Sunday, February 11, 2018
"I want you to know that you're leaving here with a positive evaluation and my endorsement," our principal said. "You are really solid. I've seen you with these kids. I will absolutely be a reference."
I bit back a laugh.
"You know, I'd just decided to stay," I told him. "I was on the fence all fall, and I just committed to it in my head. Kind of funny."
It's an odd conundrum when everyone involved in a professional relationship--the employee, the employer, the co-workers, the supervisors--is happy with a working arrangement and then it has to end anyway. When our site administrator first pulled me into his office to tell me that everyone but me would receive a contract for the coming 2018 - 2019 school year, I naturally wondered what I'd done wrong.
"Nothing," he said. "Nothing. If you had, we'd be having a very different conversation."
Budget cuts are happening everywhere, though, even in freewheeling bush Alaska, and after paring things down to the point of cutting choir and several other subjects, the district decided that the next thing they had to eliminate--in a horrible game of musical chairs that no one involved, district included, wants to be playing--was the social studies teacher. My area being a core subject, and required for secondary education, the remaining staff will have to divvy up amongst themselves the five separate subjects I'm currently teaching.
"Man," I posited. "I must have been really bad if I put you guys off on ever having a history teacher again."
The principal, Military Man, smiled.
"That would be something."
I'll depart Gori with good references, bankable bush experience (which is invaluable in this turnover-heavy part of the state), and a job market that can't afford to ignore me.
"There were schools last year that started in the fall with vacancies still unfilled," Military Man said. "Some of those vacancies from last year are open now. You'll have no problem finding a job."
Which is a huge advantage that I don't want to minimize. Most people who get the equivalent of a pink slip don't have the virtual guarantee of ready employment within a few months, nor priority with their previous employer for any new jobs that open up. But the fact remains that, had the decision been up to me, I would have stayed. Had the decision been up to my superiors, I would have stayed. Had the decision been up to anyone but the balance sheet of an accounting department, I would have stayed.
It's been a good thing here. Though I didn't want to remain indefinitely, I wanted to remain for a little, and I wasn't ready to go at this particular juncture, with niches carved and relationships established and the trust of some very wary kids earned. I wanted to be a positive in their lives. I wanted to be the kind of dependable presence that is so vital to adolescent well-being, and that is sometimes lacking in this challenged place. I wanted to be someone who came back. And now, however the situation arose, I'm going to be one more person who leaves. That kills me. The prospect of that conversation, which I'll have to have at some point, kills me.
"That's the whole teacher thing," said Goat Farmer, a middle-aged navy veteran and one of my co-workers. "That's why people come back even after an excruciating year. Because some kid came up and sat next to you at the pep rally and you realized they trusted you. And then you're like, 'Man. I kind of wish you hadn't done that. Now I'm invested in this.'"
I'm trying to be both positive and realistic. Yes, this hurts in the short term, but I'm just not important enough to be a make-or-break in these kids' lives, even if the prospect of occupying Number 1,000 on a long list of their disappointments is not one I relish. This could, furthermore, be an opportunity to find a community about which I'm really excited and where I can do really well. Which will be kind of necessary, because if I leave here disappointed--and I will--then I have to be enthused about the next destination. Nothing lukewarm will do.
To that end, I've decided that the fall will see me either on the road network, in one of Alaska's highway-connected cities; or in a part of the bush where the financial reward is substantial. I've already applied for one job hundreds of miles north of here, in a little town that straddles the Arctic Circle and pays about $5,000 a year more than what I make now. The daylight hours there are perilously short in the winter, but 11 a.m. sunrises didn't bother me here. Some people can deal with that and some can't. I think maybe some part of me was always supposed to come to Alaska.
It's strange. I spent my whole childhood moving, hopping up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and I looked forward to grown-up years when I could be settled in one place. Here I am, though, a grown-up, and through no fault of my own leading a decidedly migratory existence. I've been in Alaska less than a full year, and come August I will, seventeen months since moving to the state, have lived in three separate towns. Once again I'm packing up and shipping out. Once again I don't know where I'll be in six months.
And you know what's weird? I kind of like that. Am banking on it, even. I've known for a while I didn't want to stay in the bush more than a few years--there's just too much life to be lived yet--and known furthermore that I planned on teaching a year in Russia several years into my career. So I've been presuming a fair amount of jumping around without examining too closely why that is. I spent a long time agonizing over where "home" was, but maybe now I'm beginning to see the peculiar way I grew up as an advantage in certain respects. That restlessness. It's one of the things that has surprised me as I've gotten to know myself this last year.
That is not to say, by the way, that I can't stay put. I would have stayed put here, at least for another year, and been very happy about that. Even as I mourn being forced to look once more to the horizon, though, some part of me, however small, feels excitement rising in his chest. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
If life in bush Alaska has taught me one thing, it's that sometimes you just have to go with things. I'll let you know how that going carries off.