Cold Comfort

By Sean Cavanagh — September 01, 2003 27 min read
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First-year teacher Ben Seymour finds the Alaskan island of Little Diomede a remote, sparse, yet hospitable place to work.

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.

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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.

From one side of the plane, I could see a smattering of silhouettes against the hillside of the two-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 25 percent 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.

Just trying to get to many Bush villages is enough to scare off some people. 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; the worst layover I heard about lasted 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 the flights are prohibitively expensive. My journey began with an ordinary-enough flight from Anchorage to Nome, once a Gold Rush town and now the last point of entry for many Bush villagers in northwest Alaska. But the flight to Little Diomede was delayed for a day 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.

Not long after landing on the ice and unloading our bags, we heard what sounded like chainsaws in the distance. Soon three snowmobiles, driven by village residents and dragging carts, 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 Fahrenheit. I’d been warned about frostbite on the ride in, and the cold raked my cheeks. 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.

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

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 plant. As Prichard unloaded his camera gear, I heaved open the school’s heavy 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. I asked their names, but this 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 because 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, and I couldn’t find the main office. I headed down a hallway decorated with student drawings, then came across two kids who told me the teacher I was looking for was in the gym. After they directed me there, I opened the door and 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 Seymour explained the game in progress—an Inupiaq sport called “warrior ball"—he 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 telling me over the phone prior to 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.”

If Seymour’s journey to Alaska sounds like destiny, his choice of teaching was equal parts happenstance and family influence. While a student at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, an 800-student institution he affectionately calls a “little hippie school,” he developed a reputation as an extrovert. Through his work as a cartoonist for the school newspaper (one-fifth of his sketches, he estimates, were aimed at lampooning the college’s president), he also became something of an iconoclast. But by the end of his sophomore year, he still hadn’t chosen a major. Eventually, he decided on both history/political science and education, figuring the education degree would make him employable. And focusing on elementary ed, specifically, gave 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, Michigan, 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 says. “You can’t be a teacher and not be a people person. I think he was more surprised than I was.”

As for Seymour’s trek north, his father was the influence. When Ben was a teen, Stephen traced the family’s roots to Quebec, discovering that the Seymours were at least part Indian, specifically Mohawk. Over the next few years, the family made road trips to tribal gatherings and historic sites across the United States and Canada. When Ben began scouring the Internet for a job, something about a posting he saw for the Bering Strait School District, and its predominantly Inupiaq population, spoke to him. He sent a résumé, along with an application, and a few months later, the word came: There was an opening for a 1st and 2nd grade teacher on Little Diomede. After a few days of talking with his parents (who, after the initial shock, supported the move) and his college adviser (who suggested he wait for a better job), Seymour signed the contract and faxed it in.

“I’ve always, always been interested in native education,” he told me. “And I’m a hopeless romantic about Native American issues. There’s nothing more wholesome than living off the land. I really liked that connection with the natural world—the emphasis they placed on humor and natural life.”

Another person who wasn’t surprised by Seymour’s decision was Jessica Staton, his girlfriend of two years. She’d grown accustomed to expecting the unusual from him. “Loud,” was her initial impression of him when she heard his throaty voice belting out a song in their dorm at Warren Wilson. After they started dating, she says, “It was kind of like I got ran over by a train.” Since he’s moved to Little Diomede, Seymour and Staton have continued to see each other. She worked this past summer at a national park in Maine, and she’s OK with him spending a second year on the island. But after that, she wants him closer.

By the end of my visit, however, I’d learned that Seymour wasn’t sure if he could accommodate that request.

The Bering Strait School 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 some retired school staff in the lower 48 under contract to help recruit talent. Teaching in Alaska also offers an indisputably powerful hook: good money. Beginning teachers in the state make $36,294 annually, the highest figure in the country. (A rookie in Montana, by comparison, earns just $22,344.)

‘I’ve always, always been interested in native education. ... And I’m a hopeless romantic about Native American issues.’

