Monday Morning Musings

Posted on May 31, 2021 under Monday Morning Musings with 2 comments

 

Thankfully, my goose was cooked!

 

Every day in the north held a surprise.

In some ways it reminded me of India. Now, there are very few similarities between a country of 1.3 billion people and a village of 900. The climates are polar opposites. The culture, the crowds and the food are worlds apart.

It’s hard to measure warmth when it comes to human connection, but I would rate Kangiqsujuaq and Kanyakumari very high on this index.

The other similarity was the shocking regularity of events and situations that left me shaking my head in disbelief. Honestly, I can’t remember a single day in either part of the world that something unusual didn’t happen.

Last Friday was a perfect example.

May 28th was my last full day in the north. Those of you know me well would not be surprised to learn that I had packed my personal belongings (which will be shipped home and arrive sometime this summer) a few days early, had finished up all my responsibilities at school and had cleaned my apartment (not to Teresa P.D. standards!). I was wondering how I would fill the final hours.

I spent the morning at school wandering aimlessly, chatting with colleagues and saying my farewells. At noontime, I made my way over to the Family House, an amazing facility that provides supports for families in a variety of ways including a safe space when things aren’t going well. The Board of the Family House had invited the team that had prepared and delivered over 100 Christmas meals to those in need last December.

Fittingly, lunch was a wonderful array of country food including ptarmagin, Canada Goose, raw and pan fried arctic char, deep fried bannock and raw vegetables. The President of the Board welcomed and thanked the group. She spoke in Inuktitut which was translated by one of the other Inuit women in attendance. I was deeply honored to be asked to say grace. The Inuit are very spiritual people, and no event starts without a prayer of thanksgiving.

The food was amazing. We were fortunate to have Mary Arngak in attendance. She is the director on Pingualuit Park and the manager of the local museum. She is one of the chief collectors of Inuit stories and is doing her part to conserve the culture and the language. She is warm, gracious, witty and musical. Throughout the meal, she told us story after story about the food we were eating. The Inuit are hunters. For centuries they roamed the frigid north constantly searching for food. Hunting is every bit as important today as it has been over the long timeline of the north. Food is precious. Nothing is wasted and surplus food is stored in the community freezer for any resident who needs meat or fish.

The meal was wonderful. It was still mighty chilly outside but inside, the dining room was filled with warmth and laughter. Much of the meal had to be eaten by hand. I was able to share some culture from India, demonstrating the way people in India eat with their hands.

I cleared the bones off my plate (saved for sled dogs) and was about to pour myself a cup of coffee when Mary looked at me and suggested that I try a delicacy – the brain of a Canada Goose. I knew she wasn’t kidding. I have never been one to shy away from adventure, but I took a few hard gulps. I thought it might be seen as a snub if I didn’t try it. The brain was cut in half. Mary showed me how to extricate the brain from the skull. Yup. I can see that this has a few of you squeamish, possibly revolted but this is what the Inuit have been doing for millennia. NOTHING is wasted. It reminded me of removing escargot from a shell. The taste and texture was very much like a liver pate. Now liver pate is not my absolute favourite food in the world but one that I can consume quite easily. It was surprisingly tasty and apparently very healthy. A friend at the far end of the table jokingly (?!) suggested that I could now legitimately be called a bird brain!

I was rather proud of myself as the laughter died down after this epic performance. Pride turned to grave concern when Mary handed me the head of a ptarmagin (a fowl similar to a partridge back home). I was wondering what ptamagin brain tasted like but I never found out. “Len, you need to eat the eyes of the ptarmagin,” uttered Mary. Mary had a sheepish grin on her face. At first, I hoped (and prayed), that she was joking. Not a chance. There is an art to removing the eyes of a ptamagin, one which I mastered quickly.

Ptarmagin eyes can be eaten raw. I’m guessing that this is an acquired taste. They can be eaten frozen and of course, cooked. Mercifully, the dead bird lying in front of me had spent a few hours in the oven. When was the last time you stared into the eyes of a dead bird? I gently extricated the first eyeball and with cameras fixed on my face, I popped it into my mouth. It was not at all unpleasant. The second was a piece of cake. I posted a picture later that day on Facebook and much of the reaction was predictable. It left many people gagging and revolted. I saw the experience very differently. I felt honored that they would share their food and traditions with a stranger to their land. It was NOT revolting. It was humbling.

