We Did Not Listen


“Mrs. Williams!” “Mrs. Williams!” John yells and waves wildly as I drive by. I wave back, but don't stop this time. It’s just too much. Too much for my heart. It breaks every time I see him. For two years he's asked me when the school will open again and I haven’t figured out how to tell him the truth. I don’t know why, but I feel if I tell him the truth - school will never be opened again - it will be too much for him. He needs his hope.

We Did Not Listen

I had taught John’s dad, Dean, back in 2019. I was the instructional coach then at our local elementary school and Dean had needed a little extra help with reading and navigating his emotions. I had stayed connected with Dean through the years and watched him graduate from high school and start his life working at our local super market.

Dean and his girlfriend gave birth to John in 2028. I’m not sure what happened to the girlfriend, but suddenly at the age of 22, Dean was a single dad, just like his father had been.

When John was in first grade Dean walked into my classroom and introduced us. He was one of my first “grand-students.” Dean was a hard-working dad and tried to provide the best for John and I was thrilled when he finally got a job working on the Slope. This would be life-changing for this father-and-son duo. I thought this story was on it's way to being a success.

We Did Not Listen to the Warnings


In 2016, I remember watching this video and thinking "how awful," I just didn't think it would happen to us.


Then two years later I read this article on climate change and North Slope oil production and we still did nothing to prepare.


It happened so suddenly… None of us had really listened to how global warming was changing everything in our lives. The people of Africa had warned us years ago… many news stories and scientific papers had been written about the sure to come changes, but did we listen… no.

Four years ago, the Arctic sea ice melted so much that the man-made gravel islands, upon which the drilling pads sit,

became too unstable to use.

The escalating warming temperatures and the melting permafrost of the tundra caused the pipeline to buckle and ice roads to be unbuildable.

Production of oil on the North Slope stopped immediately.

For John and Dean life changed immediately too. With no job on the slope, Dean packed up their things, left the keys to their house on the counter, and moved back to the trailer park in downtown Palmer.

John was still in my school and we saw each other daily. His emotions were wild and I made sure to connect with him each day. When I reached out to Dean with my concerns about John and how he was doing, I realized jut how much the history of this family was repeated itself. Dean was becoming more negative and definitely more reclusive, just like his own father had been.

Dean's opinions about the importance of an education were not alone. Negative opinions about public education had been on the rise for some years. In 2017 Education Next conducted a national poll and created this website with the interactive results on what Americans thought about public education:

We Did Not Listen

We should have listened to the results of polls like this, the debates about school funding in Juneau, and the strange Facebook stories about how the "Common Core" were harming the children of America. The results of not listening to the public sentiment and not preparing for what could happen when oil production stopped, were devastating to our schools and teachers.

Class sizes tripled: 50 students in each class for elementary school. More than 100 in some classes in high school. Thousands of teachers across the state were immediately without a job. I was high enough on the seniority list that I was one of the lucky ones.

I continued to teach in Alaska primarily because of students like John. How could I leave them when their world was disintegrating around them? Their families had no money, they were getting less attention from teachers at schools. They needed the teachers they knew and loved to be their stability. So I stayed.

Then the day came. The schools were closed. The school board was disbanded and it became the responsibility of each family to figure out how to pay for their child's education. School was no longer free in Alaska.

We had not listened.


Today I'm 71 years old and still working. There is no retiring for teachers any more. We simply can't afford it. The retirement systems we depended upon to pay us in our "golden years" vanished when the schools closed. I sit outside my empty school building teaching my students who are all over the world. I'm one of the lucky teachers who still has somewhat of a job. Rich families pay me to help their children learn to read.

I can teach from anywhere, but somedays I still come to my school and sit outside on the steps looking at the view as I video conference with my students in China, Australia, Juneau, and Anchorage. I laugh as I think about this video I watched back in the year 2005.

I never dreamed this would be the only way I would be able to be a paid teacher. Teaching virtually and globally.

John somehow always knows when I come to the empty school building. I meet with him and a few other students here twice a week and we read the novel sets I own. Although not an education, I'm trying to do my best to help those students who cannot afford to pay for private tutoring or online classes. Today is no different, he's at the school.

John is sitting on the old bench in the playground with the view of Lazy Mountain and Pioneer Peak waiting for me. I gather my computer and headset out of the car and walk over to him. Today is the day. I know it has too be. He's eleven now and should be attending middle school. He's too old to believe in the fairytale of "school opening again."

I've come up with a plan. A plan for him alone.

"John," I begin talking as I hold up an old fashioned splitter for headphones, "I brought something new today."

"What is it," he asks.

I explained how it works and he looks at me and asks, "I'm really in your class now?"

"Sort of," I say and I tell him my plan.

You Will Listen!

When we make the connection and join the class, John will have to pretend he's not sitting next to me. He'll have to stay out of the camera's view.

I'll explain his audio-only and "free" connection to the other students and to my boss, who often joins our virtual room, by telling them that John is our new virtual volunteer. I'm old and I know sometimes my words and thoughts get jumbled around. So,

John will be listening, so he can correct me.

John Will Listen

John will listen and be part of my global class and I will teach until I can teach him no more.

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