As the weather continued to escalate, I found it harder and harder to get out to the local villages. Even the ice roads seemed dangerous with temperatures and winds making it a very frigid prospect to head out. Winds gusted in February up to 55 miles per hour and with temperatures sometimes in the negative numbers, wind chills fell even lower. I was faced with constant frustration knowing I had students to work with, yet I was unable to reach them.
People back home in Ohio didn’t seem to understand just how marooned this region is. Weather had not permitted flights into Bethel, so the grocery stores were quickly running out of things taken for granted in the lower 48. Fresh bread, milk and fresh produce and meat were vanishing from the shelves. I couldn’t even imagine the condition of supplies out in the villages. I didn’t want to think about it. Shopping in a village store was a depressing experience even with regular deliveries of foodstuffs.
My first trip to a village store was shocking to me. I was stranded in a village and without food for the night or morning (preparation for the trip was lax at best). I trudged over to the location I was informed was the store. It was a dark dirty warehouse with meager offerings of produce that appeared wilted and bruised, some canned goods and of course a large array of packaged junk foods. After selecting a microwaveable single serving ravioli, a small bag of ginger snaps that were expired and a one-liter Pepsi, I paid $17 and felt grateful that I’d gotten what I had.
Leaving the village store, clutching my purchases, I stopped for a moment to look at my surroundings. It wasn’t quite dark, yet it wasn’t light. And all I could see for miles and miles was clean white snow. It looked almost blue, reflecting the slight blue tint of the sky. There was nothing to break the vastness of it. The snow met the sky uninterrupted by houses, trees or buildings for as far as I could see. There were no sounds as I stood there and I was overwhelmed by the loneliness of my being.
Each day I wondered if I was up to the physical challenge. The rigors of hauling equipment, hoisting myself up in one of the tiny planes, battling the cold all took its toll. I joked about my bottom waving in the face of every pilot on the tundra, but I was often grateful for the offer of a hand to pull myself up into a seat or help with my gear. I was often too proud, though to accept the help. I figured it was the same for all of us, and we were all on survival mode.
But it was the children who kept me going. Each day I looked forward to meeting a new student. I was in awe of their response to their own circumstance. Their matter of fact acceptance of a way of life that is each day a harsh reality was something I found strength and courage in.
I found myself constantly questioning what I was doing here? I looked at the students and realized that this generation was living a life markedly different than their grandparents did. Each day in a school shaved a tiny layer of cultural experience away and put distance between them and those who lived previous. Yet, as American citizens, they were entitled to a free and appropriate education. I thought about the homes I’d visited that failed to have plumbing but had satellite television service.
As the year progressed, a cellular telephone company had completed construction of towers in the region making cell phones affordable for almost anyone. Back in Ohio I was used to seeing teenagers with a cell in one hand either blatantly talking or furtively texting. Not so in Alaska. However, by springtime teenaged hands that had previously been empty now were busily texting or looking at pictures on camera phones. The technology had penetrated with a vengeance.
Sometimes I would see Native teenagers in oversized, baggy black and white jackets and pants, ball caps cocked at odd angles, imitating the “gansta” look of urban youth. All that was missing were the sparkling white athletic shoes that usually rounded out the look. They even emulated the swagger of urban kids. Occasionally I’d see the complicated handshakes that also was common in the lower 48 among urban kids, those signals that indicated who belonged and who didn’t. Where did they see this? Why was it now part of the teen culture here?
The cultural divide between the teens and grandparents was an enormous gap separating a “subsistence existence” and the desire to look like they belonged to a different world. I feel like part of the chisel making the gap wider. I desired to serve the children, yet not ripple waters that stood still for centuries.