Judy Dickson '58

 

northwest passage

%219%left%For many, the term "the bush" brings to mind the sunny island continent of Australia. But for Judy Dickson '58, it is environs surrounding Napakiak, Alaska, where she teaches reading, writing and arithmetic to bilingual first and second graders. Dickson's young pupils speak English and Yup'ik, an Eskimo language of southwestern Alaska.

"I tell them they're much further ahead . . . [they] can speak in two languages. [They] can read pretty much in two languages. [They've] got this great background," she said.

Dickson teaches in a dual immersion program: in the morning her first-grade class goes into the Yup'ik program, and she teaches reading, writing and math to her second-grade class. Dickson says she's been spoiled having smaller classes, with only 10 in her second-grade class and nine in her first-grade class. "When [a friend of mine] had suggested coming out here to the bush because I would really like being with these kids, she was right. They're so great, these kids," she said.

Dickson has been an educator in the 49th state for more than 15 years. She taught first graders in Anchorage, worked as a resource tutor in a low-income neighborhood, taught English as a second language in Toksook Bay and even taught weaving at a college in Anchorage.

After growing up in New York State and spending summers with her family on the coast of Maine, Dickson chose Colby and majored in geology. She always had an interest in teaching. "All through my high school years I babysat a lot and I really enjoyed being with children, so the teaching just kind of came. Mother had been a teacher . . . and my grandmother had been a teacher, so I guess it kind of fell to my lot, you could say."

%218%right%A post-graduation road trip with classmate Mary Ellen O'Reilly '58 brought Dickson to the West Coast. The following summer, Dickson, O'Reilly and Ruth Winterbottom '58 drove the Al-Can Highway and spent the summer in Alaska. Dickson lived in San Francisco for several years after that, but always dreamed of going back to Alaska.

"When the third summer came along and I didn't get to go to Alaska, oh, I was just devastated," she said.

She earned her teaching credentials at San Francisco State College (now university), taught for two years in Corda Madera, then trekked back up north. And she's never looked back.

Dickson has experienced life in all parts of Alaska, from the city of Anchorage (pop. 260,283) to tiny Tuntutuliak (pop. 300), but she prefers the smaller towns. "Now that I'm here in this village, it's amazing to me . . . I'm now part of this family and it's just wonderful, it's absolutely wonderful."

She lives and works on the Kuskokwim Delta, 12 miles from Bethel, where in April the river ice is at least five feet thick. Alaskans hunt for moose and caribou in the winter and fish for salmon in the summer. Sound familiar? Dickson says it reminds her of her summers as a child on the coast of Maine. "Our little cottage there had no running water . . . so to get the fresh water we had to row the boat down the beach to the little spring at low tide."

But there are differences. Dense forests like those found in northern Maine aren't part of the Alaskan landscape, and while both states have their cold winters, Dickson says the Maine winters are much damper. And of course, first graders in small Maine towns don't speak Yup'ik, the "down in your throat" language with which Dickson admits she has difficulty. "My students will tell me to say something [in Yup'ik] and I'll say it and then they laugh." But they're becoming quite proficient in their second language, English: "I'll listen to them read, and it just gives you little goose bumps right up your spine. Oh my god, they can do it!"
--Anne Marie Sears '03