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Vo l . 6 N o . 2 gas mileage. A turtle shell, it is not. I left Alaska when I was eighteen. Since then I haven’t spent more than nine consecutive months in any one city, community, or house. I’ve lived in three countries, thrice as many states, on boats, in trucks, in tents. On both coasts of this country and along the spines of mountain ranges between them. Sometimes I wonder about this inability to sit still, to stick around when things get messy in transition. I cross lines — state lines, county lines, lines drawn in the sand — and I cross them frequently. Crossing into another state, or back into Alaska from the Canada side, or vice versa, I feel my shoulders relax or my chest tighten, my breathing slow or my palms sweat. Crossing lines, uninhibited by commitment or investment. Quick to move away, move around, move forward. Quick to fall in love. Quick to say I’m done. When it gets too cold, too hot, too close: I have to move on.  *** My mother would sit at the dining room table with me for hours on school nights. She’d run her palm in circles over my back as I battled with my math homework, driven to misery by an inability to negotiate the chaos within the pages of my algebra book. She’d light the kerosene lamp and set it on the table in front of us. We both loved that lamp for its glowing contrast to the astringent flicker of fluorescent public school ceiling lights.  I remember when my mother got her first real teaching job at Big Lake Elementary School, about thirty miles from our home in rural Alaska, in the year that I was thirteen or fourteen. They put her in a portable — a modern one-room schoolhouse that was actually just another standalone component of the larger, overcrowded school building. Clusters of portables were assembled behind public schools once they exceeded their carrying capacities. Drafty and poorly designed, portables were always cold. They were lonely in their independence from the common halls and warmth of their associated buildings, but my mother didn’t seem to mind. She was grateful to be a teacher, to begin her career at the unconventional age of forty-something.  My brother and I helped her decorate her portable, shuttling posters and potted plants and a terrarium from our house to her classroom. We watched as our father navigated the steps of the portable to deposit heavy cardboard boxes full of science books, markers, glue sticks, tiny scissors, and turtle food on the desks inside. After several trips in the rusty Suburban

over a series of autumn days, we had successfully moved our mother into her new classroom. We watched as she meticulously arranged the last of the desks and hung her homemade plaque — Mrs. Brown’s Classroom — on the exterior wall of the portable. We watched as her eyes sparkled with pride, as she completed the transition from uneducated mother to professional educator.  One night during that first year, weakened by heartache and in conflict with her code of teacher confidentiality, my mother told me a secret. One of her students, a very small sixth grader with stinky clothes and stringy hair, came to school early most days. She’d be waiting there in the oppressive mid-winter darkness when my mother arrived to work, curled against the icy portable door. She’d nap on the floor of the portable until the first bell rang, while my mother graded papers, assembled the day’s science supplies, fed the classroom turtle. This little girl, my mother eventually came to find out, was being forced to spend her nights in her father’s chicken coop, warmed only by a poultry lamp and the radiant heat of chicken shit. At some point, my mother, compelled by law, presented this information to the school administration; the girl with stringy hair stopped coming to school shortly thereafter. This was the first of many times throughout her career that my mother would witness abuses of her students. Haunting glimpses of the stained and ugly underbelly of rural northern life.  Later that winter, the power went out without warning for an entire weekend in Big Lake. We probably knew it would get too cold in the portable for the classroom turtle, but I don’t remember a motion to do anything about it. When my mother got to school on Monday she called home in tears.   *** At some point, when I was eleven or twelve, my dad decided to build a pond in the backyard, a refuge for migrating birds.  Dad loves birds, especially hummingbirds. They remind him of his childhood in Arizona. Nostalgia grips him tightly sometimes — it threatens to suffocate him. He will stare at those Alaskan hummingbirds for long minutes, his face strangely close to the window, his shoulders slumped and heavy with the burden of memories and unfinished business. The frenetic energy of feeding hummingbirds accentuates the weight of my mountainous father as he watches them through the glass.  He went through a period where he was

Profile for Michael Burwell

Cirque, Vol. 6 No. 2  

A Journal for the North Pacific Rim

Cirque, Vol. 6 No. 2  

A Journal for the North Pacific Rim

Profile for burwellm
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