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Circling Excerpt 4: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (Third Section)

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

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.

 

 

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Circling Excerpt 2: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (First Section)

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

This is the first third of Chapter 1.  It goes downhill from here.  And up, and around.  And around.  I invite you to subscribe so that you will receive all the postings.  And I genuinely welcome your comments.

Thanks so much!

Circling_cover

1.     Geography

 

“There is an eternal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.”

— Josephine Hart

 

Retracing the circular journey, it seems that whatever success I have had in life began with the need for a precautionary pee in Germany, the benefits of a dirty mind in Vermont, and the challenges of teaching Eskimos in Alaska.

 

Most of my childhood memories were agreeable but atypical. In high school in Washington, D.C., I was part of a pseudo-intellectual set. My friends and I took hikes along Rock Creek, held pretentious “philosophy parties” with jug wine on the weekend, enjoyed sunrise breakfasts to watch the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, and conducted poetry readings at twilight on canoes going down the river. I still blush to remember the time I was asked to bring poetry by Keats. Unable to find any of his works in my parents’ bookshelves, I brought a volume of Yeats instead. (I figured that Yeats was a lot like Keats, just a different first letter…)

Teenagers in what was becoming the most important city of the world enjoyed a heady combination of Southern ingenuousness and Northern sophistication. The city was indubitably gracious: children gave up their seats to adults on the bus, men opened doors for women, and salespeople were always friendly. In 1960, Kennedy and his Camelot cabinet had just come to town, with brilliant minds and enough openhearted largesse to save the city, the country, and the world. Civil rights and urban renewal became the watchwords of the day, and my parents were prominent activists in both areas. It was an enchanting town for insiders.

With encouragement from my mother, a precinct captain for the Democrats and active in numerous social and political causes, ten of my friends organized a publicity campaign to improve the deplorable physical conditions of the D.C. public schools. Four others joined me in tutoring junior high school and elementary school students in a less affluent part of town. And when my best friend Mabrie and I got television and newspaper coverage following our refusal to pay the “discriminatory and illegal” class dues imposed by the school principal, we gained special prestige among the “teenage intelligentsia” that we all thought ourselves to be. Like the city itself, we were full of ourselves; in a word, insufferable.

Looking back, I warrant that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. For better and worse, my parents both grew up with a sense of invulnerability and self-importance, and my subconscious goal was to match their outrageous teenage stories with one or more of my own.

 

My father’s classic story, paraded for special occasions, new suitors, and interested grandchildren, involved a real-life duel. Yes, the kind with swords, against a nobleman, at dawn, over a woman – the full nine yards. He had an elaborate narrative about visiting his parents in northern Italy where his father was managing several mines for an English company. It was the summer of 1939 and Dad had just finished his freshman year at college. Entering the local bar, he met a nobleman, the fiancé of an attractive woman who sometimes played tennis with Dad. When the duke loudly insulted America for its stance on fascism, Dad responded by criticizing Hitler and Mussolini.

The enraged duke slapped Dad backhanded on the cheek, a challenge to combat. Perhaps he assumed that Dad would back down or lack the skill to engage in a duel, which had been outlawed in Italy for nearly fifty years. But Dad, who was on the fencing team at college, gleefully chose swords as the weapon of choice before returning home to spend a sleepless night and await the dawn.

The fight, which was held at daybreak in a gentle grove overlooking a river, included an attending doctor and two seconds. The duke came dressed in black velvet pantaloons, a white silk shirt, and elegant leather boots, while Dad showed up bare-chested, in tennis shorts and golf shoes (for extra traction). It was reportedly an arduous encounter because the two were evenly matched in strength and skill.

Dad’s fighting skills tended toward the defensive, and he saw that the duke often left his right flank exposed just after thrusting forward. So, awaiting a good opportunity, Dad set up an attack in such a way that when the duke lunged forward, Dad parried to the right, pulling his opponent with him. When the duke brought his sword back to the left to strike again, Dad snapped his to his right, such that his opponent impaled his forearm on the tip of Dad’s blade. Dad gleefully explained that he gently passed off the sword – with the duke’s arm still attached – to the surgeon before walking off to shower and play tennis with the duke’s now ex-girlfriend.

