School & District Management

Fire and Ice

By Sean Cavanagh — October 01, 2003 19 min read
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Ben Seymour moved to Alaska with a burning passion for Native American and Eskimo culture. He found it on the island of Little Diomede.

We were a half-hour’s plane ride off the Alaskan coast when our single-engine Cessna abandoned the open sky and began to sink into white clouds that looked like cushions but absorbed us with a series of jolts. We churned lower, and I waited, rigid and mute, for something to reappear below us—be it land, sea, or ice. Finally, the blank screen of the window flickered to life again, and in the distance, off the left wing, I could make out a craggy, trapezoidal shape emerging from the mists. I soon recognized it as our destination: the island of Little Diomede.

A few hundred feet below, the Bering Strait was still a checkerboard of ice and green-water tiles, months from a complete thaw. It was April 17, and our eight-seat aircraft was barreling into the continental seam separating North America from Siberia; I’d gone there to visit an Inupiaq Eskimo village, a 42- student school, and a white, first-year teacher who had chosen to make a speck of land, in this obscure pocket of the subarctic, his home.

After steadying beneath the clouds, the Cessna banked in a wide loop around the perimeter of the rocky landmass, and a second, equally rugged colossus, the Russian island of Big Diomede, pushed its way onto the horizon on the right. We plunged ahead, the plane’s nose pointed dead center, between the two chunks of land. My eyes adjusted enough to make out a stretch of white, smoother than the surface around it: an ice runway, perhaps two football fields long and, I hoped, at least a couple feet thick. A few minutes later, the pilot made what appeared to be an effortless touchdown, with a puzzling lack of skidding or sliding, like rubber tires stopping on summer asphalt.

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From one side of the plane, I could see a smattering of silhouettes against the hillside of the 2-square-mile island—clearly the village of Diomede, but so much smaller than I had envisioned. I tried to imagine what the young teacher must have thought when he arrived in fall 2002. Only months after graduating college, he’d spurned the established career trajectory of promising teacher-candidates in the lower 48 to join the ranks of hundreds of intrepid, adventurous, and occasionally unsuspecting recruits who take jobs in the vast rural stretches of Alaska known as the Bush. In those towns and villages, geographic isolation, cultural alienation, and survivalist living conditions very quickly test the mettle of newcomers.

Alaska has 506 public schools, 135 of which have 50 or fewer students and 100 of which have three or fewer teachers. Nearly one-quarter of the state’s students are Alaska natives, including Eskimos. Yet fewer than 5 percent of the state’s teachers are native, making the recruitment of instructors from the contiguous United States a necessity. For many first- timers, the shock is simply too great; while official estimates put teacher turnover in Alaska at 17 percent annually, comparable to the U.S. average, the yearly exodus in many rural districts ranges between 30 percent and 50 percent.

Little Diomede in the Bering Strait.

Little Diomede in the Bering Strait.
— Photo by Basil Pao, courtesy

Just trying to get to many Bush villages is enough to scare some people off. Traveling to Little Diomede, in particular, means having to ignore repeated suggestions that it’s better to stay away. One person told me she was stuck there for 13 days, due to fog; another traveler couldn’t get off the island for a month. The most practical way in and out of Diomede, from November through May, is by plane, when the frozen strait provides a runway. Helicopters head there, too, but most flights are prohibitively expensive. My journey began with an ordinary-enough plane trip from Anchorage to Nome, a one- time Gold Rush town, now the last point of entry into many of northwest Alaska’s most remote villages. But my next flight, to Little Diomede, was put off by a mix of ice, fog, and low cloud cover. “Like flying inside a milk carton,” one pilot told me. The next day, the milk carton split a bit, and James Prichard, the photographer accompanying me, and I were told Diomede was a go.

Less than an hour later, we were unloading our bags onto the frozen strait. We heard what sounded like chainsaws in the distance, and soon, three snowmobiles, driven by village residents and dragging carts behind them, appeared farther down the runway, racing toward us. We loaded the bags, climbed aboard the machines, and took off. The temperature that day was roughly 15 degrees. My driver navigated a narrow, bumpy path, swerving around jagged peaks of blue-tinted ice and plunging through pools of water. Several minutes later, we powered into the village and stopped in front of a building I was told was Diomede School.

