Polar Nights

It’s Monday at the top of the world. It’s morning, but the sun hasn’t risen in weeks. The elementary school where I teach is a fifteen-minute walk across the tundra and past the lagoon where Arctic swans glide during the brief summer season. In the fall, snowy owls fly overhead in the dusky morning hours hunting the swift aviŋŋaq who burrow and tunnel in the tundra grasses. But this morning, we are deep in the heart of winter. Wind buffets my parka and tears at my backpack as I stumble through uneven terrain. Lifting the goggles that protect my eyes from icy gusts, I squint into the darkness, searching the sky for familiar constellations or the phosphorescent river of the aurora borealis. I didn’t know what I was seeing the first time I saw the aurora. I was new to Alaska, running to my apartment through the night. Stopping at the door to find my key, I looked up and froze. A jagged green scar flickered atop the stars. The universe ripped apart, I thought, slow and shocked, gasping in the frigid cold. The next day, I discovered that what I had seen was the movement of charged particles flung from the sun, crashing into Earth’s atmosphere. This morning, like most mornings, clouds obscure the sky. No stars or particles shine through the thick coverage. I blink away the ice coating my eyelashes and shove the goggles back on my face, carefully tugging down my hat and pulling up my scarf. I have seen skin black with frostbite and take no chances. Arriving at school, I remember I should have scanned for polar bears.

I moved to Utqiaġvik, the northernmost community in Alaska, following a failed engagement and the miscarriage of an unwanted baby. My almost-husband and I met in a post-baccalaureate program in laidback North Carolina town, both working on our teaching credentials. In a required young adult literature class, we batted eyelashes across the table while discussing psychic wounds in To Kill a Mockingbird, conversations that carried over to coffee shops and porch swings. Later, he charmed me with a re-writing of William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say.” (I had no idea, then, all I’d be asked to forgive.) Those late summer days merged into fall, and he sparkled in the clear mountain light. We shared dreams of traveling, and Alaska was to be the first of many teaching adventures. With shiny, new teaching certifications in hand, we signed contracts to teach in a small Alaska Native village at the tip of St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Strait. Extensive searches on his computer revealed pictures posted by adventurous birders making pilgrimages to the island for bucket list Arctic birds. We researched winter gear and bought tickets that carried us north to Anchorage, then to Nome, the famous site of the Iditarod, before bringing us to Gambell, a subsistence community of a few hundred Siberian Yu’piks.

By the end of the school year, our relationship had collapsed under the weight of the pregnancy we never talked about, the stress of being new teachers, and the isolation inflicted by living thousands of miles from friends and family. We had promised to support each other, but that promise was too big.

As our nineteen-passenger turboprop bounced to a stop on the gravel runway, I panicked, hit by an unexpected wave of claustrophobia. What the hell have we done? I thought. We remained in our seats as the pilot unloaded sacks of mail and cases of soda for the local store. Finally disembarking I was struck first by the wind and then the expanse of gravel stretching to the crashing waves of the Bering Sea and the base of a mountain rising behind what I would soon learn was the village school. Our principal and her husband met us at the runway with their ATVs to ride us and our baggage to our apartment, furnished and generously subsidized by the school district. “We weren’t sure if you were getting off,” our principal said after introductions. “Some people don’t get off the plane?” I asked. “Yeah,” she laughed. “They take one look around and fly back to Nome.” That’s an option? my brain screamed. But I was committed. Committed to my job with a signed contract, committed financially by going into debt to finance the move to Alaska, and committed to my partner. Rather than flagging down the pilot and climbing back onboard the tiny aircraft I flew in on, I perched on the back of the ATV and rode in stunned silence to the old school building that had been converted into apartments for teacher housing. I remember wearing barefoot style shoes without socks and my feet froze in moments. It was early August, and the temperature hovered in the 40s.

Two weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant. I tracked my fertility by diligently taking early morning basal temperature readings. During the fertile periods of my cycle, identified by a subtle increase in temperature, we used condoms, but there had been a day before the trip we had chanced it. Now, an alarming spike in my readings soared off the graph paper used to monitor and chart each cycle. It’s because of the move, I told myself. More days passed, resulting in a missed period. Stress, I said. When we flew to Anchorage for an orientation for new teachers, I purchased two pregnancy tests. I didn’t need the second. The double pink lines were vivid, even brighter than the image on the front of the package. The claustrophobia I felt landing in Gambell rushed back with an urgent need to get the baby out of me. I suffocated in my own skin, fear tearing the breath from my throat. We scheduled an abortion for October, and knowing that I had to spend six weeks carrying a baby I didn’t want drove me to the internet where I read everything I could find about naturally inducing miscarriage and home abortions. Articles about toxic herbs and tiny vaginal vacuums filled my browser history. Stumbling across a few blog posts about high doses of vitamin C successfully preventing pregnancies from taking hold, I ordered pills so large that I had to take them with food in order to swallow them, and maybe it worked because the day we flew to Anchorage for the abortion, I miscarried the baby in the staff bathroom at our school.

