by Brendan Cooney
The graduating class had rented a hall where we feasted on lamb from south Greenland and drank the wine we’d brought and limbo-danced. Students teased teachers by announcing what celebrities they resembled. The little guy with a tendency to overdress was Boss Baby. Outside it was spring in the Arctic, the wind doing things with the snow that would lead the local news back home but here just made life miserable for those trying to smoke in huddled circles outside.
The prom queen did not show up for any of this. She was grieving her fiancé, killed in an accident at sea the week before. We all knew the story. He was working hard on a trawler so they could buy a house and start their life together after her graduation.
She did want to show up for the ritual dance with the king. I didn’t see her enter, but I heard the room fall silent. The DJ put on a slow pop song everyone liked. The king and queen moved to each other through the tables of the room. They were both striking, by local or global standards, she radiant in her gown and he tall and clean-cut in his suit. The king held her head gently against his chest as she began to cry. He muttered to her in the wind-like sounds of Kalaallisut. She cried harder.
Neither had been my student, but in a way I had been in her shoes, crying in the arms of the king a few months before, as he comforted me after the suicide of a student, his friend. Full of life, charisma, strength, humor, and venom, my seventeen-year-old student hanged himself in his bathroom with a charger cable. My mind still cannot make sense of this fact.
It was a job my wife had to convince me to take. I had observed the effects of colonialism in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and felt I had no need to see the devastation in the crystallized, psychological form I had heard existed in Greenland. I agreed to go and to take our three children—thirteen, six, and four—hoping we could insulate ourselves behind some kind of buffer.
This would not be possible, it quickly became clear, as students told me everything that they had no one else to tell. Without a qualified psychologist in town, and attending a school whose policy was to expel students for telling a counselor about suicidal ideation, they needed to talk to a stranger who could listen without judging. They also seemed drawn to me in part because I was not Danish. Having gone to grad school for anthropology and worked as an applied anthropologist in the States, I expected to learn something about life in Greenland and to use my long-greased wheels of intellectualization as a defense mechanism. I did not expect to sob in the arms of a stranger as he muttered, “I know he considered you not just a teacher but a friend.”
Now it was the queen could not stop crying. Nor could the students, who had risen from their tables to form a circle that slowly surrounded the dancing couple. I tried to hold back for a while then could not. I glanced self-consciously at the stone-faced teachers around me. Why weren’t they crying? Didn’t they know the story? (My wife says they knew, and that she wanted to cry but it felt voyeuristic to participate in their grief.)
I thought of the queen’s fiancé, how he had met his end on a new job on the factory shrimp trawler. There had been another death at sea a year before that was reported as a fishing accident, though it was suspected the guy jumped. But this case, it turned out, really was an accident. Later, I would talk to a seaman in the know who described how a shrimp-storage machine in the hold had closed over the man like a giant clam. He blamed the boss for letting a rookie go down there alone: you always go in pairs, so that one can have his finger on the emergency stop button.
I was surprised it wasn’t a suicide. Our town was in the midst of a suicide epidemic, about one per month. There was a guy fifty meters from our house who returned from a reindeer hunt and shot himself in the head while FaceTiming with a friend, in front of his little sister who had come to his door to ask what he was doing. It was mostly young men, but also an older woman who was a teacher, who hanged herself outside her house.
I scoured the anthropological literature to find a comparable per capita suicide figure in the world and could not. But accidents happen, too, even in the suicide capital of the world. A student’s father was crushed by trash at the town’s ever-expanding dump. All the deaths accrue in your mind, even when you don’t know the person and only see the grief on the faces of the ones you care about.
I know the deaths accrued in the mind of our boss, as well. He had been there over a decade. After my student’s suicide, he said, “This place is so beautiful from above, when you’re flying into it, but once you get on the ground it’s a different story.” Maybe it was a line he had used before, but I appreciated his compassion. It was probably the closest I felt to him.
Somehow the king did not cry, as he continued to hold the queen’s head and whisper to her. The only white person besides me who was crying was our boss. He was sitting on a chair almost in the middle of the dance floor, sobbing convulsively. He had shown up drunk halfway through dinner and polished off another bottle he’d brought. I remembered that his Greenlandic wife was related to the dead man, so there had been some mourning in his household.
“He looks like a gorilla in a cage,” said a colleague, who went over to comfort him by rubbing his back. My wife joined her in consoling him. He responded by placing his hand on the inside of her thigh.
