ANGLE INLET, Minn. – Linda LaMie reached out of the boat, grabbing the dock and knotting a rope. Wind whipped cold rain against her camouflage coat, its hood tied tight beneath her chin. She trudged up a hill and fished through her pockets, heavy with the tools she needs for this daily commute: a flashlight, ice picks, a passport.
Then she unlocked the door to the one-room schoolhouse — Minnesota’s last. By the time students arrived, just before 8 a.m., LaMie, 56, had shed the camouflage to reveal curled hair, a bright scarf, a bit of lipstick.
Just a typical elementary schoolteacher — the only one most of these kids will ever have. But the parents know better. Teaching here, as LaMie has for nearly three decades, requires gear and grit, largely thanks to the little school’s location: along a gravel road at the northernmost tip of Minnesota, a slice of wilderness separated from the rest of the state by the sprawling Lake of the Woods.
Once common sights across the landscape of rural America, many one-room schoolhouses have shuttered or vanished. LaMie is determined to keep hers alive, convinced that this unlikely geography demands a K-6 school, even in a more connected world.
The Northwest Angle’s 119 residents, many from families that operate resorts and fishing outposts, treasure the Angle Inlet School, remembering the alternative — a 75-mile bus ride to Warroad, crossing through Canada. They treasure LaMie, too, sensing what rural school administrators know too well: Few teachers are willing to do this job. Fewer would be able to.
“It takes a very special person to want to be in that environment,” said Craig Oftedahl, outgoing superintendent for Warroad, a district struggling to recruit teachers to its small city 6 miles from the Canadian border. “Now, remove yourself and go 65 miles farther from that. That’s a challenge.”
“Good morning, Tyson!” LaMie sang as Tyson McKeever, a kindergartner, scurried in. “Good morning, Mrs. LaMie!” he said, returning her big smile.
He’s the youngest of this year’s eight students, spread across five grades. LaMie teaches them all, from math to music. Gym, too. On a recent afternoon, it rained, so they pushed the desks aside, split the room with a piece of yarn and hurled a rubber ball at bowling pins.
But mostly the classroom is quiet. Children raise their hands and wait their turn. LaMie paused on a page of “The Ugly Duckling” to help another student with subtraction. The third- and fourth-graders huddled in “the library,” a corner lined with books and Apple computers, reading aloud about solar power. The eldest, sixth-grader Olivia Goulet, who goes by Livi, worked on her own, occasionally turning to answer a littler one’s question.
That littler one is often her sibling: The Goulets, whose parents own the Angle Outpost Resort, make up half the student body.
“She knows what we need help on and what we do good at,” said Livi, who needs help with science and is good at history and social studies. “That helps her in teaching us.”
LaMie looks out at their faces and sees their families. She shares dinners with their parents. She knows who might have trouble making it to school that day, and why.
Last winter, one family drove their daughter from Oak Island across the ice to class. But LaMie’s commute might be the toughest. In winter, she snowmobiles from her log home, 5 miles from a road. Once the ice melts, she boats. In between, during “breakup,” she sleeps on the school floor.
“That’s been part of the strength of her program there, is living there and understanding the trials and tribulations that it takes to live there,” Oftedahl said.
At the day’s start, the kids tell stories — about a fox den or baby rabbits but also the video game Minecraft. LaMie tells them about boat problems, beaver dams and low waters that might lengthen her half-hour trek — but that just once in 30 years made her late for class.
“We heard this rattling,” LaMie recounted on a recent morning, “and we thought it was some beaver sticks that had gotten caught.” Instead, a piece of the motor had broken loose. But she made it in time. “If that ever happens and I’m not here,” she asked, “what could you kids do?”
LaMie came to “the Angle,” as they call it here, out of curiosity. She stayed because she fell in love.
After teaching first grade in Warroad, a 26-year-old Linda Bernhardson took the principal up on his idea that she move to the remote schoolhouse in 1985. “It’s like stepping back 50 years in time,” she said.
She lived for two years in the tiny teacher’s house beside the school, whose floors have since sagged. There were no phones, then: Neighbors talked over marine band radio. She met Tom Kastl, an artisan chair-maker who invited her over for dinner at his place deep in the woods.
“I came in, and the table was just set beautifully. I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
They married, she moved to Bear River and Kastl worked on their log cabin, carving hearts into the trim above the sink. They brought each of their three children home from the hospital in a laundry basket in the bottom of the boat.
She was pregnant with their third when the district closed the school in 1992. The cost per student was too high, officials argued, and enrollment too low — just one child would have attended the next year. A photograph in Life magazine caught LaMie in the bathroom, crying.
“The school is the heart of the community,” she said then. “There really isn’t anything else to bring people together.”
For two years, she left the dock by 5:30 a.m. to make the bus to Warroad. Residents convinced lawmakers to fund the school’s reopening partly by asking them to take that trek. The children then put on a play for them, just as they do for the community each year. The school reopened in 1994.
LaMie taught her three children there. Kastl warmed up the snowmobiles for them each morning and, after they left for college and careers, steered the boat to school.
But 2012 threw things off course. Back surgery meant to ease LaMie’s acute foot pain went wrong. On the last day of school, the couple drove to Grand Forks for a follow-up. But it was Kastl who got bad news.