Ben Seymour

When Bering Strait officials spot a candidate they like, it’s an aggressive courtship. During my flight to Nome, I met Keith Doroff, who was returning to his job as a 2nd grade teacher in Gambell, a native village of 649 people on St. Lawrence Island, about 150 miles south of Little Diomede. He’d met the district’s staff at a job fair in Anchorage a year earlier. Not long after trading questions with them, Doroff, who’s from Minnesota, was presented with a contract. “Any more questions?” he was asked. “I had a lot of questions,” Doroff recalled, with a laugh. After a few days of thinking it over, he was ready to sign. But superintendent John Davis, mindful of previous hires who’d backed out at the last minute, had a final question of his own: “Are you a man of your word?” Doroff assured Davis he was, and Gambell’s school had a new staff member.

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, 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. She would be covering for him the next day because Seymour, who coaches the cross-country ski team, and a student were scheduled to fly to a meet in Brevig Mission.

His classroom was on the school’s first floor, where a window in one corner offered a stark view of Big Diomede. The Russian island—home to a military installation during the Cold War—is just two and a half 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). On one of the classroom’s walls was 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.

Seymour quickly discovered that he’s not much of a dancer. But after observing a few performances, he proved an enthusiastic and capable drummer, pounding on stretched canvas as he sang his own songs during dances, using Inupiaq words and cadences. He practiced as often as he could, and people would stop him in the village to correct his pitch or pronunciation. If you’re lonely, some villagers told him, sing and you’ll feel better. 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, according to Spike Jorgensen, who was superintendent of the Alaska Gateway School District for 16 years. Too many young instructors quickly 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, who is now executive director of a nonprofit coalition that advocates for equitable spending in all Alaska school 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. The extrovert 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 especially as a disciplinarian. At first, he worried about imposing a rigid set of rules on the kids, but he often lost control of the class. 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 what Seymour calls “spinners” (plastic tools used for figuring out probabilities), he kept them after school and had the kids chuck them, again and again, until it was anything but fun. It’s an approach Seymour knew nothing about before arriving on Little Diomede. “You would never do [that] in an all-white school,” he said. “There are whole 500-page books written on discipline, and they never mention ‘logical consequences.’”

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 the flat part 1,200 feet above sea level and steep, rocky slopes falling into the water on all sides. Because Diomeders live along a steep 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 Ben’s example, crawling on all fours to keep from sliding down the hill.

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

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 six 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.

We made our way south, to the box-shaped house that belongs to Louis Ozenna, who, at 80, is one of the village elders. In the Inupiaq as well as most other Alaskan native cultures, the elderly enjoy privileged status. Ozenna, a gray-haired man with a crew cut, a raspy voice, and weathered skin, greeted Ben with a smile. After they exchanged a story or two, they took part in a centuries-old Diomede tradition: the trade. Seymour gave Ozenna a handful of DVDs he’d had flown in and, in return, was given an ivory carving, about an inch long, of two polar bears.

We moved on, weaving down the hill from the top of the village to the frozen shore. With no houses nearby, 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, Louis’ grandson, who was returning from a day of hunting on the ice. An athletic-looking 25-year-old with glasses and short dark hair, he smiled broadly at Seymour (whom, I later discovered, 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. A rifle was strapped to his back.

Ozenna graduated from the Diomede School in 1997, with a class of six other people. Unlike most Diomeders, he’s spent considerable time off the island, making road trips to see friends and relatives in California, Colorado, and Iowa. He even attended basic training for the National Guard in Fort Benning, Georgia. But like many others who’ve left, Ozenna was drawn back. When I talked to him later, he told me he’d be staying, working as a subsistence hunter, going after walrus, seal, and polar bears and selling ivory and hides for money. “It was all right at first,” Ozenna said of his trips to the lower 48. “But it’s not like home, where you can do everything.”

Anyone who hunts polar bears is going to have a few brushes with death. Ozenna told me that one 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 enter 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 talking to Ron, Seymour and I went to his 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 his housemate, Principal Bahnsen, 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 benon-Eskimo.

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.

