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Five years ago today I woke up elated and afraid. Elated because I was getting top surgery! Afraid because I was getting top surgery.

I suspect the joy is a little easier to understand. From the moment I hit puberty the first time, I loathed the way my upper body looked. Initially I denied the changes that occurred right under my nose; once I finally acknowledged them, I refused to step out of the house in anything other than a tight sports bra. When my costume for the musical during my sophomore year didn’t allow for that, I wore a tight tankini instead. I tried wearing traditional bras a couple of times, but I hated how they felt and how they made me look. When I hit college and began Transitioning, I switched to Ace bandages for a while (not one of my brighter ideas) before finally purchasing several binders. Essentially a double-layer spandex undershirt, these garments flattened my torso even more than the sports bras had, letting me “pass” as a man when I wore clothes. I also bought a special binder made of swimsuit material for the summers, so I didn’t have to fight with a girl’s one-piece suit anymore. As long as I wore clothes, I was somewhat comfortable in my body. But that wasn’t enough. I remembered times as a kid when I ran around with no shirt on. I remember closing my eyes in the shower when my body began changing, and training myself to not look below shoulder level in mirrors if I didn’t have at least a bra on. The binders may have been a help, but they also added two very tight layers under my normal clothes, which meant I overheated even more easily than I always had. And I wanted back the feeling of freedom I had as a kid, when I felt more comfortable in my own skin.

From the moment I realized that I had to Transition to keep going, I wanted top surgery. For an assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) individual like me, that means I would basically get a mastectomy.  It’s not something every trans person wishes for, or can afford. But I knew that for me to be truly happy I needed it. The biggest question became when, as most insurance companies at the time didn’t cover ANY costs related to the procedure. So I kept working, kept saving, and did research. I learned about the different types of top surgery: Depending on how large your chest was pre-operation, the surgeon might opt to do “keyhole” surgery or a bilateral mastectomy with nipple grafts. The former procedure leaves less visible scars, because the incisions are made in the nipples. It also works best for folks who are no larger than an A or small B cup. I realized pretty quickly that I’d likely end up having the second procedure.

Spring of 2012 brought with it that long-term substitute teaching job, and with it, a large paycheck. As soon as I realized just how much money I’d have by the end of the semester, I kicked my surgery research in to high gear, because there was a very good chance I could have the procedure done that summer. After looking at costs and reviews, I scheduled my procedure with Dr. Medalie in Cleveland. And the countdown to 25 June began.

Even with how excited I was when I woke up that day five years ago, I was also a little afraid. As much as I disliked it, my body was still a known quantity, and had been for years. I’d never had surgery like this before; what would that be like? I’d seen a video on Dr. Medalie’s web site of the procedure, so I knew exactly what was about to happen. How much was it going to hurt? And what if, after all of this, I wasn’t happy with the results? What then?

Dr. Medalie performs this surgery as an outpatient procedure, so I didn’t spend any time in a hospital. I arrived at the surgery center a couple of hours before the procedure, and was back in the hotel room by early evening. The next few days proved to be the biggest trial of my whole Transition: The dressings on my chest and drains in my sides made moving around too much painful, and I couldn’t really move my shoulders. The drains also meant I had to sleep on my back (NOT my preferred sleeping position). I forced myself to relax as much as possible and spent the week catching up on sci-fi TV shows.

One week after the surgery, the drains came out, the dressings came off, and I got to see the new me. My first look didn’t do much to dispel my previous fear: The grafts and incisions were still in the early stages of healing, my skin was prickly with re-growing hair (my chest was shaved prior to surgery), and patches of yellow and orange showed where I’d been swabbed with iodine during the procedure. But over the next few weeks, as I exercised and stretched and got back to the business of living my life, I realized that the fear had proved unfounded.

Five years later, I have no concerns about how my chest looks. Regular exercise has allowed me to build a decent amount of muscle; between that and my body hair the scars of my surgery are a little hard to see unless you know what to look for. I no longer wear multiple layers of clothes to hide my shape, only for comfort. The first time I went swimming in just trunks ranks as one of the happiest days of my life. In many ways, five years ago today marked the start of ME.

