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The Courage to Leave

One of my favorite Alaskan magazines posted a prompt recently about Alaskan grit during the pandemic. While we had already moved and were no longer residents, so I couldn't submit an entry, I also couldn't resist reflecting and putting some of our pandemic experience into words. 2020 and 2021 were some of the hardest days of our lives, but they also taught us more about ourselves that we ever could have anticipated.

Grit is defined as “courage and resolve; strength of character.” Alaskans, by nature and necessity, show grit day in and day out, as they weather the adventures and hardships that define life in the last frontier. It is one of the qualities I admire most in the people I meet in Alaska, this impressive, hardy quality where doing difficult things and thriving in challenging situations is the norm. In 2020, when a global pandemic swept the world, grit took on a deeper meaning--courage and resolve not only in regards to physical obstacles and tasks, but in a more all consuming capacity that demanded constant mental and emotional strength while attempting to navigate a new normal.

As a rural Alaskan teacher of nine years, I had been working on this concept of grit and I slowly came to embrace the term being a part of our family’s identity. Our experiences teaching in the bush made us stronger--from learning to live with the relentless Bering Strait winds and storms; to adjusting to the long, dark winters; to developing skin thick enough to walk through the adolescent trials with my middle and high school students. Students who embodied grit at such a young age were models for my own learning as they persevered through more than their share of trauma and loss. Watching community members, parents, and colleagues persevere through difficult times, taught us how to bear down and push through our own challenges.

When the pandemic hit, the hard things got harder. Isolation took on a new meaning when school shut down, when flights to the bush were grounded, when the word quarantine immersed itself into our daily vocabulary. Summers of travel that were once the norm were suddenly not even an option. Annual visits with family became heartbreakingly impossible. Travel for medical needs suddenly involved an application, COVID tests, and mandatory quarantine. Teaching--an already challenging profession--now felt more overwhelming than it ever had before. The simplest of tasks like going to the grocery store were now daunting-heavily loaded with a strange, new notion of fear. Daily life as we knew it screeched to a halt, and we found ourselves having to push through emotionally day by day, sometimes moment by moment.

We watched our kids, our own and our students, struggle to adapt to distance learning. Some clung to school and assignments like a life raft--something, anything to do during the long days at home. Some couldn’t bear to tackle learning independently, life was hard enough without the added stress of schooling alone. Each experience was individual and isolating. Each experience was valid. Each experience was intensely difficult. Some teachers chose to leave and teach remotely--safely from a distance with their families. Some teachers didn’t return.

Slowly, we settled into our new routines. Working from home, schooling from home, masking everywhere, avoiding contact with people not in our circle. Talking to students about assignments through computers, and checking in on them from the windows of an empty classroom as they stood outside to pick up their weekly packets.

At some point our perception shifted. The once scary, physical isolation of being in a remote village suddenly felt safe--an actual physical bubble from the rest of the COVID ravaged country. Quarantine became comfortable, and home more cozy. Social distancing made sense and we embraced our masks and our own space. Life went on in the village, and with the warmer weather we had ample time and opportunity to explore and adventure. We slowed down and enjoyed rides on the tundra, walks on the beach, kayaking on the river, and camp fires under the midnight sun. Our pandemic summer was beautifully slow and filled with long conversations and time for reflection and pause.

What we saw during that time, at the height of the pandemic, while the rest of the country was floundering, was Alaskans banding together in their truest form--caring for one another on a community level and coming together to make a seemingly impossible situation possible. Our community honored, cared for, and protected its elders, and served the children by committing to a safe return to school plan. The courage and strength of the community provided a sense of security, even for those of us without real family in the village.

We were lucky to have an entire year of in person learning, and the routine of being back in the classroom with students in front of us was a relief, but the year was far from normal. While we remained mostly safe in our village bubble, the pandemic still took a huge mental and emotional toll on everyone. Family members passed away on the other side of the country, and we didn’t have the option to attend the funerals and grieve with loved ones. Our children went two entire years without seeing their grandparents and cousins. We brought a new life into the world and his siblings had to meet him over FaceTime. The loneliness and isolation continued to wear us down, and the need for a change became strikingly apparent. When we took everything into consideration, we thought about what Alaska had taught us was the most important-family, community, and the courage to do the right thing, in line with our values.

Identifying as an Alaskan is one of my life’s greatest joys and accomplishments. Living and thriving in the last frontier is an irreplaceable experience. What I never anticipated Alaska would give me, was the grit to make the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make, and the courage to leave our favorite state, the only home our kids have ever known, our students, our friends, our life- to return to our roots. Alaska taught me that the right decisions are not always the easiest choices, that your deepest values are at the core of guiding the compass of your life, and that you don’t always stay on the path you set out on, sometimes you come across a new one. Taking a new path doesn’t erase the experiences of the road you’ve already taken, it provides a new perspective to build upon the rich journey you’ve already taken.

Once the hardiness of being an Alaskan seeps its way into your soul, it doesn’t leave. Alaskan grit continues to shine throughout our lives every day. In our kids’ love for adventure and the outdoors, in our classrooms where we honor and embrace culture and place, and in our home, the most important space, where we prioritize family and well being, and fiercely protect the life we have built. We have Alaska to thank for preparing us for the path we are on, and although we aren’t physically there now, its presence in our lives is palpable. Grit--courage and resolve, strength of character--is a true depiction of the Alaskan experience.

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