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Breaking the isolation

Southeast's tiniest villages breed rare teens - strong, silent types who spend their time alone. Except for one week in April.

Posted: Sunday, April 30, 2000

For one week in April, Lillian Piedra did things she can't do at home - hang out with other teen-agers, act in a play, dance in a darkened gym.

``This is the most fun I've had in years,'' said the eighth grader, who was in Gustavus April 17 to 21 for Spring Fling.

The weeklong event brought 20 middle and high school students from Elfin Cove, Angoon, Tenakee, Pelican, Cube Cove, Hoonah and Klukwan to the town on the edge of Glacier Bay, primarily to meet other kids.

``It's really important in these little isolated communities for kids to be able to get out,'' said Bob Henry, who chaperoned a plane-load of three students from Pelican: Jake Henry, Katy Henry and Brandy Jennings.

Brandy and Katy are best friends. They have no choice. Only six teens live in the fishing town of about 120 people on Lisianski Inlet. Two are their brothers and two are always on computers.

``We basically hang out with each other because there's no other alternate,'' Brandy said. ``She's 13. I'm 17. But who cares? There's nobody else.'' In Pelican, they ``walk around, sometimes go camping and hiking.''

 

Tarin Foster, Jenna Downs and Nicole Downss get ready for a ride to the airport for their return flight to Cube Cove.

KRISTAN HUTCHISON / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

But Lillian Piedra doesn't even have a best friend to walk around with. She lives in Elfin Cove, population about 50, ``with, like, no other kids, so I don't get to socialize.''

She's already read every book in her school library, and the only other children who lived there moved away.

At Spring Fling in Gustavus, all the students had more choices: stone carving, painting, drawing, band. Students who'd only sung solo could suddenly sing in a choir. They divided into teams for academic Jeopardy and a map game. They competed in spelling and geography bees.

``My girls jumped up out of bed this morning, ready to come because they're doing art; they're doing plays,'' said Marion Farley, one of the organizers in Gustavus. ``With the staffing cuts in the schools, they don't get to do those things.''

The seven-room Gustavus School has no art classes this year. It also lost a foreign language teacher, so Farley's daughter is trying to fulfill her language requirement through a correspondence course.

 

Gustavus student Alan Kearns rehearses his `Cyrano de Bergerac` role with Deena Weisenbaugh of Tenakee.

KRISTAN HUTCHISON / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

The Spring Fling activities were paid for by a state incentive grant to combat drug and alcohol abuse. Even in small towns such as 375-person Gustavus, drugs are a problem, said 10th-grader Zack Williams. Some teens smoke or sniff toxic substances to get high.

``I do know that it is an issue,'' Zack said. ``I won't say who.''

So parents and students organized the Spring Fling to give the teens something else to do.

The best part of Spring Fling was ``probably our free periods, because they were really good to get to know people,'' Brandy of Pelican said. ``There's some very one-of-a-kind people here.''

At first, the students were shy. Margaret Haube from 875-population Hoonah hung back quietly, surprised to see pale Gustavus teen-agers with green, magenta or yellow hair.

``When I first got here, I didn't see anybody like me. I didn't know anybody,'' said Haube, her own dark hair falling straight down her back. ``I was kind of nervous making the speech the first day, 'cause I was the only one from Hoonah.''

At a dance the first night, the students clumped into groups, sticking with others from their towns.

But the newness wore off. In the first rehearsals of ``Snow Falling on Cedars,'' one of three plays the students performed, the two leads awkwardly practiced a quick kiss. They'd just met. Eighth-grader Telise Gamble had come from 575-person Angoon with her stuffed bunny. Tenth-grader Chris Taylor was from Gustavus and wasn't about to kiss a stranger in front of strangers.

``We've got to get them to feel deep emotions quickly,'' said director Dan Henry from Haines, population 2,500, after the second rehearsal.

