By Clark Fair
Mary France was pleased when she received the telegram from Juneau offering her a teaching position in the only school in Kenai. She had applied for a job teaching first grade, and she made the assumption she would be teaching first grade.
The truth was one of several surprises in store for the 26-year-old when she came to the Last Frontier in 1954.
Mary France, now 80, was accompanying her husband, Dan, to the Kenai Peninsula, where he had been appointed protection officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She had left behind five years of elementary school teaching — two in Washington state and three in Idaho — and was grateful for the opportunity to continue.
“Since I had applied for a first-grade position, I assumed that I had a first-grade teaching job,” she said. “Well, I didn’t realize that that wasn’t so, and when school started in the fall I discovered I wasn’t the first-grade teacher; I was the fifth-grade teacher. It was a huge difference.”
Since Kenai principal George Fabricius had been out of the area for the entire summer, France didn’t discover her actual appointment until the day before school began, barely enough time to get used to the idea, let alone prepare to teach.
Still, she dutifully took her new class and began getting to know them and figuring out how to instruct them.
Meanwhile, things were not going as planned in the first grade.
The school had estimated that it would receive approximately 25 first-graders. Instead — due in part to the 1953 establishment of the Wildwood Army Station just outside of town and the burgeoning growth of young homesteading families — opening day saw 50 first-year students cramming into Joyce Carver’s southeast-corner basement classroom.
Consequently, at a faculty meeting at the end of the first day, France was made an offer.
“That’s when they asked me if I would switch to first grade,” she said. “Mr. Fabricius thought there was someone else in the area that had applied for a job that he was going to see if he could get to come in.”
By day two, Mrs. Biggar was in charge of the fifth grade, and Mary France was a first-grade teacher, sharing a single classroom with Carver and 50 students.
“We had to hunt for desks,” she said. “It was a struggle to come up with enough desks and equipment.”
Another struggle was basic classroom operation, especially since no kindergartens existed in the area and most of their students had never been in any kind of school before. Many of the students did not know their colors or numbers, let alone the alphabet, and some were unsure of where they lived and even their last names.
For practical purposes, France and Carver sometimes split the class in half. “I took my group of students and went into the hall for beginning reading,” France said. “But many things were taught together. We could do math together. One of us would do the teaching, and the other one would supervise and keep things going.”
The cramped conditions continued until Nov. 11, when the upstairs addition to the school was complete and Carver took half of the students to a new classroom.
The problems, however, were not over. And neither was France’s introduction to the intricacies of teaching in a remote location.
Most of the town, according to the Frances, received electricity from a diesel-powered generator operated by Frank Rowley. In the mornings and evenings, when the natural light was low or nonexistent, Rowley’s generator couldn’t keep up with the demand. At those times, Fabricius would go outside and start up the school’s own “light plant.”
The principal expected energy conservation from his faculty.
“Mr. Fabricius was pretty iron-handed, I guess,” France said. “You had to keep the temperature at 68 degrees, and you never turned on three banks of lights at a time. You turned on the two inside banks, but you never turned on the third bank because of the electricity problem.”
Another occasional problem centered around recess. “Kids went outside to play, regardless of the weather,” France said. “Everybody went out to recess (at the same time), and somebody always checked the playground to see if there were moose because if there were moose on the playground we couldn’t take the kids out for recess.
“And many times the moose would come and lie just by the windows at the back of the school. And the kids couldn’t go outside to play because (the moose) wintered there.”
Another difficulty came at the end of each day, especially early in the year.
“One of the hardest things to do was to get (the first-graders) on the right bus. The military kids had their own bus, but to go out to North Kenai, it was all Greek to me,” said France, who was unfamiliar with the area herself. “I didn’t know where any of those roads were out there.
“We did the best we could to put the kids on the right bus. Then it was kind of up to the bus driver.
“One kid — the bus driver came back (to the school) with one that was left over. And he didn’t know where he lived, so we just had to stay there until his parents came.”
The teachers and students at the Kenai school made it through the year, although France said the experience was an education for everyone. The area was growing, oil was about to be discovered on the Swanson River field, and things would never be the same.
“That was the first year that they had to have two teachers (for one grade), and after that year the second grade had to have two, and then the third, and so forth,” France said. The earliest grades also stayed large, and so for many years in a row at least one teacher was added to the faculty.
France’s first first-graders would not be her last, but — including such familiar area surnames as Reger, Segura, Ames, Juliussen and Ivanoff — they would be among her most memorable. Except for a two-year foray (1957 to 1959) into high school home economics, France continued in elementary education until she retired in the 1970s.
Over the years, the area got telephones, radio, television, natural gas and paved roads, but progress was rarely easy. Mary France got better and better at teaching elementary school in rural Alaska, but it was that first year that helped prepare her for the many to follow.