by Cody Arnapagaq Ferguson.
When you have depression, you dwell on past experiences that negatively impacted your well-being. When you have anxiety, you dread over future possibilities that have yet to be manifested. When you have both, as they often go hand in hand, you can find yourself on a downward spiral toward rock bottom which can lead to some sort of ultimatum that will either force you to get better, or, unfortunately, seal your fate in misery, or worse, unless you have one thing; courage.
I am not going to use my energy to talk about matters that we are all aware of regarding the social defects that have occurred post-colonization, and the effects of that shared experience which ripple through the following generations. If you are not aware of the historical trauma caused by colonization and how that impacted us as Alaskan natives, I encourage you to do so.
Instead, I want to focus on what, in my opinion, needs to be focused on more which literally washes away the fear and anxiety that prevents us from taking the necessary steps towards healing and being happy. That is COURAGE. Courage means: the ability to do something that frightens one. Think about a time when you were scared to do something, and fear prevented you from acting as I tell you a story.
When I first began teaching Yuraq, Yup’ik/Cup’ik style singing and dancing, I was asked to teach middle school students from all over Alaska who attended the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP) Middle School Academy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, which is where I teach during the spring semesters. I often taught 50 students at a time. When an educator is given a class size as such, there are certain understandings that need to be established to ensure a successful transaction of knowledge from the educator to the students.
The first thing I would do was an exercise to help gain their undivided attention. I’d have them sit perfectly still and quiet like statues for five seconds. If they made any sort of movement or noise they would start over until they did it right. No group would ever be able to accomplish that the first time around.
The only time a group of students who has ever been able to sit for five seconds straight without moving a muscle or making a peep were the Russian Mission Fourth Grade class. I was so proud.
As I was saying, no group of middle school students were ever able to sit perfectly still and quiet for five seconds. As an educator, I do not move forward until the group of students I am working with understand that I mean business. I will admit that I’m rather intimidating when I teach young people, at first, but it’s for a reason. When they are not able to accomplish what I am asking them to do the first time around they better believe that they will re-do over and over until it is done right, and as I tally the attempts I become even more stern. Then, finally, after four or five attempts the students would fully understand that I mean business.
After the five seconds is up, during that brief, still, quiet moment, I use that opportunity to explain to them the importance of respect. I’d tell them long time ago; our ancestors respected their elders so much that they would sit perfectly still and quiet. Sometimes for hours at a time as an elder would lecture about lessens on how to lead a successful life. They had so much respect for the elders that even an irritating itch wouldn’t distract them from listening by impulsively moving to itch because if an elder saw a young person move or make a noise they would literally point that young person out and use them as an example. They would explain that this young person is not listening, and that later in life he/she will experience hardship. With that in mind, what the young people would do is they would slowly and cautiously move their hand to where they had an itch, carefully itch, and try not to get caught bring their hand back to its original position. Total respect!
At this point I’d have their undivided attention, and usually would crack a quick joke to help set the tone by further elaborating on how much young people had respect for their elders that even if someone farted they would still not move a muscle or make a noise. I do get worried that they are convinced I am just a scary, stern educator at that point. I want them to know that while I expect no less than what I expect from myself if I was their age, that learning can be fun at the same time.
This exercise truly established the expectation I have when it comes to one educator teaching fifty or so middle school students. I need their utmost respect and undivided attention in order to successfully transfer my knowledge into their minds. They would listen to instructions the first time, very well. They would pay attention to everything I’d say. I would look at their faces and watch them process important points in their minds. What I am trying to say is that this exercise was very effective, and afterwards, that’s when I felt comfortable moving on to the next item up for business which is the main reason why I am writing this article today.
As I would begin my lesson my voice and demeanor would reflect how important what I teach is to me. Like I explained before, I was rather intimidating because how straight-forward, loud, and serious I looked when I taught young people. Right when I began my lesson, I intentionally would try to intimidate the students, and I feel confident in explaining this to you because I did it for a specific reason.
When it comes time to first engage the students my voice would become almost thunderous, and that is when I would provide an opportunity for the students to raise their hands to answer a question that I presented. Every single time it came to this point I saw the fear and anxiety in each student’s eyes. They were intimidated by my demeanor. They would contemplate on whether they should raise their hand and speak up. Then, sure enough, I would see that one hand slowly raise up very unconfidently, and I would immediately point them out and tell them to come straight up to the front to say what they have to say before their hand was even fully raised into the air. Those poor kids. I did not give them a choice. They had to come up in front of the whole group to speak.
Before they spoke, I offered pointers on how to speak in front of a crowd noticeably loud so that everyone would be able to hear. I’d tell them to straighten their backs, make their chin parallel to the ground, to speak LOUD and CLEAR, and to be their natural selves. Honestly, I didn’t care what they had to say, but I did encourage their answers. What was more important to me is that a student demonstrated a sense of courage. After the student spoke, I’d tell the group to observe what just happened. Despite the fear and anxiety that comes with choosing to be the first to speak in front of a large group, and especially in my class, a student demonstrated a sense of courage and overcame their fear, and I would praise the student in front of the whole group for that and would demand a round of applause.
Each time I did this I saw the fear in the student’s eyes when they raised their hand into the air. I saw the uncertainty of if what they were about to say was right, but those feelings didn’t prevent them from doing something that was ultimately going to help them in the long run, and to me that is the foundation of quality education, aside from respect.
After that exercise, the student who chose to be the first one to speak up would immediately be overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment, high self-esteem, pride, and joy. That experience made them happy. It would make me happy, as hard as this lesson is for me to execute. The others would then begin to yearn to be the same as the courageous one, and that’s when I’d know I would be able to successfully transfer my knowledge into each and every one of those students because any fear and anxiety was removed. The students and I would be able to communicate effectively without any barriers.
Now, go back to what I mention before about a time fear prevented you from taking appropriate action.
Were you scared to face a problem that has been bothering you? Were you afraid to reach out for help? Was the truth ever too hard to accept?
I am telling you this because it is a different approach to tackling negative situations that people are faced with such as depression, anxiety, being sexually harassed or assaulted, losing a loved one, or facing any difficult, scary situation. What prevents us from taking necessary steps towards resolving a problem that is affecting our well-being is fear. The opposite of fear is courage. You must be able to overcome your fears and anxieties because even if it may seem difficult it is going to help you in the long run. Once you establish courage, you will be ready to move forward with confidence, build self-esteem, experience a sense of pride in doing so, and subsequently feel joy – the road to happiness. I believe in this so much that I want to share this with you. Be courageous!
I want to explain that the five second exercise was first taught to me when my aunt Cecilia Martz, a retired educator at the UAF Kuskokwim campus, successfully executed this on the entire Chevak school student body one year during the annual Cultural Heritage week.
I also dedicate this article to all the Murdered Miss Indigenous Women. I honor them by talking to you about this topic which is aligned with preventing another murdered or missing woman from ever happening again. Quyana.