The time I spent there was very much a trial and error sequence as I tried to find my way in the classroom and community and I gradually progressed from the tried tactics that I was schooled with during my childhood and something much more intuitive, exposed and - ultimately - productive. One of the milestones on my journey to flat-out asking my students what they wanted me to teach them was storytelling. There were movies that had a hit and miss nature to them based on the content of the story and it was evident with those that there was something lacking and less than compelling for the kids as I resorted to that. To my chagrin, the kids voiced the assumption that life in the south resembled the mayhem of Terminator 2, which had made its tour of the local VCR's while I was there and prompted many of the kids to hide behind the tinted Terminator shades when I arrived.
The shades were part of the uniform for the teen cool and indifference that they tried to communicate and often kept me on my heels as I tried to progress toward some sort of breakthrough to connect with them in the classroom. There were times when I tried certain things to work on their listening skills and vocabulary in the English classes but they were rejected as dated or old because they were the strategies used by the colleague of mine who taught them English when they were elementary school age.
Try and try I did and I gave storytelling a try, even though it was something that I, in my elementary school experience recalled ending around grade four with the vivid memory of gathering on the floor to listen to Stuart Little while I eyed the patina of Gail Murphy's braids and heard Stuart's story. I often concluded that the class I taught in the Arctic was too old and would insist on being too cool for storytelling or me reading from a book to them. Desperate, as I often was, I gave it a shot.
I chose my material quite carefully and did not wish to merely pick something off the shelf but draw their attention to an association between Inuit and non-Inuit stories that they may not have been familiar with: seals. While the Inuit had their origin myths about seals -- most notably the story of Sedna the daughter of a sea god who defied her father and as a consequence of her banishment became the source of all marine life -- there were similar mythological attributions to seals among other folklore as well. Though the movie The Secret of Roan Inish, the most famous -- and I acknowledge I may be using the term "famous" quite loosely -- was produced and released after I left the Arctic, there were other variations on the theme that I could draw upon. I had grown up on a steady diet of Irish folk music and over the years heard the story-song "Peter Kagan and the Wind" countless times and I would always pause attentively at the mix of spoken word verses and sung chorus.
I wrote out the song for myself and brought it into class and despite the reality that there was little or nothing "cool" about this route I was taken to connect with the kids and make my time with them relevant to them, something happened. I provided enough introduction to make it clear that I was intending to read to them but I did not make the effort to draw the mythological connections clear to them. I started and they sat quietly. Some even moved to the floor to lie down and perhaps drift a few inches toward sleep and I smiled to myself about the possibility of that calm repose in their morning of school as unexpected as it was for them. They chose to indulge in that calm of the spoken word and when the 10-12 minutes passed they were clearly refreshed by that recess in their day.
I am not sure of the connections they made that morning. They may not have had the explicit knowledge of the Sedna myth but the story and the voice had done something and in some small way the stones were put in the river from me to proceed from the classroom techniques and curriculum I grew up on to those they longed to learn from.
At a time when Indigenous people and settlers look to come to a closer understanding of one another, it will be our oldest stories, the ones that have the most potential to resonate and echo with one another that will prompt understanding and do so without and extended negotiation about the meanings and misunderstood attributions we will assign to more recent stories. Those more difficult stories need to be told, negotiated and understood, but the older tales, the ones that show we have a great deal in common, are the ideal ones to begin with.