My first and (as yet) only teaching experience was during the 2008-2009 school year, in the Yupik Eskimo village of Tuluksak, in south-western Alaska. After substitute teaching at the same school my father has worked for the past six years or so, I was fed up with schools, grades, students, and, most of all, applications that asked inane questions about how I would “insure that each child lives up to his or her fullest potential.” So in May, without having sent in a single application, I decided that I probably wouldn’t teach during the coming year. I was therefore pretty surprised when a principal from a school I had never heard of called me in the middle of June, to offer me a job. After an interview that mostly consisted of her telling me why I ought to come, she emailed me a contract. Three days later I had a job teaching art and – strangely enough – computers – in Tuluksak. It seemed like the kind of situation where I ought to just go with it, and so I did. The school started sending me information on the kind of things I ought to ship out before the school year started; I looked over them, figured I could get that kind of thing in Anchorage, and did nothing. I was working at a summer camp for a month, and would only have about twelve hours to re-pack and sleep between then and leaving for Anchorage. A couple of other teachers have since admitted that they were concerned that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t, of course, but then neither did they – and besides, boxes of stuff would not have helped.
Academically, the year was disastrous. I’m not much of a teacher, and the young people I was asked to teach aren’t much in the way of students, so neither party could make up for the deficiencies of the other. I had six classes (in different things – six “preps” in teacher parlance), and no curriculum (books, e-books, course descriptions… anything, really). Up to February I maintained some hope of creating coherent material for these classes. Then I found out that they probably won’t even have computer classes next year, and gave up. Last year I was talking with my dad and an acquaintance who was in her first year teaching math about what our respective slogans might be. My dad’s was “I am not a change agent,” mine (as a student) was “critical about critical thinking,” and C___ suggested “I suck at my job.” By a couple of months into the First Year Teacher Experience, I wanted all three – perhaps as stickers on the new Mac Powerbook the school was lending me.
Whenever the teachers got together, the subject would eventually turn to the question of how to “solve” the school’s “problems.” It’s the administration; it’s the in-service trainings; it’s the lack of leadership; it’s the sunlight; it’s imperialism; it’s technology; it’s lack of respect; it’s culture; it’s apathy; the kids just don’t care; the parents don’t care. If only we could change that, school would be alright. We would be able to teach these kids – they could read and write and cipher. I should have known better; in fact, I did know better, but it’s easier to talk about things using the terms everybody else does, than to challenge the terms of the discussion. Those complaints are, of course, all true – The difficulty is, they are probably all equally true, along with several other issues as well – most of which we have no ability to control.
People spend a lot of time thinking up ways to “fix” the school system of the entire country. “Look, we’re falling behind! Fifty countries do a better job of getting their students to pass their tests than we do!” Well, yes, ok, what are you going to do about it? Politicians come up with things that may or may not help, statistically speaking – longer days, longer years, Saturdays, more laws, more tests, fewer tests, higher teacher pay, performance based teacher pay, etc, etc. But in a high school of 50 students it’s not a matter of statistical gains – not really. It’s a matter of particular students; more often than not it’s a matter of how to get them to school, and what is important enough to keep teaching day after day while most of them try their best to ignore you. As a new teacher, at least, things really are this bleak….
“Today you’re going to learn about one and two point perspective. Please take out your – J__, get off the table. Do not jump up to make the lights swing! You’re in tenth grade! Good grief! Really, now! Umm.. yeah, mmm – ok, please take out your sketchbooks. And a pencil. Yes, you can borrow a pencil.”
“Where’s the eraser? So junk!”
“So buy one yourself.” So, anyway, there are two – well, three, really, kinds of perspective. But the third kind you only really use to draw towers from below, so let’s not worry about that for the moment. So there are two kinds we’re going to look at – one and two point. So, you put the perspective point on the horizon line, and… do you know what a horizon line is?”
“You talk too much.”
“Mm… well, a horizon line… stop writing insults on the board, please… a horizon line is the line that separates the land from the sky. It goes in the background. There are three kinds of grounds… the foreground, middle ground, and background… and the paper is a kind of ground, too, but that doesn’t matter for the moment…”
“Why are you still talking?”
“What do you want us to do?”
“And once we’ve done it, do we get the computers back?
“Not if you’re acting like this!”
“Right, well, this horizon line goes between the sky and the land in the background, and you put the perspective point on it.” And I drew a picture of a horizon line, picture plane, and perspective point on the board.
“But what do we do?”
“Know it… draw this little illustration in your sketchbook, to help you remember.”
“That’s a waste of paper.”
“Why are you still talking?”
“Because you keep interrupting me! Do you know what perspective is? Arg!”
“We’ve already done this!”
“Ok, good, so what is it?”
“I won’t do it! We’ve already done it!”
“So draw a cube and prove it”
“We’ve done that before.”
“It’s 35 after: time to go… umm… put your sketchbooks away and go, please.”
“Why’d you waste all our time like that?”
“Just. Go. Now!”
