Sunday, March 18, 2012

Exhausting Situation

Our quickest road to Awakening is to begin seeing all obstacles as Teachers. --Pema Chodron

A friend posted that quote on Facebook this morning. I had scanned it quickly and it registered in my brain as "Our quickest road to Awakening is to see all obstacles as Teachers. " My first reaction was just a sigh and surrender to the role we teachers have as whipping boys for all that ails our schools.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, there are some legitimate reasons to come to that conclusion.

The post was made by a teacher that usually has something real to say about a perspective and I did take the additional ten seconds to re-read the quote a couple more times.  My take now is that it is the truth about how to navigate this life with intelligence, integrity and grace.  Problems that come our way are just our chances, OK, our tests, to be real and honest and to not hide motivations and solutions behind selfish delusions.

Wouldn't you know, that those words would come to me just as I am dealing with a most difficult situation here in Tuntutuliak.

Last Thursday was a  challenging day in the class, but I knew that the solution involved  do-able actions on my part. A couple of kids were taking normal, but obnoxious jr hi goofiness to another level.  Surliness had crossed the line from pouting and mean looks to knocking things off of desks while  shouting some very bad Yup'ik words at me. 


I pulled out my check sheet and soon both of these students earned an after-school detention. A teacher can't show anger.  If you lose it, they know they can get to you and it's all over.

I smiled and blinked my eyes as I told them they would be staying after school.  After they offered up a few more choice words, both sat and put heads on hands.  The boy pulled his coat over his head.  This was good. Cool off a bit.  They chilled and I left them alone.

Luckily, the other students had a different reaction as things became unpleasant with these two. 

One girl that usually always does her work, but does so while being loud and silly, is now quiet and gets to subtracting unlike fractions with borrowing with focused determination.  She does like to prove she can figure things out and once again, proves she can. I am so pleasantly surprised and impressed that she didn't join the fray as I would have predicted that she would.

A boy who is becoming a man and who has never caused the smallest problem aside from not getting all of his assignments in, comes sits by me and works though every confusion he has and get done with his math early. School doesn't have much meaning to him, but he is polite and nice and goes through the motions.  Everyday he tells me about his after school hunts.  He is humble and shares accounts of his unsuccessful hunts with matter-of-fact acceptance that one is not always lucky. Big smiles accompany the stories of each hare or ptarmigan now destined to be a meal.

The boy who lived a homeless year in Anchorage and has the attention span of a kid, well, who comes from such dysfunctionality gets every problem done.  Does it really matter that he got everyone wrong?

The girl who had the breakdown is one of my most favorite students ever.  Oh, she is difficult and her impulsive nature will bring her a lot of unnecessary grief.  She is also my best math student this year.  I can explain things to her once or twice and she gets it.  She's a good enough reader and loves to do so out loud in class. She will pick up a book for recreation. She gets the bigger point of a story.  No kidding, she even stays after school to clean my dry erase board. What more can a teacher want?

Not long after her meltdown and on her own, she goes and works with the kid who got  all the answers wrong,  In twenty minutes he has them all right.

I retired after twenty five years of full-time teaching because I could sense that whatever reserve of patience with students that I had remaining was near and end.  Now, as a temporary teacher for hire, I am a mercenary and bring a cold-blooded attitude to the cold-hardened places of bush Alaska.  I don't own a problem any more than I have to and that attitude lets me have some acceptance of living away from my other life.  That acceptance gets mistaken for patience.

I love my other life.  These stints in the village provide the time and finances to enable that other wild and precious time.

Well, all that you have read so far is just the setup for the obstacle that has now become my current teacher. 

So, I assigned detention to the two students who misbehaved. Both are capable of expressing their anger and frustrations with some degree of destructiveness.  Before reporting for detention, the two announce that they are not going to go and mill about with other students  now dismissed at the end of the day.  My house is at the base of the stairs of the main door.  My porch is an after school and evening hangout.

They eventually do go to detention and do their time.  When they are released, they come out and turn in their verification slips with insolence and go home with a bad attitude. I finish up my day entering grades and such and then make my 15-second commute home.  When I open my door, there's a fog of diesel exhaust in the arctic entry.  When i open the door to my living/dining room-kitchen, I'm engulfed in serious fumes.  I turn off the Toyon room heater that is spewing exhaust in the house and open the one functional window I have. 
The vent is on the right side of my house

The now sawed off vent pipe

I then went outside and the cause of the problem was immediately evident.  Someone had bent the exhaust pipe 90+ degrees and pinched the vent completely off.  Phillip, one of the school custodians was in the utility shed.  He was apologetically disappointed upon hearing my news.  He found a screwdriver and after I had bent the pipe back to it’s former position, I used the tool to pry open enough of the still crimped end to let the heater vent properly. Mark, the head custodian, came over with a saws-all and cut off the damaged extrusion.

