Thank You For Being A Friend

Having fun on the sea ice with this crazy crew! Photo Credit: Dave Poyzer

It’s my birthday in a few days, marking another trip around the sun. It’s been a year filled with experiences, destinations, and adventures that a short time ago I couldn’t have even imagined being part of my life. Iditarod has given me many gifts this year, but the one I am most grateful for is friendship. Throughout my time as the Teacher on the Trail I have made so many personal connections with diverse people from across the country. I cherish these relationships; they are the most valuable part of my journey.

Some friends are forever friends – my college besties came all the way to Anchorage to support me at the start of the Iditarod! Photo Credit: J.Westrich

The NYS Culturally Responsive Framework – which I’ve used to inform my end-of-the-month posts this past year – focuses on the need to make all students feel welcome, represented, and respected in their learning space. Educators are encouraged to provide opportunities for students to learn about perspectives beyond one’s own scope. The Iditarod gave me the chance to develop relationships that provide a real world example to my students of the benefits of connecting with others; learning from and respecting diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Making friends with Nome cook Debski means you get good food and great hugs! Photo Credit: J.Westrich

Iditarod reminded me of a grown-up sort of summer camp – intense friendships forged over a short period; the result of compounded time together in unusual, extreme circumstances. A single plane flight together resulting in a hug the next time you see each other down the trail. Six hours in the cold and dark as teams come into the checkpoint ending in hysterical laughter over inside jokes that no one else would understand. Kindness shown in unexpected ways – directions, a shared meal, making space in a bunk house to roll out a sleeping bag. The stressors and joys of the Iditarod bind together adventure seekers, wilderness lovers, and race fans.  

Shared experiences started the bond, but over time we told stories, revealed backgrounds, and discussed motivations and dreams which cemented the friendships. At these moments I discovered the uniqueness of each new friend; the diversity of backgrounds and experiences that brought them to this place, into my sphere, and made me better for it. We converged at the Iditarod from different places; evident in a Carolina drawl, a midwestern twang, or an Australian lilt. Alaska beckoned and those that responded – the result of carefully crafted vacation days, an open-ended work schedule, or a retiree’s flexibility – included teachers, vets, writers, horse trainers, and photographers. In rare down-time these new friends showed their personal passions through the books they read, in their dedication to journaling, and creativity in water-color painting.  

You make friends fast when you are on a small plane to Nikolai! Photo Credit: J.Westrich

Before the Iditarod I couldn’t imagine having much in common with a West Point Grad, a Mongolian horse racer, or a photographer from Fairbanks. Thanks to Iditarod I received the great gift of making friends who showed me a window into lives, experiences, and passions different, yet just as valuable, as my own. And thanks to these friends I have searched for Musk Ox, driven a snowmachine, was treated to European chocolates and coffee, discovered that sea ice doesn’t taste salty, been photographed on the beach of the Bering Sea, realized that golf is a lot harder (and more fun) in Nome, and will dance with abandon every time I hear Boogie Shoes by KC and the Sunshine Band.  

Sharing the wonder of discovery with new friends at the Carrie M. McLain Museum in Nome. Photo Credit: J.Westrich

FORE! Look out for golfers on the sea ice! Photo Credit: J.Westrich

I met Tom in Anchorage before the race started, our paths crossed on the trail, and we ended up at the finish in Nome just in time to grab a selfie! Photo Credit: J.Westrich

This experience provided me with information and first-hand knowledge of the Iditarod, but more importantly it gave me the chance to meet amazing people, doing remarkable things. In this great big world each individual has a story to tell, a contribution to make; and by opening ourselves to connection we create the endless possibility of new friendships.

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Nome with good friends! Photo Credit: J.Westrich

Running into friends in the strangest places! Photo Credit: J.Westrich

Library Learnings: A Friend Like You by Frank Murphy and Charnaie Gordon is a great way to introduce the different ways to express friendship, broadening young learners’ understanding of diversity in positive, supportive relationships with peers!