Book review: Riveting memoir reveals lifetime of lessons from teacher’s time in Alaska village

When I finished reading “Teaching in the Dark” by Genét Simone, I felt as if I had just spent months living in the remote village of Shishmaref, right along with her. That’s how thoroughly entrancing the author’s writing is. I could completely envision the Alaska village, the scenery, the weather, the culture, her experiences, and her thoughts and feelings. What a totally immersive experience it was.

More than 30 years ago, Genét was a 23-year-old college graduate with a teaching degree in hand but no teaching experience (apart from her few months of student teaching) and in need of a job. When the opportunity arose to take a teaching job in Alaska, it seemed like a great adventure. But she didn’t know exactly what she had signed up for.

Shishmaref is on a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea, just north of the Bering Strait and 5 miles from the mainland. When Genét accepted the job, she didn’t even know Shishmaref was on an island until the bush plane she was on came in for a landing over a “misshapen lima bean” sitting in the ocean. Her sense of isolation began creeping in almost immediately.

Genét’s story has so many levels to it: the experience of being a first-year teacher, total culture shock, actual physical survival and personal growth. This book interested me from the start because I was a teacher myself for 7 years and I also have a fascination with Alaska. Anyone who has ever faced a personal challenge or has an interest in reading a poignant memoir about learning life’s most important lessons will love it.

Despite all the classes Genét took to get her teaching degree, there was little to no training in classroom management, discipline, how to relate to her students or the emotional side of teaching. As Genét says, no classes or professors offered “assignments to help me get to know myself as a teacher, must less as a young female teaching kids only a few years younger than I was.”

Genét did a great job of describing her insecurities and challenges. She often questioned her ability to teach and whether teaching was really the career for her (spoiler: Genét is still a teacher). She started her teaching adventure with excitement, anticipation and hope for what lay ahead, which quickly changed to dread. As she said, “This was typical of me, being caught unawares, leaping before I looked. And this time, I had leaped big time.”

Genét questioned what she could possibly teach in Shishmaref that would matter in the long run. “I would never truly understand my students’ lives. I would always be looking through the lens of my own experience. My own kaleidoscope.”


Genét’s description of her time in Shishmaref includes such unique experiences as skinning seals, using a honey bucket, spring reindeer herding, eating Eskimo “ice cream” and more.

Her language truly brings the landscape and culture to life: “Vapor from everyone’s breath escaped from our cluster of tunnel-vison hoods and mingled in ethereal conversation”; “The sun peeked at us from the eastern horizon, then slipped out of sight as if it had better places to go.”

This was a life-changing journey that Genét found herself on and we are along for the ride. At the end of the school year, she faces the agonizing decision of whether to stay or to go home. I’ll let you read the book to find out what she decides, but one thing she learned is that “teaching was about connection … not writing, not reading, not tests. Just a meeting of hearts.”

That’s a lot for a teacher to learn in her first year and a valuable lesson to take along with her throughout her career.