Teens from tiny towns gather to learn arts, form friendships

Posted: Monday, May 01, 2000

An Alaska AP Member Exchange

GUSTAVUS (AP) -- 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.''

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.

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 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 soon 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 Angoon with her stuffed bunny. Tenth-grader Chris Taylor was from Gustavus and wasn't about to kiss a stranger in front of strangers.

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.

In between rehearsals, the students made pilgrimages to Gustavus' general store for potato chips and drinks. Three girls from Cube Cove, population 140, 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.

On the final night, the teens, 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 nervous during the talent show three days before, 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.

Afterward students hung out in the hallway, trading lighthearted banter while they waited for the dance to start.

''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.''

As the slow twang of Shania Twain filled the gym, a dozen couples swayed gently, some just friends, some new romances.

At the end of the dance, a Gustavus student shouted a final farewell from a truck, '''Bye, I'll probably never see you again.''

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