I waited outside my door, now opened to the single-digit outdoor temps to air out the poisonous gas. An itinerant teacher visiting Tunt who had planned to join me for an after-work walk on the Kinak River waited with me. Her supportive presence helped keep the incident in perspective.

A week before, I had come to be at peace with agreeing to stay on here until the end of the school year.  Despite the Siren call of my other life and the snowfall to have made life back home a ski-bum’s paradise, I’ve accepted a tradeoff born of delayed gratification.  By finishing the term in Tuntutuliak, the LKSD granted my request to return home for a two-week taste of my other life. For the eight months following the end of this latest contract extension, I have an escape to Mexico booked, summer fun in Alaska awaiting and a travel adventure that includes a week in NYC, six weeks in Africa and a month in Turkey. 

Gratification that is worth a delay and the sacrifice of a ski-bum winter.

This exhausting incident has brought a cold callousness to the already cold bleakness of life here.  If it had happened at night, I might have woken up dead.  During the hour I let my house air, I thought that my likely solution was to the leave the village and to leave soon. 

Yeah, what doesn't kill you makes you stranger.

I locked up my house and Judith, the traveling speech pathologist, and I began our river walk.  We saw a fox scurry across the icy snow.  I then felt another presence and looked around.  Two kids were running to join us and they hung with us as we followed some snowgo tracks onto the tundra to the northwest.  We took every left-bearing snowgo track and gradually made our counter-clockwise way back to the river. We returned to my house an hour and half after we started.

The house still smelled like diesel, but the fumes were no longer overwhelming.  I kept the window open and began to make dinner. 

I couldn't jump to any conclusions.  I wasn't sure if the pipe had been bent shut out of maliciousness or if it was just some random act of typical village vandalism with no thought to consequence.

I reserved judgment until the morning; I wanted a chance to talk to my students.  Were the two detention recipients somehow connected to the vandalism?  If so, dealing with malicious intent could ripple out to reactions that went beyond prediction. 

Worse, there would be sense of betrayal that i just didn't want to deal with.  I could not envision staying on.

All of my students reacted to the news with a sense of concern for me.  Not only were none of them involved, but they quickly fingered the culprit.  It was the son of one of the village VPSOs, village public safety officers, the deputized keepers of law and order.  My students were happy to turn him in.  He was a bully and did mean things to other kids. 

He was also one of the kids who had just joined me for the post-incident walk.

I’ve never had a negative interaction with him, so there was no maliciousness that was instigated by anger towards me.  I can’t begin to explain his motivation however. He’s old enough to know what the outcome of his action could have been.

Before we solved the whodunit, I had emailed the LKSD HR director and my principal, who was in Anchorage at a meeting.  The director duly noted the severity of the problem and offered his support in dealing with the matter.

The acting principal called the kid’s mother.  The mother proceeded to cuss out that teacher and blame the school for her kid’s actions. How nice.

It so happens that there was a basketball tourney in Bethel for elementary school kids this weekend.  The culprit was on the team and now not allowed to go along.  After school, I tied to ask the kid what his motivation was and he just walked away. He couldn’t/wouldn’t even look at me.

Friday afternoon was also Parent-Teacher conferences.  We dismissed after lunch.  During the morning session, all my students were stunningly well-behaved and each one completed all of their school work without the slightest resistance.  Several asked with genuine concern if the exhaust might have killed me.  Two reported that the exact same thing had happened at their houses.

Is it inevitable that someone will die as the result of a prank?

Before parents started showing up for conferences, one of the Yup’ik staff came to me and apologized as community member.  She was embarrassed that it had happened.  Most all of my parents showed up to chat about their kid.  Everyone was happy that I was there. Apparently, all of the kids are complaining that I give too much class work.  That’s what they need was the parents' consensus.  One was glad that they brought me in rather than a guss’ik.  He realized what he had said and then clarified that I wasn’t a guss’ik that had no idea about how to live in a village.

For now, I am once again OK with my decision to remain in Tuntutuliak

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