Imagination, Common Sense, and Perseverance

Oct 30th, 2015 | By | Category: Fall 2015, Featured

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by Sheri Skelton
Language Arts Teacher
White Mountain School
White Mountain, AK
MA ’97

Observation and reflection are key elements in my teaching practice. I have several boxes of scattered notebooks, typed pages, and handwritten scraps of paper—my thoughts about my students, my classroom, my teaching, standards, etc. Some of the writings are thoughtful and insightful; some are diatribes; some are doleful; some are humorous. Some were written during the day in my classroom; some were written when I should have been sleeping. Together, the collective forms a jumbled retrospective of my life as a teacher in northwestern rural Alaska for the past 25 years. Rural Alaska wasn’t my first teaching experience. I taught high school language arts in Iowa for 11 years before settling into rural Alaska, and I do have a few remnants from my Iowa teaching days, but my Alaska experience is where I honed my abilities to observe and reflect with the hope that I might become a more effective teacher in the village.

Click to link to the full text of Sheri Skelton's 2004 article, "Imagination and Common Sense: Making the Connection to the Natural World."

Click to link to the full text of Sheri Skelton’s 2004 article, “Common Sense and Imagination: Making the Connection to the Natural World.”

The year that I wrote “Common Sense and Imagination,” was my final year in Shishmaref. After 13 years of living and teaching in that village, I moved to the village of White Mountain, another Inupiaq Eskimo village in the Bering Strait School District. The landscape of White Mountain is quite different from the landscape of Shishmaref. White Mountain sits on the Fish River in a stunningly beautiful locale with green trees and winding waterways and hills. The beauty is captivating, breathtaking, awe inspiring. The two villages are similar, however, in their isolation and inaccessibility. This is my 12th year of living and teaching in White Mountain and my final year of teaching. I am retiring at the end of the current school year. My 25 years of teaching in “the bush” make me somewhat of an anomaly. Few teachers last that long.

Piecing together all of those random reflections of my teaching life into a cohesive and coherent contemplation is a daunting task. It’s comparable to walking through a maze and not knowing if you will reach the end, or what you will find when you do. The paths disperse in a number of directions. Some intertwine. Some circle back on themselves. Some lead to dead ends.

My teaching years have been interspersed with what I call poetic moments—aha moments—the moments in life that are imprinted in your mind, moments that have awakened you, enlightened you, jolted you. They differ from birthdays or wedding days, special occasions that may be significant for multiple people. Poetic moments are unique to you; they are moments that forever change your thinking in some meaningful way.

“Common Sense and Imagination” was an expression of what was a poetic moment for me. I realized how sense of place shaped my students’ perceptions, how their connection with their natural environment was a significant aspect of their everyday lives. Revisiting the article led me to think about JoAnne and Annie, two of the students featured in the article. They were classmates and best friends, two intelligent young women, who were in tune with their natural environment. They were also academically successful, graduating from high school and leaving the village to further their education. JoAnne left college after her freshman year and became a Marine. I followed her journey from South Carolina to California to Japan to Korea to Afghanistan. She worked her way up through the ranks. She became a Marine Embassy Guard. As one of her character references, I answered questions about her for almost two hours via a phone call from a member of the State Department, who was processing her security clearance. Annie studied engineering for two years and then returned to the village. Facebook brought the three of us together on a more regular basis. One of the last chats we had took place when Annie was visiting JoAnne who was stationed in South Africa at the time.

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JoAnne is still a Marine. We still chat occasionally, and our paths sometimes cross when JoAnne visits family in Alaska. Six years after “Common Sense and Imagination” Annie’s life was reduced to a one-line paragraph in The Nome Nugget: “A 25-year-old woman apparently hanged herself sometime in the early hours of Oct. 24 in a cabin along the Nome-Beltz Highway.” Annie wasn’t the first of my students to commit suicide. She also wasn’t the last.

Suicide haunts rural Alaska. It’s a specter that can’t be ignored or shaken. One of my most poignant poetic moments happened on July 1, 1998. I was in Vermont, and it was raining. It had been raining and raining and raining with the potential for flooding on the highway that took me to the Bread Loaf campus that day for my poetry writing workshop. That day my peers would review my poem “Borders,” written about a time in my childhood when I was growing up on the edge of a small midwestern town in the midst of Mexican migrant workers. The poem focused on the connection I felt existed between myself and the migrants. We both lived on the edge of the community, physically and socially separated from many of the mainstream activities. We connected by sharing food and learning each other’s language. I thought the poem showed a bonding between two different cultures. I read my poem aloud. I had barely finished reading when the first responder attacked. “This is the most racist poem I have ever read,” he openly declared and went on to denounce my treatment and representation of Mexican migrant workers as insensitive and biased.

