Teacher nets life lessons

First job finds him in Alaska

By Karen Colbenson

GRAND MEADOW — When Grand Meadow High School science teacher Mike Keefe looks back on his first three years of teaching in a rural Alaskan school district, he realizes he was the one who did most of the learning.

Shortly before his college graduation in 2002, Keefe, raised in Antioch, Ill., a Chicago metro area, attended a local job fair to gain interview experience. He walked away with a job teaching for Lower Kuskokwim School District — one of Alaska’s largest rural districts, which serves a 22,000-square-mile area in the western part of the state, near the Bering Sea.


"I just thought, ‘Well, it sounds cool,’" said Keefe.

While working there, Keefe said, he discovered an appreciation for a way of life he did not know still existed in the United States.

Alaskan life

Fast food is not an option; instead, meals consist of Beluga whale, walrus stew, fermented fish heads and musk ox. Clothing is handmade or ordered online because there are no malls. Grocery stores are limited and expensive, so dinner has to be hunted, netted or fished. There are no roads or cars for transportation, just snowmobiles and four-wheelers. Alcohol is banned to cut down on domestic abuse. Homes are built on stilts and heated by kerosene heaters.

What the rest of the country considers leisure sports — snowmobiling, hunting, fishing — is a way-of-life and part of daily survival, said Keefe.

Winters are long and dark; summers are short, mild and excessively sunny.

"Even at night (in the summer) it’s not dark, it’s dusk," said Keefe.

On the weekends and evenings when he wasn’t teaching, Keefe would net salmon with the locals, pick wild berries or travel up to 400 miles on a snowmobile to collect firewood.


"When you’re in a place like that, you give up so much," said Keefe. "You go back to the basics, and you really realize how spoiled you are."

Different priorities

Keefe renewed his teaching contract twice before accepting his current position in Grand Meadow. He said he still thinks about his Alaskan experience every day.

It is a place where life is slower, and probably more appreciated, said Keefe. Families are put before careers. Students don’t worry about what they wear or about being popular. Education is valued, but many male students drop out at 16 to begin working as commercial fishers.

"What we prioritize vs. what they prioritize is amazingly different," said Keefe. "You have to be easy-going in order to stay sane. It was still fun — an adventure each and every day. It was an experience I kept learning from."

In spring, Keefe returned to Alaska to give a speech at the high school graduation. He said it was a big honor because students get to choose the speaker.

"I’m the one who became a lot more well-rounded," said Keefe. "I learned way more than I thought I could. You really gain a better view of yourself, and how easy things really are for us."

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