The queen left shortly after the dance, but not before the boss comforted her in a hug that included his hand roaming over her ass, right in front of everyone. “Isn’t his hand a little low?” one stunned colleague asked another.
There are two things hard to convey about Greenland to someone who’s never lived there: the dominance of the landscape and the nihilism in the human spirit. These two only joined after colonialism. In a land so large, where the human presence is so small, you are confronted with this question every time you look outside: how can I be significant? Nothing matters.
Yet before colonialism, because survival depended on hunting and the weather, everything mattered all the time. There was no outside and inside. You were the elements and the animals. Your effort determined whether you lived or died. The hunting economy prevailed until recently. In the span of a generation or two, people have gone from “everything matters” to “nothing matters.” Two photos in a history textbook we used at the school juxtapose a father and son. The father has a muscled chest scarred with marks from a polar bear attack. The son has a mod hairdo and was a singer with the band Sumé, legendary on the island for its 1973 album featuring a drawing of an Inuit hunter standing over the Dane he has harpooned.
Because the effects of 300 years of Danish colonialism are too large to get one’s head around, one focuses on smaller things. In the teachers’ lounge at school, I would often hear Danes talking about the good things they brought to Greenland, which called to mind Brits in India talking railroads, and about how Greenland could not survive without Danish skills. Denmark gives Greenland an annual grant of about seven hundred million dollars, so what’s there to feel guilty about?
The nihilism bleeds into the visitors, as well. It trickles into teachers and administrators, who shrug and assume they can do whatever they want with the locals, because nothing matters. There are no rules. No one says anything or does anything about it.
One person who did say something was another girl at the dance. At a bar the year before, she, too, had had her ass grabbed by our principal. Instead of keeping quiet, she told her mentor about it. The mentor talked to a colleague, wondering what to do, fearing the wrath of our boss, and ultimately did nothing.
I looked at this girl at the party. She didn’t look happy, sitting two tables away from the guy who just couldn’t help himself. I thought of the question of whether I would send my daughter to this school and came up with two answers: no, I would never send her to that school; and yes, if there were no better options, I would, but with the warning: whatever happens, do not go near the headmaster. What kind of a question is that to have to ask?
One May morning a week after the dance, I was walking across town with my five-year-old son. One of my favorite things to do in town was to simply walk across town. Not along the roads choked with car exhaust but the shortcuts. There’s not the same sense of private property in Greenland as in Europe, so in the warmer months the land is lined with well-trodden paths like Inuit tattoos, cutting through what we Qallunaat (whites) would think of as people’s yards.
Today there was an actual game on the soccer field, two teams in uniform and referees with whistles. I spotted the prom queen watching on the cliff with some friends. I took a chance with my son and told him to watch the game for a minute while I scampered up the cliff to introduce myself to the queen.
“I know we haven’t met,” I said, “but I’m a teacher here.”
“Sure, I’ve seen you around.”
“My condolences on your boyfriend.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“After the dance, did our boss grab your ass?” One thing I have in common with the natives, in contrast to the Danes, is a capacity for directness. We tease each other, to the discomfort of the Danes. We don’t filter our language. They tell me dirty jokes and I share embarrassing stories.
But the queen was serious. “Yes, he did. At first, I was like, ‘Is this really happening?’ But it was. He did do that. But I’ve been too busy thinking about my boyfriend to think about anything else.”
“I know it’s no consolation, but I guess you’re not the only one. Even in your class.”
“Oh, you mean Pannissaq?”
“That’s true. For her, I think it was just important someone believed her.”
I offered my condolences again and descended the cliff to my son. Instead of looking at the soccer match, he was watching a harlequin duck churn past a plastic Coke bottle in a puddle of snowmelt. It reminded me of the first little mountain he and I had climbed, nearly two years before, when I tried to show him a whale breaching the water below. I thought he’d be thrilled. I was happy to have one of those magic nature moments that might justify the violence of having uprooted him from his comfortable Danish existence. But he couldn’t stop looking at the cookie I had handed him. He looked up, but the whale was gone. The whale breached again and I said, “Look!” But he was looking down again, staring at what was left of the cookie.
It was no surprise that our boss did not get a lot of sympathy at the dance. Things had been building. His trusted sidekick had been accused of molesting a fourteen-year-old, and he had been fulminating against the staff for indulging in gossip. One Friday afternoon a couple weeks before the dance, he had called a special staff meeting. I dreaded all meetings for the way they made me feel shot back to colonial times, the Greenlandic colleagues sitting quietly and struggling to keep up with the loud and loquacious Danes, but I suspected this meeting would be unique.
