Saturday, September 25, 2010


Traveling for a school-sponsored event is a big deal for teachers out in the bush.  We load up in a small plane and hope we can make it there without crashing.  Maybe the last part is just my interpretation of what happens when we get on.  Not many airlines have their pilots estimate the weight of each passenger and then arrange them to make sure the weight is distributed correctly.  The pilot picks the heaviest first, and then checks down in order by weight, politely pointing to which of the four seats we’ll be sitting in.  I’m pretty sure the pilot picked me to sit in the co-pilot’s seat because he liked me, not because he needed some weight up front.  Plus, in case of an emergency I could assist him in panicking the rest of the passengers.
We had our teacher’s in-service in Hooper Bay, the district’s largest school with about 400 students.  The school is much larger than ours is, which serves about 65 students, K-12.  The school is about 5 years old.  It was built when their old school burned down, along with most of the teacher’s housing.  The town has a grocery store, which mine does not, so I was able to get some groceries.  I didn’t have much room in my bag, so I only bought a few items.  Here is the list:
1 jar of Ragu: $6.50                                                                                                     
2 20oz bottles of Coke: $5.50
2 lbs of onions: $4.50
5 lbs of potatoes: $6
18 carton of eggs: $5.50
2 sausage ropes: $16
One of the reasons I didn’t have a lot of room was because we had to pack our sleeping bags and air mattresses.  That almost filled my duffel bag, so I went ahead and threw in some clean clothes for the two days.  We slept in classrooms, rooming with people who didn’t know us.  Or didn’t know that I snore.  Two teachers from my school and I were sharing a room with another guy who we didn’t know.  He did not seem to be interested in knowing us either, since he resisted any attempt at small talk from each of us.  The most he spoke was when he was leaving the room at 2am, mumbling something about not being able to sleep in this racket.  My two other roommates pointed out that the racket he was referring to was my snoring. I can add that guy to the list of many others who do not enjoy hearing from me.  I also drove out a co-teacher last spring in our cabin during science camp, citing the need to sleep for his reason.  Monica must be getting some good sleeping right now.
We sat through seminars both days, each one about different strategies on teaching reading skills to students.  District wide, our reading scores on the state assessment have been low, so that’s where the concentration is right now.  It was good to learn about new tools to use in the classroom.  It was also good to hear from other teachers, many new just like me, talk about what struggles each of us are going through.  It is true that misery loves company, because there seemed to be a lot of misery.  But, that is why we have these gatherings, and I think I learned some ideas to try in my room.
The plane ride home had us facing a strong head wind, so it took us about a half-hour longer than the flight there.  The view was great, with no clouds at all.  I did feel a bit apprehensive once when I saw a flock of geese that looked very close beneath us.  I glanced at Sully but he seemed unconcerned, so I guess it was ok.  I was a big help in the co-pilot seat, with the fact we didn’t crash as being the evidence.  I understand that correlation does not equate to causation, but in this case, I’ll let it slide. Plus, he picked me first.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


This post will be brief and not very well thought out.  I’m sure you’re thinking, “How is that different from the rest?”  Haha.  Now you're wondering why I’m having a conversation with imaginary people, people who are gently mocking me.  I don’t have an answer to that, so quit asking.  I’m trying to post a blog here.

I’m leaving this afternoon for Hooper Bay, a town south of here, for two days of teacher in-service.  It sounds like it will be a nice, relaxing place to collectively think and discuss how we can serve our students better.  But it is another village; similar to the one I’m in, so there is no resort for us to stay.  The fine dinning will be at the school cafeteria, and as for our sleeping arrangements, we have packed our sleeping bags and air mattresses and will be sleeping in classrooms.   This will be like summer camp, sans the initiation practices.  I hope I don’t have to eat another frog.  Ok, I didn’t have to eat it, but when curiosity takes over….