It was a plain-looking, wide-bodied structure with a white frame and a red-tiled roof. Four feet of snow had fallen the day before our arrival, and snowbanks clung to the walls, making it difficult to guess the school’s height. On the whole, it resembled a hangar for small aircraft, or maybe a farm-equipment warehouse. I heaved open the school’s thick door and set my bags in a hallway alongside a line of cross-country skis. I soon found myself in the presence of two giggling Eskimo girls. When I asked their names, it only yielded more laughter.

“You’re white! White like my teacher!” one exclaimed. And then: “You sound like that Walton boy!”

I took this as a reference to the TV show, but I didn’t have time to find out. They scurried outside, loosing a burst of icy wind into the hallway. For some of the grades in the K-12 school, the day had ended, so the corridors were empty. I headed down a hallway decorated with student drawings, where two children told me the teacher I was looking for was in the gym. Upon opening the door, I saw an elaborate mural of a walrus, its long tusks extending past an inscription that read “Inaliq Nagguaggivakiggut,” Inupiaq for “We love Diomede.” Half a dozen elementary-age children raced across the floor, throwing a ball back and forth. Standing nearby was a lanky young man with a wisp of a moustache and straight dark hair combed to one side. He was wearing a plaid shirt and khaki pants, and though I had never seen him before, I knew this was the person I’d come to meet, Ben Seymour.

As he explained the game in progress—an Inupiaq sport called “warrior ball"—Seymour redirected the students who’d stopped to gawk at me back to the playing area. They clomped out, in their heavy boots and tennis shoes, to resume the chase.

“Their perception of white people is that they come in from outside, stay for five minutes, pat people on the head, then leave,” I remembered Seymour, 24, telling me over the phone before my trip north. “Generally, it’s people who are very disinterested in what goes on here. It’s people who don’t want to live here. I’ve told my Eskimo friends, that’s not my decision. I feel as accepted here as any outside person could be accepted here.”

In some ways, Ben Seymour seems more destined to have chosen Little Diomede than to have picked teaching for a profession. His step into the classroom can be traced to 800-student Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., where at the end of his sophomore year, after much indecision, he settled on a double major of history/political science and education. He figured that the education degree would make him employable, and that focusing on elementary education would give him the chance to work as a generalist, leading students from math to history to grammar.

For Stephen Seymour and his wife, Mary, a 6th grade teacher in their hometown of Dexter, Mich., their son’s choice of profession seemed a natural one. The family, which includes Seymour’s younger brother, has a saying: Throw Ben in a room with 20 strangers, and a half-hour later, he will have met everybody and know their stories.

“He’s just always been interested in people,” Mary Seymour says. “You can’t be a teacher and not be a people person. I think he was more surprised than I was.” His father influenced Ben in other ways. Years before, Stephen Seymour had begun tracing the family’s ancestry to Quebec, eventually discovering roots that were at least partly Indian, specifically Mohawk. Over time, Ben’s interest in Native American culture took hold.

Soon, he was given the chance to act on it. During his senior year of college, when he began scouring the Internet for a job, something about a posting he saw in Alaska’s Bering Strait school district, with its predominantly Inupiaq population, spoke to him. He sent a résumé, and a few months later, learned of an opening for a 1st and 2nd grade teacher on Little Diomede. After talking it over with his parents (who, after the initial shock, supported him) and his college adviser (who suggested he wait for a better job), Seymour signed the contract and faxed it in.

The 1,750-student Bering Strait district, like many in the Bush, woos teachers any way it can. It floods the Internet with job postings, stakes out job fairs, and keeps retired school staff members elsewhere in the United States under contract to help recruit talent. Teaching in Alaska also offers an indisputably powerful hook: good money. Beginning teachers in the state make an average of $36,294 annually, the highest figure in the country. (A rookie in Montana, by comparison, earns an average of just $22,344.)