By the end of the school year, our relationship had collapsed under the weight of the pregnancy we never talked about, the stress of being new teachers, and the isolation inflicted by living thousands of miles from friends and family. We had promised to support each other, but that promise was too big. We faltered. We stopped having sex, and my green-eyed, soft-lipped boyfriend began secretly fooling around with another teacher. When I found out, I met with my principal and sobbed in her office while she arranged for me to transfer to another village, an Iñupiaq village further north, for the following school year.

They held my broken heart together with their sticky hands. Weekends were a horror. I slept as much as I could, rising late, going to bed early, crying myself to sleep.

Not quite finished disappointing one another, we made the misguided decision to try again over the summer and even got engaged at the start of the next school year. We planned a wedding and made it through with a few well-timed visits, but the relationship felt hollow, forced. Our voices echoed in the emptiness of the miles between us. At the end of May, we flew to Anchorage from our separate homes to reconnect before continuing on to see our friends and family in the weeks preceding our June wedding. The second night of the trip we lay, not touching, on the polyester spread covering the bed in our Anchorage hotel room watching a Coen Brothers’ film. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he said. Tears soaked into his beard as confessed that he was in love with someone else. “I’ll still marry you,” he said, voice wavering and shoulder trembling. “No, you won’t,” I answered, dry-eyed. I moved to the second bed in the room and froze more swiftly, more solidly than had arctic winds gripped me. I can’t feel this now, I told myself, packing my heart in ice. Numbness got me to the airport and on a plane the following morning. Frozen wounds don’t heal. He married that other woman almost exactly one year later. On stronger days, I tell myself that I hope they’re happy.

I needed a fresh start, somewhere I could begin again anonymously. When offered a position teaching kindergarten on the North Slope, the northernmost school district in Alaska, I decided I’d go for one year to gather myself and plan the next step. Two years have passed, now, and I’m still here. There’s no mall or movie theater or bar. No mountains or trees interrupt the vast expanse of frozen tundra. Wifi and cell reception can be spotty, but my life moves in familiar rhythms set by the environment and my role as a classroom teacher. Despite the challenges of waiting weeks for packages sent via two-day shipping and living two months of the year in complete darkness and two months in perpetual light, it’s difficult to imagine leaving. Insulated by hundreds of miles of arctic tundra and polar ice, I am remote, I am isolated, and I am safe.

This year I looped with my kindergarten class to first grade. As kindergartners, they brushed my hair, kept track of my coffee cup, and made me endless of bowls of imaginary soup and plastic sandwiches.

“Is it vegetarian?” I’d ask my subsistence-living students as they handed me an empty plastic plate while I sat at the child-size table.

“Uh-huh,” they’d nod, smiling. “But soup’s very hot.”

They held my broken heart together with their sticky hands. Weekends were a horror. I slept as much as I could, rising late, going to bed early, crying myself to sleep. But the long hours of the weekend felt impossible to fill. My loneliness, my emptiness, my sorrow reflecting off the snow, off the sky, off the bare white walls of my apartment. Monday mornings were a gift.

“It’s Monday,” my fellow teachers would groan as we passed in the hallways.

“Yep,” I’d beam back at them, gratefully rescued from the abyss of the weekend.

This year, my students and I are in another wing of the school for first and second-grade students, and we’ve left the play kitchen behind for the new kindergarteners to use. We have moved to a new room with yellow cabinets instead of orange and a view of the outdoor playground instead of the parking lot. Our procedures and classroom routines have stayed the same, though. We focus on community and kindness and group work. We live in an Iñupiaq village, but we come from all over the world. In our class, we have students from Polynesia and Southeast Asia, as well as Alaska.

In our classroom, we take each other seriously. We gather each morning to discuss the daily schedule and share our thoughts about what excites us, what makes us cry, or whatever happens to be on our minds. One student is moving into a bigger house where he will have to sleep in his own bedroom. Another is newly living with her mother. When it’s my turn, I share my dream from the night before. Looking down at the multi-colored carpet, I say, “Last night I dreamed that my friend didn’t want to be my friend anymore.” Immediately, the squishy bodies on either side of me lean in, molding themselves against me. A boy on the opposite side of the circle looks at me with dark, steady eyes and answers, “We’re your friends.” I smile and say, “I know” because I do, and then it’s the next person’s turn to share. I rely on them too much, I know. But in this icy darkness, sadness gains too strong a foothold in my heart, and my students help to lessen it. I forget myself when I’m with them. Our days are full of fun and learning, and even if the world is dark, our classroom is bright. Even when my home is quiet, I know the classroom will be frothy with excited voices pushing back the darkness. One student is obsessed with Godzilla movies from the 1970s and shares facts with his table group, while another vividly describes a recent hunting trip. Zombies and the ongoing debate of heroes versus villains vie for space and choke out the spread of the pernicious whisperings of self-doubt and self-hate that linger in the shadowy places of my heart.

In our classroom, we gather around wounds. I provide bandages for paper cuts, scabbed knees, dry skin, bruises, and ingrown toenails. Even a sore throat. It can take nearly half the class for a bandage to be applied. The moment the injury is announced, six-year-old medics rush from all corners of the classroom to assess the damage.

