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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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