311 Days, 447,840 Minutes and 26,870,400 Seconds of Fun
With the drive back ahead of me it’s not quite time to crack the champagne. Still, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of accomplishment mixed with a bit of elation on the last day of school. Sure, hardly any of my kids passed and I didn’t really have any sort of positive impact on their lives or the community at large in scientifically-measurable ways. But, look on the bright side…
Anyway, I did it. I feel like Armstrong walking on the moon, like Yeager breaking the sound barrier. Like Salk curing Polio and Lincoln freeing the slaves. I am Von Bismarck uniting the Germans, Fleming discovering penicillin. A woman doing something notable. I fucking did it, man.
It certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion. I’m told they were taking bets at the start of the year to see how long I’d last, and who can blame them? Some lanky, effete young guy shows up from Southern Ontario, a first year teacher who is by far the youngest guy on staff who got suckered into something that’s way more than he bargained for. Some kids made it a living hell, presumably to get me out of here (bless their determination). There were some nights – and I can say this, for once, in all seriousness – that I just hoped one of them would burn my car to the ground and give me a plausible reason to leave with dignity. The graveyard in Sandy Bay is littered with the bones of those who came before me and failed, and I could easily have been the latest in a long, unbroken chain. A chain that is made out of their bones! But I’m not.
That said, let us now have a tribute to the fallen – those pour souls who shuffled off this mortal coil long before the year was through:
Mr. G. You mandolin-playing rascal, come back! I do declare, the place just hasn’t been the same without you. Few people can balance guitar playing, proselytizing, ponytail growing and their job as well as you can.
Mr. W. He who took a gamble on an untested young man from Ontario. What words can I say about him that haven’t already been spoken? Ever the avid outdoorsman, he was more than happy to “give” me a fishing rod from his considerable collection (which, I assume he had in case he had to catch 17 fish at once) when I caught the fishing bug earlier this year. Sadly, like Mr. W, his rod didn’t quite make it through the year, its tip having snapped off last week. If your many anecdotes were anything to go by, you must have lived an interesting life. I can only wonder what adventures you’re getting yourself into in the great crawl space in the sky.
Mr. R. Oh, the fun we had together, chum. Sure, you unwittingly brought your wife and children into a war zone (the rent was cheaper than in Baghdad), but at least you figured it out before too much irreversible damage was done. Sorry about Mrs. R’s involuntary liver donation, but do try and see if the Band won’t cover the costs of Junior’s therapy. (note: Okay, you actually were a cool guy, and your presence was missed, I’ll admit)
Before we continue, I have a confession to make. I know the occasional staff member reads this page and I have to say… I’m not actually from Oshawa. I’m from its neighbouring, smartass, yuppie younger brother, Whitby. I told you Oshawa all this time because that’s where I grew up, where I went to school and lived. My family has only been in Whitby for barely two years now, and I’ve been away at school (and here) for most of that. In the GTA there’s barely any difference between cities the way it is up here, anyway. Second, nobody has even heard of Whitby (and rightfully so), whereas I’m sure to come across people with a cursory understanding of where Oshawa is and what it’s about (Eric Lindros and GM). You’ll forgive this little fib, but it was for the best.
Now we turn our attention to one of the unsung heroes of this trip: my car. Yes, her characteristic yellow covering of paint brought my sexuality into question numerous times, but she sure has seen me through some rough spots in the Great White North. It would be a crime not to point out the effort Ole Yeller’s put in for me. Take, for example, this rough estimate of how far she’s traveled these past ten months:
- 3300Km: Whitby to Sandy Bay
- 4000Km: Sandy Bay to Flin Flon/Denare Beach and return (est. 10 times in my car)
- 6000Km: Sandy Bay to Saskatoon and return (5 trips, and you’re damned right it felt like 6000Km)
- 3300Km: Sandy Bay to Whitby
For a grand total of 16,600Km, give or take. Okay, screw it, that doesn’t actually sound like all that much now that I’ve written it all down (“Why, that’s almost 42% of the earth’s circumference around the equator!), but you get the idea.
To get a real sense of her selfless sacrifice, Ole Yeller’s been doused in latex floor covering, had her windshield cracked and replaced, her passenger side window smashed in, her engine mount cracked in two (that one was my fault), been subjected to two flat tires, scratches, an attempted break-in to her trunk, spit, attempted license plate theft (“attempted” in the sense that the plate was later found), and stuck in about a million snow banks. She’s been around the block, alright, and if she can just hold it together for the drive home, there’s a hand wash in it for her.
Much was made of the plan George and I had to photograph a series of dead dogs we came across up here. I think we ended up with 4 or 5, far short of the 12 necessary for our calendar. Let it simply be said that sometimes in life we come across things that are so unbelievable, we would not believe it ourselves later while reminiscing if we didn’t have photos to prove it. My big plan was to reveal our efforts in my final post, but… ehh… somehow, a bunch of photos of dead dogs just doesn’t sound like fun.
