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Monthly Archives: April 2015

I noticed the letter as soon as I opened my post office box today. It had a district office return address, and it was addressed to me at “General Delivery”. That struck me as odd; the district hasn’t sent things “General Delivery” since I got my Post Office box back in August. A closer look revealed that I had addressed it. It took a moment, but then I remembered: One of the last things I did at my first-year teacher in-service was one of those letters to your future self.

At the time, I had two thoughts about the activity. I’ll admit, my first thought was that it was kind of cheesy. My other thought was that, even in a letter to myself, I needed to be careful about what I said. After all, I wrote this letter sitting at a cafeteria table surrounded by other people whom I’d only met a couple of days before.

Anyway, I opened the letter. As I read it, I couldn’t help but smile. The biggest piece of advice? “…you can be yourself. Maybe not 100% right now, but who knows what the next 2 years will bring?” And you know what? I was right. I’m out to several colleagues who have been nothing but supportive. I’m calm in a way I wasn’t when I first arrived. And the thought of one more year is no longer nearly as intimidating as it once was. It’s a good thing I listened to me!

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As a kid, in-service days meant another day off of school.

As a student teacher, in-service days meant sitting in the meetings along with my mentor. I tried to pay attention, but at least half of the time my mind was elsewhere, like an assignment for one of my classes or my work schedule for the upcoming weekend.

As a day-to-day substitute, in-service days meant a day where I didn’t have to worry about getting woken up by the phone.

As a long-term sub, I did have to attend the meetings, and I had to pay attention to the topic at hand. In many ways, those days were just like any other. I didn’t have to wear quite as nice clothes as I did on days that the students were present, but I still had to get up, drive to the school, sit in the library, and then drive home again at the end of the day.

Here in rural Alaska, in-service meetings can fall into one of several categories. First, there is the site in-service. Like the in-service meetings I sat through back in the Lower 48, these days involve heading over to school and listening to either my principal or a visiting speaker talk to us. Then there are the site in-service days where all of the staff sits in the library in front of the videoconference screen and listen to a speaker, typically someone located at the district office in the Hub. Finally, there are the in-service meetings that require actually going to the Hub.

As a first-year teacher, I’ve been required to attend three of these gatherings. Even though the meetings themselves aren’t until Saturday, I and the other new teachers actually fly in on Friday afternoon. We get to socialize while eating dinner, and the district staff are available to drive us to one of the two local grocery stores and/or the movie theatre. We are put up for the night at one of the schools, sleeping on cots and air mattresses. It’s not the most comfortable bed, but it beats some other places that I’ve stayed.

The following morning, breakfast is served a la carte in the school cafeteria. People stumble in sometime between 7 and 8, yawning and making a beeline for the coffee. Around 8 the speaker(s) for the day start their presentation. The good ones are dynamic enough to make us forget the less-than-quality sleep of the night before. The bad ones are studies in death by PowerPoint. Fortunately, the room is large enough that we can get up and move around without bothering other people. Around midday we break for lunch, and then it’s back to work. The presenters usually wrap up by 3 or so, at which point everyone pitches in to collect trash, pack up the leftover food, and put away tables and chairs. At some point, either during lunch or one of the shorter breaks, everyone packed up their sleeping bags, cots, and personal items; now everyone gathers by the doors with their luggage, waiting for their rides to whatever airline they’re flying with. By dinnertime, I’m back in Nunap.


 

I originally wrote the above in the fall, intending to post it before Christmas. The most frustrating aspect of those first-year in-service meetings was the way that my weekends became almost non-existent. I very much looked forward to this semester when those meetings would not be occurring anymore.

I forgot about one thing: the optional trip to the Hub for the annual Cama’i (pronounced jă mī’) arts and music festival. As a first year teacher who has promised to return next year, the district would pay for my pass to the festival and allow me to stay once more on a cot at the district office (given the cost of a hotel room in the Hub, this is a great offer). On the one hand, going would mean another short weekend; on the other hand, when would I have an opportunity like this again?

In the end, I decided to fly in on Friday afternoon and stay until Saturday evening. Andy, one of my fellow first year teachers, and Lucas, her husband, also came. The arts show took up most of the lobby and front hallway of the high school, with an amazing array of native handicrafts for sale. You could buy a quspuq (kŭs pŭk; the traditional hooded shirt) in a variety of sizes and fabrics, or a hat or slippers made out of one of several types of animal skins. Beaded and ivory jewelry filled many tables, as did small handmade toys, decorative dance fans, and uluuqs in a range of sizes. Also available were photographs, prints, and paintings depicting aspects of tundra life or scenes from Yup’ik mythology.

