I arrived home in the early spring of 1975. I had swapped Arizona’s sun and heat for Alaska’s gray skies and breakup, when winter’s snowfall turns to slush and mud.
I felt disoriented at first; picking up and leaving Phoenix wasn’t easy. Back in Anchorage, I had to find a place to live. I had no car—heck, I didn’t even know how to drive.
I bounced between staying with my guardian, with a friend’s parents, and with a group of young people in Mountain View, one of Anchorage’s poorer neighborhoods.
The group house seemed like a good idea at first. My friends were all staying together in a broken-down house that was more or less a shack.
A couple of the guys living there were in a garage band. They set up their instruments in the living room, where they practiced and played for nearly nightly parties.
The place was small, crowded, and dirty. I hated living there and soon began to become disenchanted with hippies—although it would take a few more years before I abandoned the concept altogether. Eventually I settled into living with the Dodges or the Johnsons.
That fall, I enrolled in Steller Secondary School, Anchorage’s alternative public school. Years later, I would refer to Steller as the “Hey, Wow, Man” school.
Even so, it wasn’t quite as hippie-ish as the so-called Free School some teens had created in Anchorage, where it seemed all they did was drive around together in an old van. Steller was named after eighteenth-century German scientist and explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller, who had extensively mapped Alaska’s flora and fauna. Steller was founded by civic-minded parents and veteran educators who wanted something different—a place where students learned to love learning. The school philosophy emphasized self-learning. Steller was right in line with an educational movement occurring across the country. Parents disenchanted with a traditional education worked to create schools that mirrored the youth-oriented counterculture that had begun a decade earlier. They viewed informal education—or, as they came to call it, “open education”—as an answer to both the American education system’s critics and the problems of society.
The focus on students learning by doing resonated with those who believed that America’s formal, teacher-led classrooms were crushing students’ creativity. At Steller, that meant calling teachers by their first names, forming student-led government to deal with discipline issues, and letting teachers create any classroom environment they wanted as long as the state-mandated curriculum was covered.
Students could come and go from classrooms without hall passes. The more relaxed atmosphere seemed perfect for me. It was at Steller that I learned to love learning. I constantly discovered new fields of interest and new paths of knowledge to follow.
As much as we really learned, sometimes independent study courses got approval that maybe shouldn’t have. One such independent study program, a girlfriend and I tried to teach ourselves “ground school” in order to learn to fly. Ground school.
Two teenagers teaching themselves ground school. This was somehow approved.
I remember the friend and I meeting in the hall, sitting on the floor, together trying to read aloud a text book on aerodynamics. We used our hands to demonstrate the principles of airflow, air pressure and lift around an aircraft’s wings. It got so hard and so boring it was all we could do to keep from falling asleep. After a session or two, we dropped the class for something else.
About 150 middle and high school students attended Steller. Many came from Anchorage’s upper-income homes or families with long histories. They were the sons and daughters of politicians, community leaders, and otherwise civic-minded families.
“We had a school uniform,” a friend from Steller quipped. Just about everyone wore hiking boots, belted jeans or corduroy pants, and waffle Henleys or flannel shirts. Back then some students, mostly males, carried buck knives; I used to joke that they were prepared should a wayward moose enter the building during hunting season.
Actually, we weren’t hunters, or even Eagle Scouts or Girl Scouts ready for a campout. I suppose the knives were for popping open a beer at high school parties. At Steller, I took philosophy, music, art, and US government. Once standard high school core classes were covered, students could propose their own course of study.
For my government class, my classmate Sigrid and I decided to pursue a project that would explore which agenciesowned or managed Alaska’s lands. Whoever owned these lands—the federal government, the state, Alaska Native groups, or private owners—was and still is a hot topic in Alaska.
Alaska did not achieve statehood until 1959, and when I was in high school, the state was still selecting the lands it was granted through the Statehood Act.
Sigrid and I went around interviewing the heads of state parks, those who oversaw federal lands, and directors at the Bureau of Land Management.
It was an important topic to us, since most of my classmates were outdoorsy. At Steller, I discovered a life of mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, and all-night bonfires.
My class of 1976 was the school’s second graduating class. We had about twenty students.
We were, without a doubt, the Dazed and Confused generation, like the kids in Richard Linklater’s film set on the closing day of the 1976 school year.
‘This is my Steller Secondary Alternative School graduation photo! This was us- in homemade graduation gowns we each decorated on our own. I’m the one in the tie-dyed number! I remain in touch or know what’s going on with just about every classmate!’
We had nothing in common with the Baby Boomer generation that immediately followed World
War II. We didn’t participate in the rebellion of the 1960s; we didn’t march against the Vietnam War; none of my male peers faced being drafted to go to war.
By the time we graduated, the Vietnam War was over. Our cultural rallying cry didn’t come so much against anything but more for something.
That something became being outdoors in every fashion and form we could think of: hiking, cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, or gettingion and form we could think of: hiking, cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, or getting on the water—usually freezing cold water.”