Alaskan school visits Justus Gage

Published 11:19 pm Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dianne Shirrell taught kindergarten at Lincoln and Justus Gage elementary schools in Dowagiac before striking out for Hughes, Alaska, three years ago. She brought all 10 of her remote school’s students to Justus Gage for a visit May 5 while going from Niles to Edwardsburg. (The Daily News/John Eby)

Dianne Shirrell taught kindergarten at Lincoln and Justus Gage elementary schools in Dowagiac before striking out for Hughes, Alaska, three years ago. She brought all 10 of her remote school’s students to Justus Gage for a visit May 5 while going from Niles to Edwardsburg. (The Daily News/John Eby)

Hughes, Alaska, the village where former Justus Gage and Lincoln teacher Dianne Shirrell is wrapping up her third year, is so isolated 45 miles south of the Arctic Circle it cannot be reached by vehicle — except planes, river boats and snow machines.

It’s just as well they don’t depend on driving because you know what they call $4.29-a-gallon gasoline?

A bargain! Their flown-in fuel costs  more than $8 in Hughes.

This year students set up a cross-country skiing group. In December, winter sun doesn’t rise in the sky, but “crosses the horizon,” Dianne said.

Shirrell celebrated the impending end of school and all those walks to class when it’s 60 degrees below zero and there are no snow days by fundraising for the ultimate “field trip” — here!

With her whole school in tow — all 10 students, from sixth graders to one senior — Shirrell Thursday morning visited Justus Gage, where her last crop of kindergartners are now third graders.

“Next year we’ll have one kindergartner. I never got out of kindergarten while I was in Dowagiac,” said Shirrell, whose entourage included her husband, Al, driving the motorhome for ground transportation that would take them on to Edwardsburg for lunch at Lunker’s.

The night before they were fed at a church in Niles, where Shirrell lived.

Today, it’s to Chicago for Shedd Aquarium.

There were hugs all around for former colleagues and students, including her aide, Lori Collins.

The students are barely seated on the floor when one visitor decides to nip an embarrassing question in the bud.

“I want to get this off my chest,” Zach said. “We don’t live in igloos.”

Introductions can take a while, as it is tribal custom to preface your own name with those of your grandparents, parents and siblings.

Dawn, the other teacher, is from Athens, Wis., so they’ll also visit that state before returning home.

Dawn entered a dog sled race with a borrowed team and won $200 for finishing second by 12 seconds from six women, contributing her prize to the field trip fund.

Dawn had never raced before.

They told her to “get on and hold on.” She didn’t even practice beforehand.

They project a few slides on a screen to get a feel for life in Hughes.

Scenery elicits a chorus of “whoa!” from students gathered in the media center.

A photo of Natasha welcoming from the top of a “hill” provides an almost aerial view of the entire layout of the village of 88 of the state’s 660,000 inhabitants, including the “store,” which stocks a selection comparable to a campground; a church; a post office; municipal offices; the blue-sided school; a tribal hall for community dinners and important meetings; a “washeteria” for laundry and showers; and a health clinic, where a doctor comes for a week each month.

If you can’t swing ailments around that schedule, patients fly to medical care or leave by medevac.

Sherrill said the opportunity to teach in Alaska first came about when she Googled a Seattle elementary school she attended in sixth grade.

“We’ve been saving for a field trip over three years,” Sherrill said. “This year we actually earned the most of it from a small community with dinners on Friday.

“At Halloween, with 10 students having a basketball shoot and a cake walk, we made $867. We just had a thank-you dinner for them supporting us. We gave out burgers and made over $1,000. The tribe up there has been so supportive of the trip,” as were an oil drilling company in which the students are shareholders, and a construction company whose barges ply the river.

“This is our last day here,” she said.

“Today we went to (Dowagiac Commercial Press). We’re going to Lee mansion because their granddaughter, Hannah Jorgensen, and my granddaughter came up and spent her last year of school with us. After Lunker’s for lunch, we’re going out to a horse farm and to Hacker’s to hit golf balls and to Lake Michigan and back. Tomorrow we head to Shedd Aquarium. At first, when we got off the airplane, the kids were reading every sign they saw.”

Two students had been out of Alaska before. One had never been to a McDonald’s until they landed in Fairbanks on the first leg of their journey.

One of the elders along on the trip recalls being 17 and her mother directing her to pack because “this is who you’re going to marry.”

“I cried for two years,” Madeleine recalled, but she and Bill are still together.

As a student, she only knew her Native tongue and remembers missionaries swatting her with rulers when she spoke in her language and didn’t understand why because she didn’t yet know English.

Dawn, who is accompanied by her husband, Todd, is in her first teaching job, but “she teaches like she’s done it forever,” according to Shirrell.

“Every fall at the beginning of the school year we have a ‘culture camp,’ ” Dawn narrated an image of a boy fishing (catching, depending on season, big pike and king salmon) and others making berry jam and moose hide rope.

“Have you seen rawhide ties?” Dianne asks. “They use them to tie up snowshoes and to build the sleds they use for dog racing. It’s a leather lace that holds up better than any man-made fiber.”

“We don’t have music class like you do,” Dawn said. “We had a group come in” for almost two weeks, teaching guitar and fiddle and leading up to a concert at the conclusion of their lessons.”

There are sewing classes almost every night during the winter. Even her husband, Todd, got into making fur hats, boots and beadwork.

“We usually have 10 to 12 people there,” Dawn said.

While students don’t get let out for snow days or to hunt whitetail deer, a couple of boys were missing from one photo because they were absent hunting moose.

Curtis told Justus Gage, yes, they have television, which they use to share movie DVDs which circulate around the tight-knit community.

When Madeline was little, they lived in tents and moved four times a year to follow fishing and game for their subsistence existence “living off the land.”

Curtis snagged his arm climbing a fence a few years ago and “ripped it wide open” during a memorial ceremony. Mending his wound became a two-person process of one stitching him up while another resourceful soul read from a book about suturing.

“They did a wonderful job,” Shirrell said.

Madeline relates to the children one girlhood story of smuggling seven puppies her brother found in her knapsack as they traveled to spring camp, straggling far back behind her parents so they wouldn’t detect dog yips emanating from inside.

While 60 below zero sounds unsurvivable, Dawn assures students that it’s a “different kind of dry cold,” the opposite of dry desert heat in Arizona.

“From talking to my parents, it’s been warmer in Alaska the last couple of weeks than in Wisconsin.”

Summers it warms up in the daytime into the 90s.

One boy asks Madeline if they tell ghost stories.

“We tell lots of stories,” she replies, such as porcupine tales. “All of our animals have stories.”

The school day in Hughes lasts from 8:45 to 3:45, but students often don’t leave with the last bell, staying on until 5 or 6 playing ping pong and other games.

Shirrell lives “35 steps” from school. Zach figures out that with the time difference, “When you guys get out of school, we’re just having lunch.”

Teacher Margie Brosnan wonders what kind of wildlife wanders into Hughes. Moose can stay clear with so much other area to roam, so “ravens and weasels” are the answer.