Getting hired is one thing; proving yourself in an Eskimo school, as Seymour discovered, is something else entirely. Not long after I arrived on Little Diomede last April, he took me to his classroom, where he had to prepare a lesson plan for Opik Ahkinga, his teacher’s aide and a village native. Ahkinga was scheduled to cover for Seymour the next day while the teacher, along with a student on the ski team he coached, flew to a meet in the village of Brevig Mission.

Located on the school’s first floor, Seymour’s classroom offered a stark view of Big Diomede out its window. The Russian island—home to a military installation during the Cold War—is just 21/2 miles away, but it sits on the other side of the international dateline, 21 hours ahead of Alaskan time. Anyone gazing out the window is, literally, seeing tomorrow (hence the nickname for the school’s sports teams, the Diomede Dateliners).

Only months after graduating college, Seymour had spurned the established career trajectory of promising teacher candidates in the lower 48.

One of the classroom’s walls had a vocabulary chart, divided into English and Inupiaq: “wait” was translated as “oo-tuk-cake"; “yes” as “ee-ee"; “very good” as “norock polo"; and “thank you” as “sko-y-ana.” A few feet away, a poster listed some of the students’ favorite traditional Eskimo songs, with titles like “Rabbit,” “Seal Hunting,” and “Uncle Sam.” Diomeders have a song for just about everything, Seymour explained, and during the holidays they’re performed, along with native dances, in the school’s gym.

After watching a few of those performances, Seymour decided to join in—and he proved an enthusiastic and capable drummer, pounding on stretched canvas and coming up with his own songs during dances, using Inupiaq words and cadences. Sometimes people would stop him in the village to correct his pitch or pronunciation. When I asked one longtime Diomeder about Seymour, his first words were, “Oh, yeah! The Eskimo drummer! He sings pretty well, too.”

Gaining this sort of acceptance in native communities is rare among teachers from the lower 48, says Spike Jorgensen, who was the superintendent of the Alaska Gateway school district, a rural school system in the central part of the state, for 16 years. Too many young instructors become disdainful of their communities or mistakenly believe they can transform them. Ben Seymour is an exception.

“It’s very unusual for people [to] have a cross-cultural commitment like that,” says Jorgensen, now the executive director of a nonprofit coalition that advocates for equitable spending for all Alaska districts, including rural ones. “They’re small communities. You introduce any new person to them, it could be easy for them to wear out their welcome.”

The same rule applies in the classroom. Early on, Seymour learned to supplant textbook lessons with examples from the students’ world, like having them count whales and Russian soldiers from Big Diomede. He also learned to speak more quietly, and less often, because his Eskimo students seemed annoyed if he was overly demonstrative. “Quit talking so much!” he heard more than once.

He struggled as a disciplinarian. At first, he worried about imposing rigid rules on his students, only to lose control when he didn’t. Eventually, he adopted the policy that DeWayne Bahnsen, the school’s principal, calls “logical consequences,” in which the punishment fits the offense. After a few students refused to stop tossing “spinners” (plastic tools used for figuring out probabilities), Seymour kept them after school and had the kids chuck the spinners, again and again, until it was anything but fun. It’s an approach Seymour knew nothing about before arriving on Little Diomede. “There are whole 500-page books written on discipline, and they never mention ‘logical consequences,’ ” the teacher says.

Just after 3 p.m., when the last of the school’s students had been sent home, Seymour took me on a tour of the 146-resident village. Little Diomede is shaped like a potpie flipped upside down, with a level plane rising 1,200 feet above the sea and steep, rocky slopes falling into the water on all sides. Because Diomeders live along an inclined stretch of the western shore, many of the village’s structures are supported by wooden stilts. The village is crisscrossed by walking paths, which, on the day I was there, were clogged with snow. I often followed Seymour’s example, crawling on all fours to keep from sliding down the hill.

At one point, we walked by the general store, which stocks the limited amount of groceries that can be flown in. A young Eskimo girl passed us, carrying a doll, and then a teenage boy wearing a coat bearing a Seattle Supersonics logo. Cresting a ridge, we saw a polar bear hide, roughly 6 feet across, drying on wooden sticks. On a path below us, a 30- foot whaling boat, with walrus hide wrapped around its hull, lay upside down on a set of wooden planks.