When in Rome….

Would I do this again? In a heartbeat. Speaking of heartbeat, I was retelling the experience to a colleague later that same day. He chuckled and told me about his experience eating a chicken heart… a live, beating chicken heart!

After lunch, I stopped by the staffroom one last time. Many of the Inuit teachers were there, anxious for the day to end so that they could go to their camps to hunt and fish. I told them about my lunch. There were gales of laughter. Surprisingly, one of the women had never eaten ptarmagin eyes. She told me that I was more Inuk than she was. I will miss these amazing women. Many of them have children and grandchildren and have very busy and often challenging lives.

Having already cancelled my phone and internet, my last piece of business was to bring my cable receiver back to the Coop and close my cable account. You’ll have to wait for my new book to hear the description of that exchange! Nothing is particularly straight forward.

Just around the corner from the Coop is the home of one of my students. Pound for pound she was, by far, my most difficult student. I had her for the better part of two years and the loss of the few remaining hairs on my head can be traced back to this young woman. In the first year, she routinely upended her desk, threw things at me, and hurled expletives in Inuktitut. It was an uneasy relationship. I’m being charitable. Some of my readers are current or retired teachers. You know what I’m talking about. If you can survive them, they often turn out to be your favourite students.

When I look back on this experience, I think the most important aspects of teaching in the north is showing up for work each day and caring about the kids. Like children everywhere, they need consistency and unconditional love, even when they drive you to the brink.

Year two, I saw gradual improvement in my young charge. Her outbursts all but disappeared. She warmed up to me in the oddest of ways. Most Inuit children are incredibly affectionate. They want to be loved and hugged. I will freely admit, that hearing my name and having a child run up to hug me, will be one of the things that I will cherish most from this experience.

My student always backed into a hug. She never faced me. I would wrap my arms around her. She never wrapped hers around me. Mind you, she would have had difficulty getting her arms around my ever-expanding waistline. All of those coconut cream pies and cookies (and Goose brains !) have added some heft to my belly.

I decided to drop in and see her one last time. Her father is a sweet man and so appreciative of teachers. She was sitting on the couch. After shaking her dad’s hand and exchanging well wishes, I called her over. I wished her well and then asked her for a hug. She faced me with tears welling up in her eyes as we embraced face to face for the first time. And likely the last time. I must admit that , I too, was misty eyed.

And that, my friends, was the highlight of my two years in the north and it came at the 11th hour.

Surprise and mystery.

The north.

Their home and native land.

Nakurmik.

Have a great week.

P.S. After eating the brain of a Canada Goose and the eyes of a ptarmagin, I wasn’t worried about my flight last Saturday. I reckoned if the plane didn’t show up, I would just fly home on my own!

 

 

 

 

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Thursday Tidbits

Posted on May 27, 2021 under Thursday Tidbits with 3 comments

 

Farewell, Kangiqsujuaq

 

“Goodbye, goodbye,

 Think I’ll set my wings for flying,

In the sky, in the sky,

There’s room enough to fly,

So, goodbye.

Goodbye, Again – Ray Materick

 

Well, it’s time for this bird to fly. This will be my final post from Kangiqsujuaq.

There are just too many memories to list but here are a few:

The howling of sled dogs when the village is asleep.

Throat singing.

Inuit babies.

New Year’s Eve fireworks by the mountains and Wakem Bay.

The guys who work at the airport. My friends.

Just Dance in the school gym.

Dog sled races.

Inuit children.

Christmas in Kangiqsujuaq.

Inuit winter games.

Staff Christmas dinner where I ate raw beluga and raw caribou for the first time.

The Christmas dinner that we provided to those who wouldn’t have one.

The epic ice fishing trip.

Riding in a Qamotiq. A mistake!

The seal hunting expedition and walking across Ungava Bay.

Hiking in the mountains in summer and winter.

Inuit teenagers.

Walking the airport loop alone or with colleagues.

Singing with the children at the FM station.

The beauty of the tundra in all seasons.

Taking a stroll in a storm at -57!

