Last year, I couldn’t wait for in-service weekends. Sure, the trip to the Hub meant having basically no weekend, but it was nice to get out of Nunap and to catch up with my fellow first-year teachers. The trip also meant a chance to do things like go grocery shopping, eat at a restaurant, and maybe even catch a movie. As a second-year teacher, the district still insists that I attend three weekend in-service meetings throughout the school year. After sitting through the meetings last year, which were varying shades of somewhat helpful, I was really not looking forward to the first meeting this weekend.
My unease about this weekend wasn’t helped by the fact that the weather here in southwestern Alaska hasn’t been very cooperative towards travelers of late. In the last two weeks, there have been at least six days where planes haven’t been able to fly. I didn’t relish the idea of getting stuck at the Hub; on one occasion last year, teachers who flew in for a Saturday in-service didn’t make it back to their sites until the following Wednesday. In fact, Friday started out with all planes on weather hold, which meant Andy and I wouldn’t even make it to the Hub in the first place. I even went ahead and called Maria, who coordinates these meetings at the District Office (DO), to say that we weren’t sure if we’d be coming in or not. The normal evening flight to the Hub leaves around 6; it wasn’t until 5:45 that we got the call that the plane had left the Hub. The plane’s arrival at the airport brought a new wrinkle: There were more passengers than the plane could take. Given that several of the people waiting were trying to get to hospitals in the Hub or Anchorage, Andy and I volunteered to stay behind. Five minutes later, the co-pilot approached and said that a second plane would be arriving within 20 minutes, which surprised us; we’d been led to believe that this flight would be the only one of the day. Two hours later, the plane finally landed and Andy and I were on our way.
Last year, these in-service meetings meant sleeping on a cot in a hallway at the DO. Fortunately, that’s changed; instead, we stayed the night at the dorms of the local vocational/technical school. Saturday morning, I packed my things up and walked the mile to the DO. I’ve made the walk before, so the morning darkness at this time of year didn’t bother me. There’s actually a fair amount of street lights, which isn’t so surprising when you think about how long the nights get during the winter. Given that I’d be spending the rest of the day inside sitting down, I relished the fresh air.
Last year started with about 80 people in my cohort of teachers. A couple left during the year, and many only opted to work the one year. The weather issues meant that a further ten or so of the forty left didn’t make it in; instead, they used the video conference system to attend remotely. The presenters all worked hard to include the “people in VTC land” as much as they could, but it definitely presented a challenge. For the breakout sessions, when we split into groups by grade level, several other people and I were assigned “Skype buddies” from the villages. It worked after a fashion, but it’s definitely not anyone’s first choice for this type of in-service. Of course, out here you just have to make do.
Sometimes that “make do” attitude results in something fun. A fellow second year teacher brought her three-month-old daughter with her, and little June proved to be quite the celebrity. She proved very willing to “help” her mom work on things, and didn’t mind being passed around from on person to another. One of my favorite memories is of Maria taking pictures of us as we worked on a project while holding June, who happily played with the camera’s neck strap.
These sessions typically end between 3 and 3:30, so that everyone gets to their flights on time. Andy and I were due to take the 5:30 flight back to Nunap. Since we had time to kill, we decided to hit the grocery store to pick up a few things. Under normal circumstances, I would have done my shopping the previous night, but since we got in so late I opted to skip it. As we set off to walk to the store, we both made sure to keep an eye on our surroundings. See, once a year all residents of the state of Alaska receive something called the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). Basically, any person who has lived in the state for one full calendar year receives money from the oil companies. These cheques are mailed out in early October, and around that time many businesses in the state advertise “PFD Sales” of one sort or another. I learned last year that the first two weeks of October are a sort of early Christmas; many of the students disappear for a day or so and return wearing new clothes and talking about trips to the Hub or to Anchorage. Unfortunately, the money is just as often used for alcohol and drugs. Lucas warned Andy and I that the Hub becomes something of a Wild West town on PFD weekend, and that we should keep our eyes open. We did notice a larger than normal number of drunks wandering around, and the line for the credit union in the grocery store stretched clear through the produce section, but other than that I didn’t see much evidence of the occasion.
Grocery shopping done, we hopped in a cab and returned to the airport. In a happy reversal of Friday’s tale, our flight left an hour early, which meant we made it back to Nunap before 6. As I walked from the dock to my place, I couldn’t help but think, One down, two to go.