twenty little, thirty little, forty little Eskimos…

When I was in high school, I enjoyed my time at school, but when the last bell rang or tennis practice was over, I was beyond ready to go home. But here, the school is the hub of the village and, apparently, the place to be. Kids hang around the doors at all hours of the day; it’s the main place of social gathering, and it’s where all the kids find warmth, food, and education every day of the week except Sunday. You’d think that with the kind of fervor these kids have about being at the school, they’d be excellent students. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for the majority of them.

I remember how nervous I was the first day I came in to substitute. I’d never spoken more than one sentence to a native, and I still had some difficulty understanding them. I’d heard the horror stories about some of the kids—their untamable behavior, their unruly attitudes, their lack of discipline and abundance of apathy. I prepared myself for the absolute worst. And the absolute worst is just about what I got that first day.

It was a kind of chaos I hope nobody else ever has to go through; there were 25 fifth and sixth graders—spitting on the floor, choking each other, throwing pencils in the ceiling, throwing papers out the window, pulling hair, yelling and screaming, stomping on books, and ripping up their assignments. When I’d get one corner of the room settled down, the other corners would flare up again. It was a vicious cycle of energy and insanity. The notorious worst student in the village was in that class, and he added to the exhausting day by mocking me and telling me to shut up. Challenging doesn’t even begin to describe that day. I’d walked into the classroom never having taught before, and I left wondering if I ever could again. Of course, it didn’t help that I really had no idea what I was doing. When subbing the younger kids, a substitute is much more than just a person to hand out assignments… you actually teach little lessons and help the kids understand the concepts on their assignments. And since I’d never really taught before, especially not in the Bush, I was in for a surprise.

Luckily, since that first day, those kids have settled down some, and I’ve learned a lot more about discipline and about what these kids do and don’t respond to. If you can believe it, ever since then, substituting and teaching actually has been pretty great. Every weekend we have Saturday school in the afternoons, and I teach reading to those same fifth and sixth graders as well as some second, third, and fourth graders. I’ve had some time to talk and bond with the kids, even getting to work with some of them one-on-one in writing and reading. I also worked open gym night two nights a week up until about a week ago, so I’ve really grown pretty fond of these little Eskimos. Even though the younger kids have a way of pulling at my heartstrings, I’ve even grown fond of some of the older students. Yes, the junior high and high schoolers have their own problems and discipline issues, but at least they’re usually calm and not bouncing off the walls with energy. At the same time, their full-time teachers have to keep on their toes and keep them busy all the time, which can be a real challenge when you have students of all different age groups in one classroom!

I remember Kim warning me that this culture functions by the motto “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”— that they don’t tell you how to do things or what should be done sometimes; they just give you a job, and you have to figure out by yourself exactly how to do it or what all has to be done. I really didn’t understand this in depth until I experienced it. For example, the first day that I subbed as the school’s cook, I got to the kitchen expecting a menu or even a measuring cup or a to-do list or something, but there was none of that. Thankfully Kim came with me that morning (because she knew I’d have no idea where to even start), and we had to look in the pantry and make whatever we could find for 150 people in this kitchen I’d never seen before. The teachers often have to fill in for the cook in the mornings when she shows up too late to make breakfast for the kids, so Kim is used to navigating the kitchen when necessary. The whole dynamic in this school—the balance of cultures, the different perceptions of responsibility and accountability—is something I never could have imagined.

Kimberly has this quote that she says all the time: “I’ll give it a whirl.” And that mindset seems to be perfect for her in this culture and lifestyle. There are things that catch you off guard and overwhelming jobs you have to accomplish all alone, but as long as you try and keep trying, you’ll survive. Trial and error: that’s how Kim learned everything she knows about living and teaching in the Bush, and it’s pretty much how life has worked for me these past few months as well.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “twenty little, thirty little, forty little Eskimos…

  1. Sarilyn

    Wonderful, wonderful writing! You and Kim have a gift like that…to make me feel like I’m there watching over your shoulder as you go thru your trials and tribulations! I would love to know how you tamed those teenagers 🙂

  2. Sarilyn — I didn’t tame the teenagers!! The high schoolers are kept under control by their full time teachers, like Kim! But I did learn to tame the little ones… that took some trial and error!! 🙂

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