Livin’ the life


Tarun Williams is a teacher in Alaska/Taryn Williams, Business Insider

In Alaska, 30-year-old Taryn Williams is making what she estimates to be $10,000 to $15,000 per year more than she could in the Lower 48, on track to invest $25,000 per year, and lovin’ the adventure.

And no, to quote humor writer Dave Barry’s old line, I am not making this up. And we aren’t talking reality TV here either.

Williams is a fly-in teacher living in a small village in rural Alaska. This is a pretty good gig if you can live without urban amenities, rationalize the job as a grand adventure or both.

It’s a plus, Williams concedes in a story written for Business Insider, that her school district “helps with airfare to Anchorage and back.”

It also helps that the village in question, Perryville, has regular air service because Williams is a vegetarian, and there aren’t a lot of grocery stores catering to vegans in rural Alaska, even in the few places there are actual grocery stores. The Perryville general store, which the village considers one of its critical facilities, is a throwback to a time before “supermarkets.”

Williams, of course, suggests or believes she’s “living off the land,” in the 49th state, and her story comes complete with a photo of some blueberries she picked. But Alaskans who’ve spent time in-country will get a laugh out of the idea of a vegetarian living off the land in a place with a five-month growing season.

According to the website, Best Places, Perryville usually goes frost free in late May and stays that way only until mid-October. The website also notes “August is the hottest month for Perryville with an average high temperature of 58.1°, which ranks it as one of the coolest places in Alaska.”

This is a good thing if you hate the heat. And if you hate the bitter cold, it’s not so bad in Perryville either. For about 75 percent of the year, the nighttime low stays above freezing, which, Best Places adds, makes the village on the northwest edge of the Gulf of Alaska “one of the warmest places in Alaska.”

Missing all the amenities

Still, Best Places gives Perryville a chilly “comfort index” of 4.9 overall with a winter score of 3.4. It’s hard to find a lower score, though, Utqiagvik, the city at the northernmost tip of the North American continent still called Barrow by Best Places, rates a winter two. Sitting far to the north of the Arctic Circle, which draws the line between light and dark as the northern hemisphere of the global tilts away from the sun in the fall, that city goes dark for 67 days every winter, and the average low temperature stays below zero from November to April.

Needless to say, neither of these communities make the list of Best Places’ 331 “best cities,” especially given the heavy slant toward urban areas with good jobs, low housing prices, warm weather and all the things Westerners consider 21st Century “best.”. Anchorage, the urban core in the Southcentral part of the state where 60 percent of Alaskans live, comes in a middle-of-the-pack 160. 

Living in Anchorage isn’t much different from living in other major urban/suburban areas in the United States except when there are unusual amounts of snow as has been the case this year. Then there is a lot of whining about the roads not getting plowed fast enough.

Rural Alaskans, who get around in the winter on snowmachines (or snowmobiles as the rest of the world calls them) readily accept that the weather is the weather and live with it in communities big and small.

Utquiagvik would qualify as “big” with more than 4,700 residents, according to the Alaska Department of Labor. It has several groceries, a variety of restaurants, and a rich social life. Perryville officially home to 78, though Williams claims “about 89,” would be on the opposite end of the scale.

Suffice to say, it’s small enough that everyone pretty well knows everyone else, and a teacher who has learned to be adaptable is usually welcomed into the tribe in a place like this.

“I’m a secondary generalist teacher, which means I’m responsible for all subjects for grades eight and up,” Williams writes. “This year, I only have five students in my class, and I love that I’m able to spend more time with each student.”

What teacher wouldn’t love that sort of student-teacher ratio? How this all works out for the kids is another matter.

Williams has the opportunities she has, despite what appears to have been a very rough childhood, because she was lucky to get a good education and was put in a position to gain what one might call first-world experience. According to her bio, she grew up in heavily urbanized Massachusetts, attended the University of Pennsylvania and spent time in Europe.

The transition from the city to the country is a lot easier for someone with this background than the move from the country to the city for anyone living seriously rural. As Business Insider reported when Williams first wrote about moving from Atlanta to her first Alaska village in 2021, “the locals welcomed her with open arms.”

That usually doesn’t happen in the city. Lots of people live there and don’t even know the folks next door. At best, someone moving to the city to take a job will be welcomed with open arms by co-workers, but that isn’t always the case either.

This is one of the toughest transitions facing kids who grow up in rural Alaska.

All about the children

Marie Lowe, an anthropologist with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, well captured the hurdles facing rural kids in a 2010 paper for the Alaska Journal of Anthropology.

When the Anchorage School District polled students and parents on what problems new students  were encountering in city schools, she wrote, “difficulties in transition were the most-mentioned topic in the open-ended comment area of the survey, particularly for Alaska Native respondents and for those families with high-school-aged children.”

