Teaching in the Dark: A Memoir
Balboa Press, 2023
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A young teacher buys a one-way ticket to Shishmaref, Alaska. Within minutes of landing, she finds herself dealing with unexpected, rustic accommodations, and the culture shock of living in a remote Iñuit community. She relies on her courage, resilience, and wit while enduring freezing temperatures, power outages, loneliness, and first-year teacher anxieties and missteps, but eventually realizes that those challenges pale in comparison to the life lessons she learns about the heart of teaching—lessons from her students, their culture, and their community, on the vast, windy landscape at the edge of the Chukchi Sea.
Genét Simone, PhD, has been a teacher for over thirty years. Her experiences in Shishmaref, Alaska, spearheaded a lifelong inquiry into the more emotional and spiritual aspects of teaching. She created The B.E.S.T. Formula, a system for helping teachers be Brave, Effective, Self-Caring, and Transformative. She lives in Seattle, Washington.
CHAPTER ONE ~ THE SURPRISE
Our small plane shuddered unexpectedly, bumped up in altitude, then dropped again. My stomach was empty but growing increasingly queasy with every creak of the fuselage as the wings dipped this way and that. Far below, glimpses of Arctic tundra came and went as we flew through cloud banks and fog.
Our departure from the Nome Airport was less than an hour ago. Our pilot, Steve, acted like this bucking bronco ride was typical travel. I, on the other hand, didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to maintain composure before letting out a primal scream. With every jolt, I instinctively grabbed the back of his seat. It was low, like an old Chevy car seat, and so close that my knees pressed into it. I hadn’t been to church in a while but was making up for my absences with some serious turbo-charged prayer. The prayers started innocently, but within half an hour, my well-intentioned pleas for safe passage devolved into a surprising matrix of devotion and rather unladylike swearing between clenched teeth. Lots of sweet jeee-sus and oh-my-god-effing-help-me!
The precariousness of our situation wasn’t aided by the fact that our pilot called his passengers “souls” when confirming our status with the control tower. He said something like, “Flight x-er 9-er ready for takeoff. Three souls on board.” The word had the discomforting effect of describing us in a rather ethereal manner, as if we had already perished in a plane wreck. I found it odd that he didn’t include himself in his soul count, so I had watched him closely as he taxied us down Nome’s runway, turned sharply to face us into the wind, and increased power to the engines until everything, including my head, buzzed like a swarm of angry bees.
The intimacy of the small vessel amazed me—the passengers were squished in with the cargo, nets, and straps. I had never been seated so close to a pilot, within an arm’s reach of his dashboard of dials. Steve’s hands flashed through a series of well-practiced motions, flipping a switch here, turning a knob there, lining everything up to launch us into the heavy gray sky. I felt everything about the plane inside of my body: the wheels grabbing the tarmac, the shimmy and shake of the aircraft, the disconcerting squeaks as if the plane (and me by extension) had second thoughts about getting off the ground.
Steve was a quintessential Alaskan guy, sporting a heavy-duty Carhartt jacket and steel-toed boots. He looked content but tired, and probably hadn’t seen a shower in days. Stubble outlined his strong jaw, and his scraggly brown hair had a deep crease in back, marked by the edges of his battered baseball cap.
The other two passengers, Carl and Ned, were returning to their native village after a short visit to Nome. The men had similar Alaska-Guy attire, complete with worn baseball caps. Carl’s had an Alaska flag patch, and Ned’s read CAT. I had no idea what that meant but was too shy to ask.
Before boarding, I had stood with the two men on the tarmac, watching Steve as he dipped in and out of the aircraft loading supplies. Judging by their breath, Carl and Ned had enjoyed their own share of dipping, but in a saloon. Carl was especially tipsy and kept leaning into Ned’s shoulder, forcing Ned to shrug him upright again.
Then there was me, the third soul and only female on board, a recent college graduate newly minted for the teaching profession. Job prospects for high school English teachers weren’t good that year, so I’d settled on bussing tables at a café in Seattle and fussing over the lack of more rewarding work. But one sunny morning in mid-July, I spied the following words in the newspaper: “WANTED. TEACHERS IN ALASKA. Full Time. Call to apply.”
I’d nearly choked on my coffee. It hadn’t occurred to me to look for a teaching job out of state, and certainly not in Alaska. Would they accept a Washington State teaching certificate?
Alaska was a huge place. A wild place. A place impossibly far away. Yet there was something unmistakably alluring about it. Images of polar bears on ice floats came to mind. Vast stretches of wilderness with untouched, sparkling freshwater streams. Glaciers, forests, and snowcapped Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. The power of those places spoke to me. They whispered in my heart like a lover I didn’t know I had.
But the implications of my chosen career terrified me. I had no real experience, and I knew that I didn’t know anything. Adding this venture into unknown territory terrified me even more. Yet here I was, hurtling in a tin can with wings to a small village on the north-facing coast of the Seward Peninsula.
When I announced my new job to friends and family, their initial congratulatory sentiments were quickly followed by, “Wait a minute. Where are you going?”
Pronouncing Shishmaref was challenging to the untrained tongue, and I grew weary having to spell it out, so I started replying with North of Nome. Most people had heard of Nome—something about a gold rush in the 1800s and an annual dogsled race. I had to admit, that’s about all I knew, too. When the job offer came, I said a hasty yes, even though I had no clue where that yes would be taking me. My only comfort was knowing that I’d be teaching high school English, a class called Consumer Math, and one titled Graphic Communications. I understood English, but the other two were a mystery.
