Monday, May 26, 2008


I arrived in Montreal on Saturday.

Since moving to the North, I have considered going South to be one of the hardest parts. After a few months in the same village, I get accustomed to seeing the same 572 people everyday. It's not often that I see someone I haven't seen before, and when I do he/she is easily recognizable as such.

When I arrived at Trudeau airport, I stood around with the Inuit from Wakeham with whom I had traveled, and waited for my luggage. After saying goodbye to them, I began the long, awkward walk to to cab stand. The stimulation was more than a little overwhelming. I saw many nameless faces, and began to look for people whom I recognized.

I thought to myself, "Montreal has three million people, idiot. You don't know anyone here." Nevertheless, I searched and searched for something familiar, and began to realise that all of us, the thousands of us there, were basically alone in a crowd.

The cab ride to Pointe Ste. Charles was equally unsettling. My taxi driver spoke not to me, but to someone on his cell, only pausing to ask me for directions and to inquire whether I wanted the flat rate or to go with the meter. I am usually loathe to have the conversation that everyone has with him, the one about his business, and about how many crazy drivers there are in this city. Nevertheless, not having this interaction alienated me further, forcing me to stare out the window at all of the passing advertisements.

It's the consumerism that really gets me. Last year, when we came down for the union congress (which was a waste of my time, but more on that another day) Sophie and I walked up and down Boulevard St. Laurent and wondered at the plethora of stores selling stuff that people don't really need. How is it possible that these places stay open. Can we really buy that much stuff? I can only imagine how overwhelming coming South would be for an Inuk.

When I arrived at our friends' house (we're subletting our apartment) I had been thoroughly shell-shocked. I was supposed to go to Parc Mont Royal to a good-bye barbeque for a friend who is moving to New Delhi on Wednesday. I called his cell. He didn't answer. I left a message, saying that we wouldn't be coming because Noah had not napped and would probably not be in good spirits by the time we got there. This was true; it would certainly have been a difficult outing. But it wasn't all. After arriving somewhere familiar, where friends were waiting to catch up, I couldn't bring myself to leave the cozy environment. It just takes some time to adjust.

Today, The adjustment period abruptly ended. We went shopping and I spent a thousand dollars.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Final Exams

I'm leaving to take my paternity leave on Saturday. Sophie and Noah left today on the first plane which has left here for Kuujjuaq, from where we can fly down South, in six days.

Last Friday, a blanket of fog rolled into Wakeham bay and has sat there, stagnant, for almost a week. Through rising and falling barometric pressure, through 40 km/h winds, it has sat there.
Once or twice, it has opened up enough for the plane to land en route to Salluit, which has hardly helped everyone who is wishing to go to Montreal. Anyway, this post is supposed to be about my students' final exams. You will be able to read enough about the fog some other time.

Last week, I made my students' final exams. It was a humbling experience. I was going through our review materials, and I couldn't help but think to myself, "is that really it? Is that all we accomplished?" This year, I had a critical mass of students advanced enough to make me feel that we progressed. Indeed, we plowed through a lot more Math and Lanuage than I did with my students last year. Howver, we still completed surprisingly little. Disparagingly little.

Last year, a couple of French teachers who had been teaching many years in the South spent a year in Wakeham. These two ladies never assimilated into the limited social scene offered by the teachers, but I had one or two close moments with them. At the end of the first term, I was making my report cards when Josée, to whom I had barely said two words, walked in. She could see disappointed look of humility (or humiliation) on my face and comforted me.

"I've been teaching a long time," she said, "and the end of the term feels the same every time. I get sick to my stomach wondering what I'm doing right and wrong, and if I'm choosing to teach the right things. Just relax."

She was right. Every time it comes to summative assessments, I feel as if I'm much harder on myself than on my students. This time, as I was being humbled once again by my own examinations, I guess I subconsciously made it my mission to push the students harder during the exams.

Yesterday, during the Math examination, they pushed back. They were less than receptive. One student in particular refused to do anything, even things that she and I both knew she was capable of doing. I tried to encourage her. It didn't work. I tried just letting her do her thing. That didn't work either. At one point, she began making some noise, and she wouldn't stop. I had to ask her to leave. On the way out, I tried to get her to work on the test outside the class. No dice. Infuriated, but trying to hold some sense of calm, I said, "You're doing this to yourself." She looked down, turned, and walked away.

When I went home for lunch, Sophie knew something was wrong as I walked in the door. I explained how I had been more furious with my students than I had been all year, especially with the one who refused to do her exam at all.

"It's her only power," Sophie responded. "She wasn't going to pass it anyway, right? It's the only thing she can choose to do in that situation. Maybe you just can't make her do something she doesn't want to do. And why do you care so much? You have to try to encourage them, but it's not worth getting stressed out."