When the school year ended, I didn’t know where I’d be at the end of the summer. I had hopes, based on several interviews, but no one had yet hired me. So I came back to the hometown with a huge question mark hanging in the air, the implied “What’s next?”

In the ensuing weeks, I’ve visited friends and family, gone to the movies and the library, relaxed as much as I can. All the time, that annoying question mark stayed put, just at the edge of my thoughts, ready and waiting to bring with it a whole host of other questions and worries: What if no one wants me? I know I’ve said I’ll work as a sub again, but can I really survive that? What’s taking so long???  

Actually, I already knew the answer to that last one: The state of Alaska had yet to finalize it’s budget for next year, so schools didn’t know their funding situation. This led in turn to a hiring freeze. Several times since I’ve gotten back to the Lower 48, I’ve had an e-mail or a phone call from some of the principals who interviewed me, telling me that they still couldn’t move forward with the hiring process. I also got automatically generated messages from the school HR sites, saying I hadn’t been accepted for other jobs I’d applied for.

Last Wednesday, I finally got a call from one of the principals. After thanking me for being so patient, she told me that someone else had been hired. I thanked her for letting me know, and for keeping me in the loop this whole time. I felt disappointed as I hung up the phone; that interview had gone really well, and I felt like I would be a good fit for that school.

Less than an hour later, I got a phone call from a different principal. Would I like a job? HECK YEAH! I may or may not have been jumping around the room in glee while telling him I accepted the position.

Instead of a village of 500 people, I’ll now be living in a town of about 3,000. My comings and goings will no longer be restricted by access to plane, boat, or snowmobile; the town is on the road system! I can take my car! I have a decent shot at a social life beyond my co-workers. I can get plugged in to the LGBT community at large and the trans community in particular in a way that I couldn’t really manage from the middle of nowhere. There will be mountains and trees and ocean, as opposed to flat, unending tundra. I don’t know too much about the job yet, only that it will be a “multi-grade intermediate classroom”. That translates to some combination of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders; the exact mix will be determined once the school administration has a better handle on numbers. In the meantime, I get to spend the next couple of months filling out a mountain of paperwork, researching apartments, and getting ready to move again. New adventures, here I come!

In one week, I leave Nunap. Not just for the summer, but for good.

Oh, I plan to return at some point to visit. But as of midday on the 22nd, I will no longer reside here. My resignation got turned in months ago, and I began actively searching for a new job a couple of months before that.

The reality of this decision really hit home today. While I’ve been packing things slowly over the last couple of weeks, my goal for this weekend was to finish as much as possible. The apartment certainly isn’t up to my usual standards of cleanliness. Several plastic totes and large boxes are strewn about, two of which are sealed and ready for mailing labels. Bubble wrap and butcher paper are piled on the carpet in front of the TV next to the tape gun. Books no longer adorn the bookshelves; instead, only various Star Wars figures lay on their backs or stand in their packaging, waiting to be put in whatever box has room. Only the calendar graces the bulletin board, and I can see faded outlines from where the posters and other items used to hang. In the bedroom, few clothes still hang in my “closet”, and the dressers drawers hold less than half of what they once did. I had the blinds up today to let in the sun, and as I worked I could see a crowd of middle schoolers playing basketball and riding bikes on the playdeck. At one point, as I watched three of the boys repair the hoop they built themselves (the old one fell down almost a year ago and hasn’t been replaced), it occurred to me that this is one of the last times I’ll see these kids like this, and I felt a little sad. I got the same feeling yesterday when Kelly brought more boxes over (she’s moving in to this apartment next year) and had two of my former students helping her. The kids happily put the boxes where directed before looking around. “So empty!” the one said. The other, who’s been one of my most frequent visitors since I moved in, asked my permission and, after receiving an affirmative answer, took up her usual place on the recliner while chattering away.