Like Bahnsen, an Iowa native in his second year as a principal in Alaska, many white teachers work in communities whose residents, traditionally, have felt alienated from their schools. Most of the parents of today’s students, Bahnsen explained, attended Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, federally funded and operated institutions that focused, for decades, on assimilating their charges into mainstream white society. So 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. But the divide between school and family still exists. Bahnsen estimated that 50 percent of those who’d entered 9th grade in fall 2002 would not graduate. Many Eskimo students, he explained, begin to lose interest between 6th and 8th grades, when they’re old enough to take on adult duties, like hunting and child care, at home. Finishing school becomes secondary.

For those who do stay, teachers are necessities, and that’s where nonnatives like Seymour come in—so long as they can adjust. “You have to open yourself up and wait for [community members to] take you in,” the principal said. “Pushy people won’t make it.” Seymour was a little overeager at first, but “once he calmed down a bit, he was well-accepted,” Bahnsen recalled. In fact, Seymour learned how to use his creativity and extroverted nature as tools for engaging his students, who, in turn, learned to trust him. “He knows how to relate to [children],” the principal said, “how to motivate them, how to get them to work.”

Later that night, after Seymour and I had shot baskets in the school gym and everyone else had gone to bed, I unraveled my sleeping bag and found a spot on the living room rug. It was past 11 p.m., but light was still streaming through the window. Some new hires in the Bering Strait say the endless sun of northern Alaska’s spring and summer seasons torments them even more than the 20 hours of darkness in winter. I jostled and stirred, feeling the urge to turn something off, before finally giving up, rising to my feet, and staring out at the ice. There was a faint rumble in the distance that sounded like snowmobiles, and I looked for Ron Ozenna. And though the night was clear, I couldn’t help wondering whether we’d make it off the island the next day for the ski meet in Brevig Mission. A rainbow around the sun means snow is on the way, Seymour had told me; a southwesterly wind foretells a storm. These were the sorts of meteorological details he’d picked up from villagers and, like them, had trained himself not to worry about. As the sun dropped far behind Big Diomede, bathing its bleached, rocky mass in a deep- blue glow, I told myself to think like a Diomeder, too.

There were no rainbows or southwesterly winds the next morning, so at 10 a.m., Seymour, Prichard, and I, along with 10-year-old Gabe Ozenna (Ron’s cousin; the family is one of the biggest on the island), loaded our bags onto a twin- engine plane operated by the school district. Gabe, at about 4 feettall, had straight black hair, glasses, and round red cheeks. Wearing mittens, jeans, and boots that reached almost to his knees, he climbed into the co-pilot’s seat and stared at the propellers as they began to roar. Originally the ski team had three members, but one had quit and another wasn’t allowed to make the Brevig trip for disciplinary reasons. Gabe was the only Diomede Dateliner on board.

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. As modest as Brevig seemed, at 2.6 square miles and with 307 residents, it dwarfs 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 between them, had arrived, lining up their bags, boots, and skis in orderly rows against the wall of the gym.

Many white teachers work in communities whose residents, traditionally, have felt alienated from their schools.

Gabe didn’t seem to need much help getting ready for his race. Seymour offered him encouragement at times, but mostly stayed out of the way. My presence probably hindered his efforts. The student avoided making conversation, and eye contact, with me during the trip, and if Seymour was trying to get him to pay attention to one-on-one instruction, having a stranger around may have hurt his chances. Yet when he offered advice, Gabe followed it. And the teacher and his student obviously shared a rapport, even though Gabe responded to most of Seymour’s questions with a quick yes or no. When the coach said they’d be back to the mainland for a ski meet at White Mountain next year, Gabe whispered, “It’ll cancel.” Don’t worry, that won’t happen, he was told. “It will, it will, it will!” Gabe responded playfully.

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, maybe 15 degrees Fahrenheit, 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 someday master, 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 within10 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.