I hadn't really thought about it like that before. Why did I care so much? I know that this girl is not going to pass the year, even if she passed the test. I realised that it wasn't her who I was caring about at all (although I do care a great deal for her) but rather I was too preoccupied with how the students' performance on the exams reflected on my abilities as a teacher to really care about her. Once again, my frustrations were stirring, just the same as every time my students (and thus I) are assessed.

I went back to school in the afternoon and calmly administered the second part of the test. The girl didn't do that part either, but at least I didn't inadvertently make her feel worse by telling her it was her choice not to pass. Or maybe it made her feel better. Agency is a weird thing.

If I don't write for a while, it's because I'm in Costa Rica.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A new member

I would like to congratulate a couple of my closest friends, Philip and Renée Giammarioli. Renée gave birth to 6 lb. 12 oz. Dante yesterday at 2:30 p.m.

I have a few friends with whom I can say things like "that's a nice way to bond with him" and "don't you just love the way he smells?" without sounding completely gay.

Welcome to the club Phil. We actually get to raise these little things.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Noah's Video Pick of the Week

I am 30

A couple weeks ago, I turned thirty. We had a party at my house. Sophie really outdid herself. She made me two cakes: one in the shape of a 3, the other a 0. We ate sushi, drank some beer, and had a wonderful time.

The day before my birthday, my students and I went fishing. It was the perfect May day.
+5, sunny, and no wind. We headed out from the village at around 10:00, and arrived at our destination by 11:15. Almost immediately, we all began to remark how warm it was. The day before, I had promised my students that if they did not come fully prepared, with winter boots, parka, hat, and mitts, they would not get to go. These kids know I'm a man of my word, so even though it was ridiculously warm, they were ready to go to Antarctica.

The sky was beautiful. The sun was strong. It had been so warm for the past week that when we arrived at our destination, called ippikutaaq (I have no idea what that means), we did not need to drill holes through the eight-foot-thick ice (thank God). All we needed to do was to shovel the snow off of the surface of holes that our guide had drilled the week before.

It only took me a few minutes to realise how strong the sun was, and only a few minutes more to remember that I had forgotten something extremely important: sunblock. "I'm fucked," I thought to myself. "Oh well," I reasoned, "I've been to tropical countries and gone without sunblock. I don't really burn other than my nose anyway."

So, after we shoveled off a few holes, the kids began to fish. Some of my students were very successful.

Others just stood around and smoked.

After a little while, my lips began to burn a little, and the Inuit guides began to remark about how warm it was for May 1st.

"Oockoo! (hot)"
"Illai. (a few words in Inuttitut)... global warming... (more Inuttitut)."

After the initial wonder about the weather, we began to make the most of it. One of our guides even used the unusual combination of snow, meltwater, and ice, to make an aquarium/swimming pool.

It was an amazingly beautiful day, and other than the intermittent tingling of my dried-out lips, I completely forgot about the power of the sun. I began to ride my ski-doo with no hat, no gloves, and for a time, in just a t-shirt.

After fishing all morning, the guides took my students hunting for ptarmigan. I spotted a few, wishing I had a gun, or that I was Inuk, so I could shoot a couple and provide for my family (I didn't catch any fish). One of the guides, Papikatuk, even showed a couple of the kids how to shoot, and they shot their first birds.
One of them was his daughter. He was so proud of her, who shot and killed her first ptarmigan with one shot.
I love hunting birds. I haven't done it in years and years, but on May 1st, I was a little jealous of the kids and guides who were providing for their families. But what the guides were doing for these kids was worth my infinitesimal sacrifice, so I didn't ask to kill one. Besides, it was a beautiful day, and I was out on the land, somewhere I hadn't been before.

Then, I got home. As soon as I walked in the door, I knew. The cool air was no longer blowing on my face. My skin became tight and hot. I had a nasty burn. I went to school the next day, expecting to be ridiculed. It was embarrassing. However, the Inuit, who wear a tan (which means they were out on the land) like a badge of honour, were more than sympathetic. Indeed, the sun was so strong that day that even some of my students, who don't even know what sunscreen is, had their first sunburns.

Although my pride was saved, my face really hurt. I was in constant pain for a couple of days. I couldn't sleep. The only relief I could find came out of a tube of lanolin, which Sophie used for the few weeks of breastfeeding. I awoke at night with the thought, "there's nothing more sensitive than a cracked nipple."

