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Fire on ice: Alaskan community loses school, not hope

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POSTED February 11, 2009 4:05 a.m.
The first “biggest game of my life” was when we hosted the Region V championship basketball game my freshman year.
Spectators stacked cheeks to fit in the gym about the size of Manteca High’s.
The walls were aluminum siding, the floor wet with condensation. When I received my diploma, and town elders reminded me never to forget where I came from, it was in the gym. Prom was in the gym, my kindergarten classroom was a converted closet in the gym, Native carving class was in the other classroom, drama class rehearsed in the gym.
In the library, a 15-foot carving and canoe carved by students still decorates the room, and two short totem poles guard the locker area. It’s the cultural touch unique to any school in the 49th state.
Students at George Morgan Senior High School in Kalskag, Alaska made their school their own, too. They ate lunch in their spots and brought iPods packed with warming music that made the walk home in temperatures below zero a little more tolerable.
Photographs of elders hung from the walls along with artifacts from their rich Yup’ik heritage. Boys basketball players looked forward to hosting the regional tournament, but while on an eight-day basketball trip, their dreams of cutting down the nets they whipped in practice and reaching the small-schools state championship game for the second straight year went up in smoke – literally.
There is a sickening image of steps leading nowhere hovering above smoldering ruins.
Until Jan. 28, a day the high temperature reached 2 degrees below zero, those steps led into the feverish lives of high school students, but a spark ignited the shop class and reduced the school to a black scar in the woods. Students and staff fled safely, leaving snow pants and warm jackets behind.
Along with the structure went irreplaceable artifacts, photographs, uniforms (only one girl uniform was not in the school at the time of the fire), shoes (the entire girls team lost theirs), basketballs, trophies, clothes, books, backpacks, sweatshirts, pencils, pens, paper, printers, computers and all the things that make school school, outside of actual academics.
Help is not just down the road in Kalskag.
There are no roads connecting this rural town to civilization; waterways are frozen, and will re-freeze in October making the window to rebuild short and expensive. When the river freezes, short trips are made on snow-machine, filled up with $5-plus a gallon unleaded.
Flying in all the supplies necessary to rebuild an entire school would put plenty of ruts into the gravel airstrip that serves as the airport runway, not to mention, be astronomically expensive.  
“The students are upbeat,” said Brad Allen, superintendant of the 340-student Kuspuk School District, “realizing they won’t have a new school online until the end of the year at the earliest — and that’s if we can get clearance to build again, coordinate construction as well as get materials on barges and every other thing before the (shipping) season closes by about October of this fall.”
Allen said the school day had to be revised to accommodate the displaced high school students. Elementary kids attend from 7:45-2pm, with secondary kids going 2:15 to 8:45pm.
“It’s not the best educational environment, but with no other facilities to hold classes in the village, it’s the only viable option.”
The district already seems to be displaced; as it covers eight road-less communities spread over 120 miles along the Kuskokwim River, 320 miles from Anchorage.
Allen does the rounds to his schools in the district plane, a Cessna 172, which is aviation jargon for “really small plane.”
People there sustain their lives through hunting, fishing and gathering, but the people here are not poor in spirit — one cannot be and survive the relentless winter.
But the town lost its beacon. For a community of almost 600, the emotional, psychological and financial burden is unfathomable.
The school is the ticket out for aspiring teens, a historical museum and cultural center for elders, the meeting place for everything from fundraisers to prom and graduation, and on those cold game nights, a way to forget about the unforgiving air that freezes from the marrow out.
As the world forgets, as it frequently does, once the newness of the tragedy wears off, seniors on the Kalskag basketball teams will practice in borrowed shoes for the biggest games of their lives, in the elementary gym, a half-court room with adjustable hoops that were set at 8-feet until their lives had to adjust.  

To contact Jeff Lund, e-mail aklund21@gmail.com.

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