By 7 p.m., hours after the meet had ended, the crowd of skiers, coaches, and other adults (most from Brevig, almost all of them Eskimo) had grown larger. Word had spread, evidently, that there was going to be an Eskimo dance. For Alaskan natives, dance is a celebration and a form of entertainment, a chance to tell the stories of a village’s past. Tonight was Brevig’s turn, and youngsters from the town began gathering on the gym floor, where they sat in lines on folding chairs. Some were so young their feet barely reached the floor; others were teenagers. The bleachers began to fill with children and parents, most of them mothers with straight black hair and coffee-colored skin reddened by the cold. Gabe bounded alongside some of the students he’d met as Seymour settled into a seat not too far from me.

There was no introduction. The shouts of students and the voices of adults suddenly faded as a steady pounding filled the gym. It came from two men who were sitting in folding chairs and hammering drums. The sound echoed off walls and floor like musket shots, reverberating through my still-cold toes. The male dancers—clad in jeans, sweatshirts, and high-tops—rose from their chairs, slowly bending their knees and stomping their feet as they jerked their heads from side to side. The girls, meanwhile, made pushing motions with their hands, first above their heads, then to one side, then another. The boys occasionally lightened their steps, then—thwap!—slammed their feet down again, in sync with the drumbeat. Now and then, the younger dancers would fall behind by a half-step or so, follow the older ones’ movements, and catch up.

While the drummers played, they also sang, in high, wavering voices. Each song was a few minutes long, and between them, the audience applauded with respectful restraint. The boys sat out one dance, then the girls rested during another. When the males stood up again, they pounded the floor with their feet for the walrus dance, shouting “Hoo-hoo-hoo!” in imitation of the animal. Later, they made sharp, thrusting motions with one arm, as if throwing a spear. At one point, they performed what I recognized as “The Silly Dance” from a description Seymour had given me earlier. Three boys stood, contorted their faces, stuck out their tongues, and bobbed their heads. A minute later, they turned their backs to the audience, stomped, and slid their feet.

Most teachers who leave jobs in the Bering Strait district end up leaving Alaska altogether. Not Seymour, evidently.

Gabe watched all of this quietly while sipping from a 20-ounce Pepsi bottle. I didn’t say anything to Seymour because I didn’t want to interrupt the performance for him. A day earlier, in his classroom, he’d sung, in his deep, throaty voice, parts of a song he’d been composing. There are some Inupiaq sounds, he told me, that his voice box could not generate enough power to make; still, it was a thrill knowing that some villagers considered his efforts passable. “They thought all white people sounded like Bob Dylan,” he explained with a chuckle. And now, as he watched the performance, I wondered whether he was revising that song in his head.

Half an hour into the event, the boys and girls began a final, pounding revelry, the males moving as if on pogo sticks. At the end of the dance, there was more applause, and the students lingered, congratulating each other like basketball players after a big game. An Eskimo woman who’d been sitting on the bleachers in front of me, and who apparently was not able to speak, gestured toward my note pad. “My son’s name is Travis, who dances really silly,” she wrote, pointing to her 13- year-old. “He’s the best one,” I wrote back, and I meant it, remembering his clever gyrations. Then she and the other parents slowly filtered out the door and back to their homes in the still-bright evening.

The out-of-towners weren’t so lucky. We spent that night sleeping on the floor of one of the high school’s classrooms, pushing aside desks and finding space on the thin carpet. When we awoke the next day, a fog blanketed Brevig, 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 Little Diomede, and being stuck there for a while, were too great. Plus, as we waited for the planes to arrive, I had to admit that I looked forward to getting back to a relatively big city, with its hotels, restaurants, and rental cars.

Seymour, for his part, had already told the Bering Strait district that he’d teach at the Diomede School for at least one more year. He told me he’s considering two more years. He’d stay even longer, if it weren’t for his parents and his girlfriend; missing them is probably the hardest thing about living on Little Diomede. Most teachers who leave jobs in the Bering Strait district end up leaving Alaska altogether, Davis, the system’s superintendent, tells me. “They’ve had their adventure,” he says.

Not Seymour, evidently. 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 reexperienced 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, if Seymour wouldn’t rather be heading to the lower 48. Grinning broadly, he said, “Can’t wait to get back to Diomede.” Minutes later, he was climbing, along with Gabe, 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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