Fairmont kindergarten teacher left life on tundra

Voni (Kesler) Eakins is Fairmont Elementary School’s newest kindergarten teacher. Originally from Fairmont, she moved back at the start of the school year from her last teaching position in Kipnuk, Alaska. For the last 11 years, Eakins had taught in a small, rural village on the tundra.

Eakins graduated from Fairmont High School and then majored in psychology at Southwest State in Marshall. She worked as a paraprofessional for about 10 years in the Anoka Hennepin County School District before going to Augsburg in Minneapolis to obtain her teaching certificate.

Eakins recalled that she and a friend were looking for jobs online and came across two openings in Alaska. They called and talked directly to the superintendent at the school in Kipnuk. Eakins said she was open to trying something new.

“It’s a village of about 700 people, five miles from the Bering Sea. It’s out on the tundra and it’s beautiful in its own way,” she said of Kipnuk.

To get there, you fly into Anchorage and then into the hub city, Bethel. The only way to get to Kipnuk from there is to be dropped off by a small plane that has eight seats at the most. Eakins noted that the flights from Bethel to Kipnuk are expensive.

She taught second grade at the Chief Paul Memorial School, which has about 150 student in grades K-12.

“We were large enough to have one teacher for every grade,” Eakins said.

She said the students spoke a mixture of the local Yungtan language and English. She said many of the elders in the village spoke Yungtan and were trying to bring the language back.

“It’s a very guttural language with long words. One word could be almost a sentence long,” she said.

She said academically the school was trying its best to advance curriculum and had Smart Boards and Apple TVs.

As for school sports, basketball was a big deal, but there was no tennis, baseball or golf because there was no space to play them. Eakins said there was either snow or mud throughout the year.

She lived in a complex with other teachers that was owned by the village. They were just 20 steps away from the school. The teacher housing and the school had plumbing, but otherwise there was none. There are no roads or cars so people walk to their destination.

Houses are built on stilts because flooding happens often. Eakins said when that happens people come to the school building because it is built on the highest ground.

“The community relies a lot on the school,” she explained.

In the winter, the sun would come up at 10 or 11 in the morning and by 3:30 in the afternoon it was dusk. In the spring there would still be sunlight at midnight.

“It was a subsistent village. People relied heavily on hunting and fishing,” Eakins explained.

She said the men do the hunting and fishing while the women clean, cut and prepare the animals. Everyone shares with each other and the elders get first priority.

“The kids are very respectful to the elders,” she said.

Eakins said people held feasts for different reasons, and the whole village would be invited to a gathering because nearly everyone was related. Some of the different foods Eakins tried while there included walrus, seal, many types of fish, whale and caribou.

She said locals would go egg hunting in the spring. They would go out on the tundra and look for bird nests and take the eggs. They would also go berry picking.

When Eakins got to Kipnuk there were just three stores: the green store, yellow store and blue store. One sold a little bit of clothing and there were some groceries available, but not many. There’s no fresh milk in the village and eggs were difficult to get. Eakins said in the last four years, fruits and vegetables started popping up in the stores but everything was expensive because it had to be flown in.

As Eakins pointed out, people could order anything online, but it would take quite a while to get there. However, many people would buy months of groceries online at a time. Frozen food was an additional $1.86 per pound.

It was expensive to fly to Anchorage and difficult to plan because of the unpredictable weather, so Eakins said some people would make the trip once a year and stock up on clothes and other goods.

During the summer, her apartment complex would close, so Eakins spent summers at her home in Minneapolis. While she was never in Kipnuk for the summer, she said that when she first got there, a thermometer was left in her classroom to teach children about temperatures and the 60-degree mark was labeled “hot.”

“Some years were colder than others but one year it was about 60 degrees below zero just regular temperature. That lasted for about five days,” Eakins recalled.

Eakins moved back to Fairmont to be closer to her family. Her mother lives in Fairmont and she has two grown sons who both live in Minneapolis.

“My sister saw the job opening on Facebook so I applied immediately. It was really a gift because I was wanting to come home. I miss Kipnuk, but when I’m there I miss my family,” she explained.

Because the trip to Minnesota is so long, Eakins only ever came home for Christmas.

“This is the first time I’ve seen fall leaves in 12 years. A lot of kids in the village have never seen a tree,” Eakins said.

She commented on some differences she has noticed between the students she had in Kipnuk and in Fairmont.

“The kids here have a tremendous vocabulary because of their exposure. It’s a whole different level of communication with them,” she said.

She currently has 20 students in her kindergarten class. Her position was added after 20 more kindergarten students than the district were anticipating signed up at Fairmont Elementary School this school year. It was a blessing for Eakins as it allowed her the opportunity to come back home to teach.

“It’s a change but I’m happy to be back here. It’s good,” Eakins said.