A couple of days later, I peeled. It was disgusting.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


In 1988 (I think), I remember opening our Christmas gifts when the telephone rang. My mother answered, and spent a few minutes on the telephone as we played with our booty. I don't remember what I got that year, but I do remember the look on my mom's face when she got off of the phone. She was distraught, and in tears. "My brother David died," she said, and fell apart. As a ten year old, I didn't really understand. I didn't know David that well, and frankly, I didn't care. I just went back to playing with the newest transformer or whatever it was that Santa had brought me for being nice.

It was only when, a week later, the undertakers were lowering David's and his three-year-old son Tyler's bodies into their final resting places, that I began to understand. I found myself standing on the precipice of David's grave, transfixed by the system of cranks and pulleys that lowered them six feet deep while people threw dirt on their coffins. Everyone was crying. I wasn't really sad. Just interested.

Then I turned around. My mom was a mess, my sister was in tears, people were wailing. I looked at my dad. His face was red, his bottom lip quivering. A single tear rolled down his face. At that precise moment, I knew something was horribly wrong.

My uncle had been driving to his father's house in Creston, British Columbia, when someone dangerously pulled up beside them. He didn't pass; just lingered beside them. If you've ever driven a winding, mountain road, you can imagine how unsettling this was for my uncle and his family. Suddenly, a big transport truck came around the bend in front of them, and saw someone in his lane. He swerved to miss the oncoming car, and plowed head-on into my uncle's station wagon, killing the my uncle and his three year old son, depriving his wife of a husband and son, his nine-month-old son of a father and brother. Merry Fucking Christmas.

The guy who caused the accident by crossing a solid yellow line and lingering in the middle of the road, was drunk. He got into some trouble, but the 1980s were a different time. I think he spent some months in prison and came out. He probably has a drivers' license. Statistically speaking, he has probably driven drunk many more times.

This past weekend, a twenty-three year-old girl was walking across an intersection with a stop sign at each of the four corners. She was struck by a Honda (ATV) and killed. A friend of mine is one of the first responders here (an EMT), and he was there to try to recuscitate her and ultimately to give up.

No one is really sure of the circumstances leading up to the accident. Rumour has it that another twenty-something woman was drunk and stole a truck. She failed to stop at the four-way stop and killed the poor girl who was crossing the street. Then she kept going. Both women have kids. The one who died was pregnant.

The accident has shaken this community of 600. It has damaged so many people, from the ones involved directly, to their kids, to the kids who happened upon the scene of the accident, and saw the horrifying aftermath.

Oddly, I find myself grieving not for the dead woman, nor for her unborn child. I feel sorry for the woman who did this. I tried to explain it to my students. I asked them, "Have you ever done anything bad and then just run away?" I explained to them that I hit a cat once in the middle of the night on a country road, and never went back to tell the people whose cat it was.

The girl who allegedly committed the hit-and-run, if guilty, did something really stupid. She got into a truck, drunk, and drove too fast. However, it was hardly surprising. That's what the kids do here for fun: drive around too fast on their Hondas and ATVs. The younger ones go as fast as they can on their scooters. No one stops them. Not the police nor the parents.

I've heard from several people that the girl's death may have had to happen to shake the kids up here and teach them a lesson. Especially if the girl who allegedly did it goes to jail for a long time. As I write however, I hear them going around and around, zipping past my house, and hitting the jump in my driveway. It has taught them nothing. Call me cynical, but I don't think a jail sentence will teach the kids anything either.

Punishment doesn't work as a deterrent. We've been punishing criminals for a long time, and yet, crime exists in great numbers. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt convincingly argues that legalising abortion in the 1970s did a great deal more to lower the crime rate than anything the justice system has ever done. Crime, alcoholism, and recklessness are social problems, and they stem from the same things: poverty, abuse, boredom, and a lack of self-respect. So, if we punish not for the sake of deterrence, but rather vengeance, you can count me out. Putting the poor girl who made this horrible mistake in a prison where she will likely face the brunt of racism and violence is hardly what she needs. It will most likely not rehabilitate her. Ripping her away from her family and out of her village might even turn her into a monster.

And, it certainly won't deter drunk, directionless youth from getting on a Honda or in a truck. They cannot exactly go dancing or hit a theme park or do much else when they get drunk.

I have a deep sense of empathy for those people who lost their daughter, mother, or sister in this accident and the many others which have probably happened since Sunday night. If they are angry and want vengeance, I can empathise with that too. There was a time I imagined myself going out and perpetrating violent vigilante justice against the man who not only killed my uncle and cousin, but took my dad's invincibility too.

In the end however, I just feel bad for everyone involved. I hope everyone in the village can grieve and make their peace.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Monday, May 05, 2008

Noah's Video Pick of the Week

Sorry it took so long. I hope you think it was worth the wait. I do.