper 30s. Not only that, but the sun now sets around 10:30 pm, and doesn’t rise until after 7 am. I learned within a day or so of my arrival that it’s a good idea to be prepared for anything, because the weather can change in a heartbeat. Sudden downpours aren’t uncommon, and the wind can come up from nowhere. I think, though, of all the things I’ve seen since coming here, the thing that continues to amaze me, and I doubt it will ever get old, is the sky. Even at the center of the village, looking up at the sky is just… different than it is back in the Lower 48. Once you get to the edge of the village or out on the river, you can see all the way to the horizon in every direction, and it’s a lot farther away than it is back home. Not only that, the clouds here are beautiful in a way I’ve yet to see anywhere else. Maybe my next post will have to be some of the photos I’ve taken. Until then!

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In the three weeks since I’ve arrived in Alaska, I’ve had quite a few firsts. I went berry-picking for the first time, with a group of fellow teachers from both Nunap and another village just two miles upriver. In my head, I had always pictured berry bushes as things that stood at least as tall as I, or not much shorter. Out here in the tundra, that’s just not the case. The marshy ground and the permafrost mean that most plants other than grasses rarely grow knee-high, so the first thing I learned was that I had to look closely where I stepped, so as not to trample the berries. Once I knew what to look for, I could see berries just about everywhere. By the time we headed back to Nunap, I’d managed to pick almost a cup and a half of berries. Lucas and Andy, two fellow teachers, invited me over for dinner, and the berries wound up in blueberry pancakes.

Just last week, I tried moose meat for the first time. As far as texture goes, it’s not that different from beef. The flavor is stronger, however, more smoky. Lucas explained that the meat came from a moose killed by a fellow teacher last year, and joked that maybe next time I’d get invited to go hunting. Well, it’s still too early for hunting, but just this past weekend I did get to go fishing.

When I got the call about going fishing with Wes, a villager who works at the school, I initially said no thank you. I wasn’t feeling all that great, and the thought of sitting on a dock or a boat with a rod in my hands didn’t really appeal to me. It was only after Lucas reminded me that I would be unlikely to get another chance if I turned this invitation down that I said I would go. I’d been wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, so I made a quick stop at my house to change. I traded my sneakers for my hiking boots, and pulled a long-sleeve tee over the other shirt. I’ve only been here for three weeks, but I’ve already learned that you don’t go anywhere at this time of year without a raincoat and bug spray. I also grabbed the camera, figuring I might get a few good pictures if nothing else.

Lucas and I met down at the school dock. I wondered about the two folding chairs he had brought; he explained that there apparently weren’t any seats in Wes’s boat, so we had to bring our own. Within minutes, the boat arrived, and Wes and his son Isaac helped us aboard before casting off again.

As the boat picked up speed and the village receded into the distance, I began to realize that I’d been making assumptions again. On the open water, moving at speed, it felt about ten degrees colder than it had back in the village. Suddenly, I was very glad that I’d added the extra layer to my wardrobe. The noise of the wind made conversation difficult, so I spent most of the trip watching the scenery fly by and huddling in my chair to keep as warm as possible.

Half an hour later, we finally reached our fishing spot. I’d noticed rather quickly that there were no rods to be seen in the metal skiff; now, Wes and Isaac opened a gigantic plastic container that took up most of the bow and pulled out a long net. After tying one end to a line in the boat, Wes started the motor again while Isaac and Lucas carefully deployed the net.

Drift fishing like this leaves plenty of time for observing the world around you. The four of us passed the next fifty minutes with idle chatter as the 300-foot net “soaked”. Every so often, we could see another fish hit the net. Finally, it was time to pull in. Everybody donned gloves, and Lucas and Isaac began to slowly haul in the net.

I don’t think more than a couple of feet of net at a time were clear of fish. Sometimes, they were almost on top of one another. Some fish slid out of the net and into the bin with relative ease; others required several minutes to detangle. The smallest fish was as long as my forearm, and most were at least twice that length. After we finished dumping the last of the fish and hauling in the remaining net, Wes moved the boat to another spot about a half-mile upriver. We deployed the net again, this time for about twenty minutes. After hauling in, Wes estimated our final catch at somewhere close to 400 pounds of fish. All were silver salmon; we did catch one chum salmon, but Isaac tossed it back on his father’s orders.