By the next day, Chris and Telise were holding hands offstage, sitting together at lunch. Chris rested his hand familiarly on Telise's back as they walked, and there was no doubt they were practicing their parts.

So were the other students. They went over their lines in classrooms and corners. Dan Henry directed rehearsals in a corner of the gymnasium, as the shrieks and clip-clop footsteps of elementary students bounced off the walls and across the room.

``In a way, someone could really call it combat theater, or theater on the run, 'cause it was kind of crazy at times,'' the director said.

In between rehearsals, the students made pilgrimages to Gustavus' general store for potato chips and drinks. Three girls from 140-person Cube Cove bought pints of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, a treat they can't get in the tiny logging camp on Admiralty Island.

By midweek the students knew each others' names and were walking around with friends they'd just met.

``It's nice to see the kids warming up to each other and getting into different groups,'' said Nancy Downs, the chaperone from Cube Cove. ``They're feeling a little more free, or a little more at home.''

In the cafeteria, cedar trees grew from cardboard and strips of green construction paper. On the final night of Spring Fling, the trees were transplanted to a corner of the gym, where paper snowflakes fell on the jerry-rigged stage.

Students, wearing costumes pulled from the town's secondhand store, stood in the bright stage lights and spoke their lines.

Klukwan's Alex Strong, who'd been so nervous for the talent show three days before she thought her legs would collapse, was fearless delivering her lines in ``Much Ado About Nothing.'' By then, she knew the audience was friendly.

``I usually get homesick when I just go to Adeline's house to spend the night, and it's just down the road,'' Alex said. ``But this week I didn't get homesick at all.''

At the banquet following the plays, every student received an award: first certificates, then posters or cups. When those ran out, the teachers distributed Tootsie-pops, cheese-and-cracker packets and cans of soda to the winners. But the applause stayed strong, sometimes shaking the floor as the students stamped and cheered for each other.

``Next year I'm going to go to Mount Edgecumbe so I'll have friends,'' said Lillian from Elfin Cove, wearing a silver-starred crown a Gustavus girl had made from the table decorations. Edgecumbe is a state-run high school in Sitka.

Afterward students hung out in the hallway, trading lighthearted banter while they waited for the dance to start. They autographed a poster Jake Henry had won, adding sharks, submarines and lyrics from the rock group Pink Floyd.

``It's been cool, just because these are really different people than what I'm used to hanging out with,'' said Vanessa George from Angoon.

``I learn a lot from going on these trips, because I learn how different people can be. Living in a small town, you think everybody's like you.''

Though Vanessa has visited Juneau and Anchorage on school trips, she said the five days in Gustavus had more impact, because she was set up to meet teens from other towns.

``All the people here are really friendly and really wanted to be around you,'' Vanessa said.

In the gym, red lights and strobes mimicked cities these kids had never seen. The music - Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Filter, Beastie Boys, DMX, House of Pain - played loud enough the teens had to shout in each others' ears to be heard.

This time, everybody stayed and most people danced, together in the middle of the floor. Alan Kearns from Gustavus strapped on a bike helmet and tried spinning on his head, while the other teens cheered him on. Then Jake Henry from Pelican did a handstand to more cheers.

When the DJ played ``I Like American Music,'' the students formed a can-can line. Every time the music faded out early, or stopped, the dancers turned as a group toward the boy in charge of the CDs and yelled his name: ``Pete!''

``I thought the dance pretty much showed what the whole thing was about,'' said Gustavus Principal Peter Kokes. ``There was a lot more mixing.''

As the slow twang of Shania Twain filled the gym, Chris and Telise, now an established couple, came out from their corner to cling to each other in the middle of the gymnasium. A dozen couples rocked gently around them, some just friends waiting for the next song, some new romances.

At the end of the dance, Margaret of Hoonah traded e-mail addresses with other students.

One Gustavus student shouted a final farewell from a truck, ``'Bye, I'll probably never see you again.''



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