Ouzinkie School

(Ouzinkie in the 1960s)

Author's Note: Unlike most of my articles, this one is written in the past tense, allowing me to more easily share events of particular years of my education in Ouzinkie. Although the experiences of other of my classmates might be similar, this individual approach is the only way I can adequately explain what school time was like in Ouzinkie during those years. By the way, I am continually impressed with what I hear regarding student performance and morale in the "new" school, which unlike mine, includes grades through high school. As a high school teacher, my memories are also viewed through that filter. I hope, however, to have given a fair account of student life in Ouzinkie in the 1960s. -Timothy Smith, web author

The Ouzinkie school, with its platform and playground equipment, as it looked in 1966. The swing sets were purchased with funds raised by showing old 16mm movies every Friday night during the school year. This photo was also in Yule Chaffin's book, Koniag to King Crab.

The Ouzinkie School was a necessary center of activity during the winter months, but one that meant lessons and homework and sometimes eccentric teachers. The village of Ouzinkie had long been too large for a "one room schoolhouse," but there was an undeniable charm to the old grade school nonetheless. It was a large, multi-gabled building containing three classrooms (or two and a library when population dipped). There were two apartments for the teachers, if you call the one-room pillbox upstairs an apartment. Although not exceptionally old when I attended there, the building tended toward dilapidation due primarily to its location in the center of a swamp. There were always puddles and muddy spots, and the villagers finally got fed up with the poor location and built a large elevated play area, supplied with basketball hoops. "The platform," as it was known, was the main place to play most of the rainy season (what am I saying? most of the year!), unless you favored wet shoes. Even in the snow it was a great place to dive from or use as a snow fort. Near the platform were the outhouses or "nooshniks," which being of poorer foundation and smaller mass than the schoolhouses, always tilted at odd angles. No matter how many boards were laid on the path, the trip to the outhouses was always a soggy proposition. Nobody was unhappy when they were replaced in the early 60s with indoor plumbing.

Young Timmy Smith in the spring of 1965 in the school yard. The old "nooshniks" and the platform are in the background. Cannery boots are of little use in walking on icy ground!

In my early years there, the school's classrooms were poorly lit by low wattage bulbs powered by the low voltage cannery light plant. Then in the early 1960s the Bureau of Indian Affairs or perhaps the fledgling Alaska State Government in a fit of unaccustomed generosity decided that the school needed dependable power, adequate lighting and a real sewer system. From then on it was flush toilets and fluorescents. The school power came from two dark blue diesels in their own shed, which added a substantial hum to the school day. It is said that when the pilings for the power shed were being driven, the work crew on a lark decided to see if they could find any bedrock under the school yard. They gave up after eighteen feet of solid sog. So the old school always sagged and creaked at odd angles and shook with the pounding of busy feet.

What sort of education could be had in a BIA village school? Although it could vary as widely as the qualities and capabilities of the teachers, it was considerably better than smug Kodiak educators gave us credit for. In the early days, a village kid who transferred to the Kodiak city school system would be routinely dropped a grade, but soon a number of outstanding village-educated students, my elder siblings among them, challenged and eventually helped eliminate that policy. The hapless village schools, suffering under policies that were a holdover of colonial reasoning and the vagaries of Washington/Native politics, were often the last to receive adequate supplies and curriculum. When was the last time you tried to use real horse hoof glue? We had some, and it is everything it is purported to be (other than an effective glue). I did not just receive my grandparents' education; I probably even had some of the same textbook titles! Social Studies books were all reverently patriotic, health books were blissfully ignorant of socially significant developments, and Dick, Jane, Spot, Puff and a teddy bear unfortunately named Tim reigned at reading time. Without the wisdom of the Whole Language Method, we sloshed through endless phonics workbooks, spelling tests and handwriting drills, and consequently learned to read and write. Audio-visuals were limited to tattered old Army training films that were occasionally wildly inappropriate for elementary eyes. Mimeographed worksheets were usually illegible, produced on a smelly block of indigo-colored wax.

