The school was in a Siberian-Yupik whale- and walrus-hunting village on an island forty miles off the coast of Siberia. It sat at the base of a rocky headland, on a gravel peninsula jutting into the Bering Sea.
There were 41 students. Only one spoke English as a first language. The rest spoke St. Lawrence Island Yupik, a language only about two-thousand people worldwide know. The kids had little world knowledge, so comprehension was difficult.
We had no computers and no books except for the textbooks. The school “library” consisted of worn-out scientific tomes and remaindered romance novels – the covers torn off – sent for tax write-offs.
The village had no roads or cars and no plumbing except at school and in the village washeteria. It was early spring. The temperatures would still plummet – the windchill often reached -140+ degrees Fahrenheit – and everything was covered by a snow blown into hardpack by the constant winds.
On a frigid Wednesday, our principal called an emergency faculty meeting. We teachers – six from the high school, and four from the elementary – gathered in the high school home economics room. Mr. Bowling, whose thin frame sometimes seemed incapable of containing the huge heart within, had an important announcement.
“As you know,” he said, “the district wrestling tournament is scheduled for this weekend in Unalakleet.” About two-hundred miles away, the school there held the district office. “We just received word their pipes are frozen and aren’t expected to thaw anytime soon. The superintendent wants to know if we can hold the tournament here. If that happens, all the wrestlers will fly here on Friday.”
The school district, which had sixteen sites, is larger than the state of Washington. Flying meant boarding small planes, often in inclement weather. The kids were required to wear winter gear. It was practical, of course, but it was also preparation for the worst: plane crashes are not uncommon in that part of the world.
“As you also know,” Mr. Bowling continued, “the state’s annual achievement tests are scheduled for next Monday and Tuesday. We were hoping to have review sessions tomorrow and Friday. But Friday will be chaos – in fact, the matches will start Friday afternoon – and we’ll need at least half of tomorrow to get ready. I told the superintendent I would ask you folks. What do you want to do?”
We voted unanimously, and he left the room to phone the district office.
Our village, Gambell, won the tournament and the cheerleading competition and was given the Sportsmanship Award for having put the thing together with such short notice.
Everything had gone without a hitch.
Except it hadn’t.
Someone brought in a virulent flu.
By Sunday night, after the other teams had left, flu swept through the village like a tidal wave.
To make matters worse, we lost electricity and heating that same night.
Bless their hearts, all the high-school kids showed up for Monday’s battery of tests. They knew how important the tests are for school funding and for a variety of other matters.
The cook gave the kids a special breakfast, and Mr. Bowling gave them a pep talk, including profusely and sincerely thanking them for coming.
Then the testing began.
There was no lighting in the classrooms and no heat in the school. The kids had to sit in their coats in the gym, beneath emergency lighting that cast a small glow from on high.
With each break, the kids wouldn’t head outside. Instead, they put their heads down on the tables. Or went into the bathrooms to throw up.
Some didn’t last until noon, when the first round of testing was over. They told us, “Sorry,” and tottered outside into the wind.
“There go our hopes for decent scores,” I told my friend Lyle, the science teacher who later took over as principal when Mr. Bowling moved into the district office, eventually to become superintendent.
Except I was wrong.
At least in grammar instruction.
I received a commendation for the highest increase in English scores in the district.
But it wasn’t me. It was the techniques I had developed over the past decade. The kids began calling it the Guthridge Grammar System (GGS), and it became an essential part of the Guthridge Writing System (GWS), which I also had developed. Though still in its infancy, it was a revolutionary pedagogy for teaching grammar. The system simplified grammar and eliminated nearly all the mind-boggling nomenclature that traditional grammar includes.
This website is for everyone to use. Its practice section, The Seven Wonders of the Word, includes exercises that enable teachers to place grammar instruction in short, interesting essays about history, geography, ecology, and other subjects. That way, kids don’t work grammar exercises with sentences that have nothing to do with other things they need to learn.
Later, when I again was teaching college rather than teaching high school, I co-developed RAHI, the Rural Alaska Honors Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It is a summer college-prep for high school seniors. Our students, almost all of whom were Alaska Natives from rural communities, became expert at the Guthridge Grammar System and the Guthridge Writing System. One student, a usually jovial Caucasian kid who grew up on a homestead dozens of miles from the next house, became red in the face and slammed his fist on his desk. “Do you know how hard I worked to learn grammar?” he bellowed. “And this makes it so easy!”
— Dr. George Guthridge