“It bleed already,” one expert notes.

“I got one like that,” another nods.

Yet another early responder will rush to the desk drawer where the first aid supplies are kept and deftly rip open the package, releasing that comforting and sterile smell of latex and gauze. The injured party receives a chorus of ooohs and ahhhs while one or more students gently rub her back and the bandage is wrapped securely around the wound. Among us is a survivor of childhood cancer. His scars run from his knee to just beneath his hip. At their widest, they span over an inch of skin. The scars twist like gnarled vines over his knee cap and thigh, trailing delicately up to his pelvis. Eight metal pins hold his femur together. On days when his leg is sore, he, too, will steer his tiny, red wheelchair to my desk. Projecting a confidence I do not feel, I gently press the bit of latex and gauze to his skin and send him back to his book box stuffed with early readers that tell of bike rides, animals that live in ponds, and messy baby brothers.

It’s not the bandage so much as it is what it represents. I understand this more perfectly when one night I slip into a new friend’s apartment to celebrate my first published essay. We are strangers brought together by proximity. We toast to the future as we inch closer to one another on the overstuffed couch. Switching from wine to whiskey, I am drunkenly determined to shove an oversized ice cube into a half-pint mason jar when the glass shatters in my hand. Blood slides down my arm and shards fall to floor. I gather the fragments as she searches for the first aid kit. When she comes to me, I hold out my bloody hand. She gives me the bandage and walks away. The warm glow of the night turns cool. I could never love her, I realize.

During read-alouds, I sit in my chair on the classroom carpet and prop the book on my knee to share the words and pictures. Students press against me to idly touch the parts of me they can reach in that unconscious, free way that kids do. They trace the veins in my feet, rub their palms against the stubble on my legs, alternately pull off and push on my ballet flats. When I join them on the floor, they rest their heads on my shoulder, run their fingers through my hair, lean against my sides, or, if they’re very tired, curl up in my lap. It’s not uncommon for there to be spontaneous group hugs in the middle of a math lesson. They remind me that love doesn’t have to hurt.

Despite the darkness and freezing temperatures, the drum teaches my heart to beat again, deep and strong in my chest.

Friday afternoons drummers occasionally visit our school with their round wooden framed drums with the liver membrane of bowhead whales stretched across the frame. We walk down the hallway from our classroom to the gym in a jiggly line. Not everyone in our group will dance, but four or five students will bounce and stomp vigorously until the buses arrive to take them home. The drummers sit in folding chairs on the stage and the three Iñupiaq language teachers, women from the community, stand before us. Uvlulluataq, one greets us. Good afternoon. We do a mix of motion dances and fun dances. The motion dances have specific moves that I strive to imitate by watching our Iñupiaq teachers and my students, some of whom practice in local dance groups with their families. Fun dances don’t have specific movements, women and girls bounce and move one arm at a time in the air in front of their bodies. Men and boys stomp and whoop with their legs spread, knees bent, and arms stretched wide and strong, as if pulling back a bow and arrow.

Perhaps the first song will be “Tiŋŋun,” the airplane song. “Where will we fly to?” the Iñupaiq teachers call out. “Anchorage!” “Hawaii!” “The Philippines!” young voices cry back. The drummers splash water on the membranes covering their drum frames and set the rhythm, holding the drum in one hand and striking it with a long, thin stick held in the other. A sharper sound when the drummer strikes the wooden frame, a deeper heartbeat sound when they strike against the membrane pulled taut. Water droplets bounce to floor at the feet of the drummers.

They add their voices, and we begin. Together, we make the motions that tell the story of the song’s creator riding in an airplane for the first time. Looking out the windows as she flew through the air and her relief when the plane landed and she kneeled down and pressed her hands to the ground. The songs are short and are repeated twice, and I slowly improve with practice. I stand in a small cluster with my students and we smile and dance together. These motion dances tell stories of Iñupiaq culture. Some celebrate the return of the sun or tell the story of Mother Eagle and the coming of the new year, others celebrate religion or important moments in Iñupiaq history. During a cultural training for teachers, an elder explained that these dances pass along Iñupiaq culture, but also bring people together during the long winters. It’s true, I realize. Despite the darkness and freezing temperatures, the drum teaches my heart to beat again, deep and strong in my chest.

But this place is not my home. I may have eaten whale, but I’m a vegetarian. I may know some Native dances, but I will never be Iñupiaq. I can look at the tundra and the frozen ocean and feel awe, but I will never feel as enmeshed in the landscape as the people who have lived here for thousands of years. I attended a talk in which a local man smiled and sighed and said, “I love the smell of good ice.” No matter how many years I spend in the Arctic, that will never be me smiling and sighing and saying with my whole heart that I belong here, that I am of this place. I will never step from the plane and press my hands to the ground, so thankful to have returned.

 

Megan Donnelly is an MFA Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, she lived and taught for six years in rural Alaskan communities. More of her work can be found at megandonnellywrites.com.