Saturday, October 30, 2010


This past week I had two different and separate events.  At the beginning of the week, I went to St. Mary’s, AK for two days of meetings and Friday night I worked as a pinsetter at a Halloween carnival for the school.  I probably didn't have to alert you that these are different and separate. All in all it was a good week.  Except for the carnival.  Man I loathe them things.  A child’s enjoyment seems to be directly proportional to an adult’s misery.

My principal wasn’t feeling up to flying, so he sent me to St. Mary’s for a meeting with the local advisory school boards (ASB), the district’s regional school board (RSB) and our principals.  Our school district is as large as Oregon, so logistically the district is difficult to run out of one office with one board.  Each school in our district, there are 11, has it’s own elected advisory board, which helps to advise their local school.  The regional school board works just like school boards in the lower 48.  The two-day meeting was to hear from the ASB and try to implement some of the ideas that came out of the meeting.

My favorite part was talking with ASB members who had lived and worked in their villages their entire lives.  I learned how some of our schools have programs that include traditional hunting and fishing into their curriculum.  Students will spend a week or more in fishing camps, learning how to use traditional skills.  Many people here, including my village, continue to live a subsistence life.  Unfortunately, my school does not offer the same programs.  Listening to people who have lived most of their lives in this area can give you a much better perspective about what the communities are wanting and needing in their schools. 

Learning how other schools in the district involve cultural activities makes me think about changing schools in the future.  It is common up here for teachers to relocate, and going to a school where trapping beavers is considered homework would be a great experience. Plus, how cool would that look on a resume?  Do you have any special skills for us to consider?”   “Why, yes I do.  I alone trapped a beaver and made a hat from his fur.”  I would then proceed to show off my headwear, inspiring a look of awe on my interviewer’s face.  The special skill I currently have on my resume, able to sit motionless on a couch for hours, doesn’t seem to enthuse people the way it does me.

The carnival went off last night without any problems.  Other than me being there.  To say I am not a fan of crowds is an understatement.  The school had ordered the prizes for the games, but they didn’t arrive.  The staff pooled our Halloween candy and used that for the game prizes.  I’m not sure how that’s going to play when the kids show up at my house for candy and I don’t have any.  I guess I’ll just tell them it is a life lesson and that knocking on people’s doors and then demanding they give you candy is just plain rude.  That will be my cue to duck.  My duty at the carnival was to run the bowling game, which was a plastic bowling set.  Bending over and setting pins over and over for three hours is a short, young man’s game.  I think I was the only one in the gym who broke a sweat last night.  But I made it through the night with only a minimal amount of bitching.  The meaning of “minimal “ is subjective I was told. 

Having a busy week makes the time go by quickly.  We also had our parent/teacher conferences and the end of the quarter.  I was able to meet some of the parents I had not met yet, so now I don’t have to pretend to be hard of hearing the next time someone asks me how their child is doing in class. Sometimes I would pretend I was spooked by something behind them and just run away.  The back of my legs are sore this morning from squatting and setting pins last night, and my butt is sore from sitting in meetings for two days.  But, I know the worst part is yet to come: handing out only advice to the trick-or-treaters.  I’ll let you know how that works out.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


One of the great things about living here is that I get to see things I had never seen before.  For example: watching a neighbor butcher a seal in his front yard.  I’ve seen many animals get themselves butchered and I’ve even assisted in the chore on occasions, although never to anyone’s approval.  To my credit, the animal has never complained.

Watching a seal being butchered is analogous to watching the grass grow, a bit boring.  Except that instead of watching life spreading out and flourishing, you’re watching a seal’s guts and blood spill on that same grass.  I did learn that the head of a seal is very similar to that of a small dog.  Pinnipeds for $400 Alex.

Eating seal is commonplace here, so all of my students have developed a fondness for the taste.  I ate it once when I was going to school in Sitka 25 years ago, and the taste still lingers.  We were talking in class about how people who live in different places eat distinctive foods.  I asked them what they ate and they listed many things, including seal and beluga whale.  Of course they asked me what we eat where I’m from.  I said “beef.”  They weren’t sure what that meant, so I said, “cow.”  I could have said “boogers” by their reaction.  And pig;  “ewwwww!”  For the next 10 minutes, they had to sit through a lesson in the righteousness of eating pig meat. Where did they think bacon came from?  I pointed out that you can’t buy seal and eggs at Denny’s in Anchorage, but they do have bacon and eggs.  They pointed out I wasn’t mentally stable.  I guess I should never use Denny's when trying to convince someone of how good a food can be.  It is a logical fallacy.  