How much of it happened as Dad described? Though I’m quite sure that my ever-gracious father added plenty of dramatic license, one had only to meet him to know that the substance of the story was true. His persona was marked by an ingenuous and enchanting self-assurance that fans of David Niven can recognize. I consider it a key to his character because on that day he understood that he was both charmed and charming.

 

My mother’s epic story happened in 1935, when the Gestapo stopped the train on which she was traveling from Göttingen to Paris while they grilled her on the whereabouts of the thousand dollars that she had had when she arrived in Germany to visit her governess’ family only three weeks earlier. Mom was an unwitting smuggler for peace activists in the United States who were helping to finance the exportation of German Jews after Hitler’s ascension to power. Unaware of how rapidly Hitler had corrupted German society, her father, a minister and antiwar activist, had given her money to take to his Lutheran counterpart in Germany.

In the dozen or so times that Mom recounted the story, she still hyperventilated as she relived the innocent-looking shrugs and bald lies employed to hide the truth and protect her German friends. “Well, we went out to the opera several times, and I bought a whole bunch of clothes, and, oh yes, I had to buy presents for all of my brothers and sisters and family and friends back home…” she said, looking bug-eyed, curling her mouth down, and shrugging her shoulders in a most perplexed manner. Exasperated after questioning this fourteen-year-old ingénue for two hours, the Gestapo finally let the train proceed. And thus her teenage conquest of the Gestapo affirmed in her a steely courage and shrewd resourcefulness that was both a blessing and a curse.

 

With an inheritance of $1,000 from a great aunt, I traveled for a year between high school and college, taking classes and working for six months as an au pair in Germany and then meandering through Spain, Italy, and Greece, doing such odd jobs as washing dishes and working on a road gang. Since my parents grew up shuttling between Europe and the States (although usually accompanied by governesses or older siblings), they were relatively sanguine about my going off alone.

Or maybe this is the blessing – and the curse – of privilege, for while my family was never affluent, I grew up with an assurance that “the world was my oyster.”  It was assumed that I would make a positive difference in the world and that my life would be relatively painless. But would the advantages of prestige and education offset assumptions of invincibility and the familial burdens of high expectation? — Only time would tell.

In the beginning, it seemed either that God was protecting me or that my innocence served more a talisman against evil spirits than an invitation to mischief. Few could believe that I was barely seventeen. That plus the fact that I lacked the experience to recognize a come-on meant that most people treated me as a mascot whom they needed to protect rather than a love object. (Or I had learned my mother’s easy graciousness without her sexuality, and somehow managed to translate that into a friendly, but hands-off, approachability.)

Europe was an extraordinary gift, for I discovered that simplicity is a virtue and that status and sophistication are not all they are cracked up to be. A basic vocabulary of phrases in Spanish, Italian, and Greek sufficed for a month or more in each country, and I commend them to all young ladies traveling alone. They are: “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” “please,” “thank you,” “I love you,” and “Don’t bother me.” (“I love you” is especially helpful for pre-adolescents and grandparents who will then take you under their wing, while “Don’t bother me” is important for all others.) These phrases, a ready smile, and body gestures kept me hale, hearty, and happy for almost a year.

Greece was a special haven. Everything sparkles in the brilliant Mediterranean sun – the crystal Aegean Sea, the white sandy beaches, the spotless whitewashed buildings, the hearts of the villagers and simple peasants. Running out of money about a week after arriving, I found a succession of jobs helping sell crafts to tourists, washing dishes in a nightclub, and clearing rocks on a road gang. The foreman could have been an understudy to Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek with his flashy smile and zest for life.

 

But then comes undeniable proof that my life is firmly in the grip of the bizarre. Because my first SAT scores were not as high as I want, I opt to take them a second time, which means hopping a train to Frankfurt to the U.S. Army enclave known as “Little America.”

