Of the many people who impact our lives, perhaps the greatest are school teachers. Our favorite teachers influence us far out of proportion to the small amount of time they spend with us.
I first encountered Clara Slumberger in the 1955-56 school year, when I was in the third grade. This was also the year the Wasilla School, which housed all 12 grades, had a major expansion, adding several more classrooms to accommodate the growing community. Now abandoned as a school, the building currently serves as Wasilla City Hall, and housed the police department headquarters for several years. The current mayor, Bert Cottle, serves the community of Wasilla in a room that used to be one of his school classrooms, and city council meetings are held in the old gymnasium.
Mrs. Slumberger seemed to be a very old teacher even in the 1950s. Maybe it was because she was gray haired and in her mid-50s that we thought her to be old … or that her granddaughter was also a student in the class. She’d taught all over Alaska, in the communities of Cordova, Kenai, Seldovia, and Chitina. We never knew what brought her to Wasilla.
Reading was, fortunately, very easy for me and I loved it. When I learned to unlock the magic code of letters I became hooked forever, avidly reading everything I could get my hands on. Anything with print on it would do. I had the good fortune to sit next to the low bookshelves located alongside the wall next to the coat closet where we kept our ‘wraps.’ It was very easy to sneak a book when the teacher was preoccupied. I did it at every opportunity.
As long as I understood the lesson, Mrs. Slumberger never seemed to notice I wasn’t paying attention. As soon as the lesson changed to something I didn’t know, she would quietly come to my desk and gently close the book I was so absorbed in at the time. Extinct jungles and dinosaurs suddenly turned into extant mathematics and grammar. She never seemed to be annoyed by my wandering mind. Because my desk was conveniently located next to the geography section I developed an interest in distant lands with exotic names. There was something enchanting about those place names. Names like: The Dutch East Indies, French Equatorial Africa, Bechuanaland, Nyasaland, French Indochina and others. Names now gone, replaced with new names when the winds of political change blew them away forever.
She was a strong believer in reading. Maybe that is why I liked her so much. She read to the entire class everyday after lunch break. Mostly she read the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We hung on every chapter from The Little House in the Big Woods, The Little House on the Prairie, and By the Shores of Silver Lake.
In the mid-1950s, Wasilla was still a sleepy, isolated, homesteading community. Many of our parents were from Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, areas where Laura Ingalls Wilder had lived and written about. We easily identified with the author and all the trials she had to go through.
Mrs. Slumberger invited our class to write letters to Laura Ingalls Wilder. The letters were mailed together in one big envelope. Many weeks later we received a letter from our favorite author telling us how she appreciated our comments about her books. We also wrote letters to Helen Keller and other famous people of the time and were excited when the replies came.
On weekends it was a big event for the children to stop and visit Mrs. Slumberger in her downtown Wasilla home. We sat on a big overstuffed sofa that seemed to fill her tiny living room, eating cookies or some other special treat, and visiting. She always treated us as if we were visiting diplomats when we knocked on her door.
My childhood years ended in 1965, when I graduated from high school, and began my own life. With starting a family and career, the years passed. I forgot about my favorite school teacher.
On the way home from work one evening, in late September 1984, I stopped to visit an old family friend in the Palmer Pioneer Home. Unfortunately, she was suffering from Alzheimer’s and could not remember me. I felt saddened leaving someone I had known well who could no longer remember anyone. As I was going out the front door I noticed a list of the current Pioneer Home residents posted on the wall. I stopped to read it, and to my astonishment a name leaped out at me – Clara Slumberger!
My gosh, I thought, That’s my third grade teacher. Her name hasn’t entered my mind in years.
I summoned my courage and went looking for her room. When I found it I cautiously knocked on the door, fearful she might be in the same condition as my old friend. Mrs. Slumberger welcomed me in and although she was quite elderly and feeble, she was alert and I still recognized her. When I introduced myself she assured me that she remembered who I was. She was just as nice as when we disturbed her weekends nearly 30 years before. After visiting a short while, I made my goodbye excuses and drove home.
That evening, when my family was having dinner I told Nancy and the children about what happened and who I had unexpectedly visited. Somehow, over the next several days the idea developed that we should invite Mrs. Slumberger for dinner. The children thought it would be exciting to meet Daddy’s third grade teacher.
Arrangements were made with Mrs. Slumberger and the Pioneer Home. On the appointed day I stopped on the way home from work to bring her to dinner. She wore a powder blue gown and pearls. Her hair was freshly done. She was clearly full of anticipation about visiting the home of one of her former students. I helped her into the cab of my pickup truck and loaded her wheelchair in the back.
When we arrived home the children’s excitement filled the living room. All week they had been planning to ask her all sorts of questions about Daddy. Mostly they wanted to hear how as a little boy in her class, he must have been awful. I guess they believed this would give them an excuse to misbehave. After all, if Daddy did it then it must be OK.
She sat at the table in her wheelchair and, because she was nearly blind, asked me to cut her food for her. Soon the conversation started. Blaine, Kristin, Kathleen and Bethany all asked questions.
“Did you really write to Laura Ingalls Wilder?”
“Oh yes,” she assured them, and went on to tell them all about it.
They were impressed because they too were Laura Ingalls Wilder fans and had all the books.
“Was school hard back then?”
It seemed the questioning would never stop.
Finally the inevitable happened. It was Blaine who boldly asked the innocently-loaded question, “What was Daddy like when he was in school?”
Mrs. Slumberger thought for a moment and said, “I remember your dad very well. He was the nicest boy I ever had. He always studied and got good grades and it was a real pleasure to have him in my class. I hope you are as good as he was.”
Yes! I thought. Saved! Thank you Mrs. Slumberger! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
It was too bad she couldn’t see me beaming with a “see I told you so” grin at the children. My affection for her soared.
After dinner it was time to return her to the Pioneer Home. On the way she told me how much she enjoyed meeting my family and how impressed she was with their interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder. She also revealed to me she was 87 years old and didn’t expect to live much longer. Less than a month later, Clara Slumberger, one of the best teachers ever, passed away.
I have always been glad our family took the time out of our busy lives to have her as a special dinner guest. The children had a memorable learning experience, and it was wonderful to revisit and share with my family what school was like years ago.
Roger Lincoln arrived in Wasilla in 1950. His parents homesteaded the property where Snowshoe Elementary School is now located off Fairview Loop Road. He graduated from Wasilla High School in 1965 and witnessed firsthand the area’s significant growth and change. After retiring from the Matanuska Susitna Borough School District as a computer/electronics technician, he and his wife, Nancy, relocated to Utah. He has a passion for preserving history and currently volunteers as a historical re-enactor at a living history site in Wellsville, Utah. Despite no longer physically living here, in his heart he considers Alaska home.