As I drove back to my rented summer cabin, I attempted to rationalize what had happened in the workshop that afternoon. Either my perception of myself as a writer was somewhat distorted, or I had suffered the worst possible luck by enrolling in a workshop with people who clearly did not understand what I was saying. Shortly after arriving at the cabin, I received a phone call. Andy Lee Nayokpuk, one of my former students, was dead. He had hanged himself. The news was overwhelming. My experience in the poetry workshop was suddenly inconsequential, trivial and unimportant when placed next to the enormity of a young man, who only one year earlier had graduated from high school, and now, for reasons unexplained, had chosen to end his life by hanging himself with a rope in a shed. The loss was devastating.

Andy Lee was the student who had loved school when I first arrived in Shishmaref. He was a mischievous, fun-loving seventh grader who had nicknamed me “Sheldie,” a name that had stuck with me and was used by the group of boys he hung out with. Andy Lee was the one who had spearheaded the drive to have me chaperone the annual junior high picnic, a day-long outing in snow and temperatures ranging just above zero, a day of sledding and Eskimo football played in the snow, a day that I would never have imagined myself spending in my lifetime. Andy Lee could always make me smile, could always make me laugh. He had transitioned me into the community of Shishmaref, into village life, and made me feel welcome in both the school and the community. He and his friends were my group of boys, an inseparable group of friends who had been my students for six years from seventh grade until they graduated. And now he was dead. I had been his teacher for six years, and I had never seen this coming.

Andy Lee’s death made me realize not only how fragile people’s feelings are but how fragile human beings are, how fragile life is. His was not the first suicide that had happened during my seven-year teaching tenure in Shishmaref. There had been others, several students and several members of the community, one the father of a friend of my youngest daughter. But for some reason, those suicides had not awakened in me the feeling of deep despair that accompanied the death of Andy Lee. Why had he killed himself? Was he depressed? Had he been drinking? Did he not know what he was doing? Those were questions that haunted me.

The day of Andy Lee’s death was a pivotal point in my teaching and living in Shishmaref. That was the point where I honestly began to think about what I was doing as a teacher there, what I was doing as a person living in the community, and what sort of influence, if any, I had or anybody had. I realized how little I actually knew about my students and their lives. I realized that although I had been living and teaching in Shishmaref for seven years, I had actually very little real understanding of what life was like there. I had observed and felt I was making some headway into understanding the people who lived there and the lifestyle, but the one thing that I had failed to even touch upon was the inherent despair and the sense of hopelessness that led to suicides.

I asked myself what was the good of education, what was the purpose of educating kids if after they finished high school, they ended up killing themselves a few years later? The village averaged one suicide per year, but for the most part suicide was a topic sporadically dealt with as was mental health. I realized that I needed to pay much more attention to what was going on with my students, what was going on in their lives. I needed to observe. I needed to listen. I needed to understand. Otherwise I would never be an effective teacher. I would never make a difference.

Reflection definitely needed to become an integral part of my teaching practice. The events of July 1, 1998, remain imprinted on my mind. I didn’t magically transform into an understanding, caring teacher who always said or did the right thing. I wasn’t always sensitive from that day forward, but I did gain an awareness of my environment and at least the inklings of an understanding of the people I interacted with on a daily basis. I didn’t change the world, but I did make a small change within myself.

September 11 provided another poignant poetic moment. On a global scale, September 11, 2001, became a day that altered global perceptions. Even in the remote village of Shishmaref, we were affected by the nationwide blanket shutdown of air traffic. No flights meant no mail and no supplies. The real life news that day seemed transformed into a Hollywood movie. How would the movie end? Who was writing the script? I wondered what my students felt about what was happening so far removed from their tiny island. Should I have been latching onto a teachable moment? I received my teachable moment that night when I stepped outside. I stood on what seemed like the edge of the world, surrounded by sand and sea, watching an unusually spectacular display of northern lights. Scattered throughout the normally green and yellow lights were bold streaks of red. An elder standing next to me remarked, “There is too much violence in the world. The red lights are telling us this.”

Ironically, another September 11 two years later would imprint itself on my mind. Just after lunch on September 11, 2013, the principal walked into my classroom to tell me that Kenny Nayokpuk, a student who had graduated in May, had been found dead. Two years before, he had been a member of the group I called the “fringe element,” those students who really weren’t a part of the inner core of the school but lingered on the edges with great potential to drift completely away. I had been concerned about him then, writing in my journal, “Can he be reached? I fear he will be a casualty.” Two years later he was a casualty in the very real sense of the word.