A recess soccer game in 1965. When the ground was frozen, the field was a good place to play. I took this photo with an old Kodak 616 camera that had a very slow shutter speed, making the kids look blurry.

When the modern world did intervene in our behalf, it was often to our detriment. There was the time we were all administered a standardized test from somewhere civilized, which involved identification of "common" shapes and objects. How many village students had ever seen a suburban gas station or a fire hydrant? What would we know of plows and tractors or taxicabs and newsstands? On the other hand, which of the educators who thought up that instrument could hold forth on leaded seine lines, power blocks, the difference between a "humpy" and a "red" salmon or the distinctions between a Johnson and an Evinrude? Not surprisingly, too much of this treatment often prompted native children to rebel against "American" education as being anti-native, anti-rural and belittling to Alaskans in general.

The biggest variable in my grade school education, as it would be for any student, was the caliber of the teachers I had. The people who chose jobs as village teachers in those days were largely a hardy lot, intrigued by the adventure and novelty of working in an exotic, isolated environment. But there were sometimes darker motivations. Teachers whose record elsewhere was cloudy often found the BIA application process blissfully vague. The village school system sometimes got teachers who might have been unemployable elsewhere; it is said that the original builder of the village cannery had raised his money from funds siphoned off the village school budget, but of course this was never proven. And on at least one occasion, Ouzinkie got a couple who were so green at teaching and so unsuited to village life that they made a mockery of the profession and nearly disbanded the school. On the other hand, those who answered the challenge with a pure motive and a heart for the work were among the best examples of the teaching profession that could be found anywhere.

Joyce Smith speaks at the 1962 graduation.

The 1966 graduation at Ouzinkie School. The author is in the white shirt, center of photo.

My first grade teacher, Mrs. Lassiter, left only faint impressions on my memory. I recall the reading drills and Herman throwing up in the wastebasket, and my sister's friendship with her daughter, but that's about all. But second grade was much more memorable, and a near disaster for all concerned. At that time, Ouzinkie School had enough students to warrant three teachers and three classrooms. There were Mr. and Mrs. P. in their first teaching assignment (and unnamed here for forthcoming obvious reasons) and venerable, devout and large Mrs. Connor from Oklahoma, who lived in the tiny attic apartment over the big kids' classroom. Students used to stand at the foot of the stairs just to watch Miss Connor descend. But that was the extent of the infractions allowed, for old fashioned discipline was the rule with her. My teacher was Mrs. P., a young and trendy blonde in tight, short dresses who hated village life and said so, and who did not get along with Mrs. Connor at all. On more than one occasion they engaged in shoving matches involving the door between their classrooms. What I did not realize at the time was that her attitude and teaching methods were so bad that several families actually relocated to Kodiak for the rest of the school year, and several intense community meetings had resulted in a heated request for her removal. Not that the irrepressible Mrs. P. made it any easier. She circulated a photo of herself apparently in the nude and wrapped in nothing but the Alaskan flag (in honor of our new Statehood, of course!) among the upperclassmen (6th, 7th and 8th graders, for heaven's sake!). Mrs. Connor and half the village were appalled. The rest wanted copies. It was the year that learning lost out.

A school Christmas program in the mid-60s.

Thankfully, for all their idiosyncrasies, none of the teachers that followed in my eight years of school in Ouzinkie ever approached that kind of glaring incompetence, and several were outstanding examples of their craft. And I can safely say that all teachers who followed not only loved teaching, but came to love the village and its people as well. That would seem to be the minimum requirement for the job. Every time the teacher fell short, the whole village would suffer. Every time the teacher rose to the challenge and adapted to the environment, everyone gained.

Mr. Frobin Putman in the schoolyard with Gary Boskovsky, 1965.

