Sunday, November 19, 2017
Onward and Onward
It's funny how something can enter your life and then after a very short while feel indispensable. All this time you were getting along just fine without it, but now you'd be hollow if it were taken away. Alaska is like that for me. Or at least, what Alaska has brought is like that for me.
Alaska gave me independence. That elusive dream I chased and despaired over, whose shadow filled my early posts with so much angst, was at last realized when I accepted a teaching position here eight months ago. For eight months I have been able to stand on my own two feet, and already that experience has indelibly changed me.
I feel, in a way, that I am becoming the person I was always supposed to be: confident, dignified, forthright, but also generous and quick to laugh. The strength comes more easily now, and doesn't leave in my mind the insidious fear of backlash. The generosity comes more easily, too, and doesn't carry with it the tinge of weakness. Because I'm not posturing for anyone else now; I'm living for myself. Living for yourself makes such a difference.
With hindsight, by the way, it's no wonder I was so miserable all the time.
How can you insist on the treatment you deserve when you live at someone else's mercy? What autonomy do you have when your world can be upended on another person's whim? And how much of yourself can you really give when you're just barely making it in the world, and that by virtue of a family member's (tenuous) charity? From my parents to my grandmother, I was forced to linger far longer than I ought to have done with people who harbored a fundamental lack of respect for me.
It's been eight months since I started paying my own way, and it already feels like several years.
That's the other thing about the old AK: living here feels very much like living in a time warp. I don't know if it's because I'm now working a regular nine-to-five kind of deal, or because our isolation creates a hermetic seal from the outside world, or because of several things working together, but a great deal seems to transpire here in a short period. We're on the cusp of Christmas break now, something that boggles my mind, and as we near the mid-point of the school year I am, even given the stresses of the job, engaged in a kind of internal chorus line of approbation.
I live on my own.
I make good money.
I am good at my job.
I like my job.
I hoofed it 4,000 miles across the continent, by myself, and made it work.
I am capable and smart and more than my abusers ever said I could be.
I did it.
If this feels smug or self satisfied, it's not supposed to. It's more a celebration that I worked my ass off for a really long time, then finally got to see the rewards of that effort. I got so used to being ashamed, so used to feeling like a failure, that some part of me thought I'd never be able to stand on my own. And here I am. Whatever opportunities and pitfalls the future brings, I have done that most improbable of things and have seen myself for the competent and well-equipped person I am. That curtain, once opened, can never be drawn back.
Which is not to say, by the way, that triumph for me has meant triumph over anyone else. I've decided to have relationships with my mother and father, despite the serious mistreatment they showed me for many years, because I would rather walk a path of forgiveness and reconciliation with people I love than define myself in opposition to someone else. The latter is a life guided by hatred. I choose a life guided by peace. That can mean absolution and a new bond, as in the case of my parents. It can mean electing, without malice, to stay away from people who are irredeemably toxic, as in the case of my birth-mother. But I am no longer in a position of having to subordinate myself for survival. I can choose.
Having that choice is incomparable.
As to the job itself, well...that's a process. We're isolated here, without the amenities that the vast majority of Americans take for granted. Going to the "grocery store" requires a trek down an icy hill, often in the face of wind-borne snow, and simple pleasures like coffee or books arrive from Amazon Prime via planes that often don't fly. Entertainment is what you make it. Loneliness is easy to come by.
The community itself is one defined by a lot of love, but also by the legacy of invasion and cultural destruction. Sometimes the despair engendered by that loss is surprisingly close to the surface. A generation ago, these people lived essentially in communion with the land, making their way in the same fashion their ancestors had for thousands of years before them. And then the Americans came.
"We want the kids to know what they come from," one Native staff member shared during a group exercise about a month ago. "But our way of life is disappearing. Our language is being forgotten. The Western society came in so fast..."
Her husband placed his arm around her shoulder as she began to quietly weep. Not quite Western. Not quite Native. The Americans ended one mode of living without really providing a viable alternative, and the results of that are felt here in high unemployment, alcoholism, and a kind of aimlessness. The same question, unspoken, seems to lurk just behind everyone's lips: What are we supposed to do? Where do we go from here?
Drinking is illegal but widespread. Rape and domestic violence linger like beastly shadows on the edges of our lives. So far this school year, there have been two murders. Both were met with grief, fury, confusion. Anguish.
I get the children of those households. Some of them are angry, some sad, some happy but not happy to be here, some willing and able to work, some able but not willing. The great, great majority are good kids, but there can be a lot of emotional baggage to wade through. So it's a more challenging teaching environment than what you would typically find, and requires a balanced perspective. If you take things personally, you're toast.
In all, though? I'd say I'm doing pretty well. Not that none of it ever bothers me. Sometimes it does. Seeing as I came out of a very difficult childhood myself, though, I have some insights most adults don't have, and I know that the sentiment sometimes directed at me isn't really about me. In addition to that, one of the things I've learned about myself during these eight months of autonomy is that I'm a pretty easygoing guy, something that has served me very well in a community where flexibility is lifeblood.
I treat the students with respect, even when I have to correct them, and the consequence is that I have a pretty good rapport with the majority of my kids. Most things don't bother me--You want snacks in class? Sure. Go nuts--and they have caught on to what does (disrespect, of me or their peers, is a no-no). In turn, I've gotten to know some of their individual quirks and hang-ups. Generally, I feel like we're moving towards a workable place.
Then again, this was a really good week. Check in with me again after a tough day so I can tell you how I'm questioning my every single decision as an educator and contemplating becoming a vacuum salesman.
Now we're at about the halfway mark of the year (again, mind blowing). Tomorrow inaugurates a two-day school week of festive movies, followed by a four-and-a-half-day weekend, followed by just two full weeks of actual academic work before things really wind down for Christmas. There are actually three weeks between the two breaks, but trust me: nothing is happening during the five days before we release for the holidays. Native Alaskan communities move at a slower pace and put high value on both leisure and family time. That makes for some very relaxed days around official vacations and is one of the definite upsides of the job.
On December 15 we dismiss for Christmas, and on December 17 I'm headed to Iceport. After an evening and a day in the city I'll depart on December 18 on an overnight flight to the East Coast, whence I'll arrive sometime during the afternoon of December 19. Then it's eleven days back home. Eleven days with family and friends. Eleven days of roads and restaurants and iced coffee on demand. However much I've adjusted to being here, I'm excited about that.
I'm also not especially daunted by the prospect of a 4,000-mile flight; I booked first class, because I make good money and why the hell not? Again, I don't mean to be crass. I'm just sort of overjoyed that I can like, do things now. For someone who is not particularly materialistic--at all--I spent probably ten years being absolutely obsessed with money, namely how little I had of it and how the consequences of that not-having were always on the verge of swamping me. Now I fly first class.
"I just dropped like, close to two grand that I was not expecting to spend," I told my father during one of our weekly phone calls. "And I still have enough to pay all my bills. I still have enough to put some in savings. A year ago that would have destroyed me. Now I can cover a big expense and be okay. It's such a cool feeling."
Teaching here requires sacrifices but confers big financial rewards. If you're able to hack it, you will be compensated handsomely. Then again, you also have to wear snow chains on your boots and can use your front porch as a freezer, so I suppose everything is a trade-off.
I'll continue writing about those trade-offs, and about the decisions I make as I navigate them. Thank you for being so tolerant of my lapsed posting schedule since I returned here in August. And thanks for continuing to check in as I figure everything out.
The figuring-out feels like a cool place to be.