By Cornelia de Bruin
Triplicate staff writer
A decade ago, retired Crescent City teacher Paul Cloer let his "little sister" talk him into taking a year-long job in Alaska's far-north bush.
"When we were flying in a single-engine plane, I saw a speck out there," Cloer said. "The pilot said That's where you will be spending a year,' and I thought My God.'"
The plane he flew on was so small that he was shoulder to shoulder with his pilot, and he could feel one of his two dogs' breath on the back of his neck.
"When we landed, the town had never seen boxers; the kids asked if they were real dogs," Cloer said. "The adults were afraid of the dogs, but they got used to it."
Cloer has never regretted his decision to take the second grade teaching position in a "mainly Inuit" community working for Bering Strait School District.
It's a decision that this year helped his former pupils set a school record: the first class from which everyone graduated.
Cloer taught in Golovin, Alaska, a place where life centers around the community gym.
"The kids would go to the gym every day because it was too cold to play anywhere else," Cloer said.
He remembers a winter day in the community just south of the Arctic Circle when the temperature bottomed out at minus 67 degrees.
That's 99 degrees below freezing.
"Even the villagers said it was cold," Cloer said. "It was 40 to 50 below most of the time."
His new colleagues advised Cloer at the beginning of the year to expect at least some of the students to drop out. The advice and his colleagues' cavalier attitude put him at odds with them.
When the school year began, Cloer tested his students to determine their academic level.
He'd been assured that they could all read, but found out quickly that five of his nine students didn't know all of their letters.
Teaching that became his first task a task the childrens' parents thought "was so mean."
But the students Shanelle Olson, George Lewis, Randall Willoya, Candice Amaktoolik, Preston R. Keller, Cory Sockpealuk, Charice Brown, Washington Takak and Ivan Larsen liked Cloer's dogs, and Cloer was savvy enough to let them earn "turns" walking Rocco and Titus if they studied to his specs.
By year's end, the parents and students wanted Cloer to teach another year. Family obligations prevented him from doing so, but he did stay in touch with his class.
Ten years later the class invited him to fly back at their expense to be their graduation speaker. His second-grade class had set school history.
"All of them have plans for their future, that's one of the things their parents are thrilled about," Cloer said. "I think the parents saw, in my class, that their kids could really learn."
The same parents had given Cloer a plaque thanking him for his year of teaching after his second-grade class ended in 1997.
"I've gotten lots of awards, but this one came from the heart," he said.
Cloer also taught at Joe Hamilton School "when it was new," and in Hoopa. He now substitute teaches in the Del Norte Unified School District.