I’ll miss the kids. I’ll miss my co-workers, especially Lucas, Andy, and Kelly. But it’s time to move on.

When I took this job three years ago, I had very little idea of what I was getting in to. Prior to moving up here, I had only the vaguest idea of the geography of Alaska, its history, what the people were like. At an earlier point in my life, I’d’ve been terrified of moving so far away from everything I knew and found familiar. But I wanted to get back in to teaching. And I was ready for an adventure. So I took the job. I figured I’d learn about a new part of the world, gain some new experiences, and probably come back to my hometown in a couple of years with some great stories.

One thing I didn’t really imagine was falling in love with the state. While part of me will always be back in my hometown, I have become so fond of Alaska that I’m only looking at new teaching jobs here in the state, albeit on the road system.The last year or so, I could feel myself stagnating, the routines of living and working in such a small place seeping in and setting like concrete. The familiarity brought some comfort with it, but lately it’s just been stifling. Even though I’ve come to appreciate the stark beauty of the tundra, I long for things like trees and hills or mountains to break up the unending flatness. And while I’m glad to have had the experience and stories that come with living in such a remote location, I desperately want to get back to where I have more control over my comings and goings, where I have places to go to and come from. Going along with that last thought, I’m also ready to live in a larger community again, both from a geography and a population standpoint.

In the end, though, I’m just ready to move on. It’s time for the next adventure.

 

My first winter in Alaska didn’t have a lot of snow. A few inches covered the tundra from November until early April, getting replenished every once in a while, but never in large amounts. That winter stands out most for the fact that all of February passed without a single positive temperature. Ambient temperatures hovered in the -20s, and the wind chill frequently pulled that down to -40. I didn’t set foot outside without my heavy parka, insulated bib overalls, boots, gloves, hat, face mask, and goggles.

Last year’s winter had more snow and less extreme cold. I don’t think we ever saw below -25 with a windchill. On my return from the semester break, I enjoyed the discovery of at least a foot of snow covering everything, with drifts in some places that came up past my waist. One drift outside the store actually stood tall enough that you could almost walk directly onto the porch without needing the few stairs left uncovered. (Even this amount doesn’t match the stories I’ve heard from the locals. Several people have shared that, as recently as five or six years ago, so much snow would fall that buildings would effectively be buried, and you’d need to dig down into your home.)

This winter has been the most “Alaska” winter so far. As early as November, we experienced those incredibly cold temperatures again. Since the beginning of the calendar year, we’ve had what I consider record lows, including one day with an ambient temperature of -27 and a wind chill of -57. (That day, Lucas, Kelly, and I tried for ourselves the fact that boiling water thrown in the air will instantly freeze.) We’ve also had 3 outright blizzards since the beginning of the semester, two necessitating early dismissals and one cancelling school completely. Thanks to the snow, wind, ice fog, and low cloud ceilings, we’ve had more than a few days where no planes have flown, complicating travel plans and stopping the mail. The blizzards have brought quite a bit of snow, but the winds carry much of it away again. What doesn’t blow away gets sculpted into amazing forms. I look forward to what the rest of winter brings!

It takes a village to live in a village like Nunap.

My first day in Nunap, I arrived to late to get to the post office, which meant I couldn’t retrieve the bedding I’d mailed ahead of time. Fortunately, Lucas and Andy had a spare pillow and blanket I could borrow for the night.

The first day I went to the school, a couple of students helped me unpack the boxes and tidy up the classroom.

I didn’t have a fixed address when I moved up here. Things mailed ahead were addressed to the school or simply “General Delivery”. The postmistress, Chrissy, kindly kept everything in a pile in the back until I arrived. In the years since, she has tracked down missing packages, helped me mail and receive quite a few packages and letters, and kept me apprised of any changes in USPS procedures, like when prices for mailing flat rate boxes changed.

Kelly and Jenny provided a wealth of information that first year, telling me the stories of each of my students so I knew why they’d sometimes act the way they did. Lucas and Andy fed me on more than a few occasions, helping combat any lingering homesickness.

