hi mrs koops
can you call
you mean on the phone
having a bad night
sure...just give me a minute
Last night I was checking email and facebook, lying in bed. Michael had turned his light off and was almost asleep. Then Clifford inboxed me. Clifford from my first class in Black Lake. Clifford who asked for a new teacher the very first day as we stepped into the hallway to clear the air. Clifford who said "ne ba horel ya?", who drew me pictures of his hunting cabin, who said, "Mrs. Koops, you're dressed like you are going up north." To whom I said, "I am up north."
I climb out of bed and my feet and arms are cold. I put on my blue, fuzzy housecoat with blonde fairies wielding wands. I walk down the stairs with my laptop in the dark, flip a light switch, dial the number.
This is a reunion, at first. Our voices are full of fun, loud, teasing.
"You know me," says Clifford after he tells me about taking off his cast early, making an "old Indian cast" with four splinters.
"You know me," I say after telling him about how I still get mad at kids, still yell, still take them out into the hallway.
"Mrs. Koops," he pauses after each time he says, Mrs. Koops. (I'm not sure if I'm supposed to say, "Yes" everytime he pauses. I'm forgetting if this is a Dene linguistic pattern or if this is just a Clifford pattern.)
"Mrs. Koops," he says, "You know why I call you Mrs. Koops? Because I respect you. I don't call you your first name. I call you Mrs. Koops because I respect you."
"Ah, Clifford, it's so good to hear from you. Thank you."
"Mrs. Koops," he says, "You were the best," and he pauses again, "And the stupidest, and the loudest," he pauses again, "and the ugliest..." he lets his voice trail off as I start to laugh, almost snorting.
"Clifford, that's what I love about my Dene friends. They are so honest. I just love it." I'm sure to let the irony hang in the air like dry meat. Mmmm. Tasty. "It's so nice you're so honest."
"Mrs. Koops," he says. "I shot a moose last week. I should say I bowed it."
"That's pretty hard, isn't it? How close would you have to be?"
"I sat in the same place for two and a half hours and called it in." He tells me more details, where the bow entered, how far away the moose was, how far the moose walked before it fell.
"See, that's what I respect about you young guys. I remember back in 2000 and everyone was afraid of Y2K, computers crashing."
"That didn't scare me."
"No. I felt like I was living in the safest place in the world because if the computers crashed and technology failed, you guys would have taken care of us. I felt so safe."
"Mrs. Koops," he pauses. "I'm going to send you some dry meat and dry fish. Do you like pickerel?"
"I like it all."
"Mrs. Koops." The pause is even longer.
"I still have that eagle feather you gave me. I keep it in a box and when I need it, when I am low self-esteem, I look at it and I remember what you said to me."
"Clifford, I always wondered if I did the right thing giving you that feather. I just trusted that my heart was in the right place."
"Mrs. Koops, remember I told you that I wanted to fly away and then you gave me the feather and told me that I could fly away, that I was strong like an eagle."
"I think our Creator must have been giving me those words," I say, "because I'm not that smart."
"Mrs. Koops, remember you told me not to be shy of numbers? They don't talk back; they just do what I tell them to do."
"I said that? That was because I'm scared of numbers," I say.
We laugh and tease some more, then Clifford tells me he's sad, like he was the day he came to our house and left with the feather, like the day he told me he'd been kicked out, like the day he came to apologize after our first big blow out. He tells me that he will not hurt himself, that he wants to be right with his Creator. He tells me that the eagle feather helps him fly away, but in a good way.
We laugh and tease some more and it is nearly one o'clock in the morning. I haven't talked with Clifford for twelve years and he hasn't been my student for closer to sixteen years, but here we are, same as before. I learn about his job with diamond drilling all over the place, his boats, skidoos, and trucks. He's built his own cabin at Wapata Lake, too. There is so much to catch up on.
Near the end of our visit, I tell him that whenever I speak to school kids or at conferences, I'm always bragging about my Black Lake friends, telling stories.
"Do you tell them about me?" he says.
"Actually, just this spring I told people at a conference about how I was given an eagle feather and then I sang them the song about the boy who gave it to me. Then, I told them about the boy I passed it along to, and then played the song I wrote for him, for you. I've never shared that song with you."
"No, you haven't."
"Mrs. Koops, if you're going to write about me, make sure you spell my name in capital letters."
I belly laugh. "Okay, CLIFFORD ALPHONSE it is. Just like the way I say it, or more like, yell it."
Now he is belly laughing.
"Mrs. Koops, I was planning to leave town, but now I'm going to stick around and make that dry fish and dry meat for you. I went hunting for four houses, and I'll make dry meat from start to finish and send it on the plane for you."
"Mrs. Koops, when are you coming to Black Lake again?"
"Mrs. Koops, it's hard saying goodbye. We have a lot of catching up to do."
"CLIFFORD, I learned from your people that there doesn't have to be a word for goodbye. Na ne sni ha. I will remember you."
"Na ne sni ha."
"Ein," I say.
"Mrs. Koops, I want you to write an essay about our classroom."
"So you're giving me an assignment? Okay, I will. And your assignment is making me some dry meat."
We are still laughing, but I am also yawning now. There is more, so much more in our visit that I can't write it all down, like talking about his daughter and my daughters. Like teasing about Mr. Koops. He wants me to pinch him and say it is from CLIFFORD.
We finally hang up.
I don't set the alarm and I wake rested, later than usual. As I walk to school on this sunny day, I look for eagles in the hills. I'm sure I'll see an eagle today, but I don't. Still, I'm soaring, leaving late, no students today, they wrote their exam yesterday, so I take the long way, and float into the school at five after nine.
At school I text Char: Happy Aboriginal Day my Aboriginal friend.
Char texts back: From one ab-original to another ab-original.
Reason Number Eight Why I love Treaty Walks: Stories of friendship remind me of who I am and who I want to be.
My day is full with kids catching up on work, finishing exams, playing guitar, hanging out in my classroom. As I walk home, I see a bird high above the ski hill; it seems to just sit in the air, but I try not to get my hopes up; it’s flapping it's wings too much to be an eagle. But I keep the zoom lens on the bird so far away. When it circles I think eagle, but when it flaps its wings, I think hawk or raven.