A year they'll never forget
Ten-year-old Frederika (Fred for short) doesn't have much faith that the new teacher in town will last very long. After all, they never do. Most teachers who come to their one-room schoolhouse in remote, Alaska leave at the first smell of fish, claiming that life there is just too hard.
But Miss Agnes is different -- she doesn't get frustrated with her students, and she throws away old textbooks and reads Robin Hood instead! For the first time, Fred and her classmates begin to enjoy their lessons and learn to read and write -- but will Miss Agnes be like all the rest and leave as quickly as she came?
Gr 2-5-Teaching the children in an Athabascan village in a one-room schoolhouse on the Alaskan frontier in 1948 is not every educator's dream. Then one day, tall, skinny Agnes Sutterfield arrives and life is never the same for the community. Frederika (Fred), the 10-year-old narrator, discovers that unlike previous teachers, Miss Agnes doesn't mind the smell of fish that the children bring for lunch each day. She also stokes the fire to warm the schoolhouse before the students' arrival each morning, wears pants, and speaks with a strange accent. Miss Agnes immediately packs away the old textbooks, hangs up the children's brightly colored artwork, plays opera music, and reads them Robin Hood and Greek myths. She teaches them about their land and their culture, tutors both students and parents in her cabin in the evening, and even learns sign language along with her students so that Fred's deaf sister can attend school. Hill has created more than just an appealing cast of characters; she introduces readers to a whole community and makes a long-ago and faraway place seem real and very much alive. This is an inspirational story about Alaska, the old and new ways, a very special teacher, and the influence that she has over everyone she meets. A wonderful read-aloud to start off the school year.-Kit Vaughan, Midlothian Middle School, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Margaret K. McElderry Books
April 30, 2002
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Excerpt from The Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill
"What will happen now?" I asked Mamma as we watched the plane take the teacher away.
"Maybe no more school." Mamma twitched her shoulder a little to show she didn't care. Mamma never went to school much, just a few months here and there when her family wasn't trapping or out at spring muskrat camp. She said she hated school when she was little.
The little plane circled our village and then flew low over Andreson's store and waggled its wings at us. That was Sam White, the pilot, saying good-bye to us.
It was Sam White laughing, too. Sam thought nearly everything was funny. He had just landed with the mail and there the new teacher was, waiting for him when he opened the door of the cockpit. She pushed right through the rest of us and started talking before Sam even got to say hello.
"Wait for me, it will only take a minute," she'd said. "Please. Take me back to town. I can't stay in this place for another second."
And he'd waited, and she'd come tumbling out of her little cabin, leaving the door open, leaving everything behind but the two suitcases she carried. It was kind of funny, how she looked. I could tell Sam thought so, the way he winked at us. And then Sam had helped her into the plane and the engine had roared and they were up and over the spruce trees and on their way.
I knew what she would tell Sam. She'd tell how Amy Barrington had got mad and had busted in her door because the teacher bought mukluks from Julia Pitka instead of her. And she'd tell about the big boys who didn't listen. And she'd tell about the fish.
When we brought our lunch to school, it would always be fish. Salmon strips or kk'oontseek, dried fish eggs, to eat on pilot crackers. Or half-dried fish. The oil would get on the little kids' faces and on the desks.
"Heavens, don't you ever eat anything but fish?" And she'd make us go to the basin and try to scrub the fish smell away with lots of Fels Naptha soap, and then with a bad face she'd scrub the oily ring from the washbasin.
That one time, she pushed Plasker away from her desk when she was helping him with his arithmetic.
"You smell of fish," she said, real mad, with her teeth together. Plasker looked scared.
"I was helping my old man bale whitefish," he said. He was pretty nervous, wiping his hands on his pants as if that would help.
The teacher told him to sit down, and she didn't even help him with his arithmetic. There were tears in her eyes. Right there we knew she was not going to stay with us.
We had a whole bunch of teachers since they started the school here, back when I was six. Some left before the year was over. Some stayed one whole school year. But none ever came back after the summer.
Sometimes we could see the look on their faces the first week they were here, cleaning out their little cabin, putting up pictures on the walls. The ones who looked mean from the very first lasted the longest. It was the ones who smiled all the time and pretended to like everything who didn't last.
Maybe they were running out of teachers and we wouldn't get another one.
But in just a week Sam brought us a new teacher.
I was helping Old Man Andreson in the store when Sam came in. It was my job to cross off every day on the calendar with an X so Old Man Andreson wouldn't get mixed up and forget what day it was. And it was the first day of a new month, so I had to tear that last month off, too. October 1, it was now -- 1948.
Sam was really big and tall, and when I was little, he always used to lift me up and make my head touch the ceiling. Now I was too big for that, so he just stuck me on top of the counter.
"Fred! I brought you a new teacher. I kidnapped her. What do you think about that?"
I had a bad feeling about that, so I asked him, "Is she nice?"
"Oh-ho," said Sam. "This one's got a little mileage. You kids are not going to get away with nothin'."
That didn't sound like she was going to be nice, so I wiggled down off the counter.
I wanted to go have a look at her.