A sore on his face hinted at the skin cancer spreading beneath. Doctors went into surgery, planning to remove his nose. In the end, they also took half his neck, leaving him unable to speak.
Just before Tom died, that July, she told him, “I can’t live without you.”
She meant it emotionally but also pragmatically: He chopped the wood, cleared the path and fixed the boat motor. “And he mouthed, ‘you can, you can,’ ” she said, wiping away tears with a paper towel. “That was the last thing that he said.”
So she did. With the help of 119 residents.
“It felt like family,” said Lisa Goulet, 39, of neighbors putting LaMie up at a resort close to school. Goulet and her husband, Jason, moved their family to the Angle after her father and uncle died in a 2004 plane crash, leaving a “big, gaping hole” in the close-knit community. So she had experienced a similar outpouring.
“That’s just the way it is up here. It’s an unspoken rule that you just help out a neighbor,” Goulet said. “We haven’t caught up with the rest of the world in a lot of things. And we don’t want to catch up there.”
“Storytime,” LaMie called. She opened the book, “Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story,” and began to read, her voice deep and melodic, about a German family sent to a concentration camp. At the end of the chapter (“One more!” Jack Goulet cried, but was rebuffed), they gathered around LaMie to peer at the back-and-white photos.
“Isn’t it amazing?” she said, lowering the book, “How could anyone live through that?” She paused. “But hard things have happened to us, here.”
Then she told a story the children know well — for most, it involves their relatives — but are too young to remember: the plane crash. Brothers Danny and Richard Carlson — “Katie’s uncles and your grandpa,” LaMie explained — crashed in a wooded bog just north of the Canadian border. “Nobody was strong enough to get them out of the plane,” except their brother, Katie’s dad, she said. When it came time to dig their graves, he again did the task. Katie Carlson, a fourth-grader, came closer, listening.
“And you think, how can somebody do that?” LaMie said. “We need to read about this and remember. This is history.
“You’d be surprised what you kids can do when you have hope and you know you can get through it.”
LaMie loves to celebrate a new sibling and coos over the kids’ new toys. But she doesn’t shy away from tough subjects, she said, telling them about being overweight, as a kid, or having an absent father.
“When I went to school, I thought … every family had a mom and a dad and like three kids and a dog and a cat,” she said. “And every family was really happy all the time — except for mine.”
LaMie moved 16 times by the time she graduated from high school, she said. Her mother, a teacher, tried to give her stability. But she yearned for a home.
“I think that’s why I’m here,” LaMie said, nodding slowly. “This is home. It’s something I’ve always wanted.”
The play was set to begin at 7 p.m., but the first trucks pulled up at 6:20.
Residents filled the rows of folding chairs, borrowed from the church across the street. Men sat atop desks in the corner. Moms stood in back.
“We want to welcome all of you to the Angle Inlet School spring program,” LaMie said. “Just a few things here: Our bathrooms are not working.”
Two buses full of Warroad sixth-graders, up to see the play, had strained the system. Toilets overflowed. “Only at the Angle,” she said, and the crowd laughed. “It adds to our repertoire.”
Another story: Once, when a sewer line froze, LaMie used a sled to lug buckets of waste back to her outhouse.
“I kept thinking, you now, I don’t think there are other teachers that have to do this,” she said, smiling. “My job description seemed to have left out some small details. Yet, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
She’s grateful, too, to again have a partner. Before the crowd arrived, her husband, Ron LaMie, snaked the line, trying to figure out what was wrong.
The two met on a dating website. She fibbed about her location, wary of attracting a walleye fisherman.
“I had never heard of the Angle before — didn’t know the place existed,” said Ron, who was living in South Dakota when the two began talking on the phone. “But it’s just a natural fit.”
Friends were protective of Linda, at first, worried she was rushing into a relationship. But “once they saw his heart, they loved him, too,” she said, locking eyes with him. Ron is putting an addition onto the old log cabin, making a great room their 10 children will fill when they visit. Each morning, he steers the boat to school.
“If Tom is looking down and just seeing this, he would smile,” she said later. “I could even see him finding Ron for me. That’s how it is.”
At the play, “The Fastest Thimble in the West,” Ron watched from behind his wife’s desk, chuckling when Jack Goulet battled an outlaw with scissors and a thimble. LaMie watched from the library, snapping photos of the crowd, which included her two daughters.
After the final applause, LaMie called Livi Goulet onstage, placing a medal around her neck: “You’re special to our hearts,” she told the oldest, who will graduate to middle school in Warroad next year.
The students streamed outside, their school year nearly done. A few of the young ones ran toward the geese, gathered by the lake’s edge, stretching out their own arms like wings.
Between hugs, LaMie glanced at the sun, calculating the light.
After 9 p.m., she unplugged the coffee pot. She changed into her rubber boots. Then she and Ron took off in the boat, across the lake and toward the orange sky that was quickly darkening.
Heading down Bear River, LaMie pulled out the flashlight, waving it back and forth until it caught the reflective panels on posts they’d put along the deepest part of the channel. “I’m glad you brought that flashlight,” Ron said. She smiled back at him.
One post to the next, they found their way home.