Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Bus from Pompeii to Brindisi

It's a long way from Pompeii to Brindisi. Hours and hours and hours. A bus ride this long with fifty-odd teenagers is bound to sprout a few problems. Especially if the teenagers come from different cultures.

We had to get up at 4:30 in the morning to part from our hotel in Rome (actually a two-hour bus ride from Rome, stupid EF Tours) and we were off to Pompeii. After spending a few hours at the archaeological site, one of the most important in the whole world, we were off on a six-hour bus ride to Brindisi, from where we caught an overnight ferry to Greece.

Our group of four students and two teachers had piggy-backed on a much larger tour. In the group were four people from North Carolina, and forty-odd grade 10 students from North Vancouver. Originally, I had thought that this would be one of the best parts of the trip. The students from Kangiqsujuaq would be able to meet people from other parts of North America. As it turned out, the two smaller groups found themselves swallowed up in the vast sea of North Vancouverites. At times, it led to some friction.

Near the end of the ride, I went to the back of the bus to tell my students to get their gear together, and one of them was almost in tears. I asked her what had happened, but she just looked at the floor and shrugged her shoulders. Another of my students complained, "Why do they have to talk so much? It's so annoying!" The students immediately surrounding her went quiet and looked away.

I pressed further and eventually one of them coughed up the apparent source of tension. "When [my student] was sleeping, that boy put an orange peel on her and took a picture." I felt confusion, shock and even a bit of rage building up inside me.

"This boy?" I pointed to a guilty-looking lad who sat on the seat in front of her.

"And his friend." she replied, gesturing with her eyebrows to the boy seated across the aisle.

I went back up to the front of the bus and spoke to the teacher who seemed to be in charge of the group. "I think we have a problem with some students."

The bus came to a stop. We had arrived at the port at Brindisi and were about to get off the bus and on to a boat. "Can we deal with this once we're aboard?" he asked.

"Certainly, I'll come see you at supper."

I joined the students to get a more complete picture of what was happening. They were all standing in a group, a few metres away from the bus, having a cigarette. One of the North Van students remarked, "do you have to smoke every time we stop? Sheesh."

I stared at the girl until she left, and then turned to the students. "I wonder what's up with her," I said.

One of the boys piped up, "they say something everytime we smoke."

* *

In our school, I can think of only a handful of secondary students who do not smoke. I've heard stories from other teachers who have seen pre-school aged children crawling around underneath the school looking for butts. At recess in the morning and afternoon, I often see children younger than ten come up to the smoking secondary students softly asking, "after you?"

Although I find it very sad, I don't try to fight this battle. No matter how many times a teacher tries to "catch" a student smoking and goes through the motions of calling the parents and notifying the school counselor, it is a losing battle.

I used to teach grade 7; the last year of primary. At the end of each year, I would have the students write in their journals what the most exciting thing would be about going from the primary side of the school to the secondary side. The most popular response was always that they could smoke at recess. It's like a rite of passage for these kids.

I also grew up in a small town in a different time and place. As junior high students in Northern Alberta, we all admired our older siblings who would stand in the church parking lot across the street from the school, smoking at recess while we played soccer. We wanted nothing more than to fast-forward life a few years and be them. We too waited our turn and then claimed top spot on the totem pole.

Not only are anti-smoking crusaders fighting peer-pressure, but addiction. Smoking is a self-destructive behaviour. Although the literature and knowledge that smoking is unhealthy took more time to get to Nunavik, everyone knows that it's bad for you. But to a smoker, that doesn't matter. I smoked from when I was in grade ten until Sophie became pregnant with Noah. There was a time when I had quit for three-and-a-half years, and thought I had kicked it. I was at a party where someone was smoking, and I thought, "that smells good. I can have one." I bought a pack the next day. Even now, when not faced with the absurdity of pre-teens puffing du Mauriers, which is to say whenever I go to Montreal, I struggle. Even if it's only a couple puffs, or for a couple of days, without fail I smoke.

* *
I had supper with the teacher that night. I explained what had happened with the orange peel and what was continually going on with the smoking situation.

"When we found out we would be traveling with first nations, James," he said to me, "we had a cultural sensitivity workshop for our students, where some of these things were explained to them. But you have to remember that these kids have been bombarded with anti-smoking literature since they were babies." There we were at a cultural crossroads. Juxtaposed with the four Inuit students who smoke were forty teens from possibly the least smoke friendly place on the planet.

To me, this was not the biggest gulf between the students. The smoking issue was just a manifestation of deeper differences. When I first asked my students what was going on, they did not object strongly to the orange peel nor the anti-smoking comments, or even the self-righteous attitude. "Why do they have to talk so much?" was the way one student chose to voice her concerns.

I thought at first that it was just by their simple presence that the forty kids from North Van were overpowering the four quiet Inuit. However, I came to discover that the more profound cultural difference lied in the fact that the kids from North Van felt a sense of entitlement. They didn't see the problem with telling people they didn't know what they should and shouldn't do. Inuit don't do should.

* *

"As far as the orange peel, James, What should I do? What would be a culturally appropriate response? Should he make an apology to her? Should he approach her at all?" It was clear that this teacher wanted his student to make up for what he had done.

I was dumbstruck. I had no idea what would make things right. In fact I knew nothing would.
"First, give me your word that your student will erase the photograph. Do not make him apologize. That would make her even more uncomfortable." I was grasping at straws. I came up with an idea and pretended I knew what I was talking about. "Every time he's in her presence, he should appear submissive. He shouldn't make eye contact. Perhaps he could stare at the floor."

"Consider it done."

The teacher came through. I sat down for a game of cards with my students a couple of hours later. The student who had taken my student's picture was in the lobby as well. "Are things allright? With the boy, I mean?" I asked.

"Well, I think he's a jerk. But it's pretty funny, he won't even look over here. Look at him," one replied.

We looked over and there he was, emasculated of his entitlement, staring at the floor. I felt bad for him. My students laughed. I scolded them, holding back a smile.

Friday, September 25, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, Noah started to watch TV. Well, more specifically, Kirikou. It's a Belgian cartoon based on African legends. It's cute, and apparently, Noah loves it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


My mother sent us 12 jars of Rhubarb-strawberry jam. Noah likes it.

On another note, I must eat a crow. Last week, I mentioned that I was at a loss as to how the village would keep its shiny new black-top clean. This week, two young men came up our street on their rollerblades carrying shop brooms. They proceeded to sweep the entire street. Now Noah has a fantastic place to use his new tricycle. I love public works.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Sunday, September 06, 2009


This fall, the villagers decided to pave their streets. While I have some questions about why they didn't use the money on a new swimming pool, or at least to fix the old one, and more about how they will maintain the roads (street sweeper, potholes, etc.) with no equipment or operators, Sophie and I decided to profit from the new asphalt nonetheless. The day that they paved our street, Sophie asked her mother to find Noah a tricycle.

Here he is, just seconds after I assembled it,

and a few minutes later, outside.