School sporting events are always an “everybody pitches in” affair. I’m usually on the dinner and breakfast shifts, helping serve food to the visiting teams and coaches. When I’m not in the kitchen, I can be found at the concession stand, or even at the admissions desk.

At the beginning of my second year, I moved into a different apartment. The previous tenant left something of a mess. Lucas, Andy, and Kelly all pitched in for a couple of hours to help me clean things up.

One of the new teachers, Aly, had a hard time adjusting. I told her that my door was always open if she wanted to talk, and she took me up on that offer several times.

Once a week, Kelly stays after school so her students can have computer free time. I do the same, though usually on a different day. Whichever one of us isn’t staying will pick up the other’s mail, because the post office closes at 4:30.

Actually, it’s pretty typical to check someone else’s mail for a day or two, as between sports practices, after-school meetings, and travel not everyone can make it to the post every day.

Speaking of travel, on several occasions I’ve found myself stranded due to weather. Sometimes, nothing can be done. Other times, alternative arrangements can be made. Twice, I’ve ridden in a truck on the frozen river to get from Nunap to the Hub and vice versa. Once, I made the same trip on the back of a snowgo (one of the local words for a snowmobile). Each trip would not have been possible without the help of community members.

If you need help getting luggage to and from the airport, or picking up packages from the post office, you can usually be assured of one or two students hanging around. Pay them in fruit snacks, and they are some of the best helpers available.

Sub-zero temperatures in the winter can mess with the pipes in teacher housing. It’s not uncommon to call a fellow teacher and ask to “borrow” their shower. Similar calls are sometimes made about laundry facilities.

Teachers often need help with something. If I have a question about my computer, I ask Lucas or Eech, our school tech guy. Questions about paperwork go to Dan, the principal, or Ellen, our school secretary. If I need resources for struggling students, I hit up Andy (she is the elementary special education person) or Kelly. Got a question about district policy? E-mail one of several people at the District Office. Recently, I’ve also found myself in the position of being the go-to person for more than a few of the new people, and several of the old, as well.

Outside of school, social lives for the teachers frequently revolve around our co-workers. Some people will go hunting, fishing, or berry picking with local families. Lucas, Andy, Kelly, and I often have dinner together. Lucas and Andy also host a weekly pancake brunch on Sundays. Movies nights happen with various groups of people at different times. Several teachers have kids; more than a few of us have watched the munchkins for some length of time.

In the last two years, we’ve had several people arrive mid-school year. The rest of the teachers really make an effort to include the newcomers and help them to adjust to the new place and routines. This can be as simple as saying “hi” and making sure to include them in things like Sunday pancakes, or something a little more, like providing housekeeping items or making dinner so the new people don’t have to worry about it after a long day of unpacking.

As much as I relish my friendships with my coworkers, there are times when I can’t or don’t want to talk to them. In that case, I can text or call Tina, a friend who works in the next village up river, or try to coordinate a phone call or FaceTime chat with friends and family back home. I’ve also started seeing a counselor again, and Dr. A is always just an e-mail or Skype call away.

It takes a village to live in a village, and I’ve got one of the best villages in the world.

Prior to moving to Alaska, I spent almost every Thanksgiving with my family. Some years, we’d travel to visit relatives in other cities. Other years, we’d host dinner at our place or go to my grandparents’ apartment. The only time I did not celebrate with my family was during my sophomore year of high school, when the marching band traveled to Los Angeles during the long weekend to march in a few parades.

Of course, moving three thousand miles away meant that holidays would be a little different. Thanks to a three-week break at the semester, I’ve been able to make it home for Christmas and New Year’s, but making the same trip for Thanksgiving is just not worth the effort and cost. My first year, my friend Michael invited me to spend Thanksgiving with him in Anchorage. Last year, I returned to Anchorage for the same holiday, this time spending the long weekend with some fellow teachers from my district. When I thought originally thought about this Thanksgiving, I figured I’d be spending it once more in Anchorage, hopefully with D, the girl I met earlier this year. Or I’d see if Michael would host me again.