Today we had a pretty good storm.  The walk to work this morning reminded me of what is to come for the next six months.  Wind and snow in my face will be a good way to wake up.  Plus, it will be at my back on the way home as it was tonight.  I left before the rest, and asked them if they find a lump beneath the snow, give it a kick to make sure it’s me and not a sack of crap.  The nice response would have been, “Of course Clay, we’ll look out for you.”  The reply I got was “How can we tell the difference?”  It’s that tight knit kind of community we have at the school and it keeps me warm inside.

While I didn’t have seal meat for dinner tonight, I know I will have some soon.  I’m not sure if it will be a rite of passage sort of thing or an I ran out of Spam thing.   I hope it’s a rite of passage thing because I’ll need the Spam to purge the lingering taste.  Yes, you can use Spam to cleanse the palate.  

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Report cards are coming out next week.  That statement use to scare me when I was a kid because it usually meant I was in trouble.  As soon as I had my ass chewed for the current one, I was already worried about the next one.  Now, I have to fill out report cards for my students. 

Because of my anxiety dealing with report cards as a student, I am careful about what I’m writing on these cards.  “Does not apply himself” seemed to be repeated often on mine.  “Shouldn’t eat paste during math” and “ Why does he talk to himself all day?”  may have popped up once or twice.  High school was tough.

We had a volleyball tournament at our school this weekend.  Three other schools came in Friday and we started playing shortly after they arrived.  We took a break and served dinner, then resumed until about 10:30.  Since there is no place for the teams to stay in town, they each took a classroom and rolled out their sleeping bags.  These teams are also co-ed, so we did separate the boys and girls. 

My responsibility for the weekend was to help make sure things ran smoothly.  The principal was out due to medical issues, so I took his place as the person of responsibility. (You may stop laughing now.)(Seriously, I can hear you.)  I actually had to answer people when they asked for permission to do something.  “Can we have a dance after the games tonight?”  “Can we have seconds on dessert?”  I found quickly that the best response is “No”.  By answering “yes”, I can see there are other consequences down the road. 

I know that makes me an old man by answering that way, but it was already past my bedtime.  I have no idea how to put on a dance and I know it’s not a good idea to allow high school kids to plan a dance on the fly.  After carefully contemplating the dessert inquiry, I think I made the right choice.  We were out of cake. I may have been wrong about the dance.  The next morning while the kids were waiting to leave, I heard Johnny Cash sing I walk the line.  After investigation, I found a small group of Yupik girls sitting on the floor with an iPod.  Maybe they could have pulled off a dance I would enjoy. 

Well, it’s 9:30 in the a.m., dark outside and 23 degrees.  Plus, I have the NFL on the TV, so I am not motivated to walk the half-mile to school to do my report cards, write my lesson plans for the week, and write two days worth of substitute lesson plans.  I’m going out of town for two days, so I may get to a store to buy more potatoes and onions.  I ran out this week.  My report cards are due tonight by midnight so I better get motivated.  Which reminds me of something else that seemed to appear on my report card as a child: “Clay procrastinates on almost every assignment”.  Go figure.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


