Today’s slice comes from the book, The Brave Question Payoff, by Dr. Alan Zimmerman. I had the opportunity to see Dr. Zimmerman speak during a January PD day, and if you have the chance, find a way to see him.  You can find my write up of that day here.  The book itself is separated into groups of questions designed to get deeper conversations started, either a staff, a family, or even a gathering of friends. It was well worth the money spent to purchase it as I use this as a place to pull writing prompt questions from.

Anyway, my question to answer today:

What experience or interaction have you had with another culture that has affected you?

My first year of teaching was in Alaska, and not just the Alaska of the road system, it was bush Alaska. Imagine 1994, I’d just graduated college in the previous December, gotten married in March, and April, we traveled to Minneapolis to a job fair. There, we interviewed with the Bering Strait School District (a district the size of Washington state in square miles). Two weeks after that, we had a second phone interview, had contracted faxed to us, signed them, faxed them back, and we were off.

Now, this district isn’t like the pictures you see of Alaska with trees and glaciers. No, this is real, bush country Alaska, where supplies are flown in daily because there are no roads in or out of the town. This is where you see what damage alcohol has to natives as you watch men and women yelling at each other drunk. This is where you see salmon drying next to run down homes, where men go out in groups because the caribou herd is near, and where your school district owns its own airplane. This is real, in your face Alaska.

My experience changed me, because I was the minority. We taught Inupiat  Eskimos, who were some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. The kids were like none I’ve ever had, before or since. The high schoolers were welcoming, but stand offish, having had white teachers come and go before. The sixth graders that I taught were the most open students I’ve come across, inquisitive about everything that was “the lower 48”.

However, as open and welcoming as the students were, the parents and grandparents were almost the opposite. The grandparents, as children, saw white missionaries come in and call their native traditions “works of the devil”. They had mouths washed out with soap if they spoke their native tongue, were beaten for practicing native dance, and watched as their culture slowly began to die. Their children (the parents of students I had) heard these stories and saw the aftermath of all of this. Needless to say, there were trust issues.

We were called various native ethic slurs during our time there (we were only there a year), which really gave me a better understand of what the term “minority” meant. We had other smaller things: being served last at a supper, last ones to get luggage off the plane, kids who’d talk to us like crazy, but would button up when parents were around, those kinds of small slights. As an Iowa boy who’d only really traveled around the Mid-West, it was eye-opening to say the least.

But it wasn’t all negative either. I watch as elders were celebrated repeatedly, both both their parents and grandchildren.  In a culture where we shun our older generation, this was always fun to watch.  I was invited to go ice fishing with a group of parents(bad idea, it was REALLY cold and I underdressed), which was very awesome to take part in, though they made fun of me afterwards (rightfully so!).  The basketball team nicknamed me “Snowbound” because as a male coach, I had to pay my own way to away games. The two times I did that, we had problems and ended up staying an extra night! 🙂 I had the chance to take a group of sixth grade boys to a tournament in the next village, so we loaded up the airplane and stayed the weekend. I had moose, reindeer, caribou, and many other local foods.

As I think about that experience, there were so many things that I know I’ve forgotten, but the attitude towards whites, both good and bad, have stuck with me. As we talk about race relations, I think back to those times in the village where I didn’t feel at all comfortable and have a bit more empathy for those in the minority.  Had we stayed longer, some trust would have been built, but as it were, I’ll never forget my time there.

On a much lighter note, two of my former students made contact with me, and we are now Facebook friends. It’s amazing the connections that can be regained through the explosion of technology, even in rural Alaska! 🙂