Arriving at the American high school twenty-five minutes before the test is scheduled to begin, I find only two adult proctors setting up. Being well versed in the value of a precautionary pee, I ask for the nearest toilet and learn that the girls’ bathroom is nearly a quarter mile down labyrinthine hallways at the other end of the building.

After closing the stall door, I discover the latch is broken. I am trapped in a cell that is two feet wide, five feet deep, eight feet high, and just shy of a quarter mile from the nearest human being. I spend five minutes in grueling attempts to shimmy up the slippery sides of the stall and lunge from the toilet seat to the top, hyperventilating all the while. (“Damn me – if I were as agile as my sister Allegra I could just shimmy up the walls. If I were as strong as my brother Peter I could muscle my way over. But I’m useless and helpless. Damn me!”)

I consider screaming but that is pointless. The proctors are far away, and there are apparently no other students with college aspirations. I decide on one last attempt before breaking down in tears and writing off the possibility of college later this year. Removing my shoes and socks to get better traction with bare feet, I breathe deeply, conjure up positive affirmations, place both feet on top of the toilet seat, and lunge for the top of the stall. This time I am able to get one toe over the top and then bully my ankle to the other side. I reach up, get an arm hold, and then carefully slide my body up and forward.

At which time the unbelievable happens. I am literally eight feet in the air with bare legs straddling both sides of the toilet stall, congratulating myself on my physical prowess and simultaneously trying to catch my breath, when the door opens and a young woman walks in. I say a sheepish “hello” and am about to explain why I am perched bare-footed atop this strange aerie. She looks up, spies me hovering like a raptor overhead, and bolts out. Sliding down and washing my hands in warm water to calm down, I chuckle at her terror. There seems something oddly familiar about her, but I can’t place it.

A minute or two later, she walks back in – more calmly this time – and looks skeptically at me, asking, “Felicity???” I instantly recognize Alice Kraft, a good friend from elementary and junior high school whom I haven’t seen in four years. I also know this is the most memorable story of bumping into old friends in strange places imaginable.

In that instance, I discover that terror is temporary and happiness can be found in adventurous abandon. I will go crazy places, encounter bizarre situations and, catlike, end up on top with eight more lives and a good story to boot.

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At the top of the world

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost community of the United States, lying inside the Arctic Circle and north of North Pole, Alaska. It is flat, treeless, white, and wonderful!

Compared to the world capitals that I have come to love, Barrow is a bit, well, barren.  But while the town doesn’t have that much to commend it (except for some distinct and delightful “characters,” the Inupiat (Eskimo) people sure do! They combine playfulness and joie-de-vivre with a serious intentionality to do the right thing. It was a joy to spend two days with them last week, and I hope to return in February.

In earlier posts, I  promised a bit more background on the consulting project I am working on, but here’s the gist: it’s with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Federal Holding Company (see www.asrcfederal.com), a subsidiary of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (see www.asrc.com).  ASRC was established as part of the Alaskan Native Settlement Claims Act (ANSCA) that appropriated native land in exchange for money to develop 12 regional corporations throughout Alaska.  ASRC, on the North Slope, is the largest. Its mission is to serve its shareholders — the Inupiat people of the North Slope — with dividends through business proceeds as well as supporting new educational and employment efforts.

The Federal Holdings company is the only ASRC subsidiary outside Alaska; a minority-owned business, it supports federal agencies with technical and support services.  As you might imagine, many of the employees of ASRC Federal have never been to Alaska and have limited knowledge of the Inupiat culture and values.  My effort is to develop a Cultural Awareness Program to educate them on the rich traditions, customs, and moral underpinnings of the people of the North Slope.

In short, I get to travel to amazing places, meet wonderful people, and learn about their history, art, language, and values.  And so, here are a few pictures:

The sun doesn’t rise or set in Barrow for 2 months in the winter. These photos were taken in mid-day in mid-winter with a background flash.  There is a deep twilight from about noon-2:00 pm.