After reaching the highest point in the village, we crept back down the slope, along a series of paths, all the way to the frozen seashore. With no houses to protect us, the winds hit us head-on, the temperature seeming to drop with each step. We had just turned back when I heard a familiar mechanical growl; soon, two snowmobiles were pulling up alongside us. Seymour recognized one of the drivers as Ron Ozenna, who was returning from a day of hunting on the ice. An athletic-looking 25-year-old with glasses, short dark hair, and a rifle strapped to his back, he smiled broadly at Seymour (whom he calls Obi-Wan, after the “Star Wars” character). Ron was wearing a parka but no hat or gloves. I shivered just looking at him.

Ozenna graduated from the Diomede School in 1997, with a class of six other people. Unlike most Diomeders, he’d spent considerable time off the island, traveling to California, Colorado, and Iowa. He even attended National Guard basic training in Fort Benning, Ga. But like many others who have left, Ozenna was drawn back. He told me he plans to stay, working as a subsistence hunter, going after walrus, seal, and polar bears and selling ivory and hides for money. Of his trips to the lower 48, he said, "[I]t’s not like home, where you can do everything.”

Anyone who hunts polar bears is going to have a few brushes with death. Ozenna recalled one instance when a bear, which he’d already shot, chased him across the frozen strait, forcing him to empty his rifle before the animal finally collapsed. “I thought I was bear food,” he recalled. Polar bears are a source of worry for all Diomeders. They prowl the ice, rummaging through the town’s garbage dump in search of food, and occasionally entering the village itself. After taking his ski team out on the ice to practice one day, Seymour was sternly warned by a villager not to head in the same direction again—polar bears were known to roam there. The villager later suggested that Seymour carry a rifle during practices. The teacher declined.

After leaving Ron, the three of us headed to Seymour’s apartment, a short walk up a flight of snow-capped steps not far from the school, and reversed the food chain with determination. Seymour pulled a polar bear steak from the freezer and cooked it while Bahnsen, his housemate and principal, made walrus stew. On an island that offers very few housing opportunities for new residents, the teacher and his boss share a place out of necessity: They are the only males on the school’s full-time academic staff of seven, all of whom happen to be non-Eskimo.

Beginning teachers in the state make $36,294 annually, the highest figure in the country.

Many white teachers in Alaska end up working in communities where residents have felt alienated from local education. Likewise, most of the parents on Diomede, Bahnsen explains, attended U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, federal institutions that for decades focused on assimilating students into white society. Family involvement in schools was not encouraged. Diomede originally was a BIA facility, offering only grades K-8 until the 1980s, when it joined the state system and began serving high school students. Yet the divide between school and family persists. Bahnsen estimates that 50 percent of students who enter 9th grade on the island do not graduate. Many Eskimo students, he says, begin to lose interest between the 6th and 8th grades, when they’re expected to begin taking on adult duties, like hunting and child care. Finishing school becomes secondary.

For the students who stick it out, teachers are necessities, and that’s where non-natives like Seymour come in—as long as they can adjust. “You have to open yourself up and wait for [community members to] take you in,” says Bahnsen, 40, who began his Alaska career as a principal two years ago in the Bering Strait village of Teller, and moved to Diomede a year later. “Pushy people won’t make it.” Seymour was a little overeager at first, the principal recalls, but eventually he learned how to use his creativity and strong personality to engage students, who, in turn, learned to trust him.

“He knows how to relate to [children],” Bahnsen says, “how to motivate them, how to get them to work.”

The next day would bring another test of those skills for the first-year teacher, in a new setting. That morning, Prichard and I joined Seymour and 10-year-old Gabe Ozenna in packing our gear onto a twin-engine plane, operated by the school district, which was scheduled to take us to a cross-country ski meet in the village of Brevig Mission. The flight, about a half-hour back east across the Bering Strait to the Alaskan mainland, was routine by the by standards of the school district, where sports events and academic programs make village-hopping by plane a necessity. Gabe, who is Ron’s cousin (the family is one of the largest on Diomede) is about 4 feet tall, with straight black hair, glasses, and round red cheeks. One of his ski teammates had quit, another wasn’t allowed to go to Brevig for disciplinary reasons; so Gabe was the only Dateliner making the trip. Wearing mittens, jeans, and boots that reached almost to his knees, he climbed into the co-pilot’s seat and stared out, as the propellers began to roar.