I’ll be back Friday evening, so I won’t be away from here too long.  Hooper Bay does have a small grocery store, so hopefully I’ll be able to grab a few things to bring back.  And to answer the question I’m hearing; no, it’s a dry village too.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a blog to write.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


One of the nice things about a small school is the ability to plan whole school outings without a lot of preparation on the part of the staff.  Ok, no planning on my part.  The high school science/math teacher did the planning and did just fine without any input from me.  I wonder why she didn’t ask me for any help, but maybe it was because I was avoiding her knowing that she may ask for my help.  Whatever the reason, I’m satisfied it’s not my fault.  Our outing was to go out and do some berry picking.  Many types of berries grow out in the tundra and they are the only fresh fruit that grows up here.  Most of the students have gone berry picking with their families many times.
Berry picking is not a dangerous endeavor. However, picking berries near an airport without a reliable schedule can be.  So of course, students ran straight for the airport.  As they say up here, “The berries are always more plentiful on the other side of the runway”.  If there was a giant, spinning wheel made of broken glass shards and rusty nails, (I’m not sure why there would be one of those) kids would walk as close to it as they could.  Well, some would walk closer than they should.  This is why we have rules and procedures keeping us from doing fun things.  I would love to stand and watch that wheel, but for the safety and survival of others, we must stay back.  Ok, back to the airport.  When the students were told to stay on this side of the airport, they seemed angry that they couldn’t pick berries where they wanted to.  Some of their complaining was drowned out by an unexpected airplane.  I suggested that they could come out after school and pick berries over there, since they wouldn’t be under the strict control of the school.  They just looked at me like I was recommending they listen to that new polka album.  
Overall, the berry picking was a huge success.  The students spent two hours talking, playing, and picking a few berries.  The sky was clear and it was about 55 degrees out on the tundra.    Some of the older students were complaining about how hot it was outside, and they asked how I could wear a jacket in this heat.  They knew the answer, as it was implied by the tone in their voice (wimp).  The older students did do a great job of helping the little ones in picking.  They shared what they picked, because my students were trying to pick the most berries in the class.  We didn’t have a trophy, but berry picking bragging rights carry a lot of weight.  In case you were wondering, Naomi picked the most: 1440 cranberries. 
We used the berries the next day in our math lesson.  The high school students came in the classroom and helped us count and weigh our berries.  The most amazing part of this was that after class was over, there were no berries squished on the floor.  With over 5,500 berries counted, not one made it under somebody’s shoe.  My class works very hard on respecting their new school and taking care of it.  The older ones in my class get on the little ones if they drop a piece of paper on the floor.  The grossest part was that some of them made juice out of the cranberries while they were in the Ziploc bags.  (The berries, not the kids)  They then drank it from the corner of the Ziploc bag.  But still, no mess.
I’m sure Miss Fina will plan more outings for us since this one was such a success, even without my input.  I’ll remind her of that if she does ask for my help.  Good luck to her on finding me.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


You never really know hate until it is directed at you.  On my way home from school, I was called a stink-butt.  You never think it can happen to you; that it happens in other neighborhoods, to other people.  You can rationalize it by thinking, “Yes, kindergarteners can be mean”, but in the end, it still cuts the same.
If you have read some of my past posts, I had described an encounter with two kindergarten girls.  Instead of leaving my porch when asked (politely I might add), one began to yell at me while the other chewed on a nail sticking out my porch door jam. Yeah, you know, what any kid would do.  Well, they must have been holding in their anger and hate for the past few weeks, and let it go today.  They followed me home from school today.  Follow can also be defined as: “cling to a larger person on his way home to eat dinner”.  When I didn’t extend an invitation to them for dinner, they lashed out with that hateful word.  The Spam and Ramen noodles didn’t give me the joy it normally does. 
Other than that, it has been an uneventful couple of days.  I’m coming down with a cold, so I have that going for me.  I never remember if I’m suppose to starve a cold and feed a fever or the other way around.  I cover all bases and feed any illness.  Botulism?  Feed it.  Sprained ankle?  Feed it.  A little sad after watching 30 Rock?  Ok, you get what I mean.  Since we have no substitute teachers here, I guess I’ll stick it out. 
The whole school will be going berry picking tomorrow.  There are wild cranberries in the tundra, and I guess the picking is fine.  I’m looking forward to getting the class outside for the afternoon.  The weather is supposed to be nice, about 55, so it will be fun.  We’ll count and weigh the berries on Friday for our math lesson.  That’s about as far as I’ve planned.  I’m not sure when the eating is going to happen, but I’m sure it will.
The kindergarten is not going to be going on the berry picking expedition, so it will be safe.  I’ll hold my head high put this night behind me.  Anyways, I’ll have some berries to help ease the pain.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