Note, there is no “hitching post” for horses, but the Ford Broncos and other motorized vehicles hook up to electric plugs for engine block heaters.  When it’s really cold, people leave the cars running all night.

The Inupiat artwork is amazing. This basket is constructed from threads of whale baleen, with a handle of walrus ivory.

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North to Alaska, Part 3: Spirit Strikes Thrice

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

If you haven’t read the two previous posts on “North to Alaska,” I recommend that you do so before reading this.  Thanks.

They say that good news – like bad news – comes in threes. It reportedly is folk wisdom, but I surmise Trinitarian underpinnings. Could it be that the Holy One is like a stool needing three legs to provide support, and that the Creator, Christ, and Spirit are merely differing varieties of the same life-giving substance much like ice, water, and steam…?

… Or perhaps the magic-three rule exists for no other reason than to keep us hopeful of more blessings or to find comfort in the assurance that misfortune is finite? Who knows?

What I do know is that I was the happy recipient of three distinct blessings during Thanksgiving week.

It all began in mid-October, when I received an email from Lisa Young, who had heard from Amy Greene that I was looking for freelance work while going through the tedious process of finding another pastorate. Amy is a dear friend and former colleague from RWD Technologies, where I worked before ordained ministry.  Lisa also worked at RWD but in a different department; she left to become a Vice-President with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) and eventually enjoined Amy to join her team.  The email was brief: “Amy told me you were available for freelancing; call me if you are willing to work with the native population in northern Alaska.”

My heart raced as I called her back, ecstatic with memories of Mt. Edgecumbe.  The ASRC project was still in its planning stages, Lisa said, but she was happy to hear of my availability and enthusiasm.  Over the next few weeks, the three of us brainstormed possibilities, and Lisa discussed options with her supervisors.  She then asked her associate Sheila Boyd to design a contract for me to spend six months helping to develop a cultural awareness program. The contract was finalized the day before Thanksgiving.

But this wasn’t just any ol’ job – this was going back to the place and people that had formed me.  I would be doing ministry (albeit not parish ministry) in ways and for people that I treasured.  So many times since April 1966 had I dreamed of returning to the 49th state, but kept putting it off because the costs were outside my budget and a routine tourist trip would not reconnect me with the places and people of Alaska that I had come to love.  But now here it was – dropped like manna from heaven!  Considering the state of my and the country’s economy, it appeared that the Holy Spirit had been working overtime on my behalf. Thanksgiving was personal and intense

But that was just the first part. It happens that Debbie Brown, one of the other three Bennington College interns, had recently moved from the East Coast to the East Bay.  Even more to the point, she had returned to Alaska in 1967 and 1968 to work in a native high school just outside of Nome.  Best of all, she would loan her senior thesis on teaching Alaskan natives as well as source materials for her research.  We spent the Tuesday after Thanksgiving poring over the Mt. Edgecumbe High School yearbook, Volcanic Vibrations (a literary journal we helped with) and Tundra Times, the irregular newspaper for Alaskan Natives. Contract + reconnecting with a dear friend = Spirit strikes twice.

The final blessing of the week came in the mail when I returned home, specifically the winter sale catalog from REI. Knowing that I would be going to Barrow, Alaska (the northernmost point of the United States) in a few weeks, I spent Wednesday scarping up huge discounts on boots, parkas, long underwear, balaclavas and other requisites for surviving temperatures of minus 40.  I gleefully produced a 20% off coupon while purchasing $189 mittens designed to prevent frostbite in the Himalayas, Antarctica, and Alaska, and gave three-fold thanks for toasty fingers and a Trinity of blessings.

Next time – more on ASRC, the Inupiat (Eskimo) people, and Barrow, Alaska.  In the meanwhile, you might want to check out a recent television show on life in Barrow.  (Note that this was filmed several months ago, while there was still light. When I head there next week, it will be pitch black.  The sun won’t rise again until mid-February.)