I doubt I’m conveying what I want to very well. There’s this sense that we must, at all costs, achieve this certain level of education, which is in many ways a level of decadence, and that if we don’t do so, we’re failing; and failures. That’s not a helpful way of looking at things; it’s not helpful to have a self-defined state of perpetual failure for generations. Not for the teachers – who can’t teach everything, nor for the students, who might well go through ten or eleven years of schooling without ever learning to really enjoy a book, and then drop out.
So much for that. We didn’t do much with the village people, but whenever there *was* an opportunity, it usually proved to be really interesting and profoundly awkward at the same time. The example par excellance, at least for me, was Slavic. That’s Russian Christmas, Yupik style. It’s a kind of caroling/trick-or-treat/sardines/house party event that goes on for perhaps three days, depending on the number of participants. What happens is, there’s this funky looking star, perhaps three feet in diameter, made, as far as I can tell, of cardboard, wrapping paper, metallic garlands, wire, and Christmas bows; in the center is an icon of Jesus and Mary, and a little candle. Starting sometime in the early afternoon, or whenever the leaders decide, someone carries this star from house to house, and everyone follows after. If you’re new to it, you get to wander around town asking random people where Slavic is being held until you find everyone. Keep in mind there are perhaps 60 people participating in this – all the Russian Orthodox, and most of the kids. To start off, there are 20 minutes or so of carols in English, Slavonic, and Yupik; it’s probably -20 outside, so everyone crowds inside, and stands there singing. These aren’t big houses, and we’re all pressed in pretty much as tightly as possible, so as to be able to close the door and keep the heat in. Inside it might be 80, but we pretty much keep our coats while we sing, because there’s nowhere to put them.
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
hath shone forth the light of knowledge upon the world;
for therein those who worship the stars
have been taught by a star
to worship Thee, the Son of righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high.
O Lord, glory be to Thee.
Then, after a gospel reading and a prayer, we all sit down as best we can, and the kids go around handing out gifts and candy. There are probably thirty pounds of candy at any given house, all kinds, and it takes maybe half an hour just to distribute it properly; also, there are toys, jewelry, dish towels, socks, bowls, spoons, and whatever else the host decides to give out – I’ve gotten, among other things, tooth floss, a to-go coffee cup, a beaded cross necklace, and a dish scrubber. At that point they might say a prayer and move on, or they might stay and eat. Food usually involved some variation on dried fish, baked fish, frozen fish, white fish, raw salted squishy fish, unidentifiable fish, mystery meat stew (goose? moose? caribou? beaver? something frozen from the store? it probably didn’t much matter anyway, because whatever it was, it always ended up boiled with rice and potatoes), bread, coffee, and akutaq (“eskimo ice cream” – crisco or fat mixed with berries; variation of crisco or fat mixed with red beans and shredded fish), and possibly cake. In places like Kwethluk where they have a larger Russian Orthodox community it’s the tradition to eat at every house – I was kind of grateful that they didn’t do that in Tuluksak; I can’t quite imagine eating eight meals a day for four days. Then we would all get up, say a prayer, button up our coats, and go to the next house. This went on for more then twelve hours on Saturday – more like eight on school days. I wasn’t quite sure if it was meant to be fun or some kind of endurance contest, but I’m glad I went anyway.
Except for teacher housing, there is no running water in the houses. That means things like hauling big tubs of water from the washeteria every couple of days, hauling “honey buckets” to the “sewage lagoon,” students trying to talk teachers into letting them use our washing machines, coming to open gym just to take a shower, and steams. There’s a teacher steam house, and I tried it once, before deciding I really was not willing to do that if I could help it. Basically, you have a wooden shack with two rooms; in one there’s a bench and in the other there’s an oven. Usually the women steam first, and then the men. You get the oven hot, and then undress in the outer room before crawling into the oven room. There are rocks on top of the oven and around it. In case you’re actually trying to get clean, or if the heat just isn’t oppressive enough, someone pours a bowl of water on the rocks. Pretty much a low-tech naked sauna. That’s what people do instead of taking baths; usually together and late at night.
Some years there’s a school dance team, the Wolverine Dancers, who do Yupik style dances. They didn’t do anything this year (the teens are much more into street dancing, at least in theory), but Stephen Blanchett, a musician and native dancer from Bethel came once to teach some dances to the kids (and anyone else willing to make a fool of themselves, myself included). He was going to come back in the spring, but had to cancel because it interfered with a funeral in town. It was odd, because it’s a style of dance that involves moving only the hands and arms, while the boys kneel in front, and the girls stand behind, but a lot of fun. And Mr. Blanchett has a really good voice. It looks kind of like this.
In conclusion… I’m not sure what to say. With a lot of time and effort, I could understand really loving Tuluksak, on account of the people, the students, and a bleak kind of beauty in the little scrubby trees and tundra of the delta. I like it, but am a little sad too – the way we’re always sad at seeing local culture give way to mass produced inner city American culture. I’m sad that I don’t have any answers, and neither does anyone else there. Even though I don’t fully understand what it would be an answer *to.* So I’m glad I went, glad I’m back, and utterly conflicted about what it was I learned or taught.