I’m spending my Saturday afternoon like most people in Nunam Iqua, watching the Sooners beat Florida State. It is almost like being at home, except for the fact this a dry village, so my beverage of choice is tap water. And the time I spend with my wife is on Skype instead of her waiting on me hand and foot. I had a Spam sandwich, which I made from bread I baked last weekend and Spam that was caught wherever they live. Living the High Life.

Since my wife could see me on Skype, she made reference to the graying of my beard. After extensive research, I conclude and will maintain the reason is because my beard is blending with its environment. The only, and I stress only, flaw in that reasoning that my hair has not begun to re-grow in response to the impending cold. My best response is that maybe it’ll be a mild winter.

Last night a group of high school students, Natural Helpers, had an open gym for the community and it was my turn to help supervise. The Natural Helpers are nominated by their peers as students they would most go to in a time of crisis. Teen suicide is much higher here than the national average and this group receives training on recognizing when there is a problem with another student. They host a night of games for the community every couple of weeks so the kids can have a warm place to hang out and play. They also get to go on a trip at the end of the year. They were able to go to Hawaii last year, so they have an incentive to participate in the program. I think they receive their funds from a grant. However it is being paid for, I think it is a good organization to learn leadership skills and hopefully help someone when they need it. Plus, they are able to let kids have some fun on a Friday night.

We had our first birthday party on Friday. We had two birthdays, so we watched a movie, complete with popcorn and juice. Monica sent a box with microwave popcorn and it arrived just in time. (Thank you honey) They must have been practicing for the time they get to go to a theater, because I have never seen one cup of juice compel so many kids to use the bathroom. The kids are fond of lying on the floor when they are watching a movie. They kind of bunch up together, like they are huddling for warmth. One student asked if she could use the bathroom, and when the other students heard the door shut, the rest of the class popped up like a cluster of gophers. We resumed the movie after they all returned.

Now that the Sooners squeaked out a win against FSU, there seems to be plenty of other choices to keep me occupied on the sporting front. I don’t think I have to cook tonight because of an invitation to another teacher’s house for dinner. I cooked last weekend, so we try to spread it around. God I hope it’s not Spam.

Happy Birthday Lynn!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


After the three-day weekend, the kids were happy to be back in school. The weather is the same 50 degrees. Sometimes it is windy and rainy, and other times it’s rainy and windy. But mostly windy and rainy. The change up is nice. The weather isn’t too bad except when it is blowing in my face. Which is why I’m not shaving until I go home for Christmas. Ok, I’m not shaving because I’m lazy and have an aversion to dragging a sharp piece of steel across my face.

I want to mention that there have been several very nice comments posted at this blog. I will also clear up some apparent confusion; there will be no payment for kind remarks. But I do appreciate them. I’m getting free advice from my favorite principal in New Zealand (Don McLean), but I’m still searching for the definition of biffing.

I had been without water since last Thursday, but Joe Strongheart worked hard and fixed the problem. Joe is the maintenance man at the school and even though it wasn’t his responsibility to fix the problem, he did anyways. The crew who was working on it left last week for a two-week break, so I’m very glad that Joe would take the time to get me back in water. I also traded some plastic totes that I used to move my stuff up here to Joe and his wife for about 3 lbs of moose meat. I made bread and moose-chili this weekend. I had plenty left over, so I’ve been eating chili every night this week.