Once again I found myself asking the question, “What was the good of education, what was the purpose of educating kids if after they finished high school, they ended up killing themselves?” I still needed to pay much more attention to what was going on with my students, what was going on in their lives. I needed to observe. I needed to listen. I needed to understand. I still was not an effective teacher in that sense. A few days after his funeral that September, I thought I caught a glimpse of Kenny walking along the beach. The elders in the village say that the spirit of someone who commits suicide has a difficult time going to its final resting place. I think it remains to haunt the ones still living.

Teaching does require a combination of imagination and common sense. It also demands perseverance. I believe that one of the reasons that I have lasted so long in rural Alaska is due to the connections that I have made outside the village through professional development. I became a part of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network a few years after I began teaching in Alaska. The partnerships and friendships forged through BLTN have been a powerful influence in both my teaching life and my personal life. My students have been connected in meaningful online exchanges with students in different parts of the country.

My association with BLTN has morphed into additional worthwhile professional development opportunities. One was an educational workshop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with an invitation for my students to participate in an online propaganda forum during the school year. One summer I was immersed in Emily Dickinson’s world in Amherst, Massachusetts. Another summer I was a student at Georgetown University reliving the historical highlights of the 1960s. I traveled to Cambridge, England, to study civil rights. I received a fellowship for a month-long writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center. These and other opportunities and affiliations have definitely enhanced my teaching.

The beginning of each new school year provides an opportunity to reconnect with my students after a few months of summer separation. We have stories to share. As a language arts teacher, I know the power of words, both spoken and written. Conversation with my students is an important element in my daily routine. Most of them arrive in the morning in time to chat. They line the ledge in my classroom before and after school, texting and snapchatting on electronic devices, posting videos on YouTube and following their friends in other villages on Facebook. My students are a mixture of a traditional subsistence culture and contemporary, tech-savvy teens. I know what is happening in their lives both inside and outside the classroom. I know these things through conversation and observation and through what they write. The creative thoughts of my students cover the walls of my classroom, shared with each other, with community members, with visitors. The words in their artistic displays show unique perspectives, depth of thought, and personality. The words are the classroom signatures.

During our first freewrite of the current school year, one of my students, Clyde, shared a poetic moment. He wrote: “This summer . . . was a really fun time with my older brother. My brother Beau taught me almost everything. But the last thing we did was biking to Nome river bridge. It was about three miles out of Nome. When we were biking there, it took us one hour and 36 minutes. On our way back we saw muskox and birds. This was 7/13/15 Monday morning at 4:10 a.m.”

Six days later, Beau shot and killed himself. I received the news of Beau’s suicide when I was in Washington, D.C., this past summer spending a week as a teacher fellow at Ford’s Theatre. Beau, too, had been a student of mine, one who couldn’t quite connect with school and had dropped out. He embraced the subsistence lifestyle, liked spending time outdoors, and especially loved fishing. His success in my classroom had been limited, but he left an impression with his writing. In the following poem he shared his love of fishing, the outdoors, and spending time with friends in his recipe for a perfect fishing trip.

 

A Perfect Fishing Trip

Ingredients:

2 Dip nets
4 Fish poles
3 1/2 Friends
1 Boat
1 Motor
2 Square foot tackle box
Any kind snacks, lots
2 Grill racks
4 Knives
6 Wood blocks
10 Gallons gas
2 Quarts motor oil

Call your friends and tell them to fish with you. Tell them to bring their own fish poles, tackle boxes, snacks, knives, guns, ammo, dip nets, and a few blocks of wood. By the end of your call, tell them to put their stuff into my boat. Then grab a stick to club the fish, and don’t forget your gas and motor oil.

 

A few weeks ago, I opened the door on Sunday evening to find Clyde, standing in the entryway with bloodstained hands. The blood wasn’t Clyde’s, however. He had caught his first seal that day and was delivering the cut-up meat to residents in the village, following the cultural belief that a hunter should give away his first catch of any animal to ensure good luck on following hunts.

Clyde is fragile and vulnerable, and each day is a struggle for him, but he is persevering. He is making an effort to embrace the subsistence lifestyle. Most days he comes to school.

I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity for a quality education. In “Imagination and Common Sense,” I wrote: “I believe that education should teach people to live well in the places where they live.” I still believe that.

I haven’t always been the best teacher. I haven’t always been the most sensitive teacher. But I have persevered. My observations and reflections over the years have informed the common sense that tells me that I can’t solve all the problems in the world, or even some of the problems that make their way into my classroom. My imagination, however, tells me that the possibilities are unlimited.

 

 

 

 

 

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