“The following comments (excerpted here) reflect the concerns of several different respondents about adjusting to life in Anchorage:

  • “When you live in a village, people support one another and know that the family nextdoor will share what they have. You will not gowithout shelter, heat. Classrooms have friends/family that you grow up with. A peer pressure support
    group. When something happens to one, it happens to all. When in the city you get evicted, families don’t know about food bank or are too ashamed to go.
  • “Took 2–3 years to feel safe; older ones were scared; younger were easier, difficult with older. Coming from small schools, difficult for kids to “stick their neck out” in bigger school. Wish there were jobs in the village so I could move back.
  • “Most of the families end up moving back to the village due to the different living style. I even wish they had a high school
    here for young native boys & girls only; they would feel more comfortable and play sports like everyone else in the city and have the confidence for sports. Maybe even better education if they had high school for Natives that move from the village, they wouldn’t be scared.
  • “(Anchorage) culture is very exclusive and high-pressure. No one really cares about my kid or my family. She wishes
    she felt more welcome and more included. Wish she had more friends. School is not about helping kids
    just holding them to ‘white’ standards.
  • “My daughter couldn’t adjust and didn’t get help in school. She is leaving to go back to [small Bethel census area community]. East [High] is too big, too many students, not enough personal attention from teachers.”

The problems don’t get easier when kids graduate from school in rural Alaska and try to transition to the urban world; they only become worse due to a  lack of family support.

The problem has not gone wholly unnoticed. The University of Alaska has long tried to provide extra support for rural students moving to Anchorage or Fairbanks. Support programs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, once the state’s main campus, date back to 1965,

And some rural school districts have organized student travel programs to help students gain a greater understanding of what life is like in the city to aid them if they should decide to leave their hometowns, most of which lack jobs, after graduation. But a lot of kids still struggle.

Suffice to say, it’s a whole lot easier to be a young, well-educating, white woman moving to an Alaska village to take one of the rare paying jobs there than to be a young, high-school, educated Native man moving from almost any Alaska village to almost any urban area to try to compete for the jobs available for those with only a high-school diploma.

But you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone – online or off – reporting on that experience in large part because high-school-educated people from rural anywhere – be they of color or not – don’t travel in the same circle as journalists these days. Williams writes nicely about the world in her bubble, but no one should think it represents the norm for life in rural Alaska.

Life in much of the rural part of the state is such that the fly-in journalists from left-leaning ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for putting a new spin on the old problem of a lack of police in rural Alaska by “revealing,” as ProPublica put it, how indigenous people in Alaska are denied public safety services.”

The reality is that village Alaska, in terms of policing, isn’t all that different from a lot of small-town, rural America where police are lacking, but law enforcement needs are served by area sheriffs in the way the Alaska State Troopers cover rural Alaska.

Not to mention that policing problems are always more about people than about police. Police don’t really prevent crime; they investigate crimes and apprehend the criminals. Crime in rural Alaska is, sadly, an old problem.

The Indian Law and Order Commission a decade ago concluded that “Alaska Natives are disproportionately affected by crime and that public-safety problems in tribal communities are systematically more severe in Alaska than in the rest of the United States,” and that report was just following up on similar reports before. 

ProPublica did, however, have something of a point. There is a case to be made that the problems in rural Alaska, which take more than more police to solve, have not attracted the attention they deserve because almost none of the crime there is committed against white people. It nearly all happens among village Natives.

Williams, in that regard, can consider herself just another beneficiary of what some might call “white privilege.” It, too, makes life more comfortable.

7 replies »

  1. Adaptability:

    Once in the late 60s, I stopped in a gas station in Lancaster, Pa. As I was pumping gas, I saw an Amish kid with the obligatory “Pilgrim” hat and black clothing. He was carrying a sack over his shoulders. He stopped, looked around, and ducked behind a building that had bushes behind it. Curious, I hung around after I had filled up my car. He soon emerged sans the bag and black Amish attire wearing bell bottomed jeans and a tie-dyed shirt. His long, page boy hair, stylish clothes, and a huge peace sign necklace transitioned him into a Bonafide hippie. I only wish I had handed him a few bucks to really make his day.

  2. “Secondary generalist” typically means you are not qualified to teach most of what you are teaching. A few years ago that would have been illegal in urban Alaska. But now AkDEED has so diluted credential requirements it is no wonder we are innumerate and illiterate.

  3. There is a logic to the Bush that you’re not going to understand unless you spend some time there. Get to Anchorage and that logic falls apart. I had a friend in Kotzebue who was born the same year I was, 1948, and he had a monologue that went like this: “I was born in the stone age. I was born in a sod igloo 12 miles down the beach from Barrow. In 1956 my dad got a job as a reindeer herder and they gave him a .303 Enfield. When that rifle entered our iglo that was the day I emerged from the stone age. Just 12 years later I was back from Vietnam and playing lead guitar in one of the hottest rock bands on the strip in LA. And it was a smooth transition all the way.”

    • James: Your friend sounds like a hell of a guy. One can only be amazed at his adaptability. It’s tantamount to the guy who tells you he learned to swim when his parents tossed him in the deep end of a pool and walked away.

      From your comments, I’d also have to say you must be among a small minority who understand how much things have changed in Alaska since the end of the World War II and the shift from a territory to a state. There were still people living nomadic lifestyles here in the 1930s, and now they’re all hunkered down in villages where they believe “this is where we’ve always lived.”

      In some regards, now that I think about it, it might have been easier for your friend to transition to the Outside world in the late ’60s/early ’70s that it is for many rural kids to do that now. Combat, if one survives it, makes most everything else look a whole lot less scary.

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