Sunday, October 03, 2010

That was unexpected

Most of my students come from other villages in Nunavik3w. They have come here to prepare themselves for a chance at going to John Abbott College in Montreal. I have fifteen students, and the dozen who come from Kuujjuaq, Salluit, and Inukjuak, live in a residence, which is a beautiful building (by northern standards of course, it is still utilitarian) that overlooks Kangiqsujuaq and was constructed last year to the tune of six million of our taxpayers' dollars.

The program I teach is really not part of any Ministry of Education guidelines. It doesn't exist anywhere else. So, on one hand, I am sort of free to teach the content that I desire. On the other hand, there is no curriculum, and the whole thing rests on my shoulders. One of my goals is to try to create a relationship between the program and the college, and to build up a bank of resour..... wait. I sound like the rest of the Secondary 6 teachers who have come before me. I can tell myself that, but the few of us who have done this job realize that even four years of experience teaching ESL in Nunavik still leaves me feeling like I'm running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Gideon, who taught the program last year, did leave me some of his tricks on his desk. So far, the one I've used the most is his schedule. He gave courses on English, World History, Current Events, and something that he simply labeled "Projects".

Quickly, I decided to follow his lead. So, since most of my students live in a residence, I thought that it would be a propos to do a project about Residential School. They have to interview someone from their home community who went to residential school and use that as the basis to make a podcast.

On Thursday, I thought, "well wouldn't it be great if I could give them an example of a good podcast?" Of course it would! So, I remembered that the Secondary 2 and 3 students at our school made a podcast about the rapidly changing ways that Inuit learn about their culture. Author Joseph Graham and ex-CBC producer Mark Goldman came to our village a couple years ago and helped the kids make the podcast which was then presented at the "Voices from Quebec" exhibition of the Blue Metropolis literary festival in 2008. It was very cool and professionally done. Anchoring the podcast were three interviews to three different generations of one of the original families from Kangiqsujuaq. Naalak Nappaluk, recently deceased, was a local patriarch, legendary hunter and guardian of cultural knowledge. He passed much of this knowledge on to his son, Lucassie, who the students also interviewed. Finally, The students interviewed Lucassie's grandson and one of their classmates, Attasi, who revealed that he had not learned so much from his family, but rather from school. In addition to the interviews, the soundtrack of the podcast includes traditional throat singing, dog teams, skidoos, and even some heavy metal. It is truly well made. Check it out here.

So I played it for the students. Over the past two years, I have listened to this podcast many times. As the podcast nears its end broadcast journalist Mark Goldman says a few kind words about Attasi, who died shortly after the project's completion. I remember the first time I listened to it. I could feel the grief building up inside me and manifesting itself through a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. However, so much time has passed since then, and I had listened to it so many times, that I didn't really give it a second thought.

When I was a kid, I was a huge crybaby. Whenever I experienced an infinitesimal injustice, I screamed and cried for my mommy. My sister quickly learned that this was fun, and she was more than happy to oblige. Repeatedly. However, for the past 20 years, I can count the times I have cried on my fingers. Thus, I was really surprised to find that as I walked over to turn off the speakers, I suddenly went weak in the knees. I quickly decided to sit back down and try to collect myself. One of the students from Kangirsujuaq got up and left the class so no one could see him cry. I looked at another and tears were streaming down her face. I suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, found myself unable to speak as I wept.

"What's going on?" a student from another village asked. "What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry," I struggled. "Give me a minute." I stared at my desk and took a few breaths. "Attasi killed himself," I said quietly. I took another moment to shed a couple more tears. "After all this time, I didn't know that it was still going to hurt so much." I looked at the two crying students from Kangirsujuaq again. I apologized.

Finally, I looked at the third, who smiled oddly and said, "Well, that was unexpected," at which point everyone giggled. I tried to explain the quality and creativity involved in the podcast without blubbering any further. Indeed, that was unexpected.