The town is also rebuilding the boardwalk throughout the village. The land is almost a marshland out here since we are on the Yukon River delta, so the ground is low quality for walking. Even where it is dry, it is like walking on a giant sponge. The boardwalks have little driveways that run right up to people’s houses. Most people have ATVs for the summer and snowmobiles (snow machines) for the winter. I’m going to just hoof it this year. It would be expensive to order one for this winter so I’ll do it like the old timers have done for years: lots of bitching and complaining.

The kids and their teacher are getting to know each other a little better each day. They mock my attempt at a beard and remind me “That’s not how Grover did it”. Grover was their teacher last year. I would like to ask them to cut me a break because I’m winging it here, but I smile and tell them “I’m not Grover”. They give me a confused look and tell me they know I’m not Grover, and ask why I’m shouting. Grover is probably wondering why I always give him a dirty look in the hall. He’s teaching social studies to 6-12 grades.

Now that I have water, I can get my dishes and clothes washed, admire my beard and eat another bowl of chili. I also still have time to figure out how to biff my textbooks without getting fired.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


The first full week of school is over and if I keep learning at the same pace, I’ll be a genius by Christmas. At times, it seems that new information is made up just for my frustration. Since everything here is new to me, there is a lot to absorb. I know that first week was my hardest, so I should hit my stride by mid-May.

The most difficult subject for me to teach is the subject I like the best: social studies. It is tricky to find prior knowledge with the students about community when all of the examples the text/workbooks give is about things the students have never seen. We have no law enforcement or a fire department in the village, so the chapter about city services and how they work together drew blank stares. Or maybe I was boring them into unconsciousness. When we talked about business services that citizens provide, I heard disbelief. Surely there could not be a store that sold only shoes. They are used to the only “store” here in town, where they sell only pop and candy. Well, mostly pop and candy. They do sell toilet paper at Rockefeller prices, but I suspect they can set it at any price, because if you have time to try to negotiate the price, you probably don’t need it that badly. They should offer bran muffins with the toilet paper, kind of a two-for-one deal.

Most of the students have not been to a town larger than 3,000 people, so they have been spared the spectacle of a large town. The cost to fly to Bethel, the closest town that offers services, is $450 round trip. The only road in our town leads to the dump. This town is isolated not only by geography but by poverty. Flying to Bethel is out of the question for most families because of the cost. Every student in the school qualifies for free breakfast and lunch at the school. Unfortunately for some students, these are the only meals they’ll get for the day. One of my students has worn the same clothes for the seven days we have had class. I doubt they have been washed in that time. Alcohol and poverty affect most students at the school in one way or another. The problems most of these students deal with daily dwarf my petty troubles of temporarily having no water. I have food and the means to get water into my house. They have to rely on others for their survival. Sometimes the ones they rely on cannot provide what they need.

I also want to emphasize there are many families that are doing what they can with what they have. They provide the best they can for their families. There is no economy in this town, so those who fish in the summer must make their money at that time. If they don’t, it can be along winter. Some people work for the village, school, post office, or electric company. A large diesel generator in town provides electricity. There are no individual businesses in town. Well, legal businesses. Alcohol is either made or bootlegged into the village, both of which are illegal. The encouraging factor is that the kids in my class want to be in school. A few may not really care about what is being taught, but they want to be there. Most really want to learn and I don’t want to let them down. The majority of families want their children to learn and will support their students in their education.

One student was yawning the other morning, so I asked her why she was so tired. She said she stayed up until 2am watching movies. (Kids stay up late around here) I asked her what she was watching and she said “Scary Movie 2”. I’m not sure I’m happy about the Wayans Brothers being a cultural compass for 5th graders here. So I did what I could and found YouTube videos of rodeo wrecks for them to watch. Most of the students were not sure what a rodeo was, so we watched and wrote about the videos.

I was able to make some bread this morning, so I can survive without running water. I’m able to get water from my neighbor for my kitchen and I can use the shower and the bathroom at the school. It is a ½-mile walk, so I skipped the bran muffin this morning.