Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Igloo Lesson

The following post is an excerpt from my forthcoming e-book Exiled From the Tundra: A Teacher's Arctic Memoir.

I do not know if it was a moment where I ultimately gave up or if it was more a matter of finding some zen-like simplicity, but late one morning in March, I interrupted class to ask them, "What do you want me to teach you?"

Mary spoke first, “How to live off the land.”


I joked that the first thing I would try to teach them was to look for two sticks to make a fire with — a useless endeavour this far north of the tree line. I had no idea how to teach them how to live in their environment or educate them in a manner that resembled what Inuit forebears taught children for generations or millennia. Their responses included things that I could be capable of teaching them, such as cooking, but their traditional skills dominated the list. They wanted me to teach them to make the most of the resources that were accessible to them and do so in a way that was consistent with the way their families had long lived and thrived on the land. 

Nothing grand. No mention of test prep. Just what they needed to know to help them get by. One response left me slack-jawed before I could muster clarification.

“Igloos?!  Your parents are supposed to teach you that.”

“But you’re the teacher.”

“Still, I can’t teach you that.”

“You have to. It’s your job.”

That brief exchange captured the essence of what the schools had done to the relationships between Inuit parents and their children. I wondered how much time the kids spent with their parents out on the land on weekends or during the summers. Their parents went out on the land from time to time, but whenever they did, they left the kids behind in the village to entertain themselves or look after one another.

The old insistence that the students attend classes, despite the responsibilities that Inuit kids have had for generations rings hollow when all the teachers have to offer are long division, the past perfect, and antiquated Science texts. The knowledge the kids accumulated within the walls of the school does little to prepare them for life in either the north or the south. Instead of learning from their parents and grandparents, they spent their time with me. I had little that compared with the valuable life lessons indicated progress towards viability, responsibility and adulthood. All of that wisdom and education was discarded in favour of schooling with kallunait (southern) teachers the likes of me - at times well-intentioned, but often uninformed, ill-suited to the task at hand and if not parasitic, then at the very least, unfeasible. As the school was constituted while I was there, it was difficult to point to success that warranted the time and money that went into it each year.

For the school to enhance the life of the kids and the community, it would have to overhaul of the curriculum and involve the community. A more collaborative relationship with parents would make them more aware of what was happening and encourage them to influence the school by either providing the teachers with insights about the culture or the community or asking questions about why teachers did things the way they did. One thing that I learned from my translator during my first round of parent-teacher interviews was that all of my students were adopted rather than living with their biological parents. That knowledge was gained by happenstance after spending a good part of the day with one of the adults from the village. It did not dramatically alter the way I taught the kids, but it informed my work and provided a key insight that I could integrate into a greater understanding of the community I was working in. More interaction with the parents would help the teachers become more familiar with the community and culture and perhaps help the school adapt more to serve the community.

As the kids added their requests for what they wanted me to teach, I wondered what had kept me from asking sooner. The question was the briefest thought removed from being off-the-cuff or flippant. As I took note of everything they suggested, it became clear that what they wanted to learn and could have learned from their parents was the opportunity to grow, and gain the responsibilities that once marked the rites of passage into young adulthood.

Even though the kids had spent their entire lives in the permanent settlement that the kallunaits built, they had strong misgivings about what had been lost when they left the nomadic rituals of the tundra for settlement. Everyone was in favour of taking their chances on the tundra. Mary, the oldest, was just 15 and some of the others yet to enter their teens, but the opportunities and challenges of the tundra appealed to them. It may have merely been romance and nostalgia, but life in the village familiarized them too well with the anxieties and pain that made Mattiusi Epoo take his life, made Putulik sniff and made Mary explore the tightness of her coat sleeves around her neck. For whatever scarcity and hardship of the tundra would challenge them with, it appealed to them and held some hope for the future.

