On the morning of Monday, August 19, 1991, the same day that the news lead with reports of chaos in Moscow and the ominous Soviet news-speak that Mikhail Gorbachev “had a cold,” the school year officially began. It was worth pondering that the Cold War motivated the Canadian government to take interest in Arctic sovereignty and that I was starting work on a day when the last chapter of that history was being written, but the big picture was far from my thoughts. I went to school early to practice calibrating my tone of voice to the precise mix of friendliness, purpose and compassion to set the tone I wanted to set in the classroom and choose the words that would most easily squeeze past my heart’s place in my throat. I paced the classroom alone, visualizing how I wanted the morning and the rest of my year to proceed. As I was trying to get my head around the next few hours ahead, Davidi scurried into the room, his panic palpable.
He darted about, angled over to peer into each desk for a view of the contents inside. My own thoughts strayed to the realization that the students left their stuff in their desks throughout the summer, something that drove home the fact that it was their classroom more than anyone else’s. I finally asked Davidi what he was doing. He explained that he was looking for the desk of one Willie Iyaituk, a 15-year-old boy who had committed suicide that summer. It was the first I had heard of his name. Davidi found Willie’s desk and emptied it. Before I could fully absorb what Davidi just told me, he added that Willie’s little sister Lydia Iyaituk and his girlfriend Maggie Luuku were in my class. He then left, clutching Willie’s belongings to his chest. I was too stunned to contemplate the questions I ought to have asked and merely scraped together my scattered thoughts to glance up to the clock and move on to what was next. I headed to the gym for the opening ceremony and waited to be introduced to my kids. As minutes ticked by I began to assemble questions about Davidi’s timing and the lack of information I received in the five days that had passed since I arrived.
I felt overwhelmed, isolated and duped, but wondered if Davidi knew where to begin either. Willie’s suicide was something he would have to absorb personally as well as professionally. Expecting Davidi to put Willie’s death in a context that prepared me for my job was reasonable but it still did not make it any easier. Apart from the emotional and intellectual challenges of figuring out how a suicide was going to impact a class or the entire school, there may have also been the pragmatic matter of convincing a new teacher to not only come north, but to also take on the additional challenge of the dealing with repercussions of a suicide.
Coming out of my B.Ed program, where I finished 70th out of a class of 72, I had little confidence that I was equipped to bring the talent and passion required to teach rather than take up space at the front of a classroom. I had spent much of the previous year trying to determine if my professor’s assertions that I had the potential to be a great teacher was based on my ability or merely an involved calculation of mathematical probability. If the emerging challenges in Ivujivik were what my first job in a classroom was going to demand of me, I would accept it. I never felt I was in a position to bargain for a more ideal gig.
The people of Ivujivik did not know how to deal with Willie’s suicide. Repressing the memories or the guilt may have been the easiest response given there were no grief counsellors coming to the village to guide them in a different direction. Another factor at the root of the silence surrounding Willie's passing was a misplaced sense of inferiority to the kalunaits. It was difficult to determine all of the social forces that contributed to Willie’s death and other suicides throughout aboriginal communities, but the guilt amongst the survivors would have left them blaming themselves first and foremost. Willie was the son of an accomplished sculptor whose works sold across Canada and his mother was a teacher at the school - a combination that would give the appearance of accomplished and stable family that adapted to and even contributed to a close relationship with the south. Given this, the suicide might have been an even greater blow. The feelings about the suicide remained bottled up throughout the glum, quiet summer, only to be uncorked when the school year began and the children found themselves resuming the school year routine without one of their friends and without any adult choosing to acknowledge the death, or the pain the preceded and followed it.
I remained in a fog as I headed down to the gym. There was no stage in the gym to give a sense of how the space or the occasion ought to be defined so the students and the teachers stood in two separate clumps while Davidi read of the names of the teachers and then the students who would be in their classes and the groups reorganized into nine new clumps of people. The teachers were expected to spend an hour or so with the students and then the rest of the day would be spent setting schedule for the gymnasium, library and the Inuit teachers for each week.
That first hour together in the classroom was tentative. Uncertain how to cope with the grief I was hesitant to even acknowledge it, I ultimately followed the footsteps of all the teachers who had preceded me in Ivujivik. I introduced myself to the silence of my eight students and waited to see if it was enough to provoke an interest in communicating with me. Silence. It built until I caved and spoke next to ask them to complete a supposedly fun questionnaire where they could tell me about themselves.
They remained silent as they went through the questions on their sheets, answering what they could and skipping the difficult ones without asking me for clarification. I wandered around to see how everybody was doing, constantly looking over one shoulder or another, oblivious that I was monitoring my eight as closely as a group of 30 or 35, and distracting them or making them uncomfortable. I did not want to sit at my desk and complement the silence with the distance or the barrier of my desk.
Marcusi Ainalik, the youngest student in the class at 10 and the only boy raced through his questionnaire with a barrage of hockey-related answers and beamed for approval every time I passed. Marcusi had an enthusiasm and innocence that made it easier to linger over his shoulder and stay away from the desk while biding my time acquainting myself with the girls, who were less tolerant of my patrols. As the first weeks of the school year passed Marcusi would be the bridge between me and the rest of the class as he endeared himself as much to his "big sisters" as he did to me. He was the one thing we could agree on.
As I made my rounds I looked over Maggie Luuku’s shoulder. She had answered a question about her future with the sentence, “I WANT TO DEAD MYSELF,” scribbled in ragged uppercase. Whatever uncertainties I was struggling to overcome during my first class had ossified into paralysis. I did not know where things would go if I brought Maggie's emotions out into the open with the rest of the class. I doubted the kids were willing to trust me enough to talk openly about their summer or what they went through. Lydia Iyaituk's feelings still needed consideration, but I had no way to triage the grief and determine how to deal with Lydia’s emotions or anyone else’s under the circumstances. I would have to build a relationship with the class before they would talk with me openly about Willie or their feelings.
When the kids were together at the school, they took the opportunity to structure their wrath after idling the summer isolated from their parents, who spent those same weeks and months soul-searching and numbing away the guilt while trying to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the ineffable cultures - traditional and modern, Inuit and kalunait, northern and southern - that they were trying to balance themselves between.
They all knew what was right and wrong, we all do most of the time. Their lives had become so safe and their days so idle that it was more difficult to do the hard work that improves the chances of physical survival, but, more certainly, ensures spiritual survival. For millennia these two aspects of survival were inseparable for the Inuit, just as they were one with the natural environment that they lived in. Willie's death underscored the turmoil that roiled in the hearts and minds of everyone in the Arctic as they haphazardly adapted to the modern. Many adults took solace in alcohol or drugs, while their children wandered the streets or the tundra late into the night until it was safe to come home.
The tangible struggles for day-to-day existence (or some component of it) would be easier for them to grapple with than the more existential struggles that had contributed to the social problems that emerged since the 1960s. In the Arctic context, I realized that “struggling to survive” was not a simplistic lament about hard life, but an appeal to seek and embrace challenges that can fulfill you spiritually. Material comfort and security alone, without a goal to pursue in life, is endangering the lives of Inuit more than the harshest of winters ever did.
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