Shannon Mullen is teaching in Manizales, Colombia, but her home base is Toronto.
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My interrogation consists of three questions: “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “Do you have a husband?”
A girl in the front row with short black hair streaked with cherry red highlights, wearing jeans and a boy-band T-shirt, stands up to begin the cross-examination. “Why none?”
“Why none what?”
“I mean, why none … no husband?”
She awaits my answer in fascination as she blows a pink bubble the size of a tennis ball with what appears to be the contents of an entire pack of gum. It explodes as she tests its limits.
“I’m very independent,” I tell her honestly, using an answer I’ve repeated several times to my own family.
“Qallunaats are weird. Very lonely,” she says, picking pieces of gum from her face. “How old you are?”
“Thirty,” I answer.
Other students giggle and start shouting phrases in Inuktitut that I can’t understand. However, I am able to catch a few gasps in English: “The age of my auntie!” “My mom!” “My grandma!”
I recall my mom’s begging voice. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to be isolating yourself at this age?”
“Go on eHarmony!” one student suggests. “No, Match.com!” says another girl, wearing a black baseball hat askew on her head, “Anna” written on it in gold embroidery.
“He’s right … I mean, she’s right,” another student corrects himself, remembering that the English language uses gendered pronouns.
I look at the M’s shaved into either side of his head. “Let me guess,” I say, looking at the attendance list, “you must be Michael.”
In fact it’s Robert. “The M’s are for Eminem,” he smiles, and raps a few verses.
“How do you know about online dating sites?” I ask the class, surprised that people in this small Northern community where I am spending a year teaching English would even be aware of them. “Do you guys use them in the Arctic?”
“Maybe Iqaluit?” guesses Anna. “My … urgh … cousin she goes to Ottawa and telled me about it. But she didn’t do dating. She have husband. Two daughters. That’s just what she telled me.”
I admit to the class that my cousin met her husband online. He was her first online date ever, and she married him.
“See?” Anna says proudly.
“I have put a piece of poster paper on your tables. In your groups, I want you to write the steps that Brian took to make a fire. You need to list five steps.”
The students stare at me blankly. “You need to look in your books on pages 63 to 64.”
Elizabeth, one of the top students in the class, opens her book, so I walk over to see if she understands the assignment. She attempts to reread the passage. “What’s ‘kindling?’” she asks. She turns the screen of her iPod toward me, showing me that she’s looked up the definition by typing the word into an app.
“It’s stuff that catches on fire easily,” I reply, “like dry twigs, sticks and small pieces of bark or wood.”
“Oh, thanks.” She continues reading, then hesitates nervously. “What’s ‘bark?’”
Oh no. I had anticipated that, since so many students spent their summers camping with their families, hunting for seal and narwhal and fishing for Arctic char, they would connect with a story about a boy their age learning to live off the land. But the vocabulary and the southern camping techniques described in the book have no real meaning in the Arctic and seem to be making the students more confused.
Elizabeth looks down at her iPod. Suddenly she gasps and smiles as a text message comes in.
“David telled me he would marry you if you like. Would you like?”
“Who is David?” I ask.
“My uncle. That way you could have husband. You won’t be lonely.”
I smile. The stress of my earlier teaching blunder disappears, but I make a note to rework tomorrow’s lessons.
“Tell David I say thank you. But no, I’m not lonely.”
Anna removes the earbuds from under her hoodie and looks at me. “I heard you leave,” she says. “Why you come here if you only going to leave?”
My heart breaks a little as I think through the possible responses: I have finished my contract; I don’t know if I can handle another long Arctic winter; I feel I’ve learned more from the students than they have from me; and, most importantly, living in a small Inuit community has taught me the personal cost of always putting my career ahead of the relationships I value. I speak to her in our common language. “I have to find my husband.”
She opens her eyes wide in agreement. “Ii. Ii. Tukisijunga.” Yes. I understand.
“You are old but pretty,” she assures me with the naive overconfidence of a teenager finding the right words to console me. “You can still find husband.”
After a year in Pond Inlet, Nunavut,Shannon Mullen is teaching in Manizales, Colombia, but her home base is Toronto.