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From Author

Frank Clancy

ZipUSA: 53208 On Assignment

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From Photographer

Penny De Los Santos

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Penny De Los Santos (top) and Rebecca Hale


ZipUSA: 53208 On Assignment Author ZipUSA: 53208 On Assignment Author
ZipUSA: 53208

Field Notes From Author
Frank Clancy

Best Worst Quirkiest
    I love Siberian huskies, so I was intrigued as soon as I heard that the school's third-grade classes devote several weeks each March to following the Iditarod, the thousand-mile (1,600-kilometer) sled-dog race across Alaska. During that time, virtually all the students' lessons—art, writing, geography, math—revolve around the Iditarod. This year they decorated the halls with pictures of dogs, tracked the progress—via the Internet—of the teams they adopted, and wrote about the experiences of drivers featured in a documentary.
    One teacher described working with maps and showing students how to calculate various distances by adding and subtracting. After 45 minutes of work, he said, a student asked when the class was going to begin math. 
    During another lesson, the teacher wrote sentences about Alaska and the Iditarod on the blackboard, intentionally incorporating mistakes. For 20 minutes he had 15 nine-year-olds almost jumping out of their seats to participate in a grammar lesson.

    I visited the school at a difficult time, shortly after the board of directors announced extensive layoffs. A lot of people involved with the school were hurt and angry. Some didn't understand the rationale for the board's decisions.
    As I wandered around the school that week, employees, parents, and teachers all confided in me. I saw how deeply they cared for the school and its long-term survival. I also spoke at great length to the school's attorney, a former board member, who had participated in the decision to lay off so many staff. And I saw how much she cared. It was heartbreaking to see people who knew each other so well and cared so much about this institution, yet disagreed so fiercely about the course it should take.

    I had spent a lot of time with Indian people before working on this story, so I felt very comfortable at the school. And when Waubano, the school's spiritual leader, invited me to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, I knew enough to be honored. I accepted the invitation immediately.
    Waubano asked me to arrive at 5:30 p.m., but he said they wouldn't actually begin until "the grandfathers were ready." Indian people show enormous respect for elders. So while I also knew that time is often a flexible concept among Indian people, I didn't want to show disrespect by asking others to wait for me, a guest. I arrived right on time, expecting to see at least a couple of men who were older than Waubano. There were none.
    As the fire blazed, Waubano and others spoke occasionally about the grandfathers, wondering aloud when they would be ready. The fire continued to burn. No elderly men showed up. Then it dawned on me: The grandfathers were the rocks buried deep in the bonfire, atop a lattice-like interior stack of wood. The grandfathers would be ready when the rocks were deemed hot enough and the stack of wood collapsed.


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