There was still plenty of room for the unforgettable personality or two, however. My fifth grade teacher, for example, was a tall, poker-faced, pipe smoking man named Mr. Chaney with a sharp wit and stern classroom style that was the polar opposite of Mrs. P. I had to learn about and report on every U. S. president. After writing one hundred variations on "He matriculated at...," I actually learned quite a lot. The next two years I studied under Mr. Putman, who had once been a student of Mrs. Connor back in Oklahoma. He told great stories, and was an easygoing fellow until crossed, and then was a ruthless disciplinarian of the old school. Nose to the board, feet on tiptoes for fifteen minutes was one of his favorites, but his paddle was surely our least favorite. He had hand carved a stout spruce board about four inches wide and perforated at strategic spots with half-inch holes. He used an ancient and rock-heavy oak desk, and when the infractor was paddled, it was the student's lot to place both hands on the edge of the desk and lean against it, rear end up. This teacher would then position himself strategically over and above the target anatomy, and utilize his carved creation. If his desk did not move as a result, he reapplied the process with greater enthusiasm. However, his punishments were invariably fair. Besides, there was a certain glory (provided you were not one of the infractors) in watching two formerly fearsome schoolyard warriors emerge from a side room with newly-minted, sniffling humility. He and his wife were the first Pentecostals I had met, and their style of worship electrified our chapel services at the mission. They were a great encouragement to my parents.

A group of Rotary Club members from Kodiak help to repair the platform in 1968, as village kids look on.

My last year at Ouzinkie School was under the tutelage of Mrs. Luther, who was a fan of poetry and an excellent writing teacher. I had the great fortune of having her again as a creative writing teacher a couple of years later when I was attending Kodiak High School. I am sure that many of the creative ways I have developed for explaining a piece of literature or a writing assignment descend from her methods.

I graduated from the eighth grade in the Alaska Centennial year of 1967 with Chris Boskovsky and George Katelnikoff. The theme for our graduation (all three of us!) was, "We have reached the foothills; yonder lie the mountains!" It was too much, perhaps, to expect dramatic visions of the future from kids whose life experiences were focused on rural, island living, but that was the motto we chose. I made some sort of speech, which focused mostly on our almost nationalistic pride in the Alaska Centennial, the whole village ate white sheet cake and drank red punch, and my career as a student in Ouzinkie School was over.

As with all villagers who desired further education, I would have to move away from home to get it. I entered high school with the same pressures and challenges as a college student who takes up dormitory life would have, and saw my family only once or twice a month from then on. The experience of life in the Kodiak-Aleutian Regional Boarding High School might make another story someday.

Eighth Grade graduation, May 1967. L to R: Nick Pestrikoff, an unknown guest from Kodiak, and the graduates, George Katelnikoff, Chris Boskovsky and Tim Smith. The podium and electric piano came from the Mission.

I am in my early fifties now, and have been a high school reading teacher for many years. When I was a sometimes struggling elementary student in Ouzinkie School, the thought that one day I would be a teacher would have seemed foreign and even appalling. As I reflect on the long pathway of my own progress as an educator, I can't help thinking of my eight years at Ouzinkie School, and the teachers who came in and out of our village during those years. I can see traces of them all in my own classroom, either in what I do or in what I try to avoid doing. I should hope they could count me among their successes.

The author in front of his old school. The old Ouzinkie School is now city hall. The fire station was built on the old soccer field, and the old community center stands where the platform once stood. This photo was taken in April of 2002.

Written by Timothy Smith, web author. See the About Me page for more information. Always feel free to send me comments, suggestions or corrected information about this article or any of the articles on this site. (Write to: Tanignak@aol.com) This article and website is 2005 Timothy L. Smith, Tanignak Productions, 14282 Tuolumne Court, Fontana, California, 92336 (909) 428 3472. Images unless otherwise listed are from the collection of Rev. Norman L. Smith or the Timothy L. Smith collection. This material may be used for non-commercial purposes, with attribution. Please email me with any specific requests. You are welcome to link to this site.

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