I ran to the Nickoli house to see if Bertha was there. She was in the back of the house, helping her mother with a moose skin. They were twisting it and twisting it with a long spruce stick so it could get really soft. Good enough to sew.
"Bertha, we got a new teacher." Bertha's eyes got big and worried.
"Is she nice?"
"I don't know. Sam said she was strict."
Bertha dropped the stick and we ran, even though her mother was yelling after her to get back.
We ran to the teacher's cabin and then stopped short in the dusty road. There was a skinny woman whacking the dust out of a rug on the side of the cabin porch.
She was wearing pants. We never saw a woman wear pants. Our moms always wore dresses, with thick socks and moccasins. And us girls, too. Sometimes if it was really cold, we'd have pants under our skirts. But never just pants.
We looked hard at her to see what we could find out.
She was strong, that was for sure. The way she whacked that rug. The dust was just flying. She was making an ugly face to keep the dust out of her eyes. Then she dropped the rug in the dead grass by the door and went back inside.
We walked to her door and peeked in. She didn't even hardly look up, but she saw us.
"Good, just what I need. Two girls to give me a hand," she said. She didn't ask our names or nothing. Didn't even smile or tell us what a pretty village we had or any of the other teacher stuff. She just handed the slop bucket to Bertha and told her to dump it out back. And then she stripped the blankets off the bed and told me to hang them out back on the line.
We did what she told us for a while, and then she stopped and said, "We need some tea." Just like we were grown women.
She took the kettle off the back of the stove and poured water into a fat little brown teapot. I wanted to put my hands around that pot, it was so round.
She got three cups down from the shelf and three saucers, and took three spoons out of the jar on the table. Then she took a little silver thing and poured the tea through that so the tea leaves wouldn't get in our cups. I never saw that before.
And that tea was good. She put as much sugar in hers as we put in ours. Then she opened a can of milk and put some of that in her tea. Bertha and I looked surprised at each other. We didn't know you could put milk in tea. She saw us look and said, "Try it."
Bertha shook her head no. She never liked to do anything new. But I tried it. The tea was even better with milk than without.
The new teacher drank her tea straight down and then poured herself another cup.
"Thank heavens for tea," she said. She looked at us carefully. "Now then, who are you?" She had a funny way of talking, not like us. More short like. Like each letter made a hard sound.
"You talk funny," I said.
"That's because I'm English," she said.
I thought about that for a minute. English was what we talked. Mamma said she couldn't talk English until she was married, because then they got a radio and she learned it from the radio. So it didn't make sense, the teacher saying she was English.
The new teacher went to the shelf over her bed and took down a big book. She showed us a map. She put her finger on one part and said, "This is Alaska, where we are." And then she put her finger on the map on the other side. "This is England, where I come from." Her finger covered the place, it was so small. She looked at me and said, "The people from England are English."
"Oh," I said.
"And the language we speak is called English as well."
"Oh," I said again.
I think she could tell I was still a little mixed up, because she said, "The English that we speak in England sounds different from the way you speak English here. But it's the same language."
"Oh, yeah," I said, and this time I knew what she meant. Like how you can tell when someone is from Nulato or Hughes just because they say their words different.
"My name is Agnes Sutterfield," she said. "What are your names?"
"This is Bertha," I said. "Bertha Nickoli. She's really Bertha John, but Jake and Annie adopted her from her real mother, Sally John, because Sally had too many kids already. Sally lives at Allakaket."
The new teacher looked at Bertha. "I know your real mother," she said.
"You do?" We were very surprised.
"I taught at Allakaket a long time," she said. "And what's your name?" she said to me.
"Fred," I said.
"Fred," said the new teacher. I could see she was waiting for something else.
"Frederika, really," I said. "There was this old man ran a store when my dad was little. Dubin, that's his name. Frederika was his mother's name. He told my dad to name me that when my dad was just a little boy. 'You name one of your daughters Frederika,' he told him. And my dad did."
"Oh," she said, and smiled. "Dubin."
"You know him, too?" asked Bertha.
"Oh, no. He was gone before my time. But I heard a lot about him." The look she had made me wish she'd tell us about Dubin, but she stood up suddenly and said, "Well, you girls have work at home, I'm sure. I'm going to finish here and start in at the school. Be sure to be there tomorrow at nine. We have a lot of catching up to do."
Bertha went back to help her mom, and I went back to the store to see if Sam was still there. If I was helping in the store, he'd always buy me a candy bar.
He'd already gone, but Old Man Andreson was talking to some of the men. Barney Sam and his big boy, George, and Clayton Malemute and them. They were buying shells for their guns, and other stuff they needed to go hunting. They never did their buying quick -- they had to talk a long time. I wasn't supposed to talk when grown people were talking, but I was too curious.
"Jack," I said to Old Man Andreson. "You know our new teacher?"
"Oh, yeah," he said. "That's a good one. Agnes Sutterfield. She been in the country a long time, up at Allakaket. They like her a lot up there."
"That was my teacher," George said. "One winter we was staying with my grandma up there. I was only in that school a little while before we went to spring camp, but she was a good one. She taught me how to read. She knows a lot. That's a good teacher you got now."