“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.
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