I began my teaching career 1991 in a remote school accessible only by air. I was full of optimism and a belief in the transformative power of education. Believing that I was the agent of change and that the world was just waiting for me, I set out to bring hope and a brighter future to my new community. Then the first day of school came and reality set in.
While I found it very stressful at the time I find myself nostalgic about it now. Even though this experience took place so long ago it continues manifest itself in my life and career. Enough time has also passed to allow the real meaning and impact of that experience to come to the fore. I wrote this poem in the fall of 2007 attempting further to distill that experience.
It’s purpose is to communicate my disconnect with my new community, explore the impact of harsh daily experience, and illuminate my own personal transformation with the community itself as an Agent of Change acting on me. I went there to change, and was, rather, changed myself.
Manitoba is a prairie province,
infinite fields of golden grain,
and grazing livestock.
Or so they claim.
But a thousand feet in the air,
flying straight North out of Winnipeg,
more than 2 hours have passed since patchwork sections
of black and gold gave way to lakes and trees,
and only the occasional smudge of civilization.
Beside me the pilot points ahead;
his lips are moving.
I understand him to say, “There it is.”
over the roar of the twin engines.
We circle around,
land on an impossibly short stretch of gravel,
taxi our way to a small brown building,
with a green sign declaring location and elevation
Disembarking seems pretentious,
so I just get out and walk to the airport building.
The few people in the room watch me enter.
I hear a few words in Cree and then everyone laughs.
I try to smile my way into the group
like I understand, but it’s obvious I don’t.
It never occurred to me that this job also required
a change in status to “minority”
Waiting for my cargo, I look at the map on the wall.
“Here” being obliterated by the touch of a thousand fingers
The surrounding area stained brown
By the poor aim of a thousand more
A voice comes from behind me, “You the teacher?”
“Yes, I am.” I smile and extend my hand.
He stares at it while he musters the will to
perform the chore of shaking it.
“You got lots?” he asks. I point out the window,
“A couple suitcases, some boxes,”
we watch one of them fall from the plane and split open
ravens swoop in curious and hopeful
“Truck’s out back.” he tells me
and walks away shaking his head
The pilot finishes shoving my stuff out on to the tarmac,
someone else kicks it into a pile under the plane.
As it taxis away my books and clothes blow like so many leaves
against the chain-link fence.
I spend the next half hour re-collecting
McLelland and Stewart’s New Canadian Library
(Prairie Literature, mostly...) from amongst the rocks
and peel my briefs and boxers from the Jack Pines
At the end of the dirty snow-packed road is the school.
Beside it, my new home,
a two-story teacherage with a basement.
A rarity in this rocky landscape.
Every night kids knock on the door
“can we visitchoo?” they run upstairs to the bathroom
and turn on the hot water before I can answer
looking out the window they gasp, “We’re high up... do you jump it?”
They laugh at the hair on my arms
“You’re furry... you have fur!”
They drink cup after cup of sugar and milk,
warmed with a splash of tea
My radio is tuned to the local band station,
there are no others.
The one location in all creation
Where CBC isn’t
They broadcast bingo numbers
and personal messages
O 58, B skinny legs
Frank go home, supper’s ready
One day somebody put a Weird Al song on repeat
Locked the door. Took the key.
Couple of days later somebody finally busted in and changed the song
Maybe it was the first somebody, tired of his own prank.
On the way I see my neighbour at the water pump
driving a ball of duct tape with snow machine parts stuck to it.
Behind on the sled is a 40-gallon barrel he fills with water
behind it a few armloads of split pine.
He’ll have hot water too
once he chips through the skin of ice
Fills the pot, Starts the fire
And waits for it to boil.
Twenty-eight kids in my class. Grade 9 and 10.
The youngest is 14, the oldest 21.
Only half of them are ever here
Different half every day. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
School bus is a mini van and the back of a pickup
Kids spill out and over the edge and run inside
Forty below; they all love the bathroom
love holding their hands under the hot running water.
There’s no gym so we push aside the desks
and play soccer in the classroom
Tupper and Mulroney for goal posts on one side
Hydrogen and Helium on the other
I hassle my student to come every day
Give them certificates for perfect attendance,
and heck when they play hooky,
Remind them how important school is.
Prepositions, Viscosity, Pythagoras
Can’t get a good job without them, I proclaim.
I take their silence as tacit agreement
They don’t need to say anything to agree with me
And they don’t.
One Friday in November we hand-deliver report cards
through the bush on the back of a snow machine
“Don’t knock,” we’re told, “just walk in.”
They expect it. They just don’t expect me.
I’d composed a small missive on attending school
Backed my assertions with research
And prepared to deliver it 28 times.
I’d convince everyone to attend every day.
Jenny’s house was first. Only there 6 days last month.
I see her crouching at the snowy lake bank behind the house
A bunch of young kids running around her,
She yells at them and shoos them away, still crouching.
I call out, “your mom home?”
Without turning she shrugs an I-don’t-know at me.
She wasn’t. No one was.
Just that 14 year old out back with a dozen toddlers
I leave the report card amongst the debris on the kitchen table
And head back out through the snow to where the children are.
Jenny had chopped a hole in the ice with an axe
was scrubbing clothes with a bar of soap against a large rock
rinsed them in the frozen water
hung them to dry on the trees.
Monday we had tea in class
and took an extra long bathroom break
© Miles MacFarlane 11-2007