I would be the first to admit I have not been the most strategic of career planners. When I veered away from (fell off?) the academic track and decided to move ahead on a less structured path, I figured I would say yes to a number of different things and see what happened. I listened and took suggestions, and tried most of what people told me to consider. Well, not the tattoo designs. A number of things quickly went on the list of “no” but others, sometimes surprising, have stayed with me.
On the side of things that stuck, one is my work as an artist in residence in public schools. It’s pleasantly undefined -I’m not an art teacher, it’s not a full time job, I don’t work for a particular district or always with an established program – but if you contact me with enough notice and offer a reasonable amount of money, I’ll show up and try my best to make some magic happen with your students. The only thing that determines whether I say yes or no is my schedule, and frequently I’ve said “OK” to a school, then gone and grabbed my Gazetteer to find the place I’ve just agreed to go.
This is how I’ve found myself running around in the Aleutians this November and December. I’m so far away from home, in the same state but in a different time zone, and in a winter climate that right now differs from Fairbanks by 70 degrees. It’s a part of the state I really have never had a picture of – and as I listen to the wind howl outside the window of this little house in Atka and wonder if it will take me as many unscheduled days to get home as it did to get here, I am surprised to realize it had been eight years of doing this work.
I wasn’t supposed to be here now. When I made the contract with the school district, the beautiful plan was to spend a week on Adak, then a week on Atka. I was surprised to learn that in order to get from one island to a really quite close other island, a person must return to Anchorage and take a more leapfrog route, through Dutch Harbor and on two other air carriers. Adak, with its leftover military sized runway and jet service, went flawlessly. Then things fell apart. After three long days of waiting in the Anchorage airport, I gave up and went home.
We rescheduled for early December. This time I spent two days trying to get out of Anchorage and three trying to get out of Dutch Harbor. Finally, likely in part due to the need to fly State Troopers in to Atka, I made it here.
What am I saying yes to besides some fixed points of income in a generally speculative financial plan? I think for me it’s about a desire to learn what this state really is and who lives in it, more than just life in the cities and on the road system. What better way to learn than from working with kids? Teachers in rural schools are often juggling multiple grade levels in a single classroom, and if they don’t have an interest in art or confidence in teaching it, kids can go for a long time without much creative work. You never know what part of all the things we throw at kids in school will stick, and my hope is that some of this stays with at least a few of them.
Most of these small communities are not places a person would generally go as a tourist or a visitor -I’m way more comfortable with an invitation and a purpose – and on my small personal travel budget they are totally out of the question financially. It’s not always easy, it’s not always comfortable, I have to be very flexible, but it is always interesting and I always, always learn. My picture of the place I live is slowly becoming more complete and complex than I ever imagined it would.