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Monthly Archives: May 2015

When I first interviewed for this job, I remember the HR people proudly informing me that their teachers stayed for an average of 4 to 5 years, one of the best retention rates in any rural Alaskan school district. That may be true, but they didn’t mention how frequently people move to new schools within the district. They also failed to mention how stressful March to May, hiring season, can be. For example: Nunap School started the year with 14 certified teachers on staff, plus a Dean of Students/Vice Principal and Principal. By the time April Fool’s Day rolled around, we knew that almost half of that number would be leaving. Both our Dean and our Principal are moving to other positions in the district, one is retiring, and everyone else has found or is seeking jobs in other districts, both in Alaska and back in the Lower 48. (In case you’re wondering, average teacher turnover here is normally 2-3 people per year.) As such, one of the main topics of conversation among the staff the past seven weeks has been who the new teachers might be. Some people are new to the district, like I was this year, while others are coming from other villages in the area. Falling into the latter category is Mick, who will be teaching high school English and social studies next year.

A friend of Lucas, Mick has been working for the district for two years now at one of the coastal villages. I first met him when he visited Nunap for a weekend at the beginning of this month. Yesterday, he arrived with all of his stuff, which will be stored here over the summer. Kelly and I joined him, Lucas, and Andy for dinner and visiting. Of course we all discussed our plans for the coming summer, which led in turn to stories of previous summer vacations. Predictably, Lucas and I began teasing Kelly a little about her trip to Thailand last summer, when her appendix ruptured. She’s fine, and happily tells the story; she’s more upset by the fact that the only sights she really saw were the hospital walls. At this point in the conversation, Mick wondered aloud, his posture and voice indicating a joke, “Was she a woman before she went on that trip?”

Immediately, I tensed up. It might be my imagination, but I’m pretty sure Lucas, Andy, and Kelly also felt the mood shift. After all, they all know that I’m trans. Before I could overthink it, I flat out stated, “Not cool.”

Mick kind of smirked at me, still trying to make his “joke” work. “Come on, what’s Thailand known for?”

“Still not cool,” I replied. My heart was pounding, and I could feel my hands shaking slightly.

Mick started to say something else, presumably to continue his defense of the “joke”, but Kelly spoke up. I couldn’t hear exactly what she said over the roaring in my ears, but it boiled down to, “People in this room know someone who’s trans, and that kind of statement is incredibly offensive.” Mick did apologize, and actually sounded sincere. It still took me a few moments to calm down to the point that I felt I could join the new conversation Kelly started.

That encounter has been on my mind ever since, for several reasons. I’m still unsure how to react to Lucas and Andy’s non-contributions to the conversation. Both sat there in silence as the exchange took place; I didn’t have a chance to speak with them before we all departed for the summer. I do appreciate that Kelly helped me out, and I texted later that night to let her know how much her support means.

The fact of the matter is, for many years my reaction in situations like these, where someone says something homo- or transphobic, was to sit there in silence. For years before I Transitioned, I’d get called “sir” or “young man”; it was when I was introduced to people as a girl or they learned that I was assigned female at birth that I’d get questioning looks (adults) or be teased (kids). Since starting hormones, I’ve been the beneficiary of “passing privileges”. As I’ve been assured repeatedly this year, people who meet me now can’t tell that I was raised a girl. I feared that raising objections to how some people speak would somehow out me and that I’d be right back where I started. Within the last couple of years though, I’ve come to realize just how ridiculous that type of thinking is. After all, the ally community is part of the reason that the LGBT rights movement has gotten as far as it has. So if someone thinks I’m only an ally, who am I to correct them? It’s more important to stand up for people’s right to be spoken of with respect than to protect my own privileges. (Also, the fact that I have “passing privileges” irks me. Just because I happen to look like a cisgender male, I’m entitled to all sorts of benefits? What a load of crap!) And while I need to work on my delivery, I fully intend to continue to call out tasteless “jokes” and other rude comments both in Nunap and everywhere else I go.

