Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Reader's Diary #1057- George Guthridge: The Kids from Nowhere

I first heard George Guthridge speak at a conference in Whitehorse back in 2009. He was talking about an approach he'd developed to teach writing that was supposed to be revolutionary. He seemed arrogant and I was skeptical of his methods; methods that to me sounded gimmicky and formulaic. But then, he only spoke for an hour. It's hard to judge a guy on so little time. And besides, what if his approaches work? His personality would hardly matter. I picked up a copy of his book The Kids from Nowhere just in case. Now, a mere 4 years later I can weigh in.

The Kids from Nowhere recounts Guthridge's teaching days in Gambell, Alaska, a small Eskimo (they referred to themselves as that at the time) village located on island in the Bering Sea. In the first two years of his teaching there he led not one, but two teams (from junior and senior high) to victory in an international academic competition known as Future Problem Solving. It came as a shock to many (even some in Gambell), that Eskimo kids could outperform students many of whom were more "privileged," more exposed to world events, and faced less racism. 

For the most part, I enjoyed The Kids from Nowhere. Besides the obvious inspirational message, I was intrigued by the Yup'ik culture. It reminded me a lot of my time in Nunavut. I was amazed for instance that they, like the Inuit of Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit, raised their eyebrows for yes and scrunched up their noses to indicate no, equivalent to the nodding and shaking of heads in other cultures. In Newfoundland it's not difficult— at least it wasn't in my days there— to identify which outport community or region a person was from based on their accents or grammar. Back in the early days, we reasoned, when the communities were more cut off from one another, various communities developed their own unique styles of speaking. We're only talking about 400 or so years and distances only as wide as the province itself that the Newfoundlanders started to differentiate from one another. Not that the Yup'ik or Rankin Inlet Inuit or Iqaluit Inuit don't have their differences (they do), but I found it astounding that they all held on to the nose/eyebrows gesture despite vast isolation from one another and thousands of years.

But back to the inspirational message (the point of the book, after all), I was less taken with the storytelling. Don't get me wrong, what Guthridge and those students did was remarkable and those feats are clearly historical fact. But I still found it a bit formulaic in structure. We know from the get go what these kids achieved, so it's hard to build up suspense. So, just before every accomplishment when Guthridge doubts that they'll succeed and once again questions his abilities, it's all rather predictable. It comes across as false modesty. It's far better than the arrogance I'd suspected years earlier, but it still felt a little insincere. There's also a villain that criticizes Guthridge, his motives, his techniques, and his students. He felt over-the-top and too much like a Hollywood character, as if this were Dangerous Minds- Alaska Edition. I began to doubt the authenticity. In the notes on factual accuracy given at the beginning of the book, Guthridge explains that some characters are composites. I have to believe (and anyone who knows otherwise can correct me) that this moustache twirler named Gerald is one such composite. If this is the case, the character is truly unnecessary and sells the real drama short. If he is accurate, I apologize. (And sympathize!)

 I also felt that the occasional times when Guthridge would slip into the mind of another character were rather presumptuous. Furthermore, seeing as this is only done a few times, those times felt odd and out of place. Personally, I wish those instances were edited out all together, but I could have acclimatized to even more frequent switches in perspective.

Still, despite its short-comings, The Kids from Nowhere is an interesting read and it could be inspiring for those looking for new solutions to old problems. Or perhaps old approaches to new problems.

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