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Alaska Life

Classroom magic in Point Hope

  • Author: Seth Kantner
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 24, 2016

POINT HOPE — Descending into this North Slope community on the Ravn morning mail plane, I'm pressed against the window, excited and nervous — excited to spend time in this town of 700, nervous because I don't spend much time around people, or schools, and I'll be here all week teaching the hardest thing I know how to do: write.

Ahead, the gray water of the Chukchi Sea stretches west into the distance. So much open water at this time of year — instead of ice — is disconcerting and disorienting. Below, the land is flat, white and gray, with a square community laid out in an obviously planned grid. A surreal feeling comes over me, as if I'm not at home in the Arctic anymore, but coming in for a landing at an outpost on Mars. The exposed gravel of the broad spit adds to the effect, showing giant, faint, curved furrows in the land, as if extinct aliens once plowed unknown fields here. It takes me a second to recognize the low beach ridges of this famous point.

On the airstrip, instead of snowgos, trucks and a bus meet the plane. The air is warm — above zero — sunny and calm. To the northeast across jumbled shore ice, beautiful blue cliffs are doubled in the distance by mirage. Closer, nearby, a cemetery is fenced with whale rib bones.

A school maintenance man gives me a ride to town. We roll up in front of the teacher's trailer where I'll be staying. Yellow piss and dark dog turds are frozen to the snowdrifts. A husky on a long chain stands guard on the steps. I force myself to step out confidently.

Cautiously, I convince the dog I don't bite. She's wary, and doesn't completely convince me that she doesn't. Inside, a guitar and banjo lean beside the couch; books are everywhere. I stash my sheefish and musk ox meat and then break my own rules: I take time to make coffee, eat some dried caribou. Then I start across the snow.

On the metal steps, I exhale. I have a phobia: schools. I think they will forever remind me of getting jeered, bullied, beat up. Let me think: Do I have one fond memory from my seven months attending public high school? No, I do not. Two little girls open the door for me. I tell them their shoes are pretty. They giggle.

Inside, I smile, ask directions and turn down a hallway, then another. Open doors show classes in session. I keep walking. I know I can do this. Actually, I don't, but I know I can try.

Class is ending. Long tables are arranged in a large square leaving the center of the room empty, inaccessible. Hundreds of young adult books are heaped on shelves. Students stuff laptops into a rolling cabinet and hand in papers. They are all Native; the teacher is white, with brown hair and a long full beard. He's seated, conversing with students. He's wiry and young, smiling like he's chatting with friends — not like a teacher in a northern village high school.

"Harlow! Your author," a girl says. He glances up, gestures to a desk where I can put my pack. It's been five months since this guy, William Harlow, first emailed me about coming to Point Hope. I've been curious to know what his students are writing.

The Day the Ice Shook Under Us. Clifford Frankson

I was on my brother's crew we were out on the ice like any other day. My Brother and his friends are joking around and talking about the old days. My nephews are playing in the snow and drinking soda. Our runner for food came back with a box ... Suddenly we all felt the ice shake under us, a moment of silence. Three shots rang out across the silent air. I look at my Brother and I was told pack up, less than five minutes we would be on icebergs floating away …

Something about the voice, changes in tense and the way he capitalized Brother makes me smile. Mr. Harlow grins. "Good, isn't it? Not all of them are that far along," he cautions.

Eighth-grade students file in. A girl begins transcribing words onto the corner of the blackboard. Kids roam the room, sharpening pencils, playing with their iPhones. I pace, waiting until she's done, and stepping up to glance at what she wrote.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know NOTHING about. Be kind. Always. — Unknown.

My thoughts spin in disarray as I attempt to introduce myself. Why isn't that written on every blackboard in America? I wonder. What kind of school is this? I glance at Harlow. He shrugs, murmurs, "Cool, huh? I never suspected they'd argue over who gets to write a quote each week."

