Teacher brings heart to health class

Juneau color

Posted: Friday, March 03, 2000

The students stand shoulder to shoulder in a circle in Nancy Seamount's health class at Juneau-Douglas High School.

They turn to the left, put their right arms toward the center, and are then told to sit down in the lap of the person behind them. Many students back out.

``Oh, everybody's uncomfortable with touch all of a sudden?'' Seamount asks.

The students remaining in the circle collapse on each other in a giggling group.

Then all the students get in a wide circle and are told to hold hands. Hold hands? They rearrange themselves so boys alternate with girls.

``You can get boy-girl. It's up to you,'' Seamount tells them. ``But this homophobia has got to stop.''

Andrew Vallejo, a student who helps teach, leads the class in an ever-tightening circle, a coil, until they're just a big bunch in the middle.

``This is officially called a group hug,'' Seamount says.

Seamount, 45, began her career with the Juneau School District in 1983 as an elementary school counselor, an experience she found somewhat traumatic.

Many children were from divorced families. Students also told her about drug and alcohol problems in the home, domestic violence and sexual abuse.

``I was overwhelmed,'' Seamount said. ``Kids at that age present themselves - they're so vulnerable. What impressed me was children today are overwhelmed by loneliness and unresolved grief.''

When she moved to the high school, to counsel and eventually teach, she told herself she'd remember where the big kids were coming from.

``Every face I looked at was both an adolescent and a child,'' Seamount said.

Besides teaching health, Seamount helps coordinate Students for Social Responsibility and Peer Mediation, which was one of nine ``safe and drug-free school'' programs honored last year by the U.S. Department of Education.

The program includes teen-led community service projects, students who help troubled peers and mediate disputes, and retreats partly led by students for teens at risk of dropping out.

Seamount grew up in Riverside, Calif., expecting to be a missionary Catholic nun, but she went to the wrong convent.

The nuns in her Catholic schools excelled at developing a sense of vocation, of contributing to the world, Seamount said. But she only lasted one semester in a Houston, Texas, convent because she didn't feel the same passion from those nuns, she said.

Seamount - who came from a family of wilderness lovers, backpackers and teachers - ended up studying physical education at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She also spent summers in Alaska during the oil boom years, when some Alaskans deserted their usual jobs for North Slope work. Seamount said she ``got fabulous jobs,'' such as counseling adults with disabilities and running a recreation center.

After getting a master's in counseling from California State University in Fresno, she moved to Juneau in 1981 and became an alcohol and drug abuse prevention specialist.

Seamount is one of four women who will be honored by AWARE - Juneau's shelter and counseling service for women and children - this month for making a difference in women's and children's lives. The others are political activist Dianne Lindback, community volunteer Marie Olson and nurse practitioner Connie Trollan.

``She's always been a very strong advocate for students,'' said Ann Rausch, education specialist at Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies. ``She has a real special way of engaging students . . . as opposed to speaking at them. She hears their ideas.''

This semester's health class started with academic units on nutrition, but now they're in a two-week period of team-building and creating the cultural norms for the class.

To Seamount, health includes character. Health classes are rich in opportunities to teach character, moral development and decision-making, she said.

If you give Seamount a soapbox, she'll talk about the harmful effects of the entertainment media on youth.

Movies and television shows foster disrespect for adults, use men and women as sex objects, encourage impulsive behavior and desensitize people to violence, she said.

In her Wednesday health class, Seamount told the students she wants them to realize they can create communities that support them and create happiness for themselves.

``We can consistently create atmospheres around us that are in our best favor,'' she said.

The students, working out the class's cultural norms by consensus, agreed to treat everyone equally and with respect. They'll offer support to those who are down, solve problems without physical or verbal abuse, listen attentively to others, and keep personal information confidential unless someone is in physical danger.

But the students' discussion of those points was a window into their lives.

A boy said he didn't want help when he's down, so students decided to be sensitive to those who want to be left alone.

They struggled a lot with the idea of telling an adult about a student who talked about being in physical danger. A student could feel betrayed, one boy said. Students won't be open with each other if there's a risk people will tell on them, a girl said.

Seamount knew it wasn't an idle discussion.

``The most disheartening thing in my career has been the lack of effective child abuse protection,'' she said in an interview. ``No one should ever go to bed in Juneau at night thinking the children are being protected.''

Seamount didn't become a missionary nun, but as a teacher she's still on a mission.

``I've seen kids overcome incredible life circumstances. It just blows my mind,'' she said. Teaching ``certainly satisfies that sense of vocation.''

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