Arts Ed on the Bering Sea
Fall is sneaking its way into the air slowly here in northwestern Alaska, showing up in the movement of the sand hill cranes south across the Bering Sea, in the bones of silver salmon and humpies carried from their spawning grounds to beaches along the river, in the crisp, sweet smell of plant decay over the tundra. Soon, the all-night sunshine will be but a memory, the ocean will freeze over, and my job, as an art teacher, will be even more important: we all know how a little creativity can lift the spirits and a little color can turn a dark day around.
When people hear I teach in the Bush, the some-million acres of land in Alaska accessible only by plane, boat, snow machine or dog team, most assume the worst about the weather: “How do you survive in the cold, the dark?” they ask, as if I moved to some apocalyptic, barren wasteland, devoid of other human interaction and forms of life and growth. Most conclude I must be in it for the money, and inquire about my teaching salary. Most imagine the worst they have heard of village life: alcoholism, abuse, violence, a people and culture destroyed by the vices of Westerners. I tell them, if you want to learn something, move to the Bush. I, a teacher, am getting the education.
I am no expert. I have been living on the Bering Sea for a short five years, barely enough time to scrape the surface of getting to know a region inhabited by an incredible people, diverse cultures, and expansive geography. Our communities are isolated, and like any other place in the U.S., have those issues that are exacerbated by remoteness and by historical trauma: the loss of native language, a threatened cultural-identity. Rates of depression and suicide are high, along with abuse of alcohol and the ugly crimes that live in the shadows of substance abuse. But beyond all of that is strength and resiliency of a people that have survived in a harsh climate for thousands of years—masters of so many of those 21st century buzz words: communication, collaboration, problem solving, creativity.
I was first hired to start an art program in a small village of about 400 that sits at the mouth of a meandering river that flows into Norton Sound. I worked with 90 kids, primarily Inupiat, from grades K-12, working to expose students with no prior formal arts experience, at least in the Western sense, to new mediums, building confidence and exploring identity, striving to inspire a way of processing and reflecting on both the beautiful and the challenging aspects of village life.
Two days ago, as I passed through the little terminal serving Bush communities in the Anchorage airport, a former student beamed and waved through a sea of faces. A recent high school graduate, this young man was on his way to the next phase of life, looking more confident and healthy than I had ever seen him.
This fellow was one in a cohort of my most challenging classes my first year teaching—consisting of seven rowdy teenage boys who all came from tough family lives and who were frequently sent home from school or skipped altogether. When this boy did show up to class, a cloud of anger and mistrust often followed him, and he and his peers antagonized each other constantly. They put on the air that they hated art, hated school, and could care less if anything was accomplished in our 50-minute block of time together. By mid-year, I felt like I was treading water with all of my might and that one day, I would just give up, sink and drown.
With time, though, I started to feel like I was gaining ground—we made stop motion animations of going ice fishing; we built instruments from junk we picked out of the dump; we worked with the kindergarten class to create a sculpture for the playground of plywood silhouettes of bodies spelling out the school’s name. The boys did start to trust me more, though they probably to this day will not claim that they enjoyed art class.
My main goal for this class (beyond my own self-survival) was for each student to gain some self-confidence and willingness to take risks in life. There was one instance, in particular, that I know I had succeeded in this mission.
I was working with each grade in the school to put a performance together of local stories through a variety of puppet-making techniques. The high school boys had chosen to create shadow puppets, and after much hemming and hawing, decided to do a performance that could combine their two most-favorite things: playing basketball and making bird calls. For weeks of what felt like pushing a boulder uphill, the boys each made a shadow puppet of a basketball player with a bird alias: “Crane” Abdhul Jabbar, Le “Brant” James, Magic “Mallard” Johnson, Larry Bird. Each boy carefully painted the ball player’s jersey onto their bird silhouette, and we prepared an all-star basketball routine behind a screen that we built.
When the day of the community performance came, each and every boy declared that the whole project was stupid and that they had better things to do then to come and perform for the community, who would surely make fun of them. The fear of failure was palpable, and I did my best to encourage the boys that all would be well, pleading with them to show up that night.
They indeed, miraculously, all came to my classroom that evening, grabbed their shadow puppets, and proceeded to put on the best act of the night in front of their peers, parents, aunties and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, and cousins who packed the gym. When the gym lights came back on and I forced the boys to come out from behind the screen to take a bow to the audience, I will never forget the glow of happiness and pride in their faces, nor the air of indifference as the pack strolled out of the gym, tossing their puppets in the garbage as they left.
I plucked those puppets out of the trash and saved them for a day when one of those boys has a son or daughter of their own to share their artwork with. I can only hope that I taught that crew a fraction of what they taught me- to find beauty and strength in community, to take risks, and to persevere through life’s challenges.
For more information about the arts of Bering Strait School District, please visit www.bssdarts.org.