I APOLOGIZE TO the Alaska Railroad reservations agent who took our request for tickets to Talkeetna the weekend before Christmas. Normally I am not so obsessive-compulsive about seating arrangements, but my older son was with us, and he likes to know things ahead of time.
MJ is 18 and, up until this past October, had been out of our home and in residential treatment for a laundry list of issues. Autism spectrum, depression, intermittent explosive disorder; the diagnoses came and went like seasons. My son is one of thousands in Alaska with mental illness, and now he’s back in our lives and part of our traveling family...to an extent, anyway - travel with MJ is different.
There are no last-minute, go-on-a-whim sorts of excursions when he’s with us. Whereas previous journeys were at a fast pace to accommodate multiple attractions, the trips with MJ are filled with alternatives. Alternative sights, alternative food, alternative schedules. For everything, there must be a second scenario ready to be implemented, ASAP. We’ve learned that renting a cabin or suite with a separate bedroom provides quiet relief for anxious moments, that ear buds on a noisy train or in a restaurant are perfectly okay. My husband and I have uncovered unique coping strategies to help soothe tense situations, and the phrase “divide and conquer” has become a whole new mantra, occasionally working well enough for a deep breath of reassurance that yes, indeed, we can do this - while including MJ.
It's MJ experiencing Alaska.
Why shouldn’t he be allowed to travel in a manner that brings comfort? Alaska is an excellent destination for people like MJ who crave solitude, an absence of artificial noise, and basic, no-frills service. After all, just because hundreds flock to a glacier and wildlife cruise aboard a small ship with blaring microphones and cramped decks doesn’t mean he should, too. Viewing Alaska through his eyes has allowed us a fresh perspective on the travel industry, most especially so in Alaska, where frenetic pacing and long, exhausting days just won’t work. Paying close attention to MJ’s moods, we’ve discovered what parents of smaller children already know; factors like rest, different food, or a lack of exercise can cause night-and-day swings of happy to sad in a matter of moments. Instead of driving five hours to reach a destination, we might go two or never reach it at all, stopping instead to admire a waterfall, toss rocks into a river, or inspect interpretive signs along the highway.
We’ve learned to slow down, quiet the noise, and throw out expectations long before we shut the garage door behind us. Snowshoes not fitting quite right? No problem, head back to the cabin and delve into a book, we won’t mind. Too many people talking too loud on the train? Pop in those ear buds and move to the back. This family understands.
In light of negative attention surrounding mental illness in recent days, perhaps others will understand, too.
Note: This is the last post I shall publish for Kids These Days. I wish to extend gratitude to the producers, writers, and hosts for their incredible insight and support for the difficult job of “raising Alaska’s future;” without projects like this one, that future might be even more confusing. Sarah, Shana, Jamie, and Jessica, thank you for thinking about kids, and the adults who nurture and love their little (and big) souls.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer and publisher of AKontheGO, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and recreation. She lives a charmed life in Anchorage with her fabulous family.
Report no. 10: Families and students discuss the pros & cons of living and learning away from home in modern Alaska.
Reporting from: Bethel & Sitka, Alaska
HOST INTRO: This time of year, many students at Alaska’s boarding schools are heading home for winter break. Boarding schools have a long and complicated history for Alaska Natives; some blame them for loss of indigenous languages, and some students suffered abuse at schools. But these days, plenty of families choose boarding school as the best option to educate their kids. In the next installment of our series “Being Young in Rural Alaska”, Angela Denning-Barnes speaks with some of those families.
Mt. Edgecumbe High School junior Auna Springer reads a book during lunch in the B.J. McGillis gym at the state-run boarding school. Springer, from Bethel, is the third child in her family to attend Edgecumbe. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)
[Ambient sound - sewing...]
[Regina Johnson] “I am working on my daughter’s ruff... my oldest daughter, Ashley.”
Regina Johnson sits at the kitchen table stitching together a long strip of hide with shiny black hair.
[Regina] “This is actually a Russian racoon. First time working with it, first time cutting it out, which I did last night so I’m actually pretty excited.”
Regina is hoping to get it done for her daughter when she comes home for Christmas. She’s a Senior at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school in Sitka. Regina’s only son, Austin, is there too.
It’s about a thousand miles from Bethel as the crow flies, with no connecting roads. But Regina knows her children are in good hands because that’s where she want to school. She left Pitkas Point at age 14. The village has about 150 residents.
[Regina] “The school was so small in Pitka’s Point and I wanted to further my education.”
She says she not only got a better education in the classroom, but also learned to be responsible and how to take care of herself.