Of course, life often has a way of changing your plans. Between a new girlfriend for D and roommate drama for Michael, by September a trip to Anchorage sounded a lot less appealing. My mind also chimed in with memories of how each year previously I’ve gotten stuck overnight in the Hub on the way back to Nunap. So I figured, why not just stay in Nunap?

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one with this idea. Lucas and Andy have always spent the holiday in the village. So does Leigh, our second grade teacher. As for all of the new teachers, well, they make their own decisions. Somehow or other, by October it became clear that, with the exception of Jenny, all of us teachers had decided to spend the break in the village. Talk turned to how we’d celebrate the holiday. Lucas and Andy have always invited some of the other staff from our school to their holiday meal, and they wanted to continue this tradition. We all agreed that sounded great, but where could we gather? With teachers, staff, and family members, we were looking at about 25-30 people, too many for most of the teacher apartments. Then somebody suggested using the hallway at the building where Lucas and Andy and I live. We could put tables out there for both food and seating, and Lucas and Andy and I would also open up our apartments.

Thanksgiving morning brought the sounds of moving furniture as the three of us began setting things up. We maneuvered our dining room tables into the hall and added the table that lives out there to create one long surface. The couple of desks that normally sit at the end of the hallway (around here, any place can be used as storage) were pressed into duty as buffet tables. Vacuums ran, stoves and ovens heated up, and it wasn’t long before the whole building began to smell of cooking turkey and other goodies. As the morning went on, other staff members came by to drop off food and drinks, help with setting up, and even make use of oven space.

In all, we had probably close to 40 people at the meal. The buffet held not only things like turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie, but also things like pasta, dried fish, akutaq (sometimes referred to as Eskimo ice cream), and berry pies. Not enough chairs at the table meant some of us had a picnic on the floor, while others ate in Lucas and Andy’s apartment. Conversation flowed easily among most of us present. Topics ranged from the day’s football scores to the various Thanksgiving traditions from our families. (I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when I didn’t hear anyone start in on politics.) I spent quite a bit of time playing games with the kids, as well as visiting with my coworkers. I think one of my favorite memories from the day is when we decided to take a group picture: More than a few of us made goofy faces or put moose antlers on people, resulting in much laughter.

After the main meal was over, most of us headed up to the school to start preparations for the basketball tournament. Hosted as a fundraiser for the senior class, the tournament took place Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons. I spent five or six hours working the concession stand Thursday evening before returning home and collapsing into bed. Friday found me once more at the school, where I spent the morning entering grades and the afternoon and evening once again found me in the concession stand and taking a turn as hall monitor for the basketball tournament.

Saturday was spent reading, writing, and relaxing. Today I’m up at the school for my usual Sunday of writing lesson plans. Then it’s off to Lucas and Andy’s for the weekly pancake brunch. It doesn’t match the Thanksgiving holidays of past years, but I at least had the good fortune to spend it with good people.

In the two weeks since the results of the election were announced, I’ve been trying to put into words just how deeply the results have affected me. It seems only fitting that I find a bit of inspiration from the date. Today, 20 November, is the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. This is day that trans communities around the world gather to memorialize those lost in the previous year, often times to hate crimes and suicide. The majority of these victims continue to be transwomen, particularly transwomen of color (TWOC). From January of June to this year alone, 166 trans and gender variant people were murdered, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring project.