To offset my uncertainty about the future, I spent half of my last Saturday in Seattle at an Army Navy Surplus store, purchasing gear that might at least make me look on the outside like I knew what I was doing. It was a profitable afternoon for the store owner as well as for me. I emerged victorious and drenched in sweat from trying on down parkas and pants, flannel shirts and long underwear, and boots called Sorels.
I’d never heard of Sorels, but the clerk—when he saw me raising an eyebrow at the price—assured me they were worth the money.
“Let’s have you try this pair first.” He held out a petite pair of women’s boots.
I shook my head and pointed at a pair of men’s. I’d heard that Alaska was a rugged place—one that required sturdy footwear with tank-like treads. The women’s looked suitable only for traipsing along paved city park trails.
The men’s boots were hot and heavy, but they made me feel like I meant business. Maybe I’d buy a baseball cap when I got to the village.
Prior to boarding, Pilot Steve sized up his souls and cargo and decided to board me first. Row Two, Seat One. Carl plopped himself into Seat Two, buckled up, leaned back, and pulled his cap over his eyes.
Ned took the only other seat available, up front with Steve. He was surprisingly alert and grew more animated when he learned that I was going to be the new English teacher in his village. That information prompted a cascade of opinion about how I should manage students in my classroom. With each piece of advice, Ned leaned back and offered me a Jolly Rancher candy from a large cellophane bag.
“Don’t let ‘em get off too easy!” Ned yelled over the loud engine noise. “Those kids, you can’t spoil ‘em. Ya gotta be tough. Real strick!”
He repeated these words multiple times, pointing his finger at me and then poking Steve in the shoulder. “Ain’t that right, Steve?”
Steve was only half-listening. He nodded in feigned agreement but shook his head whenever Ned held out his bag. “Wanna candy?”
Half an hour later, Ned’s counseling session ended. Thank God. I had run out of responses to assure him that I’d be tough, alright, and had plenty of candy, thank you. I’d already sucked and crunched through two watermelon candies and one green apple, and I had a few more tucked in my coat pocket: orange, grape, and one that was deep red and looked suspiciously like it might set my mouth on fire.
Ned began to doze in and out of consciousness, and Steve focused on navigating the single-prop plane through a continuous mass of thick, white clouds. I peered down and tried to catch a glimpse of ground to get my bearings whenever I wasn’t grabbing the seat in front of me and exhaling a prayer, a curse, or both.
I was deep in thought, reflecting on the previous three weeks of preparations and the hundreds of decisions I’d made so far. Quitting my café job, backing out of my apartment lease, and selling my car. I’d had to pack and store or throw away everything but the bare essentials. I was exhausted, and I hadn’t even reached my destination.
Steve’s voice startled me back to reality.
“Okay, we’re making our descent! Be there soon!”
He dropped us under the thick layer of clouds, allowing a sweeping view of the land below. Through streaks of rain on the windows, the village of Shishmaref appeared in the distance.
OH MY GOD. What have you done?
The words fell out clean, and I realized it was me who had uttered them. To myself, to anyone. Maybe to God, if he was still listening. Wanting to be sure, I repeated them louder, taking cover behind the brain-rattling vibration of the plane.
OH. MY. GOD.
There’d been times in my life when I spoke to Yours Truly in third person to distance myself emotionally from a situation that appeared catastrophically larger than I could handle. Third person language helped me examine my predicament from a parallel reality and thus figure out what the heck to do. This time, the question flew out of my reaction to seeing Shishmaref for the first time.
Contrary to what I had been led to believe during my job interview in Seattle, Shishmaref wasn’t a village on the coast of the Seward Peninsula. It was an island. An island on the coast.
How could I have missed that vital piece of information? Maybe my brain was fried after answering a seemingly endless series of questions like, “Why do you want to be a teacher?” and “Do you like camping?” I followed John, one of the interviewers, to a map of Alaska that had been taped to a wall in the hotel’s hallway.
“This is where we’re thinking of sending you.” He placed a finger down. John’s hand was browner than mine, and strong. His silver ring glistened under the ceiling lights. The name was hard to read. I stepped closer and squinted.
“Shishmaref.” John looked at me and smiled. In that moment, I was dumbfounded by John’s nonchalant pronouncement that they were sending me anywhere. But his words confirmed that I’d been hired. Hired! I had made it through two rounds of interviews and had just been handed my first real teaching job. This despite being fresh out of college with no teaching experience save for two rounds of student teaching, which I had nearly failed.
All this time, I’d been thinking that Shishmaref sat along the coast of the Chukchi Sea. Which it did, by the looks of what lay a few thousand feet below. But there was no mistaking the bodies of water surrounding what looked like a very thin and vulnerable stretch of land.
I thought back to when John pointed on the map. That was it. His finger must have covered the large body of water on one side, so the village looked like it was part of the mainland. Now, from the air, I understood. Shishmaref was surrounded by ocean. I’d known I was being sent to a remote village, but I didn’t know it was going to be this remote.
A new thought popped into my head: Well, now you’ve really done it.
I fought the urge to scream out loud, “No one said it was a frickin’ island!” But I didn’t want to be the laughingstock of the village, nor the topic of countless retellings Steve would undoubtedly enjoy with future souls. “Can you believe it, there was this one girl—a teacher of all things—who didn’t know the village was on an island!”
I felt ridiculous. Embarrassed. But what could I do? I was on a plane that would soon land on that island, the final stop at the end of a series of one-way tickets from Seattle to Juneau, Juneau to Anchorage, Anchorage to Nome, and Nome to Shishmaref. There was no turning back.