Monday, May 26, 2014

a story about the high school graduation dinner


I want to tell you a story about how the community worked together to make the high school graduation celebration happen, but first I have to tell you about the weather.

(It's always about the weather)


On Friday afternoon, the weather report warned of a winter storm watch for the weekend.  I should point that it is almost June here.  At some point in the year, no matter how chilly the weather gets, it feels inappropriate to label anything "winter".

By Saturday, the weather report had updated its status to that of a "snowfall warning".  Again, I had to wonder why Canadians would ever need a "warning" about snow, but I didn't put any further thought into it and went on with my day.

Meanwhile, the high school class of 2014 was getting ready to graduate, and teachers and volunteers were working around the clock to make sure the occasion would be special. They ordered beautiful flowers and vases to be delivered to decorate the high school gym, and for the graduation dinner, they ordered Subway sandwiches and Chinese food to be delivered by plane from Yellowknife.  This was going to be a special exciting treat for the kids who had grown up in a town with no fancy restaurants and only a KFC. The kids debated among themselves whether the after-party would be at someone's cabin or someone's parents' house.

Unfortunately, as often happens in the Arctic, the weather got in the way on Saturday and the planes could not land.  No vases for the flowers.  No Subway sandwiches. No Chinese food.

starting to snow

more snow

so much snow piling up

That didn't mean that there was going to be no graduation dinner, however. People in Cambridge Bay are determined and quick-thinkers, as you have to be when you live in a harsh environment. A call out was made to the whole community, by phone, by Facebook, by word of mouth at the grocery store, that a potluck dinner was going to happen instead, and food donations to feed some 150 people would be needed - within the next few hours.

And then people got to work.

empty serving table

pretty decorations, but no food

Some people made perogies. Another friend made chicken chow mein, so the students could have their chinese food after all. Other friends ground up caribou meat to turn into yummy caribou burgers (cariburgers? Has anyone coined this term yet?).  There was also donations of ham, ribs, fried rice, swedish meatballs...it ended up being a whole feast! None of us expected to spend our Saturday this way, especially for a dinner that we weren't planning to attend ourselves, but nobody complained.

I certainly didn't expect to spend my Saturday this way - I was feeling a little less than fresh, having stayed up late with friends the night before.  But even with the short amount of time that there was until the grad dinner, I managed to throw together a plate of sushi.  It wasn't the Chinese food that the students had ordered, but I figured it was pretty close.


as food donations start arriving....

breathtaking graduation cupcakes from D.

It was really quite beautiful and inspiring to watch the community rally together to make this dinner happen. Many of the volunteer cooks had no direct connections to the school - they weren't teachers, nor were they parents of students, but just members of the community that wanted to support when help was needed.

To explain why the grad dinner was just so important to the community though, it's important to understand just what an accomplishment it is to graduate high school here. Obviously it's an important milestone everywhere to get your high school diploma, but there are special challenges in the north that mean, unfortunately, so many kids don't end up getting to that point. The elementary classes are big and full of kids, with multiple classes of twenty or so kids each for every grade.  By the time you get to high school, however, a lot of students have dropped out.  By grade twelve, this year's graduating class was eleven students. Many people around here have a grade four reading level, and a lot of folks can't read at all. A lot of jobs that would require an undergraduate degree down south only ask for a grade ten education here in the north, because of the small number of people who have actually graduated high school.

The reasons for this high drop-out rate are too complex for me to speculate about here, but it cannot be ignored that there are extra challenges in education here, less resources, underlying social issues, and so the students who make it all the way through are particularly special, and the whole community comes together to celebrate this.

Because the entire community was invited to the high school graduation ceremony, I had the chance to take part (while taking a break from sushi rolling).  It was so touching to see the entire community support the graduating high school students, and it was clear just how proud everyone was of these less-than-a-dozen students waiting on the stage.

Cambridge Bay never sees a room this packed except for graduation


The ceremony began with a special traditional lighting ceremony of the qulliq by a community elder.  The students were looking their very best. Cambridge Bay doesn't have a hairstylist in town, but a hairstylist had flown in on a visit with her shears and had done the graduates' hair.  The girls were dolled up in their makeup and high heels, starting to look like grown women, and even the boys had taken care to look spiffy, shaving their little mustaches and sporting contact lenses instead of glasses.  The graduating students all wore sealskin vests with their graduation gown, a wonderful fusion of north-south traditions. 


graduates' procession was through this igloo-like decoration

I particularly loved the rainbow theme of the decorations and the ceremony, as the school had decided that this year's theme would be one of tolerance, and they even held a Rainbow Day earlier this month to show their support for the LGBTQ community. It was a proud moment to see the community show their support particularly for the young graduating student Kelsey, who is one of the few open gay people in Cambridge Bay.



a speech from one of their teachers

Kelsey receives congratulations from the school



I'm so glad that I was able to take part, even in the smallest way, in this important occasion here in Cambridge Bay.  It was really different from my own high school graduation experience, which took place at a theatre hall, in a graduating class of hundreds of students, followed by prom, limos, a catered dinner and an expectation that I would go through at least two more graduation ceremonies further along my academic career. So it was really interesting to see this milestone for a younger generation from a different perspective.  It was totally worth sacrificing my afternoon nap.

young Gloria at her own high school graduation, over a decade ago
(wearing a dog collar with her prom dress for inexplicable reasons)