As Luck Would Have It

As I created Jesse Bookman’s journey across the United States and into her traumatized childhood, I was reminded of the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In Bear Woman Rising it takes an eclectic group of women to help Jesse overcome the cultural and psychological road blocks she encounters along the way. These women become Jesse’s “village”.  Ruth, a roadhouse cook, provides an understanding shoulder and a brief haven. Kara, a young mother and songstress, challenges Jesse to recall her what-do-you-want-to-be dreams. Mrs. Hanson, a one-time neighbor, paints a revealing picture of Jesse’s troubled mother. Marcie, Jesse’s apartment manager, tells her not to be afraid to fall in love again. These fictional characters were inspired by one very special woman in my life, Denny Griffith.  During my very first week in Alaska, she rescued me from a situation that threatened to derail my first teaching experience.

Picture this. It is late August 1963. Fresh out of college, I’m in O’Hara Airport awaiting my flight to Alaska, the destination of my dreams. For my launch I’m wearing a cranberry red suit and carrying a white Samsonite makeup case. I board the plane buoyed by the realization I’m on my way to a new place, a fresh start. I never doubt for one second my decision to take a teaching job 3,000 miles from my home town in Wisconsin.

My 8 hour flight lands at 2:45 a.m. my time, 10:45 p.m. Alaska time. There to greet me as planned was Mrs. Griffith, the counselor at Wendler Junior High School where I’d be teaching. Denney had corresponded with me throughout the summer to acquaint me with my new city. I was thrilled to meet her at last. With her was another new teacher, Jeanne, who had rented an apartment and invited me to spend at least one night there on the chance that we might be compatible as roommates. As luck would have it, Jeanne became a great roommate and a good friend.

Our first week was filled with many wonders. From our 4th floor apartment, we could see the Chugach Mountains to the northeast and Cook Inlet to the southeast. When we went to open bank accounts, we saw a dog sled on wheels parked outside the bank, and inside a burly fur trader. And when the officer’s club at Elmendorf Airforce Base held a buffet supper for all the new teachers, we tasted moose roast for the first, but not the last, time.

During our indoctrination at Wendler, I was introduced to Mr. Thomas, head of the English Department, as well as to the other departmental teachers. We had three days to get our classrooms and our apartment ready, decide who would cook what meals, and prepare our lesson plans. It was a make-me or break-me time for both of us.

On our last day before the start of the school year, we hurried into our apartment building loaded down with bags of groceries. I heard someone call my name, and turned to see Mr. Thomas sitting in the lobby with a puppy in his arms. We stopped of course to say hello and coo over the puppy. Surprised, I blurted out, “What are you doing here?”

He said, “I needed a friend to talk to.” 

“You don’t have any friends?” I said.

His answer, “None as pretty as you are.”

Jeanne had gone on up to the apartment by then. I froze on the spot hearing alarm bells in my head and his voice droning on, “I get awfully lonely sometimes…” blah, blah, blah.

Mr. Thomas was not just the head of my department, he was the married head of my department. My boss.

All I wanted to do was get in the elevator and end this, whatever it was. I remember saying something like, “Why don’t you go home and talk to your wife?” And my parting shot, “Dogs aren’t allowed in this building.”

Alone in the elevator, I suddenly felt as though a dark cloud had moved across the sun and sucked away all my joy. When I told Jeanne what had happened, she too didn’t know what to do. Here we were, two inexperienced 22 year olds, brand new to Anchorage, and about to start our first jobs in the real world. I suddenly felt afraid for my future at Wendler Junior High. As head of the English Department, he had all the power and I, as a newcomer, had none.

Then I remembered Denney and had the good sense to pick up the phone. I described as best I could the uninvited intrusion in my life and how awful it made me feel. Bless her heart, she said, “Don’t give it another thought. I’ll take care of it.”

And she did. Because the next day, as I stood outside my classroom door to greet my 7th grade students, I saw Mr. Thomas come down the hall. He stopped and said very quietly, “I’m sorry. I will never bother you again.”

And, by God, he didn’t.

As luck would have it, I had Denney Griffith in my corner. A sensible, responsible, caring woman who stepped in and saved me from what could have been a professional and personal nightmare. And there was one other person in my corner—me. Luckily, I listened to my gut feeling and found the courage to reach out and tell someone.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize it’s not so much the sexual aspect that compelled the flirtatious Mr. Thomas, it’s about the predatory power he felt he had and the opportunity to use it.

So as Jesse journeys through her world, I felt inspired to create a female village to help her find her way.

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