Suddenly I have an idea and have the kids guess where I'm from. Instantly I recall they've been reading my books, but I go with it anyway. Sure enough, they guess Colorado, Oregon, Anchorage, Florida. (I cringe at Florida; Florida is where I spent seven months in high school.) On the screen I click to one of my photos of the coast, 25 miles south. "Cape Thompson!" the class responds.

I'm impressed. These kids get out in the country — not the norm in many villages. I tell them my dad lived there before I was born. They're listening. I show a picture of our old sod igloo, and explain that as a kid I just wanted to hunt, trap and run my dogs. I interrupt myself, admitting what I wanted to be when I grew up: "Eskimo. Six foot tall. A guitar player. Didn't get even one."

Boys and girls ask questions. I interrupt myself again. "Why would anyone want to learn how to write? Who here hates writing, raise your hand." Hands go up. I raise mine.

Right then, a portrait of a wolverine in a tree comes on the screen. A girl interrupts, asking how I got the photograph. I tell her I have the same disease Brad Pitt does — face recognition blindness. "If you leave the room for two minutes," I tell her, "I won't know I saw you before. Unless you had a dog. I'd recognize your dog."

The kids are intrigued. It's becoming clear they have a very abnormal white guy on their hands. Quickly, I explain how I got the wolverine photo.

"Dmitri shot a brown bear with a .22," a boy in the corner says. Other boys fill in details. "In the side of the head." "He was only 12." "With .22 hornet." "Show him, Dmitri."

The class stops looking at me, starts talking to one another.

"When you guys start covering your boat? Early this morning?"

"They're sewing ugruk skins right now. How many skins?"

The kids compare the progress of re-covering their families' boats for whaling. It seems everyone started today. Now I'm the one listening, beginning to think I have an abnormal group of village kids on my hands.

Before class ends, we try a free-write. Then I gather my stuff and hurry next door to another class to do it all again. I know it's important to get the writing and the visiting writer under their skin. But still, my technique is so tenuous and unscripted. And we've got such a long way to go.

Have we even gotten started?

In the morning, kids nod and say hi in the school halls. I do one class after another, having them free-write until they get restless. In art class, I teach photography. Students are interested, but it takes a lot of energy, keeping "on" all day. I recognize a feeling from when I visited the Diomede school; I can't rush this, but have we even gotten started?

On Wednesday, we do nasty letters. Kids love them. I have them write letters to companies that sold them crappy products. I point to Aaron, who hunts seals (I think they all do, actually), and say, "You got new waders from Cabela's, $189. First day, they get a hole. You want your money back, or a new pair, right? So you write YOU SUCK, CABELA'S!"

Everyone laughs. "But wait," I say, "what if you tell them how much you looked forward to using these beautiful waders here in Point Hope to get food for your aana? And how disappointed you are now, and please send me a replacement pair or my money back."

They take the idea and run with it. Mr. Harlow writes to Arctic Cat. A girl named Rita writes to the Native store, about moldy Turkey Spreadable she bought. "I'm scarred for life," she writes. We laugh reading the letters, and decide to write a Round 2 letter, pretending the company never answered the first. A few bad words show up this time, but that's OK; I know the feeling. Rita tells the store if they don't give her money back, she's going to open her own store.

The class is having fun, so I step into the danger zone. "People, I've got tragic news." Everyone stops moving, talking. "Starting tomorrow, you have to write a story. So, I'm sorry, no TV tonight. You need to think about what you want to write. Wait, you don't have TVs, do you?"

Students glance around, uncertain, and then see Harlow grinning, shaking his head. They suddenly jeer. "We got TV!" "We got!" I pretend disbelief and tell them TV rots your brain and I've never had one in my life. They stare more at this alien visitor.

After school, Dmitri offers to take me out on the ice. Along the way, he tells me about whaling: waiting with skin boats at the edge of an open lead, and when a whale is spotted, paddling silently out.