After a brief stop at an old fishing camp for firewood, it was time to return home. Once more, I huddled in my chair against the wind. I was very relieved to see the village; in addition to feeling half-frozen, my backside was rather sore. As Wes dropped us off, he insisted that Lucas and I each take a fish or two. Later that night, my roommate Cole taught me how to clean and fillet the fish, another first.

Of course, given where I’m living, I’m sure that there are more firsts are headed my way. I’ll be sure to keep you posted!

I forgot what it’s like to have a job that doesn’t end when the workday is over.

I forgot how it feels to spend my weekends and off hours writing lesson plans. (Grading papers hasn’t started yet.)

I forgot what it’s like to work with children at this age.

I forgot how hard the first month can be, as they learn about me and I learn about them.

I forgot how easily their attention wanders.

I forgot what it takes to keep them focused on academic subjects.

I forgot how fixated they can become on something new or different.

I forgot how difficult it is for them to sit still for long periods of time.

I forgot how a rumbling stomach makes it next-to-impossible to focus on work for the last ten minutes before lunch.

I forgot how often bodies that small need to use the bathroom.

I forgot how distracting a paper cut or a banged shin can be.

I forgot how much the word “stupid” can hurt.

I forgot how much the word “sorry” can mend.

I forgot the joy of recess.

I forgot the spark of curiosity.

I forgot how it feels to fan that spark into a flame.

I forgot how wonderful it is to watch the light bulb go off.

I forgot how great it is to have the kids run over to me in the morning, yelling, “Hi Mr. CJ!”

I forgot the hugs that take out your kneecaps.

I forgot laughing with the kids when I do something silly.

I forgot laughing when I’m alone, reading students’ worksheets and seeing their best guesses for spelling hard words.

I forgot the gap-tooth smiles.

I forgot the lows, but I also forgot the highs.

I remember now.

It’s one of the first lessons in manners many of us receive. When introducing yourself to someone, you look them in the eye and say, “Hi. My name is So-and-so. What’s yours?”

In the last week, I’ve repeated this basic conversation too many times to count. Given that I just moved halfway around the world to start a new job, it’s to be expected. Usually when I introduce myself, people don’t bat an eye. Occasionally they may ask me what CJ stands for, but they don’t usually push the matter.

During my first day of orientation in the school district, all of the new teachers were treated to a variety of lessons on different aspects of the Yup’ik culture. Given that this is the culture of my new students, I found the talks both helpful and enlightening. Topics ranged from the climate of the three ecosystems in the district (coastal, tundra, and river) and the way it affects the subsistence lifestyle of these people, to naming conventions.

Among the Yup’ik, names are very important. When a child is born, they are named after someone who has recently passed away, because the Yup’ik believe that the deceased’s spirit has taken up residence in the new body. So as an activity for this lecture, the presenter asked each of us to write down what our name was, if we were named for anyone, who named us, and if we had any nicknames. Once that was done, we were to share with the person seated across the table from us. Instead of discussing my name, I opted to share the story of how my sister gave me the nickname Skippy, after the squirrel in the Animaniacs cartoon.

A couple of days later, I attended another lecture, this time at my new school. This lecture focused on how to build a school community that lets students reach their full potential. To demonstrate an activity that can promote this, we teachers were split into small groups, where we discussed the origins of our names, an embarrassing moment, and something of which we are proud. Once more, I danced around the story of my name and focused on telling the story of the time I got a snake stuck in my belt loop when I worked at the zoo.

Today, during a break in the meeting, one of my new coworkers asked what my real name was. When I told her my name was CJ, she began to come up with possible combinations of names that the letters could represent.

I guess there’s a chance I’m being over-sensitive about this. I mean, what’s in a name? For me, right now, the answer is: Almost everything.

As a transman who is currently stealth, I’m in a tough place right now. I’m living in a new place, meeting new people, and I’ve got one hand tied behind my back. As I exchange pleasantries and trade stories of life before Alaska, I’m always thinking five sentences ahead, editing, rewriting, and even discarding stories that just aren’t safe to share. That includes the origins of my name.

Like any topic in the trans community, the subject of a person’s birth name can be sensitive. Some people prefer to bury their previous identity completely. Others don’t care who knows. Myself, I don’t tell someone unless I’ve known them for a while and feel comfortable with them, and just because I come out to someone doesn’t mean they get the full story of my name.