As I’ve mentioned before, shopping for groceries here is a little different than shopping at most places.  When I run out of saffron and fresh charoli seeds for my base sauce, I can’t run down to the corner Whole Foods to refill my pantry.  Ok, I made that part up, I have no idea what saffron or charoli are.  I think they may have won a Grammy in the late 80’s.  Anyways, I’ll start again.  When I run out of canned chili or spam, I can’t run down the nearest Safeway to buy enough food for the next three days.  I have to get on the internet and order online.
Last summer before I came up here, Monica and I did some shopping and shipped up some of my favorite food.  This consisted of canned chili, rice, tuna, spam, rice, macaroni, Velveeta and rice.  I had other things, but those are the staples.  I did learn to bake bread, so we sent up flour and other bread ingredients.  I would list them, but then I’d just be bragging.  I had plenty of food to keep me fat and happy for about three months.  I’m at two months, so it was time to make an order online.
A few stores and companies will ship orders to the bush.  I used Fred Meyer’s online store last week for the first time and found their offerings odd.  It wasn’t what they offered, but what they didn’t.  I wanted to stock up on butter.  Not margarine, but real butter.  They didn’t have it listed on their website.  I bought eggs, onions, potatoes, and cheese, but no butter.  That wasn’t the only thing I really wanted that they didn’t offer online.
They did not offer toilet paper.  That’s just mean.  They had paper towels, napkins, Kleenex, and baby wipes.  It makes no sense.  They flaunted a bulk-sized canister of Metamucil, but nothing for the aftermath.  At least they could have offered a free Imodium sampler with it.
After I filled out the order, it came out to $165 without the shipping.  I didn’t find the prices to be outrageous, but they are probably 15-20% higher than at home.  I did not price compare, so I could be off by as much as 60-70%.  Unless you count the 5% discount for using my frequent shoppers card.  Then they will tack on an additional 20% for handling and add the cost of shipping, depending on the volume and weight.  Got all that?
Most everything we get up here is shipped through the post office.  The parcel post schedule is very erratic because things come in only if there is room on the airplanes.  If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, the airplanes are not large.  They are tiny and cannot carry much more than passengers and their baggage.  So when a plane is not full, parcel post packages can ride along.  That means that a package can sit in Bethel for days because there is no room to send it.  Or it can get stuck in Emmonack because there is no room on the plane.  It can take 2-6 weeks for an order to arrive, so if you wait too long to place an order, you may have just learned an important lesson.
I’m learning the importance of patience.  I also have to learn where and how to order toilet paper. Patience only lasts so long without that. Then it’s panic. I should have learned how to order toilet paper years ago.  Instead, I spent my time listening to Saffron and Charoli. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Because we have a small school, teachers here have to take on many different responsibilities.  We have six general education teachers (K-12), a special education teacher, and a counselor.  For some of these jobs, we get a stipend at the end of the year.  These could include coaching, student council advisor, or lead teacher.   Sometimes you volunteer for one of the positions, and sometimes you are asked.

 I was “asked” to be a co-lead teacher.  One duty of the lead teacher is to help other teachers with curriculum and other “teacher” stuff.  That responsibility would fall to my co-lead teacher since she has the experience.  My responsibilities will usually involve chores commonly done by a pack mule, my area of expertise.  Luckily we don’t have crops to grow.  Yesterday my job was to pickup the volleyball team from the airport.

Calling it an airport stretches the description slightly.  It is a gravel runway with a beacon.  The only way in and out of the village is by boat, which is not very convenient, and by plane.  The plane isn’t very convenient either but it beats walking.  The modes of transportation are very limited in the village, so the school is responsible for picking up and dropping off their personnel at the airplane.  So, I drove our four-wheeler out to the airport to pick them up.

The volleyball coach called me from Mountain Village, which is where they were playing.  She said they were leaving and would be at Nunam Iqua in a half-hour.  I put on my new parka and boots, and headed out to get the four-wheeler.  I got out to the airport with about 10 minutes until they were suppose to arrive.  There were two problems with what happened next.  First, the plane they thought was going to Nunam was not going to Nunam.  So, they headed back to the school in Mountain Village to wait for their plane.  The second part was that they forgot to call me and tell me they would be coming later.  But the day was sunny and 35, so it wasn’t too bad to be sitting on a four-wheeler for an hour.  Plus my beard, whom I’ve named Awesome, kept my face warm.

When they arrived, we loaded half of them with their bags to take them home.  The four-wheeler has room for 3 in the cab, and three in the back with their bags.  Two had rides for themselves so I had the rest.  I had no idea where these kids lived, so I asked.  Like a typical teenager, the response was pointing.  We don’t have roads in town; we have boardwalks.  Some of the boardwalks are new, but some are still waiting to be rebuilt.  There is a crew in town that has been rebuilding the boardwalks, but they will have to finish next summer due to the weather.  Nails and broken boards are everywhere, so there is some hazard in driving here.  Awesome and I had our work cut out for us.

I was able to see parts of town I had not been to before.  Well, I’ve seen them from a distance and now up close.  They look exactly like the rest of the houses in town, including mine.  The conversation with the students went something like this: 
“Where is your house?” 
Back there.” 
“Crap. How about yours?”
Keep going.
“Yes, but can you be a little bit more specific?”
Sure, keep going that way.”
“Well, just let me know when I’ve gone past it.”
I’m not sure if he was nodding in agreement, or if he was nodding to his iPod.  Whichever, they all made it home safely.