I’ve written before how isolated my life can be, what I referred to as the “tundra bubble”. I’m one of a handful of non-Natives living in an Alaska Native village 27 miles from the nearest town. The only ways in or out are by bush plane (year round), boat (spring thaw until freeze up), or river taxi or snowmobile (freeze up until thaw). In addition to the geographic isolation, I am personally isolated further by my status as a transman. It’s a self-imposed isolation: I made the decision when I moved up here to live stealth because I didn’t know how the locals would react if they found out. (Based on my research, First Nations people often times were quite understanding of people like me, but a lot of things changed when the missionaries came, and religion plays a big part in the lives of the villagers.) Since I “pass” as a cisgender man (that is, a person passing me on the street doesn’t think I’ve ever been identified as anything other than a man), no one has ever had reason to question my gender identity. As far as the locals are concerned, I’m Mr. CJ, the third-grade teacher. They don’t see the barrier that exists between us, the tightrope that I walk on a daily basis to make sure that I don’t say or do something to out myself. After all this time, I doubt that there’s anyone here who dislikes me enough to make an issue out of my trans status, but you never know….

This bubble not only keeps things in, it also keeps things out. My students know that they live in Alaska, but are still struggling to grasp the concept that Alaska is only one part of the US. Most of my kids have been to the Hub, that town 27 miles away, and some as far as Anchorage. But beyond that? Nope. As far as they’re concerned, anything outside of Alaska may as well be happening on another planet. Now, I certainly didn’t know all about current events when I was their age. I only vaguely understood the importance of news reports on the TV or stories printed in the newspaper. While I’m sure there are TVs in most of the homes here, I know there isn’t a satellite hook-up in every one. (Cable TV doesn’t exist out here.) With one or two possible exceptions, families don’t have a home Internet connection. There’s only one newspaper, and it focuses predominantly on news and events a little closer to home. Heck, until midway through my first year here, there wasn’t even 3G service for cell phones in the villages!

Through the school, I’m connected to the Internet. Between that and my phone, I have a lifeline to the world beyond the bubble. On a daily basis, I can get in touch with friends and family through Facebook or e-mail. I can call my grandparents to say “hi”. I stay as active as I can in organizations I care about, mostly through signing online petitions and making donations to various groups. When I’m feeling especially isolated for whatever reason, I have a way to remind myself that the world doesn’t end at the horizon. This can be both a blessing and a curse. I make a point of following news from the US and around the world, so of course I see both the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

I followed this year’s election more closely than I ever have, because I knew just how much was at stake for my communities both physical and of the heart. The villages out here on the tundra are feeling the effects of climate change. Higher temperatures means rivers don’t freeze as solidly, or freeze and thaw more frequently, which can cause problems with transportation. It also affects the availability of fish and game, a large part of the still-predominantly subsistence lifestyle by which the locals live.

As for my community of the heart: Half of my family is Jewish. I have a large number of POC friends, and many, many relatives and friends who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. For more than a few of them, legislation like the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage were important steps in their fight to be recognized as human beings. Even with these major steps forward, there continue to be battles that must be fought, notable the wave of anti-transgender legislation (the so-called “bathroom bills”) that has been sweeping through the nation in recent years.

When the results of the election hit the news two weeks ago, I felt sick. And worried. And, for the first time in a long time, scared. The increased reports of hate crimes in the days since haven’t alleviated those feelings, either. I’m relatively safe here in the village, but what about when I travel home for the holidays? Yes, all of my ID has the correct gender marker on it, but just suppose? And what about my friends? Are they safe? How much harder will it be for them to get their ID changed if they haven’t already done so? What about everyone’s mental well-being? Calls to help lines like the Trans Lifeline spiked following the election, because everyone is suddenly that much more afraid.

And what about my students? How will all of this affect them? Thankfully, they’ve been spared the horrendous bullying that I’ve read about, but what about their futures? Will their way of life survive the next four years? Will they? (If that last question seems extreme, look up the suicide statistics for American Indians and Alaska Natives.)

So on this TDoR, I’m not only remembering those that lost their lives this year, but am also pledging to do my part to make sure that there aren’t more in the coming years. I’ve upped the amounts of my monthly donations to organizations like Trans LifeLine and the ACLU. I’m reading up on how to be an ally to anyone who might need my help, and how to do so in a way that will hopefully bring about a (relatively) peaceful resolution. I’m done sitting on the sidelines, done being afraid.