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Ten months ago, I arrived in Nunap. I remember feeling both over- and underwhelmed; overwhelmed by the fact that this village would be my new home for the better part of the next two years, underwhelmed by the size of the place compared to where I grew up. My first memories have this realer-than-real quality to them, as if someone maxed out the contrast and color settings that day. (Isn’t it odd how first memories of a place can be so different?) I remember going for a walk around the village with Lucas and Andy that evening. At several points, we ran into kids or adults, most of whom greeted Lucas by name before peppering Andy and I with questions. “Who are you? Where you live? You teacher?” I wondered how on earth I would ever learn and remember their names, and if I’d ever get used to being greeted by name wherever I went. The next day, I got to see my classroom for the first time. Three large metal closets stood in the middle of the floor, destined for the storage closet that’s attached to my room. Of course, said storage closet needed to be cleaned out before they could be pushed in… The bulletin boards were barren, and the kids’ desks had been pushed and piled against the back wall. A couple of days later, I met with Lee, the second grade teacher who had the kids last year. He gave me as much information as he could about the group, not just academic but also behavioral. He warned me who would need to be watched closely and who would be a big help while I carefully noted things down and asked any questions that I could think of. I spent the days before school started dragging desks into place, making sure I had all of the necessary supplies, and wondering if I could really do this.

The bulletin boards in my classroom are no longer bare. One of the boards on the back wall displays the class behavior contract and “My Job/Your Job” poster, as well as a number grid. The other is covered with various pictures drawn and/or colored by the kids, all addressed to either “CJ” or “Mr. CJ”. The boards at the front of the room bear the calendar, the week’s jobs, and the pocket chart. The kids’ desks, once arranged in groups of four, now fill the floor in three rows of six desks, a change made for standardized testing that just worked in a way the groups never did. The floor right now is a slippery mess; one of the activities for Culture Week was soap carving, and guess whose room got used for that?

In the mornings when I hang out in the gym, I can greet most of the elementary kids by name, and even a few of the older kids. I know which kids I need to keep a close eye on, and who can be left basically alone. I watch my kids in particular to see how they’re acting and predict how the day will likely go. Is Calvin eating breakfast? No? Better check that he did eat. Where’s Brandon? I see his brothers… oh there he is in the Bump line. Good, no pushing this morning. Hopefully he keeps up the good behavior. And there’s Stephanie and her siblings. All smiles today, but with her that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a good day. All of these thoughts and others flash through my mind in an instant, and I mentally prepare myself for the day. No matter what the kids throw at me, I’ve learned tricks for dealing with it. Sure, we have off days, but lately the good far outweigh the bad. At the end of the day, I frequently have company as I go to the post office to check the mail, a walk that sometimes turns into a race. When I walk around the village now, the kids yell, “Hi CJ!” and some of them run over for hugs.

This next week is our last week of school, so the kids and I will be packing up the classroom for summer. Over the last month, I’ve found myself thinking about things that I want to change for next year, and what I need to make that happen. I also have to pack up my house; I’m returning next year but won’t be living in the same place. As I pack, I weed out things that I don’t use or need. Some things got sold at the rummage sale the teachers held a couple weeks ago, some things will be given away, and still others got mailed home for storage. Hopefully I can get the key to my new place this weekend so I can start moving things over.

It’s less than a week now until I return to the Lower 48. This time last year, I had just been hired and was trying to imagine what this experience would be like. Not only the job and the move, but socially and emotionally. How would I survive moving 3000 miles away from my support network, my safe spaces, my friends and family? Could I handle living stealth? Would I find people I could talk to? People with whom I could really be myself? Now I know just how much I’m capable of, and that I can do this. My support network here is fledgling, but it does exist. And it can only grow. So I’ll take these two months to rest and recharge and be ready for Round Two in the fall.