So, I’ll be taxing students and other school staff to and from the airport for the rest of the year.  When packages arrive on the weekends, I will also be packing them back from the airport, so this may become my new hobby.  After 10 years with FedEx, I thought I had moved away from that.  So, when you hear people calling me a jackass, you’ll know why.  (It’s because I’m doing the job of a pack mule.  Right?)

p.s. It snowed today.

Friday, October 8, 2010


I’m learning that one of the things that teachers don’t like is having new things thrown at them without notice.  I realize that isn’t unique to my profession, but it’s my blog so I get to do the whining.  Monday, my class increased by over 7% without anyone mentioning this to me.  He just showed up, stood inside the doorway, and looked at me. 
I’m not usually comfortable with people staring at me. This was no exception.  He looked intently at me as if he was expecting me to do something for him.  He stares and he’s needy.  What could a child want in a school?  I realize it took me way too long to figure out that he was a student, wanting me to find him a desk so he could sit down.  The principal said that it wasn’t the school’s policy to surprise teachers with students that way and he apologized.  I smiled and asked if I had to keep him since they violated school policy.  He’ll fit in fine with the other 14 students.
On a related note, Subway does not sell its foot long for $5 in Alaska.  It is a $6 dollar foot long.  The good news is that I don’t have to listen to that stupid commercial.  The bad news is that the $6 foot long song is worse.   This is all true.
As you’ve probably noted, if you have continued to read this far, it has been an uneventful week here. I received my winter gear from Cabela’s just in time for my furnace to quit working.  It hasn’t been too cold yet, but it has been freezing at night.  Pushing the reset switch seems to make the boiler work again.  I apologize for being technical here, but we have to be able to fix our own problems since there is no service tech in the area.  When I say we, I mean Joe.  I gave him my keys and asked if he could help.  God, he must be disgusted with me by now.
The new slippers are treating me well, and my new parka fits well.  It is made with real coyote fur, so I hope the wolves don’t snicker.  I wanted one with bear fur around the hood and bear teeth for buttons, but realized that would just be mocking the bears.  So, coyote will do.  Did I mention that it has been dull here this week? 
Now, I need to close the curtains; I think someone is staring through the window.  I don’t need a roommate. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I’m not sure how I could teach without the ability to use a computer.  I exploit YouTube and Google on a daily basis.  I also discovered that they list curse words on Wikipedia. That’s on my own time, not for making spelling lists.  But, if student engagement is more important than content, I may be on to something.  %$#@*ing Cuss Words for 4th Graders: proper usages will be on Amazon’s top 100 list for Christmas 2011.
I don’t want people to see my Google history. Some people, judging people, would get the wrong idea.  I’ve googled dehydrated whiskey.  My brother KC was the one who brought it up to me, so I decided to check it out.  I found nothing, other than learning that if you drink too much whiskey, you will become dehydrated the next morning.  Who knew?  I also googled grow lamp.  Yes, I did check and it was not listed back to back with dehydrated whiskey on the history.  People who judge may presuppose nefarious reasons for my inquiries. 
I used a YouTube video to show the students about base-jumping.  After we watched it, the students wrote about what they saw, and whether they would like to try it someday.  One of the fourth graders was not happy with me that morning.  Most of the students are not shy when it comes to letting you know when they are not happy with you.  “You suck!” roughly translates the same here as it does in WA.  I thanked him for being honest and reminded him he needed to write a complete sentence letting me know how he would feel about base-jumping.  He wrote the sentence “Me and Clay cliff jump and clay die”.  Just in case I couldn’t understand what he wrote, he drew me a picture: a parachute crumpled up next to me laying on the ground, complete with x’s for eyes. As you can imagine, I was upset.  I had just explained how to use the past tense properly in a verb and he completely ignored me.  I thought I had explained it clearly.  “It’s Clay Died!!!”  But, I held in my anger and walked away.
I’m learning that I can’t force kids to like what I want them to do.  If I could, boy this teaching gig would be a hell of a lot easier.  But since it isn’t that way, I’m using the premise of outlast.  If I can outlast a student, I may get my way.  That’s how Monica became my wife.  Patience.  A half an hour later, the student walked up to me and showed me his reworked sentence.  “Me and Clay went cliff jumping and clay did not die."  He even changed the picture, this time with me standing, eyes wide open. Both problems were solved with his rewrite.  I lived another day in class and in one student’s story.  That hasn’t stopped me from continuously googling patience to see if it has an update.