It took us 30 minutes to reach Brevig, located on the mainland, roughly 70 miles east of Little Diomede. A cluster of one-story, mostly blue- and gray-colored homes sat along the white sheet of the strait, framed by a line of treeless hills. At 2.6 square miles and with 307 residents, Brevig was about double the size of the village of Diomede. “It’s exciting to be in a big town!” Seymour exclaimed with a laugh, as we stood outside the front door of Brevig Mission School, which appeared to be the biggest building in the village. Bering Strait ski meets take place throughout the year, in different villages. Seymour, who grew up cross-country skiing in Michigan and volunteered to coach Diomede’s team, had already seen two of his squad’s trips canceled because of weather conditions. “Everyone’s always really surprised to see us,” he told me as we found a spot in the gym for our bags. “ ‘Oh, Diomede got out.’ You’ll hear some cracks.” By 11 a.m., the teams from Brevig, Wales, and Nome, with 35 skiers among them, had arrived, lining up their bags, boots, and skis in orderly rows against the wall of the gym.

A typical cross- country ski course winds through woods and fields, along paths, and up and down hills. But Brevig has no trees, so John Miles, a retired district employee who helps Bering Strait officials organize competitions, had laid out a circular, no-nonsense route in a wide field next to the school, its perimeter marked with orange cones and ringed by small houses. It was a cold gray day, no warmer than 15 degrees, and at 2 p.m., Miles began calling skiers of different grade levels to the starting line. Gradually they sorted themselves out, assembling in brightly colored ski jackets and pants. Soon, the first wave of racers was bursting from the starting point, their skis and poles kicking and poking wildly.

After several heats, it was finally Gabe’s turn. With a shout from Miles, the skiers were off. Gabe propelled himself off the line, pushing forward steadily, arms driving, legs kicking. But the skiers from Brevig and Wales were simply too strong, and using the smooth “skate-ski” technique that Seymour would like Gabe to master someday, they whipped around corners like slingshots. “Come on, Gabe, turn it on, buddy!” Seymour shouted.

By the time he approached the final turn, Gabe’s motor was sputtering; he crossed the finish line fourth out of five racers. His cheeks were bright red, blowing in and out like sails in the wind. “My feet hurt,” he told Seymour. But within 10 minutes, he was back inside the school, racing across the gym floor with several other students, chasing a Nerf ball, his hair matted with sweat, his glasses fogging slightly. It was also clear that his coach wasn’t too worried about whether Gabe had mastered the skate-ski or finished first, or fourth.

That night, Seymour, Gabe, Prichard, and I found space on the floor of one of the high school’s classrooms, pushing aside desks on the thin carpet. When we awoke the next day, Brevig was cloaked in fog, but it soon cleared enough to allow the district to send a plane to pick up Seymour and Gabe. Prichard and I had to be back in Anchorage soon; the risks of following teacher and student back to Diomede, and getting stuck there indefinitely, were too great.

Ben Seymour had no such reservations. He’d already told Bering Strait district officials he’d be staying at the Diomede School for another year. And apparently, even that wasn’t enough: He told me he’s considering two more years. If it weren’t for his family and friends, he says, he’d stay a lot longer. Missing them was probably the hardest thing about living on Little Diomede.

He recalled, at one point during my stay, a Christmastime trip to Anchorage, where he was stranded for three days because of bad weather. While in the city, he became reacquainted with traffic. He didn’t know anybody. The snow was dirty—not white, like back on the island.

Still, as his plane landed in Brevig, I wondered aloud whether Seymour wouldn’t rather be heading to the lower 48. “Can’t wait to get back to Diomede,” he said, grinning broadly.

Minutes later, he and Gabe were climbing through the hatch of the plane. It rolled down the runway, then lifted off and headed west into a white sky, carrying the teacher and his student home.

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