A Dozen Funerals

A dozen funerals. A village of 300 people. A dozen funerals. One school year. A dozen funerals. A Native Alaskan community where nearly everyone is related. A dozen funerals.

The second week of school last year a student of ours committed suicide.  A few weeks later a recent graduate in the neighboring village committed suicide. Less than a month later the father of two boys in our K-12 school passed away. Less than a month after that we attended the funeral of another boy’s father. The day after Christmas my husband and I were in the church for the funeral of the mother of another student. The list goes on and on and on.

A dozen funerals. Day after day I dwell on these funerals as I try to teach Alaska Native students in a rural village only accessible by plane. How can I not?  The grief is palpable in our school every day. After all, there is no detachment when every person that lies in a casket is either a friend, a cousin, a neighbor, a parent, an aunt, or an uncle.

Here, there is no escape from death and certainly no escape from grief. My family and friends are thousands of miles away, the comfort they can offer from such a distance is limited. A weekend trip to distract oneself and get away from it all? Impossible, it’s $700 and two plane flights to the nearest city.  Heading out to a movie to momentarily forget the grief? Also impossible, the nearest one is hundreds of miles away. Getting out walking, hiking, or skiing? Doable in the fall and spring, but difficult in the winter when the sun rises just before noon and sets by 4PM.

So, that left me with just one escape, just one temporary relief: books. When I immersed myself into the world of The Hunger Games, I could temporarily forget about it all.  While reading Hatchet I was able to distract myself by worrying about Brian, instead of worrying about my students.  Reading Roald Dahl gave me laughs that were scarce elsewhere.  Last year, as I dealt with these dozen funerals I threw myself headfirst into piles and piles of books. On a personal level, reading helped me maintain a positive and hopeful outlook on life. But, much more importantly, because I spent time in these fictional worlds each evening I could return to school each morning with energy; energy that was used to teach my students and help them through this difficult time (After all, they were the ones really grieving). Books got me through the year of the dozen funerals.

Erika Schneider
Erika is the lone middle school Social Studies and
Language Arts teacher in a 300 person Native Alaskan village. She
blogs at http://verystillnorthteaches.wordpress.com/