How An Alaskan Family — And Their Teenage Son — Overcome A Legacy Of Pain : Goats and Soda More than 50 years after the federal government forced hundreds of Alaska Natives into boarding schools, their descendants are haunted by — and trying to overcome —residual trauma.
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The Conflicting Educations Of Sam Schimmel

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The Conflicting Educations Of Sam Schimmel

The Conflicting Educations Of Sam Schimmel

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It's a common wish for new parents, to protect your kids from the hard parts of life. That desire to protect is especially intense for families suffering from intergenerational trauma. As part of an NPR-wide series this month on parenting, NPR's Rebecca Hersher has the story of how one family with a history of trauma succeeded and the terrible price they still had to pay.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: When Rene Schimmel was 24 years old, she had a son, an energetic, curious little boy named Sam. In home videos, he's always screaming and laughing.


SAM SCHIMMEL: (Laughing).

RENE SCHIMMEL: Busy, busy, busy - he was super active. He started walking when he was 9 months old.


R. SCHIMMEL: Holy cow, Sam. Hold on to it (laughter).

HERSHER: Rene is from Alaska. Sam's dad, Jeremy, is a wilderness guide.

JEREMY SCHIMMEL: Well, he was - he grew up outside. He never was inside. He hunted and fished. He was catching fish when he was 2 off the dock.


S. SCHIMMEL: That's a sockeye.

J. SCHIMMEL: It's a silver, silly. OK, reel him in.

You know, yeah, he was pain in the [expletive] because he exhausted you.


S. SCHIMMEL: Good morning, Da-da (ph).

R. SCHIMMEL: Tell him good night, Sam.

HERSHER: They spent a lot of time with Rene's family. Rene was born in the Alaska Native village of Gambell on an island in the Bering Sea. Ways of subsistence hunting and old songs and stories have been passed down in her family for a long time. But from the moment Sam was born, Rene worried that other things in her family's history might hurt her child. When Rene's mother was a little girl, she was one of tens of thousands of Native kids taken by the federal government and sent to boarding school hundreds of miles away.

R. SCHIMMEL: They told her how to dress, how to speak, how to hold herself. So there was a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of physical abuse.

HERSHER: What was your mother's conception of her own identity?

R. SCHIMMEL: I don't know. It was muddled.

HERSHER: Her mother had been taught to hate a lot of who she was - the language she grew up speaking, Yupik; the way her family dressed and what they ate - fish, walrus, seal and whale.

R. SCHIMMEL: She would cry to be home. But then when she was home, she was miserable - like, when she'd go back to the village.

HERSHER: This is the root of what sociologists call intergenerational trauma. A family goes through something cataclysmic - in this case, a war on their culture. The family survives, but the effects of the trauma are passed down in the form of addiction, violence and even suicide. Rene's mother was harsh. Nothing was ever good enough. And both of Rene's parents drank - a lot.

R. SCHIMMEL: And then they were drunk, and she was yelling at him about something.

HERSHER: So when Rene had Sam, she vowed to protect him from all of that. She'd give him what her mother hadn't had, a clear cultural identity. That's key. People who study intergenerational trauma have found that grounding young people in their culture is the best way to protect them. Sam, who's 18 now, remembers he spent a lot of time hunting with his great-uncles.

S. SCHIMMEL: I remember my uncles saying, here, take this .22. Until you can shoot a ground squirrel through the eye, you can't hunt with us.

HERSHER: How long did it take?

S. SCHIMMEL: It took about a couple of weeks - all day long, every day.

HERSHER: How old were you?

S. SCHIMMEL: I was probably 5, 6.

HERSHER: Around that time, Rene's life was going really well, too. They moved to Seattle. She got a job at one of the best public schools in the city. In kindergarten, Sam started at the same school. But it was not good. There were a lot of rules. Sam was struggling to pay attention and follow directions.

S. SCHIMMEL: I hated going to school. In fourth grade, I remember I'd fight every day about having to go to school and say, I don't want to go to school. The teacher's mean.

HERSHER: It felt like everything was falling apart. One night, Sam was so upset, he yelled at his parents, I'll kill myself if you make me go to school. Jeremy and Rene started meeting with administrators. But the more they got involved, the more they say they heard this.

J. SCHIMMEL: You need to go back to Alaska. Go back to the village, you know. It was terrible.

HERSHER: To Sam or to Rene or to both?

J. SCHIMMEL: Both, both. Both of them were told they needed to leave, this wasn't where they needed to be. Sam, you're not going to go to college. You should go back to the village.

HERSHER: It felt to the family like the school didn't respect them. And Rene says her interactions with administrators brought back childhood trauma.

R. SCHIMMEL: And it went right to how my mother would treat me, that I was left with nothing. And I couldn't stop it. And I couldn't mentally say, I'm not that. You know, I'm not a bad teacher. I'm not a negligent teacher.

HERSHER: The Seattle school district says the administrators involved no longer work there and that Rene resigned in 2011. And it was here that Rene's path diverged from her son's in an unexpected way. In sixth grade, Sam switched to a private school. There were fewer unbendable rules there, more freedom. Alana Bell was his adviser when he arrived.

ALANA BELL: When you find out that a kid is getting up with his dog and going hunting by himself, it's like, oh.

HERSHER: His behavior still caused some friction, like the time he set a pigeon loose in the teacher's lounge.

S. SCHIMMEL: Oh, the pigeon story - it is an outlier.

HERSHER: An outlier that made an impression on the teachers. But he didn't get in big trouble. And Jeremy noticed new skills in his son.

J. SCHIMMEL: He was terrible at handwriting. But he's now able to get his thoughts. He verbalizes. That's what he does now, you know? But he's a beautiful writer. Like, his writing is very direct, raw and alive. It's like, hmm.

HERSHER: By high school, Sam was using that skill to do things he really cared about. He founded a suicide prevention program. This spring, he interned in Congress. Next year, Sam is going to college. Alana Bell is overwhelmed.

BELL: Oh, God, proud isn't even the word. Just so - feel really honored and blessed to have been able to see a kid evolve in the way that he has.

HERSHER: Sam has turned into exactly the kind of person his parents hoped they would raise. But as Sam flourished, his mother struggled. When she lost her teaching job, she fell apart.

R. SCHIMMEL: I didn't get out of bed for days on end. I didn't shower. I didn't eat. I thought about suicide a lot, like every day.

HERSHER: Rock bottom was last year. Sam had won an award for being a Native Youth leader, and he was supposed to travel to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony. A few days before, Rene nearly killed herself. Sam was in the back of the family car doing chest compressions on his mom as they drove her to the hospital. Neither of them wants to talk about the details. Rene says she's stable now, but they're not talking much. Sam lives with his dad. But he does think about his mom and her life and his family history.

S. SCHIMMEL: Like, her parents' generation were all sent off to boarding schools. And nothing was put in the place of where culture was. And so I think some of that trauma was then passed on to my mother. I'm not as deeply affected as she was, of course. But I am affected by it because she wasn't able to be a mother for a portion of my childhood because she had to take care of herself.

HERSHER: And yet, Sam has something to fall back on when things get hard, hunting and fishing with family.

S. SCHIMMEL: You're sitting in a seal blind. You're talking to your uncles. You're telling stories. You're disseminating culture is what's going on. It's not only hunting. It's also passing down traditions, stories and ways of life that would otherwise not have a chance to be passed down.

HERSHER: This, he says, is where his power and resilience come from. His culture will be his protection.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

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