And how the first person to harpoon the whale will receive the largest share. Dmitri moves confidently past piles of jumbled ice. His grandfather took him out on the ice and taught him, he says, and he misses his taata, who died recently. He turns and glances back. We stare at the village.

"I like being out," he says softly. "I feel free when I'm out here." There is something simple in his words, confidence, and an admission there are places less comforting in his world. Looking back at the houses and buildings, remembering some of the student writings, I know there's plenty of harshness hiding here, too. And pride.

New friends

On the fourth morning, in the school hallway, girls and boys smile and nod, fist-bump and high-five me. I realize something unexpected: I'm enjoying being in this school, enjoying seeing my new friends.

"Do you recognize me, Seth?" a girl asks. "How about me?" another says. "Do you recognize my face? What's my name?"

I move down the hall, marveling: Me, comfortable in a school? In Point Hope? How can this be?

In class, to get into story mode I offer a choice of prompts: The first time I … I wish I … I remember when … We get serious now. The room goes silent, everyone scribbling. I sit and write, too, letting my thoughts explore what is different about this school. Kids here are friendly, but not just friendly — there's something else I can't name. Is it confidence, or pride? If so, it's not too much of those things. More like the right amount, which I think is hard to find in this world.

"Where were you when I was in school?" whispers Mr. Vucasovich, the ninth-grade teacher. "I can't believe this."

"Me neither," I whisper back.

When rustling starts, I interrupt before it gets worse and tell them a story. They like it, thinking I'm getting sidetracked, but I'm wily, and soon everyone is writing again. I set to work editing their papers.

Long Summer Days. Amy Delia

... We had a lot of walks down to the airport summer time. We'd take walks because we had nothing really to do in the village. When we walked to the airport we went through the lagoon, big rocks, then old town site. That way there was tons of mosquitoes and we ran here and there but that didn't work because there was to many of them. Rita had a stick, try to beat them away. We chilled at the big rocks, ran on them, even played hide-n-seek. One of the girls saw a dead dog while we were running around, after that Rita saw a dead bear. We went on the ice and ran to not fall in the water. Lucky thing we weren't far out or Rita would have fell in pretty deep …

The last day, students hand in their stories. I interrupt, asking the kids who they spend the most time with every day? They answer seriously. "My mom." "My aunt." "My friend so-and-so."

"Yourself," I tell them. "You spend the most time every day with yourself. Who do you ask advice of the most?"

I'm trying to make a point. One of the boys, Mario, is sharp and ready for me. "Yourself!" he says. I tell them writing can help them learn about that person who is the biggest influence in their lives. I know it's Friday, I know we're getting to the end of everyone's limit, but I just want that to bounce around in some heads beside my own.

Kids are handing in rewrites. I'm reading fast. One story makes a tear come to my eye. I've been expecting this might happen.

The Time When. Kelly Lane

I've been trying to let my parents go back together for the past couple weeks. I would go see my mom and ask her to go to the restaurant and buy us food with my money, and I would do the same to my dad. So in another words I would set them up. I would do other things also to let them see each other ... In the store, my dad was standing behind my mom and I fake tripped and let him bump her. My dad said sorry to her. My mom said it was OK. I knew they still had feelings in their hearts. My dad started talking to my mom ...

On the final free-write, I sit and write with them one more time, trying to figure out what it is about these kids and this school.

Does it make a difference having Point and Hope in the name of one's hometown? What is here? What is not here? A lot is under the surface, I think. Like the whale. This is a whaling town, after all. People eat meat and muktuk. But I'm thinking there's more. Maybe the whale feeds them more than any of us know. I'm thinking it is a last, huge, deep, dark, mysterious connection to the Earth and the past, and the culture of long ago. And I'm wondering what this place would become without the whale.

As I say goodbye to student after student, one more time I stroll back in the direction of Harlow's now-empty classroom. I get out a pen. There are words here I want to bring home.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know NOTHING about. Be kind. Always.

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the best-selling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.

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