After teaching, I had to pick up our kids and install them in the teacher’s lounge, hoping they wouldn’t break the fancy fish tank, so I was a little late. I opened the classroom door to the sounds of our headmaster berating the staff for rumor-mongering. He kept things vague, so the four Greenlandic teachers, largely cut off socially from the twenty Danish teachers, had no idea why he was thundering, “I am the only one here who has the power to hire and fire. Me and only me!”
He closed the meeting by instructing us that we would all be at “the factory,” as he called the school, from eight to four the next week, whether or not we were teaching. We would eat lunch together in the cafeteria, with sandwiches and drinks provided by the school, in some thinly veiled quest to monitor our conversations. It was a degree of bullying that my wife and I were not comfortable with. After an agonizing decision-making process, full of love for our students but disgust at the leadership, we tendered our resignations.
It had been a tough place to teach. Students had no idea what they were doing in school. They only lit up when talking about sex or hunting or shoes. Tasks such as the six-to-eight-page paper they were supposed to produce for their second-year project were monumental.
Teachers, too, often wondered what they were doing there. I remember sitting with the students, watching a colleague present the assignment for the second-years: six to eight pages on one of three cultural or historical subjects. Students groaned. My student Kevin’s head thunked to the table, as he declared he was dropping out of school. It wasn’t just the impossibility of writing that much, he said, but the fact of a friend’s suicide three days before. “It’s my fourth friend,” he said.
I was most curious about the students who picked as their topic G-50, the modernization plan Danes had imposed on the island in the 1950s. How would they interpret it? No one knew how to get started, so we teachers tried to break ideas down and show them how to find evidence in the two or three history books scattered on the tables. A Danish colleague was saying that, while of course there was some bad stuff that happened, look at all the good things that happened: new hospitals, housing developments. Look at this graph showing how the rate of tuberculosis dropped.
The student beside me, a stolid young East Greenlandic woman, asked me, “Were there sexually transmitted diseases here before the Danes came?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “I think it was one of their gifts.”
“Fucking Danes!” she said.
Browsing through the history book on the table, a couple of images leapt out at me. One was the picture of Hans Egede, who arrived on Greenlandic shores in 1721, whipping a shaman. The other picture that mesmerized me was a huge apartment block in Nuuk, which the book said was home to one-fifth of the entire Greenlandic population.
I kept staring at this building, wondering what it must do to a people’s psychology to move from living with a bunch of relatives in a house they made themselves of turf and stone into a building of tight concrete units of strangers. People living alone and yet up against each other, watching television in rooms warmed by heat they do not make themselves. A culture forced off the land into this slab of concrete, everyone jammed together after a couple thousand years of living off the land. Impossible, really, to get one’s mind around it.
I looked around, feeling as dazed as everyone around me looked. They checked their phones, laughed at memes, texted with friends. I thought about trying to convince Kevin, twenty-four, to stay in school. “I just came here because my teachers at my last school said, ‘Go to high school, go to high school.’ But what is this? It’s such a waste of time. Sitting here, writing writing writing. It’s too beautiful!”
This guy was the most gifted storyteller at the school. Every time he told a story, I had no idea what he was saying in Greenlandic but people would gather around him, hanging on every impersonation and sound, and soon the room would be exploding in laughter.
He loved telling stories, but he hated writing. I would just watch him, marveling at how he encapsulated the gap between written and oral cultures and how we the teaching guests were trying to close the gap in such a short span. But he didn’t always hate writing. One time I saw him enjoy it.
It was when I made him write about the time his father was hunting and saw a qivittoq standing on a ridge, his matted hair flowing in the wind. All the students were writing stories they had heard about qivittoq, these mystical creatures who were driven away from society by shame and accrued supernatural powers. But no one was as engaged as Kevin.
He had pulled his baseball hat low over his face as he hovered over the page. He ignored all the friends coming up to talk to him. He did not leave the room during lunch break, as everyone else filed off to the cafeteria or the Brugseneeraq across the street. He paused only to ask me the word for silhouette. He wanted to get the story just right.
It was one of the most beautiful things I saw in Greenland. A student who hated the classroom suddenly lost in his own world of learning, left alone.
Published on February 24, 2022