August 14, 2014
Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek, taken during a visit in 2012 Photo: Dan Davidson
Robert Service School (RSS) celebrated its 25th year in its present building last May. There were no special celebrations, and I suspect that not too many people were aware of the anniversary. It was probably my time on the building committee that made me sensitive to the date.
There were still a few staff members who might have recalled moving into the new building near the end of the 1989 school year when I retired in January 2008, but six years later I am no longer a familiar face in the building, and I am only on a first name basis with a few of the newer staff members.
I spent my entire teaching career in rural schools and, oddly enough, RSS, which topped out at about 320 students in the mid 1990s, was not the largest of them.
That happened to be Del Van Gorder School in Faro, which reached a peak of around 500. At that time, the town had the second largest population in the territory.
My wife and I didn’t start our time in the Yukon there, though.
We began in Beaver Creek, after a job search had us sending mail right across the country from Nova Scotia.
At that time the school now known as Nelnah Bessie John School was just Beaver Creek School. The White River First Nation would not be formed until a decade after our three-year posting there had ended, and I never did meet White River Johnny’s daughter, after whom the school is now named.
During most of our three years there we had between 20 and 25 students from Kindergarten and Grade 8, which were divided between the two of us, sometimes with the help of a half-time aid.
There were reasons why the Department of Education chose to employ teaching couples in the smaller communities, while most schools across Canada found it undesirable; there were many stories about single men and women who left town for Christmas or March break and did not come back.
There is an apartment at the school, and while Eric Foster and his family, who were there two postings before us, decided to live in the building, we felt we would never get away from the job if we did that, so we chose one of the Department of Highways’ PMQs left over from the early period of the Alaska Highway.
Small schools are a bit like extended family affairs, and in spite of having 17 to 20 different lessons to get ready for every day, there was a feeling of personal responsibility in Beaver Creek that was different from my postings in Faro and Dawson City. We played with the kids, both indoors and out, sang with them, and started up community film nights (in the years before TV arrived).
We did our best to become part of the community, as we have done wherever we worked, finally choosing to continue to make Dawson City our home after retiring from the classroom.