This is the last section in Chapter 1, about a wondrous time in my life — teaching Alaskan natives in a boarding school in Mt. Edgecumbe, Alaska. It was eye-opening (or should I saw “heart”-opening) in more ways than one:
“In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses – and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak – there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.”
Thirty shiny faces stare blankly at me and then each other. I do the same. Except for the occasional three- or four-letter word, I might be speaking ancient Greek or whatever it was people spoke umpteen centuries ago in Timbuktu. Hell, they don’t even know to snicker at the word “bosom” and probably haven’t heard of “boobs” either.
When I glance again at what I have just read aloud to them (the first line of George Eliot’s Silas Marner), it – despite the dashes for which I share a fondness – suddenly morphs into the worst and most incomprehensible piece of writing that the English-speaking world has ungraciously bestowed on poor ordinary mortals.
But are we “ordinary”?
Oh yes, in many ways we are quite ordinary. We follow the same syllabus as tenth graders in the “lower 48” (the continental United States), so we can rest content with the happy knowledge that millions of public school sophomores are suffering the same ordinary despair that we so keenly feel. But arrayed in front of me are thirty students ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-six with otherworldly faces reminiscent of tribes wandering the steppes of central Asia many millennia previously.
When they realize I am as clueless as they, they respond with warm smiles – which is good because they outnumber me in mass, might, and experience (even if I can pronounce and understand words like “bosom,” “pallid,” and “brawny”). By contrast, their reading comprehension is between second and fifth grade, fully unprepared for George Eliot at her best – to say nothing of her worst.
So I re-read it, describing such foreign things as silk, spinning wheels, lanes, and (God help me – you know I try – “remnants of a disinherited race,” i.e., itinerant peddlers and weavers of which Silas Marner was one). I explain English country life with its classism (which they cannot grasp) likening it to racism (which they can). They respond with more blank stares – although this time with a hint of mischief or chagrin.
It is going to be a long nine weeks.
Along with three other students from Bennington College, I have entered the unhallowed halls of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school created on a small island adjoining Sitka for educating Alaskan natives. Except for this, only the five largest cities – Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka – sport local high schools, effectively disenfranchising those natives who live in remote areas. So the Bureau pays for two students from each village to come to Mt. Edgecumbe to finish their studies. And here they are – Eskimos from the North, Aleuts from the western archipelago, Athabascans from the interior, and Tlingits and Haidas from the south, with a few students from smaller tribes scattered throughout the state.
Bennington College’s Non-Resident Term is an exciting opportunity for the administration to save money on heating and snow plowing during the winter, for faculty to do “real stuff,” and for students to work in museums, prep schools, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in Boston, New York City and other hubs of civilizations. Very few manage to make it west of the Appalachians – to say nothing of 57 degrees latitude (further north than Moscow). But some wonderful person has worked out an arrangement with the BIA to hire four of us as teacher’s aides, and so I (a freshman) and three sophomores show up on January 2, 1966 – exactly one day after the great fire that destroyed St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the great landmark of Sitka. More to the point, however, it was on that day that one of the English teachers decided to quit – on the spot.
So, in addition to our planned assignments (orchestra and band for me), Debbie Brown and I are assigned two classes each of tenth grade English. No problem, explains the principal – here is the lesson plan – we go by the same requirements as the schools in the lower 48 – they just finished their year of American literature in which they read Moby Dick, Scarlet Letter, and Huckleberry Finn….
Now standing at the front of the classroom, I mutter under by breath: “No problem for him – perhaps it’s easier for a man to explain bosoms….”
The second paragraph of Silas Marner (arguably the worst of the “great English novels”) poses different challenges:
“The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag? – and these pale men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the Evil One.”
I struggle to explain “aliens” and “shepherds” and “flaxen” and even “linen” to the curious faces before me. When I get to “without the help of the Evil One,” I know I am on fragile ground, for truly it must be Satan, in the guise of Silas Marner, who has come to torment me and the winsome students of Mrs.-Steinberg’s-now-Miss-Wright’s first tenth grade English class. The only thing they can understand is “early winter sunset,” for winter comes early in the far north of Alaska (September, to be exact). Here in early January in the southern archipelago area – fondly called the “banana belt,” – we enjoy about two hours of daylight, with an hour of dark twilight on either side. Each day, however, adds about twenty minutes of sun, which means that I and the other three interns can explore and fall in love with this beautiful country and its people.