Teaching after a 40- year hiatus.

The Inuit staff at the two grocery stores.

My colleagues at work.

Sewing mittens.

Attending the Pentecostal church.

Surviving my first few months in the Arctic.

Weekly phone calls with my brother, Don.

Inuit adults. Inuit staff members.

Teacher’s road.

Covid.

Getting my two vaccine shots.

Skating alone at the arena.

The Qaggiq.

Parent-Teacher night.

The first day at school.

The last day at school.

Inuit elders.

Spotty internet.

Spotty cable.

My adventures getting a phone line with Bell.

Doing music at the summer camp with young children.

Pen pals across Canada for my students. Thanks. You know who you are.

Posting a story from my neighbor’s veranda at 5:00 a.m. in -35 temps.

The sky. Oh, the sky.

The parade through town for our graduates. They sat on top of the fire truck.

Outdoor funerals in the winter.

Learning songs in Inuktitut.

Teaching songs in English.

Recess duty. Holding one end of a skipping rope.

The water and sewage trucks.

Trips to the airport to pick up cargo (groceries).

The nursing station.

Skidoo trip across Wakem Bay.

Learning about Inuit culture.

Zoom calls.

Masks. Hand sanitizer. Social distancing.

Skinamarink. Baby Beluga. Ed The Invisible Dragon. Country Roads.

The Christmas concert (pre-Covid).

In closing, I want to thank the people of Kangiqsujuaq for making me feel welcome and a part

of their community. I have learned a great deal from the Inuit people including patience, perseverance,

and persistence. These are among the kindest and most gentle people on the planet. They are incredibly

talented people who have endured so much hardship.

I will miss them.

Farewell, salut, tavvauvusi.

Nakurmik.

Best wishes and stay well.

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Monday Morning Musings

Posted on May 24, 2021 under Storytelling with 4 comments

A gift from Jobie. It says “welcome”.

 

“School days, school days,

Dear old golden rule days,

Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic,

Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.”

School Days

 

Do you want to hear about my last day at school? Of course, you don’t but I have nothing else to write about, so you’ll just have to suffer through this, all 1540 words.

Despite advanced age, most of us can still remember as children, the anticipation of the last day of school. Instead of the drudgery of school, we faced an endless summer of playing outdoors and going to the beach. I was an avid golfer and shortly after my report card was delivered home, I was on my way to the golf course.

“School’s out for summer,

School’s out forever.”

School’s Out – Alice Cooper

It is rather odd to end a school year at the end of May when it is still winter but that’s how it is in the north. As it turned out, it was a good thing that school ended the day it did because the morning after, we awoke to a blizzard, not to be confused with the tasty treat from DQ. Like so many other momentous days in our lives, sleep the day before a big event comes at a premium. Not that this would come as a surprise, but I was on the go at 4:50 a.m. on the last day of school, after what can only be considered a mediocre sleep. Adrenalin and the promise of a beer that evening would get me through the day.

Like many schools, ours is broken up into segments. The K-3 classes are a unit, followed by grades 4-6 and then secondary or high school. In our group there were two classes of 4, 5 and 6, English and French. I was blessed to have young, smart, energetic colleagues who took it upon themselves to plan out activities for the last few days of school.

Of course, the day started with the mandatory cleaning out of desks. There is something cathartic about tossing out all those notebooks and fossilized orange peels lurking in the bowels of one’s desk. When we were kids, the contents of our desk, along with projects and (gasp) even books, were amassed in an open field behind our neighbor’s house, creating a pretty impressive bonfire.

The students in the two grade six classes were “graduating” to secondary so a parade through the school was held. All of the students on the elementary side of the building made signs wishing the new graduates success. They stood in the hallways, clapping and cheering as the grade 6s paraded proudly downstairs and upstairs, ending the march at the entrance to the high school. I had never seen this done before but I have to admit that it was a pretty cool thing and one that the students aren’t likely to soon forget.

I decided to have a pizza party for my class after the parade. The school’s main kitchen called the Nirivik is handy to the art room. For practical purposes, I cooked the pizzas in the Nirivik and then carted them down the hallway to the art room. My students filled their bellies with pizza and some homemade chocolate chips cookies that I had made the day before. For background music, we listened to a collection of Inuit rap artists. Pizza and Inuit rappers… quite the combo!