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North to Alaska, Part 2: Score One for Spirit!

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Note to readers:  To appreciate this entry, I suggest you first read the entry for November 19, “North to Alaska, Part 1: Silas Marner and Me.”

Silas Marner (arguably the worst of the “great novels” written in English) continues:  “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 that I am treading on fragile territory, for truly it must be Satan, in the guise of Silas Marner, who has come to torment me and the winsome students of MHES. The only thing they can understand is “early winter sunset,” for winter comes very early in the far north of Alaska (September, to be more exact).  Here in early January in the southern archipelago area – familiarly 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 Bennington College interns can explore and fall in love with this beautiful country and its people.

My grandfather had warned me that I would never escape the charms of Sitka and its surrounding area, regaling me with stories of his two years’ working 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 numerous locations 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 he 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.

– Which only makes the imaginary-but-keenly-felt presence of Silas Marner, a.k.a. Satan, all the more disquieting.  The students grasp neither the English 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 English teacher is beginning to make sense.)

Something’s gotta give, but what?  The principal gives me carte blanche to figure out a better plan 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? The best education is both challenging and playful; it respects students as they are while also encouraging them to stretch their limits.  Tests and contests will not work, as the native Alaskans are non-competitive and unwilling (or culturally unable) to show off. Whatever plan I devise must respect the fact that individual superiority is scorned, while humility and community are celebrated.

At some point, seemingly out-of-the-blue, Holy Inspiration comes up with a solution: I ask them to read as much of the novel as they can stomach, give them a one-page summary in simple English, and swear them to secrecy.  I then ask them to work in pairs, as each of them 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 they write their piece, they exchange with their partners, and they discuss both “essays.” They can rewrite as many times as they wish, and when their partner understands what they have written, each one gets an “A.”

We spend the first half of each class session writing and discussing their 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. So, for the rest of the class, I take samples of their writing, put them on the chalk board, and explain basic spelling, syntax, and grammar.  I find examples of both good and unclear writing, always keeping the authors anonymous.

The writing improves remarkably in just a few weeks, and I realize that this inspiration on collaborative “how-to” writing was truly heaven-sent.

Silas Marner, be damned!  Score one for Spirit, and give thanks!

In the next blog, I will explain what my fondness for the Alaskan natives has to do with my present life and how the Holy Spirit has, once again, come to my aid.  Please subscribe and keep reading.

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North to Alaska, Part 1: Silas Marner and Me

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

“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 had 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 eleventh graders in the “lower 48” (the continental United States), so we can rest content with the happy knowledge that millions of public school juniors are suffering the same ordinary despair that we so keenly feel. But arrayed in front of me are thirty students ranging in age from 16 to 26 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, defining most words and 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 colleagues from Bennington College, I have entered the unhallowed halls of Mt. Edgecumbe High School (MEHS), a boarding school created by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for the purpose of educating native Indians and Eskimos in Alaska. Except for MEHS, only the five cities – Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka – sport local high schools, effectively disenfranchising those natives who live in remote areas. So the BIA pays for two students from each village to come to MEHS to finish their studies.  And here they are – Eskimoes from the far 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 (even further north than Moscow). But some wonderful person has worked out an arrangement with the BIA to employ  four of us as teacher’s aides, and so I (a freshman) and three sophomores show up on January 2, 1966 – the day after the great fire destroyed St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the great landmark of Sitka.

It was on that same day that one of the English teachers decided to quit – on the spot.

So, along with helping with the orchestra and band, I am assigned two classes of 11th 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….

And since I have lived abroad for a year and spent a couple years as a volunteer tutoring children in inner-city schools in Washington, D.C., I am open to whatever adventures life my throw my way.

Except – I would soon learn – Silas Marner.  It did me in.  Forever.

Stay tuned – more on this soon!  Please subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss any of this riveting tale, plus learn why I am sharing stories of Alaska now, almost 43 years later.

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