Like many who come to Alaska, Marilyn Forrester arrived in the state after her life had come to a dead end. Forty, childless and freshly divorced, she departed her Canadian home in 1977 with dreams of becoming a welder on the pipeline and striking it rich.
Forrester never became a welder, but she did find her way to a new, fulfilling and far more interesting life than the one she left behind. In her breezy memoir, “Teaching at the Top of the World,” she recounts her trajectory from middle-age secretary to special education instructor in various locales ranging from Alaska’s largest city to some of its smallest Bush villages.
Like many new arrivals, Forrester found herself employed almost before she wanted to be. She was initially taken on as a secretary for Alyeska in Anchorage, but boredom with office politics coupled with a thirst for adventure prompted her to apply for a position at Pump Station 5 near Prospect Creek. There she toughened herself by enduring the long winter, the isolation and the tenuous social life of a tiny, temporary community.
In 1978 she relocated to Barrow, where her English degree helped her obtain a teaching job at the Alaska Business College. Realizing that she wasn’t getting any younger and needed to plot a career, she earned her teaching certificate in Anchorage and headed off for a series of jobs in some of the most remote communities in Alaska.
Forrester’s book hits its stride when she starts covering her years as a teacher. Schools in the villages are notoriously difficult places for white people to work, especially those accustomed to the comforts of the city. Forrester describes the various living arrangements she confronted as she moved from one village to the next over her career. Dilapidated buildings, filthy carpets and furniture, wall cracks that allowed arctic winds to howl through her rooms and the ever-present honey bucket all became signs of home. Her descriptions of these dwellings, along with a few photographs she includes, won’t make anyone envious.
Forrester also faced plenty of difficulties on the job. Administrators were a continuing source of friction, and the tendency of most teachers (including herself) to move from one village to the next while awaiting that dream job in Anchorage or Fairbanks made establishing a footing burdensome.
Further strains resulted from the gap between traditional Native cultures and the values the schools sought to instill. Sometimes this was as simple as balancing subsistence hunting with doing homework. More troublesome to Forrester and many of her fellow teachers, however, was the high rate of out-of-wedlock births, as well as the easily obtainable welfare lifestyle that this led many young women into. Addressing it was no picnic either, as Forrester learned in Kotzebue when some of her colleagues held a public meeting on the issue and found themselves accused of racism and other ill intentions.
The racial divides in the villages were always tense, but Forrester avoided them as best she could by focusing on her work and not diving into the fray. She found it harder, however, to remain silent when students would show up in her classroom with clear signs of physical or sexual abuse. Not reporting these cases struck her as immoral, but notifying the authorities, as she did from time to time, got her in trouble with village residents and even administrators and fellow teachers.
Problems in the villages were compounded by alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, unemployment, and a sometimes insurmountable hopelessness. Forrester did what she could to capture the minds of her students and try to point them toward healthier lifestyles, but the kids often went home to parents fighting addictions and other problems and tended to follow in their footsteps. Forrester writes forlornly of one young boy in particular who captured her heart with his kindness but who is now, as an adult, homeless and alcoholic.
As if teaching in the villages wasn’t stressful enough, Forrester obtained certification to teach special education classes and wound up dealing with some of the toughest kids. Often special education classes received little support from the school districts, and she became not just a teacher but also an advocate for the students she spent much of her time simply trying to control.
Forrester appears from the writing to be quite tenacious, but her ability to stick with the worst didn’t always serve her interests, particularly where men are concerned. Along with the teaching stories, we meet her series of less than admirable boyfriends, several of whom she should have shunned altogether. She also struggled with most of her roommates, indicating that her independent streak might not have always made her the easiest person to live with.
What Forrester thankfully avoids is the irritating tendency of so many memoirists to obsess endlessly over the minutia in their lives. She simply acknowledges her errors of judgment, chalks them up as lessons learned and moves onward. There’s an underlying conservatism to her outlook that keeps her from making excuses for herself or anyone else.
“Teaching at the Top of the World” isn’t the most vivid memoir on the market. There are times when readers will wish for more details. As a brief take on the life of a Bush teacher, however, it’s a good, no-nonsense introduction. Forrester could easily go back and expand some of these chapters, and perhaps one day she will. She’s certainly led a far more interesting life than she would have if she’d gotten that welding job.
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
Teaching at the Top of the World
By Marilyn Forrester
192 pages • $17.95