Located in southwestern Alaska, the village of Nunap is home to around 500 people, predominantly members of the Yup’ik tribe. The village can’t be accessed by road; plane, boat, snowmobile, and “river taxi” (driving in a car or truck on the frozen river) are the only ways in or out. For three years, I lived there and taught at the one and only school.
From Anchorage, you can drive onto the Seward Highway. Follow the road for the next 120-odd miles, and you arrive in Seward, the town. The year-round population of the town sits around 2500, although during tourist season that number goes up quite a bit. The airport serves more as a hub for sight-seeing flights in small planes or helicopters. Earlier this summer, I accepted a job from the local school district to work at the local elementary school. Two weeks ago, I finally started work.
Last year, the Nunap school housed just under 230 students, ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade. The hallways of the school make a squared-off U shape. One of the long halls is the “elementary side”, while the other is the “high school side” (everything from 6th grade on up). The short hallway has the main office, the teachers’ work room, and the office of the school tech guy. The gym/cafeteria/auditorium fills the center of the U, and the kindergarten classroom is actually in the old school building, a short walk away. On the elementary side, more often than not there is only one class per grade. Teachers on the high school side sometimes have to share rooms, and every available space is used for storage.
The elementary school in Seward is one of three school buildings. Currently, I believe it houses slightly less than 300 students from pre-kindergarten through 5th grade. My classroom is the only 4th-grade-only space, but Mrs. Rose down the hall has a mixed group of 3rd and 4th grade. The building is basically a straight line: The north wing houses pre-k through 2nd grade, while the south wing has 3rd through 5th. The central area has the main office, music room, gym/auditorium, library, nurse’s office, teachers’ lounge and work room, and the special education “suite”. In addition to classrooms, the south wing also has a “science lab” (a classroom dedicated solely to science instruction for all of us teachers to share), and a classroom for the gifted program.
Class sizes in Nunap could vary quite a bit from year to year. My first year, I had 19 3rd graders. The second year, 22 kids crowded into my room. Last year, I started off with 11 students, but by the end of the year only 9 kids called me their teacher. The first two years, I had an aide in my room for at least part of the day. Otherwise, I was with my kids the whole day: I taught not only the academic subjects but also P.E. and music, handled art at least half the time, supervised recess, passed out bandages and ice packs, and often made phone calls when students fell ill. My friend and colleague Andy was the elementary Special Education and resource room teacher, so she’d take those that had IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and provide me with strategies and tools to reach those students who needed a leg up (a label that, quite frankly, applied to the majority of my kiddos).
As of this coming Monday, I’ll have 28 students on my roster. (Fortunately, my classroom here is double the size of the one I had in Nunap.) I’m still responsible for the academic subjects and art, but I now have colleagues who are certified in PE and music and library who work with my students. There’s an actual school nurse, so I only need to worry about handing out bandages. Recess duty rotates among the staff, and we have enough people that I’ll only have to do it for six or seven weeks out of the entire school year. And there’s an entire team of Special Education teachers and interventionists who will work with my students that need additional help.
The support staff at Nunap school were all village natives. The teaching staff were almost entirely non-native and non-local, coming from all over the Lower 48. Age-wise, most of the teachers were twenty-somethings taking their first “real” teaching job out of college. They may or may not have significant others. Those who weren’t were often older, with grown children back in whatever state they originally called home. Outside of school, some teachers hunted and fished with the locals, or went to feasts or other get-togethers at locals’ houses. Most of the teachers would get together in some group or other, whether for movie or game nights, dinners, or Sunday pancakes at Lucas and Andy’s place.
As near as I can tell, I’m now the baby of the elementary staff. Many of my colleagues are married or have significant others. Most of them also have children, some of whom are students at the school. At this point, I haven’t really socialized with my coworkers outside of school.
In the villages of Nunap’s school district, the district provided and maintained teacher housing. I spent the last two years living in an apartment in the kindergarten building; in fact, my living space had at one point been two classrooms. No roads within the village meant daily trips to the post office after school ended to check the PO box. The post office staff consists of two women: Chrissy, who works weekdays, and Ayap, who covers Saturdays.
I realized the other day that it’s been over five years since my daily commute involved a car. Prior to moving to the tundra, I lived right on a main bus route that dropped me practically at the door of my job, and I often walked home in the afternoons. In the village, I looked forward to the daily walk to school, even when I had to bundle up against extreme temperatures. I could walk to school now, but it would take considerably longer: My apartment is situated almost on the waterfront, almost two-and-a-half miles from the school. I’ll try it at some point, but when I have a lot of things to carry I’m grateful to only have a five minute drive to worry about.
Even though Seward has many roads, the post office still doesn’t deliver mail to houses. So I once again have a post office box. It’s still on the way home at the end of the day, except now I have to worry about parking the car while I run inside. I’ve seen at least five different people behind the counter in the month since I moved in, but have yet to learn any of their names.
At the Nunap PO, if you received a package too large for your box, you got a yellow slip, which many of the staff jokingly referred to as a “golden ticket”. The slips were covered in clear packing tape so they lasted longer. Take the slip to the front counter and pass it to Chrissy, and she’d return shortly with your boxes. Frequently, you’d reach the counter at the same time she brought your stuff out of the back, because she heard your voice as you came in.
The “golden tickets” are apparently a USPS procedure. Unlike in the village, the ones at the Seward PO remain un-taped and bear numerous hand-written and later crossed-out box numbers. I have yet to arrive when there wasn’t a line; frequently, one clerk will collect slips from however many people in line currently have them and disappear into the back while another clerk handles transactions for other customers.
In addition to the post office, I might also swing by the store after school to check what was currently in stock. While I would occasionally get lucky, more often than not I ordered the majority of my groceries online and had them shipped in.
There an actual grocery store in Seward, complete with multiple aisles, different departments, and a pharmacy. It’s also on the route between home and school, so I’m trying to work any shopping into my commute. After three years of making do with either frozen produce or what I could get shipped in, I feel spoiled by the variety of choices I see every time I step through the doors.
As far as I knew, I was the only L, G, B, or T person in Nunap, although I had suspicions about a couple of the high school students. I did come out as trans to several of my fellow teachers, but didn’t tell any of the locals until after I left this past summer. In such a small community, everyone seemed to know everything about everyone else, and I feared for my job and my safety if someone found out and decided I wasn’t fit to work with their children.
I have yet to find out if there’s an LGBT community in Seward, although I’m only a couple of hours away from the ones in Anchorage or Kenai. Since I “pass”, none of my new coworkers know I’m trans. I don’t plan on telling anyone yet, and certainly not until I have a better handle on people’s attitudes and beliefs. In the meantime, I have to watch what I say and how I say it, particularly stories about my past. Thankfully, I have a support network in the form of friends and family, accessible through phone, texts, Facebook, and even (gasp!) driving up to Anchorage.
Some things have changed, some things have stayed the same. Time to dive into another school year!