Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Alaska Highway

I owe this to my ENG 100 students who, a couple weeks ago, all wrote personal essays and shared them in class. The prompt I gave them was this: Imagine yourself at an interview for your dream job. You are asked, "Tell us about a personal or professional obstacle that you have had to overcome in the past." 

Every semester, the day my ENG 100 students read these narratives aloud to me and each other is an awesome day. This year, my Thursday evening section called me out on the fact that I was the only one not sharing such a story. I told them I'd write one and put it on my blog, so here goes.

One of the hardest personal and professional things I've had to overcome was my decision to drop out of a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program when I was 22 years old. The program was run by the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), and my particular cohort was located in the incredibly small and isolated village of Sitka (population 9,000). I had expected to be in Juneau, which is a little bit bigger of a town (31,000) and the state's capital, but somehow I got shifted to this branch campus. Sitka, like most towns in southeast Alaska, is not on the "road system," and so you can only leave town by ferry or airplane. When you're in Sitka, you're in Sitka--there's no driving anywhere else for the day or the weekend. 

How did I end up there? After graduating from Bard College in 2002, I decided I wanted to do something practical yet adventurous. I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so I thought, "Why not get credentialed to teach, but do it someplace crazy?" I had heard that Alaska was stunningly beautiful, and I thought it would make a great backdrop for my one-year Master's program--teach and study during the week, explore the wilderness on the weekends.

The disappointments were many. First of all, there was the climate. It rained at least 75% of the days I was there. When the sun came out, Sitka was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. But I think I saw about 10 sunny days in 3 months (five of which were the first five days of August--that week I remember fondly). 

Secondly, there was the program itself. Most of my classes were taught by local school teachers, not professors, and they were, on average, dreadfully under-stimulating. In addition to the classes, we were expected to teach 4 out of 5 days per week in the local schools to satisfy our "student teaching" requirement. Although I had been looking forward to this hands-on aspect of the program, I quickly learned that this was more about exploiting us as unpaid labor than about gaining useful experience. The "mentor teacher" I was placed with was a bitter, insecure, burned-out woman, who only wanted to talk about how much she yearned for retirement. When I was teaching, she would interrupt me. When she was teaching (if you can call it that), I was making copies of "busy-work" assignment sheets for her.

It wasn't all bad, however. Many of the other graduate students in the program were awesome people, and we quickly bonded (as people often do when thrown together in absurd situations). One woman, Larissa, was engaged to a salmon fisherman, Clay, who generously took us out in his boat. We camped on a neighboring island and hiked a dormant volcano one memorable weekend. Another friend, Sabrina, who was from a nearby town--even smaller than Sitka--and a native Alaskan (member of the Tlingit people), shared some of my own literary interests, and we've even kept in touch to this day. 

There was also the salmon. I had never been really into seafood, but I realized that the fish in Alaska is profoundly superior to anything you will eat back on the east coast. There is nothing quite like eating grilled wild salmon from a fish that was swimming in the ocean earlier in the day.

These positives were not, however, enough. Every day that I marched into Sitka High School, I felt a little more depressed. Class sizes were enormous. Resources were limited. There were some great students, but many--if not most--felt like compulsory education was a waste of their time, because they had no expectation of going to college. My classroom was not my classroom, and my "mentor" was unsupportive. It was a bad situation all around, and I longed for a way out.

One day, when I was out in Sitka Sound on a borrowed kayak with my friend Bob, the clouds parted and the sun poured its rays down upon us. I felt the cells in my body come alive, and I realized I hadn't felt such an exhilarating sensation in weeks. Sitka had been depriving me not only of light, but of life. As hard as it was for me to admit a mistake, to admit that I had wasted time and money, I knew I had to quit, otherwise I would just be wasting more time and money.

That night, I began packing my things. I checked the ferry schedule and looked at a road atlas of Canada. I was plotting my way home.

My biggest fear was that this experience would ruin teaching for me. Luckily, that didn't happen. I decided I didn't want to teach in an under-funded public high school. I decided I didn't want a Master's degree in teaching. But I knew I still wanted to teach. I just needed to find the right place.

After applying for, but failing to get, a job teaching in private boarding schools, I decided that it made the most sense for me to pursue teaching at the college level. After all, I was happy when I was in college. I loved the culture of intellectual and artistic freedom at my college, and I knew I could carry that spirit to whatever college would hire me. The only down side was that I would need to spend about 6 years earning my PhD. Looking back, it seems odd to say, but I think my 3 months in Sitka felt almost as long--maybe even longer--than my 6 years at the public university in upstate New York where I earned my doctorate. Most importantly, that 6-year investment was worth it, because here I am. It's certainly better, after all, to spend 6 years climbing a ladder that takes you where you want to be, than to spend 1 year climbing a ladder that takes you to a place that makes you want to call in sick every day.

No comments: