In a New Position

“You have a new job!” was my greeting as I entered school that morning.

I am now helping the new teacher of a Grade 5 class – all boys, except for one girl. The previous teacher did not return after the Christmas break.

First reaction:  Panic.  I’ve heard screaming, raging, and the sounds of furniture turned over or smashed against a wall from that room. This was usually followed up by a visit from the behaviour technician.

When I entered the class, it was notable that sharp objects such as scissors were kept out of reach and there were no cords for the blinds. Angry vulgarities were etched on the desks.

We almost made it through the first half of the day without incident … until I asked the boys to pick up some of their mess – broken pencils, paper airplanes, wads of paper – before heading out for recess.

One boy became so enraged that he destroyed the classroom in just a few minutes. The pencil sharpener was ripped off the wall, the globe was smashed, and the teacher’s paper work was strewn across the room in one angry swipe. A ruler was hurled at me and just narrowly missed my eye.

The principal intervened, but after lunch, the boy was back in class, smiling and happy, seemingly oblivious to his earlier behaviour.

I’ve been called almost every colourful name known to sailors and rednecks. The only printable one would be “baby-killer.”

Since, we’ve had visits from two different pedagogical counsellors. One advised to put aside everything we know and think we know and consider we are living in a war zone.

Lessons are kept as fundamental as possible since the kids have varying degrees of developmental delays and diagnosis, as well as pure anger control issues. Most work is at grade one to three level and is designed to be pretty much fail proof (not to risk a riot).

It’s been a slow, slow process to engage the students.

“You are an entertainer and game show host,” I tell the teacher who has boundless energy.

I’ve learned to use intermittent reinforcements – a fruit-flavoured skittle candy plunked onto the worksheet of a child who is actually working can evoke a grin.

I’ve learned to watch for cues of an impending eruption – a look, a glance, a shove. Did the cheques come in last night? Is court being held in the community? Is a relative in jail? In this small village, everyone is related and everyone is affected. There is little privacy and homes have multi-generational families and foster children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews all under one roof.

I try to imagine what it is like to be an eleven year old coming to school, where it is safe and structured, and meals are provided:  The teachers may be kind and gentle and you are learning stuff. But you are tired because you’ve been up all night. Stuff was happening at home, that you can’t describe. You don’t know what you want and you hurt real bad, but don’t have the vocabulary to express it.

With the roads outside of town not accessible this time of year, our world has become so small.


Snow Day!

My first Snow Day!

When it’s -35 or colder, school is closed, at least for the morning.

It’s been two morning in a row. There isn’t really a lot of snow, but the wind creates huge sand dune-like drifts.

Snow days, when I was a kid, were actually snow days. Too much snow, but never enough for us kids. Snow days meant snow forts, tobogganing at the nearest golf course or in the piles left by the snow plows, skating on the river or lake, practicing downhill skiing, and frozen white fingertips and toes.


What’s on the other side?

The other side of Great Whale

The other side of Great Whale

Happy New Year!

We hiked across the river today, following a ski-doo track. It was so cold that my eyelashes stuck together and the snow made a peculiar hollow sound, not the usual crunchy sound.

We climbed a hill and saw the community from a different view, so small and distant.

Kids cross over to sled down the steep banks.

The photo was taken by a local, Jean-Marc Gourmaud. I don’t bring my camera outside, as it freezes before I have time to focus!

Stuck at the Dump

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Down in the Dumps

It has been quiet … so very quiet after Christmas festivities. Both bars are closed over the holidays, so I haven’t been called for guard duties at the detention centres. The roads leading out of the community are not plowed, so our world has become very small. The road only goes as far as the two municipal dumps. There is one dump for regular kitchen garbage. Farther down is the “Canadian Tire” where metal, wood, appliances, cars and dry goods are deposited. This is a great place to scavenge for auto parts.

We had a thermos of tea and sandwiches and thought this would be a good chance to let the dogs have a good run. Our dog is white, and the husky belongs to a teacher who has gone south for the holidays.

When we approached Canadian Tire, there were tracks leading into it, but they were just ski-doo and ATV tracks, so our heavy truck sunk in deeply. Andy flagged down a ride back into town for reinforcement and I stayed back with the dogs, occasionally slipping into the truck to warm up (along with the dogs).

Our dog, Skooner

And that was our adventure for the day. I think tomorrow we’ll head out to the other dump and watch the crows and seagulls fly!

Skooner and BamBam

Skooner and BamBam

Raw Caribou and Seal for Christmas

“Merry Christmas!  Merry Christmas!” We sat on folding chairs arranged on the periphery of the triple gym. People passed by us and offered their hands and greetings. It is Christmas day and we were at the community feast on the Inuit side.

The gym was garlanded with lights and streamers. A stage was set up, filled with prizes. “There will be a draw,” a woman at the door said as she handed Andy a ticket for a ‘man prize’ and one to me, for a ‘woman prize’. I noted a yellow ski-doo in the gym. What a prize for the lucky winner!

Little girls twirled on the gym floor in lacy dresses and shiny shoes. Little boys in vests and shirts chased each other. Older kids in jeans, stood in clusters talking and laughing. Mothers with babies tucked into their amautis chatted with elders.

“I’ve never heard a baby cry here,” I mused to Andy as I watched the young mother beside me arrange her baby in a square cloth on her back. This is the way babies are carried inside. Outside, they are tucked into the hood of a traditional parka. There is always a woman nearby to help.

At the centre of the gym, black plastic garbage bags were taped to the floor. Large chunks of raw deep burgundy caribou, seal meat, and white feathered ptarmigans lay in huge piles. A couple of large coolers held shrimp. At an announcement, people stood up and headed to the centre to pick up a section of meat. Some ate right there, sitting on the floor; others brought meat back to their families sitting at the edge of the gym. The mother beside me chewed the meat for her baby, as a young man cut raw slivers for her with a large knife.

At the other side of the gym, tables were laden with at least 12 oversized turkeys, pots of caribou stew, and a couple of cardboard boxes, lined with plastic, filled with macaroni salad. There were no utensils, just a box of surgical gloves. You just put one on and dig in! It was wonderful to be with children and families on this Christmas day, and to feel welcome.

Merry Christmas, Happy Belated Hanukah, Blessings at Solstice, Joyeux Noel and Frohliches Weihnachtesfest to all those so far away.

Fluffy White Feathers

We found a sturdy black spruce that would become our Christmas tree.

Most trees by the bay cluster in tight stands for protection against the winds, but this one stood alone. We brushed off the hard crusted snow.

As we loaded it into the back of the truck, we heard three gunshots. I stiffened. But then I saw a flock of ptarmigan lift, scatter and dissolve into the low hanging grey clouds.

Moments later, we passed a man standing by his skidoo, his gun resting against his leg, turned towards the ground. A woman stood by him plucking at a white bird.

It was just 2:00 in the afternoon, and the sun was already sinking into the horizon.

“Look it’s started to snow!” I said. Large fluffy flakes bounced off the windshield.

It me took a moment to realize what I thought was snow, were tiny soft white ptarmigan feathers.

Lots of Cookies and a Turkey

Ornamental cookies drying before we hung them on our tree

Ornamental cookies drying before we hung them on our tree

Just before teachers and staff headed south for the holidays, we had a cookie decorating craft at our home before a traditional turkey dinner.

The results were quite artistic and colourful and everyone was completely absorbed.

Painting the cookie shapes

Painting the cookie shapes

Years from now, when we are back south, I will unwrap these cookie ornaments and remember our Christmas up north and all the wonderful people we’ve had a chance to meet.

Skooner approves

Skooner approves