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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Adventures in a Pressure Cooker

After 4 contracts and months of consulting prior to my official hire, I am saying goodbye to the Lower Yukon. I have had some wonderful adventures and met many special people. The communities I serve are kind and loving, accepting of new-comers and generous to a fault. I may not agree with educational goals or the value of basketball in the lives of their children, but I share a love for and dedication to their children that runs deep. Hoping to share a few highlights and entertaining stories, this post is in many ways the closing of a beautiful chapter in story of BushSam.

The first thing you need to know about living in the Bush is that travel of any kind is never predictable. Two phrases come to mind: “Hurry up and wait” and “It’s a beautiful day to be weathered in…” Our pilots in Western Alaska are talented and hard working, for sure, but the weather patterns and regulations often put a kink in even the most thoughtfully made plans. I can’t tell you how many times I have overnighted in a school or had to cancel a trip at the last minute with sunny skies overhead. Different airlines have different rules, so sometime the icing on the cake is a plane taking off without you from a different airline or on a different flight plan. It’s not just the planes either. Sometimes you get dropped off and forgotten and have to wait 30 minutes in -30F windy Hooper Bay for a ride, only to be told there is no room on this trip. I look at the positives though: this particular event was a chance for a local man to offer me, a complete stranger, his snow mobile to take to the school. This is the Bush. It may not always happen on your timeline or the way you imagine it, but good things will come your way if you have an open mind and flexible attitude. Sometimes it just pays to bring your bedroll and food for two days no matter what the weather looks like.

Getting out of doors is the key to sanity in the Bush, too, and it often plays into my statements above about the speed at which things happen. Plans are meaningless, but planning is everything. I’m not sure where I heard this, but it describes my success in every aspect of life in the last 4 years living in Western Alaska. Sometimes an invitation to go hunting or fishing includes non-descript language such as “sometime this weekend.” Translation, you should be ready to walk out the door with all your gear in less than ten minutes. Have your weather appropriate outwear ready, your line strung, your ammo packed, and “go-box” sitting by the door. You don’t want to get left behind, after all. Never put off a fuel up until the last minute either, you never know when the gas station might need the pump replaced. I always kept 10 gallons on hand. 

These truths are universal to the Bush, but certain areas have specific needs as well. Life in Mountain Village, for example requires 50-100 gallons of water on hand in my experience. The winters of 2013-2014 had only a few weeks with water flowing throughout the village, after all. Every flush, every glance at dirty dishes in the sink, every splashing bath from a bucket was weighed and valued carefully. Not filling reservoirs when the water was on or when the local spring was flowing meant filth and discomfort later.  Wet wipes come in handy, too, you cannot truly appreciate that “clean baby smell” until you go without a shower for a week.

Someone once told me that living in the Bush is not the time to diet. I think this is good advice to new teachers, but not necessarily as a general statement. I think there is something Thoreau-ish about life here. The pace is slower here. The weather or state of the river ice is always going to be more important than the academic performance of a given classroom. There is a peaceful simplicity to a subsistence-like lifestyle (there really is no such thing as actual subsistence living here). Enjoying pleasures you never have time for in the humdrum western world is what I will miss the most in the coming months. Reading incessantly will become a distant memory. With nothing better to do, I work out daily and for hours on the weekends. Living a clean life is actually quite easy here. There is an appreciation for fresh vegetables unlike anywhere else I have ever visited that is certain. Precious cargo of Full Circle Farms and the totes carried in as luggage from Anchorage are devoured and selectively shared with friends. Avocados and delicate fruits are among the most valuable commodities.  

People who are not from the Bush who have lived in the Bush for some time develop certain oddities. Do not challenge, question, or judge these character traits, they are just doing what they have to do to survive. If a man wants to run the halls of the school at 6:00am barking like a "husky", let him, maybe he just needs the exercise. If a teacher wants to sleep in her classroom because they do not wish to have a roommate, don’t judge, after all, grown-ups shouldn’t be forced to live together. Awkward conversations are par for the course out here, and let's just end it there... There is no doubt in my mind Rural Alaskan districts attract a few strange folks, but it’s part what makes working out here all the more interesting. There are some great stories I just can't share here, of course, but I'd be happy to share over a cold beverage some time if you are interested.

Finding friendship in the Bush is actually quite easy, despite the fact that you may be strange, smelly, and exhausted from work according to my descriptions above. Work in rural schools in a lot like a pressure cooker, bear with me on this analogy. When you want to make soups quickly and/or are using very tough meats, you use a pressure cooker. Intense exterior heat is compounded exponentially by the pressure building inside, forcing rapid changes inside. The hardest carrots and stringiest beef roasts are no match for this combination. The flavors are fused quickly and the ingredients become one in uniform taste. In short you have mixed numerous raw materials into a rich uniform soup in a very short time. This is every year in the average Bush school. You combine the meat and potatoes of traditional values and cultures with outsider veggies hoping the taste is delicious in the end. Curriculum, staffing, children’s behavior, etc are all ingredients of this soup.  Adding the of challenges such as domestic violence and substance abuse can sometimes feel overwhelming, too, but spicing the broth with the sprinkled character of dynamic educators and administrators can bring out the positives. All of this is in the rush of August through May, when ten to twenty-five percent of staff turns over, then you start a new batch of soup again in August. Friendships among teachers here accelerate quickly to deep relationships and often last a lifetime, no matter how short lived the shared experience. People you would have likely never “clicked” with growing up turn out to be some of your best friends. Others you likely could have worked well with normally (assuming the regular occasion of Friday apps and drinks to decompress) become archenemies of sorts…

All in all I love this "pressure cooker" lifestyle and I will miss it. I survived. I thrived. I loved most of it and hated some of it. I wouldn't be me without each and every team member, student, parent, and community member in LYSD. I will forever treasure this experience. I will be sad to go, but happy to start a new life. I have lived in the Bush 7 of the last 9 years or so, so I imagine BushSam will continue on in spirit if not in practice.

Thank you everyone,