“So let’s dance, the last dance,

Let’s dance, the last night,

Let’s dance this last dance tonight.”

Last Dance – Donna Summer

In the afternoon, each of the six classrooms (Grades 4,5,6 x2) hosted an activity. Every twenty minutes, students would rotate going to the next classroom until they had taken part in all activities. Not surprisingly, I decided that my class would be the music room. Last year, before Covid, the school held what was called Just Dance on the last Friday of every month. It was a chance for the entire school to go to the gym and let off some steam, dancing to music videos projected on to the wall of the gym. The videos were high octane featuring animated characters. Sadly, Covid put an end to that.

The high school students, by and large, were far too cool to take part in these dances but the younger children on the elementary side just went nuts on Just Dance days. When the students arrived in my class, I told them that I would award a prize (an Oh Henry chocolate bar) for the best dancer and singer. It was amazing. Even students who are generally reticent to take part in these types of activities were busting moves. Unbridled joy is the only way I can describe it. After three Just Dance videos, I accompanied the kids with my guitar as we sang Country Roads (every student in the school knows this John Denver classic) and a well- known Inuit song. They were all smiling and laughing as they exited my room.

And then, they were gone.

It was a fantastic day but unfortunately the day was not over. We had to rearrange our classrooms for parent teacher night that evening. You heard right. After an exhausting day we had to return to the school for two hours that evening to meet parents and hand out report cards. Walking to Ballantyne’s Cove (42km) was not nearly as tiring as this day!

One of my most challenging students arrived with her father. Even though we had our battles, I was very fond of this young girl. Her father thanked me for my service and told me that he and his daughter were both sad that I was leaving the community. He then presented me with a piece of handmade Inuit art (seen in the picture above). I’m sure there was a measure of fatigue involved but I had a lump in my throat at this expression of friendship and generosity.

I was running out of gas as I awaited the arrival of the last family. “Hi Len.” An 8-year-old girl from the grade 3 class was standing in front of me. “Will you sing me a song?”

It should be mentioned that on Parent-Teacher night, many of the parents bring some or all of their children with them. The children wander the halls.

In a previous post I mentioned that there is a program in the school called AIM. From K-3, all instruction is in Inuktitut. Once the students get to grade three, their family has to decide on French or English as a second language when they enter grade 4. While they are still in grade 3, they start to take introductory classes in English and French three periods a week. Part of my job description was to work with the grade three students who chose English. I used an excellent program called Jolly Phonics and along with some old Sesame Street episodes and my trusty guitar, I was able to give these children a start.

Now, the young girl standing in front of me was NOT in my grade 3 AIM class. She was in the group who went for French instruction. Her English was remarkably good. I went and grabbed my guitar. I asked her what song she would like to hear.

It should ne noted that on most occasions, I ended my AIM classes playing my guitar. Rather than put the guitar away, I would walk the students back to their home room. More often than not, we would be singing one of the songs that I had taught them, like Skinnamarink or Baby Beluga.

“Could you sing Ed The Invisible Dragon?” I would be surprised if any but a few of you would be familiar with this children’s song. I learned it last year. It was recommended by a friend who asked me to sing it for one of her children during one of my 55 Pillow Talk shows on Facebook.

A look of shock must have registered on my face. How could she possibly know this song when she wasn’t even in my class? Yes, she would have heard snippets of it in the hallway as this was a popular choice with my AIM students, but it was a surprising and mystifying choice. I was doubly shocked when she started singing the chorus with me, word for word.

There were many special moments from this last day of school but this one will stand out for me for a long time.

Part of the mystery was solved the next day when a colleague told me that the young girl had attended summer camp last August. Before school started last year, I volunteered at the camp five days a week doing music. There were a lot of children in this class that I didn’t know including the girl who now stood in front of me.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Music is universal and it is powerful.

I crawled home at 8:30 p.m.

Reading, writing and arithmetic will always be the foundation of a child’s education. They can be easily measured.

There are other school experiences that are harder to quantify but are every bit as important.

Pizza and Inuit rap come to mind!

Have a great week.

Happy Victoria Day!

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