When we usually speak of “the struggle to survive” we attribute a degree of hardship or difficulty opposes us and makes life miserable or onerous when struggle is a blessing. Struggle has become an even greater requirement for our spiritual well-being because without it, we lack the sense of purpose that motivates, nourishes and sustains us. The move from a nomadic economy of hunting and gathering to the welfare cycle the Inuit have found themselves in has in part contributed to the suicides, substance addiction and family abuse that are today acknowledged with a shrug of resignation. Material abundance, without a goal to pursue in life, endangers the lives of Inuit more than the harshest of winters ever did.

In all likelihood, teachers before me had their own moments of idealism (or desperation) and struck upon the needs and desires of the students as I had that day. The noon bell rang and was ignored. We continued our discussion well into the lunch hour before I insisted they head home for lunch. On my way out, I caught Alasi in his office and I told him about the discussion that I had and the kids’ desire to learn how to build igloos.

I hoped that I would impress upon Alasi the kids’ need to learn their own culture and express my own wonder that the kids were not learning as much as they needed. When I got home, I suspected my words would go no further than Alasi. I recalled Danielle’s challenges trying have an igloo built for the school exchange the year before and thought of taking them out to try to teach them myself. I did not want to haggle over the costs of having the parents teach their kids. Furthermore, the conversation the kids and I just had was a significant one and proceeding with the regularly scheduled Math class in the afternoon rather than building on the discussion would have been disappointing. When we returned after our brief lunch, the conversation picked up where it left off and we continued to flesh out their needs and interests.

One of the television channels the village had, Television Northern Canada (TVNC), had coincidentally featured a National Film Board short film that showed the construction of an igloo two days earlier. The details of the construction were still relatively clear in my mind. An igloo is built from the inside, with little need to move around the outside of the building. You cut the blocks out from underfoot, creating a larger floor and going higher overhead with each block. The one thing I could not discern from the movie was the type of snow to seek, but perhaps the long winter had rendered most of the snow the right texture and consistency rather than the powdery or wet snow that would be less cooperative. I was willing to give it a shot, but I worried about the consequences of me teaching the kids to do it instead of their parents. Deep down, I wanted to fail rather than succeed, but I did not want our dialogue to result in nothing.

Fortunately, Alasi had taken my conversation to heart. A snowstorm raged the next day, providing a fresh layer of snow over the drier, older snow. The day after that, however, a beautiful blue sky provided a springlike feel that belied the -15° Celcius that prevailed. Just before lunchtime, Alasi let all of the teachers know that there were going to be a few adults building igloos near the school that afternoon. If the teachers wanted to bring their classes along to participate, they were encouraged to do so. 

In the afternoon, most of the kids joined in the activities. A few adult men did the main construction while the kids looked on and filled the cracks between the bricks with snow. There was not as much explanation or explicit instruction as I would have liked, but there may have been more learning going on than I was aware of. More importantly, connections were being reestablished as adults and children enjoyed each other’s company in the middle of these labours. I took pictures and stayed out of the way. After a while, my girls wandered back to the school. 

I would have liked to spend a bit more time watching the igloos go up, but I wanted to make sure the girls were okay. I straggled in a few minutes after they did and found them sitting quietly at their desks, with the lights off and the high sun of spring pouring in through the windows. I paused to take in the sight of seeing them each sitting quietly with a book. I switched the lights on so that they could read more easily, but Mary gestured for me to turn them back off. I took a seat at my desk and noticed they had the copies of The Princess Bride that I bought the previous Christmas. Mary even asked me the meaning of "scullery." Despite the uselessness of what I had to offer them - in this case, the esoteric vocabulary - they were meeting me halfway. 

In the days that followed, a lot of igloos that went up, including a cluster near my house, most of them built by Raymond's boys. There were a few nights when they glowed blue or orange with a light within and I was tempted to drop in on them. Ever hesitant about intruding or, at this point, putting myself in a difficult situation, I watched the glow from my kitchen window.

Two weeks later, Alasi called me into his office to inform me that the School Committee had decided not to renew my contract for a third year. It was hard not to take the news personally, but eventually I would acknowledge how burnt-out I was. Summer could have brought renewal and an appetite for the challenge of preparing Mary for graduation to a village further south, but I likely would have exhausted my reserves of energy early in the fall. It was best for me to move on.

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