Now, I can’t go on at length like this without mentioning the positive aspects of my year in northern Saskatchewan. I did come up here in part because I wanted to follow my mother’s footsteps in teaching up North (there, I said it) and in certain respects that paid off. The expansiveness of it all – the curious mix of isolation and marvel one feels up here. The Northern Lights were really something to behold, and I consider myself fortunate to have seen them. Additionally, the bitter cold does something to you, and it’s not altogether bad. I don’t know when I’ll next live through minus 40-degree weather, but I look forward to it.
I almost cry to think that my weekends in Flin Flon with the Trevors are over. I suspect I’ll encounter them again in the future, but never again quite like this. If I could single out anyone who really opened up their lives for me in order to make this a livable experience, it would be Sarah, Buz and George. They’re exciting, accommodating and generous beyond words, and I’m going to miss them greatly.
Some words, quickly, on the city of Flin Flon. It’s a marvelous town where legend and history collide. It’s unlike any you are likely to experience. I am richer for having been there, and without question my fondest memories of the past 10 months are of that place and its love for rough, northern junior hockey, tall smokestacks, rocks, and above-ground sewer systems. It has character in ways that London, Oshawa, Whitby and Kingston can only dream of. The people who live there have a steadfast devotion to the North, to roughing it, to ploughing through life and making the most of their situation with no apologies. They are the unsung heroes of our country, manning a desolate outpost and taking from the earth with their bare hands the very resources we live on. So, fare thee well, you bastion of the North. May Flintabatty keep you on the right path.
Driving up here means going great distances with nothing in between. Thus, you can be miserable for 6 hours or learn to enjoy it. For my part, I gradually came to look forward to trips into LaRonge, Prince Albert, Flin Flon, and Saskatoon. I felt a sense of attachment between myself and the road; those long, majestic highways that link Northern Saskatchewan’s disparate little communities, traveled for decades by a certain breed of human seeking life, adventure and fulfillment in Canada’s North. Surely their construction is an overlooked achievement; a feat rivaling the construction of the Great Pyramids. Turning off these great arteries and arriving in a small town of barely 5000 feels like traveling from the desert to a bustling metropolis. Places like LaRonge have an admirable atmosphere comprised of a palpable determination and unparalleled resilience you won’t find anywhere else on earth. I’ll likely never come across a barren yet exciting environment like this again, and a part of me is sad to be leaving that.
And my truly beloved co-workers. What can be said? I understand how things work in the staff rooms back home, and I know I’ll never encounter such camaraderie again. By necessity you make fast company up here that, hopefully, turn into lifelong friendships. You both work and live with the same people, day in day out. Shared situation, shared experiences and - with very little else to do in town - in many respects, shared lives. Yes, you were older. And, yes, I was obnoxious more often than not. In spite of this you took me - the new, young, clueless fool – under your wings and helped me through my first year of teaching. We had each other for 10 months and little else, and I could not have done it without you. Even the ones I hate I love, for nobody can go through something like this beside someone and not feel a certain kinship with them. They are that rare breed, the Northern Teacher (who lives on a diet of rye), and for ten brief months I counted myself among them. I talk often of writing a book about this whole thing, as each and every one of you is the most interesting, unforgettable character. Well, except that boring old Shukin guy.
It is odd to be one of the very few who appear to be leaving. There were moments, particularly around February, where I had to figure we were all one shitty 7th period away from packing our bags and leaving en masse. To think that the majority of them are hanging on for another tour of duty while I’m leaving is strange. I’ll be doing whatever I’m doing, and there will be the lot of you, doing it all over again without me while someone comes to take my place. It’s sorta like being the youngest kid in a family of 20, and even though you’ve left they’re still watching TV, eating supper and going out to have fun together without you. Oh, and they adopted a cuter, more fun child to take your place. I’m jealous.
I couldn’t end things here without talking about the situation in Sandy Bay in a wider sense. You are familiar through me with the place. It’s no secret that living here puts a strain on a person that nobody should have to bear, least of all children. There are those who make it work; Tony, in particular, strikes me as a man who has built a comfortable life in Sandy Bay for himself and his family. On the other hand, you have many, many people living in Third World conditions assaulted from all angles by all the things you might imagine: Drugs. Alcohol. Poverty. Abuse. Death. The human spirit can’t develop properly up here; people can’t reach their potential, and many die far, far too young. It hurts, it really does, to be going back to Ontario while thinking of the people I’m leaving behind, and the seemingly-hopeless situation in which they live. I have no clue how to fix this, and I can’t offer more than a stern “something must be done.” But now you know. And if you think that Natives have it easy with their government hand-outs, I’ll punch your teeth down your throat.
I think that’s it, isn’t it? It’s everything I have to say upon my departure from the Northern Village of Sandy Bay. Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here. This time wasn’t what I wanted, in some ways it was harmful, and in many respects this feels like something of a wasted year (I’m sure my students would agree with that sentiment…). On the other hand, I have lived through exciting experiences beside amazing people in an unforgettable land. So to George, Roger, Marion, Brenda, Peter, Chuck, Ken, Douglas, Dale, Tony, Roseanne, Ted, Robin, Sharon, Lyndsay, Luke, E.D., Arden, Orville, Kevin, Jamie, Barb, the other Brenda, Sarah, Buz, Munchkin and Meagan at the Orange Toad, I thank you for your friendship, patience and help, and wish you all a fond farewell. May we meet again another day (particularly that last one).