The fact of the matter is, I kind of fell into my name. When I was younger, a lot of my family referred to me as “Chris” or “CJ”. The only people I really remember using my full first name are the teachers I had through 6th grade, and my classmates at school. That changed when I entered junior high. On the first day of school, each of my new teachers, before taking roll, said that if there was a nickname that we’d prefer to be addressed by, we should just let them know. I requested that I be called CJ, and that was that. By the end of the year, everyone in the school called me by my preferred name. In following years, I would approach teachers before class started on the first day and introduce myself, asking to be called by my preferred name. Typically, the teachers were fine with this request; the only issue I can remember is that my high school chemistry teacher insisted on addressing everyone by either “Mister” or “Miz” and their last name. The overall result was still the same: Most of my classmates didn’t know my birth name. Even the substitute teachers knew my preference. By college, I was CJ everywhere except paperwork. By grad school, I was legally Cee Jay.

So that’s the story of my name. Maybe someday I can share it with the people here. For now, thank you to you, my readers, for listening.

The first hint that things were going to be different was the flight from Anchorage. The plane was what the locals call a “combi”, that is, a Boeing 737-400 combination, where the front half of the plane is cargo space while the rear half is the passenger cabin. I was also surprised when the flight attendants greeted several passengers by name and inquired about their families.

The town where the school district is headquartered is sometimes referred to as the Hub. Measured by my past travels, the Hub’s airport is bordering on miniscule. The terminal building is just large enough to house a couple of electronic check-in kiosks, the TSA checkpoint, and a small waiting area on the departures side. The arrivals side has two small baggage claim belts. The district representative, Arby, was waiting right inside the terminal door with a sign. Once he had corralled us new teachers and our luggage, we headed outside. It was then that I realized the building we’d just exited only served the Alaska Airlines jets; further down the road I could see the hangars for the smaller bush airlines that serve the numerous villages in the region.

I stayed in the Hub for a total of three days. Before leaving my hometown, I had looked the place up on the Internet, and had come to the conclusion that it was about the size of my college town. That might have been true in terms of population, but that first night was enough to show me that that was the only accurate comparison I can draw between the two places. In this part of Alaska, all buildings are erected on pylons because of the swampy nature of the ground. District staff made a point that first night of warning us newbies to stay on the roads, as the tall grasses do a good job of hiding the edges of the numerous lakes and ponds. Because of the permafrost only a foot or so beneath ground level, sewage and water pipes are located above ground, with stiles that allow people to pass over them. With the exception of the road to the airport, all of the roads in the Hub are packed dirt. You can walk around town, but the random layout of the streets makes getting anywhere in a timely fashion next to impossible. On my first full day in town, district staff kindly ran people on errands to the local phone company (none of the major service providers reach further than Anchorage) and the local bank. The second day, the first actual day of orientation, was devoted to learning about the culture of the natives who call this region home, which I will write about more in later posts. The third day was more presentations, this time about the district itself. Finally, on the afternoon of that third day, I and the other new teachers headed for our respective villages.

My new home is in a village called Nunap. It’s about 27 miles west of the Hub, and accessible only by plane, boat, or snow machine. (Apparently, the locals do not like calling them snow mobiles. I have yet to figure out why, but when in Rome….) Ted, the principal at my school, had also been in the Hub for meetings while I was undergoing orientation. Rather than take one of the scheduled flights, he chartered a plane from a local bush airline to fly all of us newbies and himself back to the village at the same time. I’d never ridden in a bush plane before that day. Now that I have, I think that it is the closest that I will ever come to flying unassisted. A plane that small doesn’t go nearly as high as a jet, and you get to see more detail on the ground below. I passed the flight snapping photos of the incredible scenery: Lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes, the occasional boat or campsite. When I signed the contract for this job, the idea of flying everywhere worried me slightly. Now, I think I’m going to love it.

Twenty-five minutes later, we came in for a landing at the village airstrip. But that will have to wait for another post. Before I leave, however, I want to let you know this: I fully intend to keep writing this blog. However, I only have access to the Internet when I’m at the school. Also, school starts on Wednesday. Life is going to get a little busy. But I will write more. See you here in another week or so!