[Regina] “And as far as home goes, yes, you have to do the laundry, pack the water, help do the wood. It was just totally different where you had to learn to live with other people that you weren’t so used to living with at home.”
These days, it’s a little quieter at home with her two oldest children gone to boarding school. There are just two younger ones left at home now.
Regina and Don Johnson hold a picture of their family inside their Bethel home. (Photo by Angela Denning-Barnes/KYUK)
[Ambient sound, man and child voices: “In the...in what... ahhhh, you mistake?”]
Sitting at the same table is her husband, Don Johnson, helping their 5-year-old daughter with a word game. When she’s 14, she’ll move to Sitka too.
[Don Johnson] “All of my kids are going to go. It’s a no brainer for me.”
For Don, it’s a family affair. He went to the boarding school as did his six siblings and his parents. Back then it was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Don had a long way to move from their coastal village of Emmonak on the Bering Sea, but he says the quality of education was worth it.
[Don] “There’s a lot of students that attend Mt. Edgecumbe High School and become really successful in their lives. Look at me, in high school, I knew who I wanted to be and that was become a pilot. So ever since graduating, that’s what I’ve been doing.”
For the Johnson family, being successful doesn’t mean leaving culture behind. They still live in their home region; the kids go to fish camp at Pitkas Point every summer, and moose hunting over break – so they keep up on those subsistence skills, too.
[Ashley Johnson] “My name is Ashley Johnson and I am a Senior from Bethel... I want to become a veterinarian. I’m going to be helping animals.”
Ashley Johnson sits in the gym lobby at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. She’s in jeans, tennis shoes, and a black jacket, with long dark hair. She says she always knew she would go to boarding school as a freshman but the transition away from family wasn’t easy.
[Ashley] “At first no one’s going to be there for you. And you’re going to be starting out in somewhere so new, and you’re going to be lost. And this, coming to a boarding school is going to help you cope with that and it’s going to help you try to build up your self confidence and everything else like that.”
Ashley Johnson, right, walks with a friend from the B.J. McGillis gym at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, to buildings on the upper campus, atop a nearby hill. Johnson is a senior who lives in Bethel, and one of many in her family to have attended the state-run boarding school. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)
For Mt. Edgecumbe Junior Auna Springer the decision to leave Bethel for boarding school wasn’t exactly set in stone. Two of her older siblings went, but three didn’t.
[Auna Springer] “...and in middle school I was kind of like wishy-washy about it. And by the time I hit the 8th grade, I was like, ‘you know what, might as well go.’ It was kind of a hard decision to make because I was kind of weighing my options. I even had a little pro and con paper you know. MHS or BRHS.”
The pros won out and Auna’s been at boarding school the last two and a half years. She says she likes the busy environment:
[Auna] “If we weren’t busy we’d probably be getting into trouble or something. I mean, that’s the plus side of it. Like you have really strict consequences if you are doing something you shouldn’t be keeps you out of trouble which is really good.”
In Bethel, Auna’s dad, Mark Springer, believes the education is top notch. Regularly, Auna travels by ferry for sporting events and she has access to the University of Alaska Southeast right next door. Another of his daughters learned Japanese at Edgecumbe and then visited the country. Mark says these opportunities are a kind of a trade for having his children leave home early. In the school year from August to May, they usually return home only once, during Christmas break. He doesn’t visit often either because it’s a full day flight and up to $900 round trip.
[Mark Springer] “...and that can be hard for some families, it’s not always easy for us. It is a long time to be away from your child.”
[Ambient sound - stitching...]
Regina Johnson agrees that’s tough, but she keeps close to her kids; She tries to talk them through their tough times by phone – they call or text or Skype every day.
[Regina] "Definitely, we communicate multiple times a day."
But mostly she sees them becoming more confident in themselves, more willing to take on challenges. She hasn’t lost that drive either. She says after all her kids graduate, she just might try to go back school herself.
With help from Ed Ronco in Sitka, I’m Angela Denning-Barnes in Bethel.
This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.
1. Dale & Kaerin's Adoption Story: Open adoption is a choice that many who adopt these days choose to consider. It doesn't mean co-parenting, and it may not even include face-to-face visits with a child's birth family - instead it's all about sharing information. Meet Dale, Kaerin and their 8-year old daughter, Mya, a family that values the open adoption experience.
2. Paula, John's Adoption Story: Next, meet an Anchorage couple who have adopted two little girls through Catholic Social Services – both of them Alaska Native. These parents share what they feel is important as they raise their daughters, Olive and Drew.
Both families invited producer Sarah Gonzales into their homes to share their adoption stories.