Of course, this was an arts and dance festival, so I made a point of going to see some of the dancers. I’ve always been fascinated by dance in any form, and Native American dancing is beautiful no matter what. Even though I couldn’t understand what was being sung, I greatly enjoyed listening to the rhythmic beat of the drums and watching the precise movements of the dancers. Most dancers, regardless of where they came from, wore similar outfits: quspuqs, pants, and boots. Depending on the dance, some added feathered headdresses, masks, gloves, or other props. Other than drums, voices, and the occasional bell, no other instruments were used. Some dancers moved slowly, while others went so fast all of the pictures I took are blurred. Like so many other things I’ve done since I arrived here, I’m glad that I experienced this at least once.

Please be aware that this post contains details of cutting up an animal. If that offends you, I suggest that you skip this one.

One of the first things I learned about my new home was the fact that many of the natives still practice aspects of the same subsistence lifestyle as their ancestors. Inherent to this way of life are a variety of ways to live off the land, including berry picking, fishing, and hunting. Within my first month up here, I went berry picking twice and got to see firsthand how drift fishing works. I’ve yet to go hunting; quite frankly, I don’t know that I want to. But I did participate in part of a hunt this week: The skinning, cleaning, and cutting up of the kill.

It started Tuesday night with a text from Mary, who teaches middle school. The text read, “Can I cut up a seal in your kitchen?” Being the curious person that I am, I said sure. First, though, said seal had to thaw. So I opened the windows and cleared the kitchen table. Ten minutes later Mary, Kelly (another elementary teacher), and Sam (one of the school support staff) were at the door, seal pulled behind them on a sled. We stacked the chairs, pulled the table off to the side and rolled up the rug before laying down a large plastic tarp and some cardboard. It was easier to just pull the sled in to the house than to try carrying the frozen carcass up the stairs; lifting the seal out of the sled and on to the cardboard took all four of us. It was a spotted seal, probably four feet from nose to tail. We set it on its back, as its front had been cut open to drain the blood. While we worked, Mary told me that Sam had caught the animal and would be taking the meat and blubber; she just wanted the skin for a hat and to try her hand at cleaning the kill.

By the following evening, the carcass had thawed enough to cut. Kelly and Mary came over after school, along with Mary’s foster son, Cal. I got Cal settled in the living area with some building blocks and stuffed animals before grabbing my camera and joining the others. After sharpening the uluuqs (traditional Yup’ik knives), the work started. The first task: Skinning. Having skinned numerous animals in science classes over the years, this looked easier because of the thick layer of blubber between skin and muscle. Interesting fact: The sound made by blubber separating from muscle resembles that of breaking Styrofoam. I say looked easier because I spent the night documenting the proceedings with my camera and keeping an eye on Cal. As Kelly teased, the Yup’iq consider the cleaning of the animal to be woman’s work, so I was fine. Also, I have to be honest, I just didn’t feel any desire to do more than take pictures and play with Cal. At one point, I was using the digital camera while Cal used the iPhone’s camera, with the result that I’ve got quite a thorough record of the night’s work.

Once the skin was removed, one task became two. Mary got to work separating the blubber from the skin, while Kelly turned to cutting the meat off of the bones. The blubber will be processed to make seal oil, used by the natives as flavoring and a snack in and of itself. The meat can be frozen, cooked, or dried and smoked. As they worked, I alternated between taking pictures and keeping an eye on Cal. The kid was almost as fascinated as I was by the cutting process; he was especially taken with the claws that got removed from one flipper.

A little over two hours and almost 200 pictures later, the job was done. Kelly and I bagged up the meat and blubber while Mary bagged the skin and got some cardboard boxes to make transporting everything easier. The loaded boxes were placed on the porch for Sam to pick up, and Cal and I got the living area straightened up. For a five-year-old, he’s a very good cleaner. I finally closed the windows I’d opened the previous night to keep the smell down. While I ran the tarp and cardboard to the trash house, Mary wiped down the floor with Pine-Sol. The kitchen table and chairs were moved back in to place, and less than 24 hours after the seal was brought in there’s almost no sign it was ever there. I don’t know that I’d ever volunteer to help with a project like that again, but like so many things up here I’m glad that I participated once.