1. What are your grade school memories?
  2. What was your school building like?
  3. Who were your favorite friends?
  4. Did you wear anything specific to school?
  5. Have you revisited any of your schools?

 Flying from Fairbanks to Tanana

Flying from Fairbanks to Tanana

On May 2, 2013, I flew out of Fairbanks, Alaska to visit the school I’d attended in third grade — When my father had been the Public Health Service physician at the hospital.  An hour and 20 minutes later the Piper Navajo touched down at Tanana, an Athabascan Indian village along the still-frozen, mile-wide Yukon River. The road to the school was a mix of semi-frozen mud, icy snow, and puddles with a light glaze of frost. I was glad for my tall rubber boots.

Front Street in Tanana, looking forward the school

Front Street in Tanana, looking toward the school

My purpose was to show slides to the students and share the history of their school; and, I was curious to see how the school facility had weathered over time – and what memories would be evoked by walking the hall again.

To get the students’ attention, I pulled out the moose skin and rabbit-trimmed mittens, and the moose skin mukluks, I’d worn as a little girl in the village. I held up my book, From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra, which showed our family picture with me wearing those items.

Wearing my mukluks and mittens for our Christmas picture in Tanana

Wearing my mukluks and mittens for our Christmas picture in Tanana

 

They were hooked. I jumped in with questions. Their hands waved with answers and their eyes twinkled with fun.

My childhood mukluks and mittens

My childhood mukluks and mittens

“How many people live in Tanana today?  After a group discussed reply, they agreed: Either 206 or 207.

“Before this school was built, where was school held?”

No one raised a hand.

I replied, “Quonset huts, or shelter wells as some people called them, with oil stoves and with electricity strung from the hospital generator.  No plumbing, no windows. Can you imagine trying to hang a writing board on a round wall? Or put a bookshelf against a curved partition?”

School in Quonsets in Tanana

School in Quonsets in Tanana

The children laughed. The teachers shook their heads and grimaced.

“Do you know who this school was named for?” I asked.

Not a hand shot up. The adults nudged one another and whispered.

“Maudry Sommers. Her children were my classmates. I thought her son, Chris, was the cutest little boy I’d ever seen: curly red hair, freckles, and brown eyes – they were the only red-haired Athabascans on the Yukon River.

Maudry SommerSchool

Maudry SommerSchool

The girls giggled. The boys grunted.

“I saw Chris, downriver, at Galena, last year. At one time, he was the chief.”

The time flew by. I learned from their responses as much as I taught them.

I concluded by saying, “You can read about school back then, in ‘A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory.

Marie Sommers is the girl on the far left

Marie Sommers is the girl on the far left

The younger students wanted to try on the mittens and touch the mukluks. The adults examined the handwork and stitching. The older girls thumbed through my books. I passed out bookmarks. The librarian purchased all four titles.

Mukluks and mittens are a part of my school memories, along with outhouses, insulation drifting down in the Quonsets, wearing corduroy elastic-waist slacks beneath my dresses, and snacking on government school subsidies of powdered milk mixed with snow, tomato juice, and sharp cheddar cheese.

Student art in the hallway of the Tanana School

Student art in the hallway of the Tanana School

(Tanana is the location of the reality TV show, “Yukon Men.” I learned from the villagers that the show is not much about reality, but mostly conjured up drama.)

This article was first-published in the August/September 2013 issue of “The Country Register (KS)”  http://www.countryregister.com/crpublishers/kansas/pdfs/AS-13paperweb.pdf

 

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