Religion and education have been historically intertwined in Alaska since 1884, when Congress authorized funds for the Secretary of the Interior to provide free education to Alaskan children without regard to race. Sheldon Jackson was appointed to oversee the opening and operation of schools throughout the territory. He, a Presbyterian, encouraged his church and other denominations to open missions and schools throughout Alaska. Functionally this now means that most children of the North Slope are Presbyterian, whereas Quakers dominate the western coast, and the inland middle are Episcopalian. Scattered among them are Roman Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, and Russian Orthodox. I reflect that Alaska is a miniature of the Christian world, noting how various Protestant denominations prevail in different countries, with Roman Catholic and Orthodox influences throughout. But even with good religious training, my students glaze over at mention of “the Evil One.” Would that I could do the same.
My father’s father (a mining engineer and world traveler) had warned me that I would never escape the charms of Sitka and its surrounding area, regaling me with stories of his work as a geologist with the National Geological Survey in 1900-1902 to map the area from Glacier Bay and Skagway south to the southernmost tip. He later studied and lived in various places throughout Europe and South America, and so I believed him when he said that Sitka was the most beautiful spot on earth. “You get glimpses of this beauty in western Scotland and parts of Italy and Greece, where steep hills crash into the ocean – but nowhere are the mountains as majestic, or the coves as tranquil, or the color as intense. And, of course, nowhere else are the people as friendly, and nowhere else will you see bald eagles as plentiful as sparrows, and whales, seals, moose, and caribou in such abundance. It is an opera for your eyes and a ballet for your heart.”
Grandaddy is right – about both the terrain and the people. If there is one word that describes everyone we meet – student, teacher, shopkeeper – it is friendly. Sour, surly and standoffish are foreign concepts here. Everyone is nice; everyone seems happy that we are here.
But this only makes the imaginary-but-keenly-felt presence of Silas Marner, a.k.a. Satan, all the more disquieting. The students grasp neither the Victorian culture nor the overwrought language. Forcing this horrific tale on these friendly innocents feels like stuffing them with raw rice followed by gallons of water; I am torturing both them and me. (The sudden departure of the previous teacher begins to make sense.)
Something’s gotta give, but what? The principal gives me carte blanche to devise a better approach while also reminding me that Silas Marner is the approved curriculum and that other teachers have used it without complaints.
What am I to do? From tutoring for several years in the inner city, I know that education needs to be both challenging and playful; it must respect students as they are while also encouraging them to stretch their limits. Here in Alaska, tests and contests would fail, for the students are non-competitive and unwilling (or unable) to show off. Whatever plan I devise must respect a culture in which individual superiority is scorned, and humility and community are celebrated.
At some point, seemingly out-of-the-blue, Divine Inspiration or the Muses of Literature and Education come up with a solution: I tell them to read as much of the novel as they can stomach, giving them a one-page summary in simple English and swearing them to secrecy. Then they can honestly state that they “read” Silas Marner.
For the next two months, they work in pairs as each writes a simple “how-to” instruction. “How to prepare whale blubber, how to sew a sealskin parka, how to construct an “umiak” (Eskimo boat), how to roast a duck or make caribou stew – or whatever – try to be as thorough as you can – write it for someone like me who is totally ignorant [I make a stupid face and they laugh] – and use simple, clear English.”
After writing, they exchange with their partners and discuss both “essays.” They can rewrite as many times as they wish, and when their partner understands what they have written, they each get an “A.”
We spend the first half of each session writing and discussing the essays. Some are overly spare: “Take boteandspeer [boat and spear] anfindawale [and find a whale] killitantakehoam [kill it and take home]. Missing are punctuation marks and spaces between words – to say nothing of detail. Others are challenging in opposite ways, e.g., a run-on sentence that lasts three pages. And some are quite wonderful, worthy of Hemingway at his best. For the second half of the class, I put samples of their writing on the chalkboard, explaining basic spelling, syntax, and grammar. I find examples of both good and unclear writing, always keeping the authors anonymous. Not as charming as my father, nor as steely as my mother, my “can-do” style is birthed in a military high school in Germany and a Native American one in Alaska.
Or would it be more accurate to say smug and solipsistic? Despite the respect I had for the gentle demeanor and communal culture of the students, I am equally impressed by my own Yankee ingenuity – with its full measure of attendant arrogance. Would I ever learn? Would the heady joys of being helpful and successful in a land filled with beauty and kindness ever reap their rewards?
Looking back many years later, I realize that I shared both Dad’s innocence and Mom’s toughness. (Sadly, I mastered neither Dad’s easy charm nor Mom’s brilliant manipulative skills.) Until I was thirty, I approached life like Dad, presuming that if I were friendly and moderately responsible, nothing unpleasant would happen to me.
My head and my heart were constantly dueling, and yet I presumed a happy outcome where both parts would win.
I had so much to learn.