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  • Writer's pictureSúsanna Svavarsdóttir

Ólafur Jón Arnbjörnsson, from a Room With a View

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

Ólafur Jón Arnbjörnsson
Headmaster Ólafur Jón Arnbjörnsson grew up in Keflavík, the town that shaped his passion for education

The Icelanders have always found Keflavík a bit odd and the inhabitants different from the other islanders. There might be some truth in it though a very few can pinpoint exactly what makes them different. It used to be a town with a vague identity and hardly anyone’s family was originally from Keflavík.

The town started as a fishing hamlet that grew to be a trading centre. As it had favorable port conditions and the distance to good fishing grounds was relatively short people from the rest of the country started moving there in search of work. As a result, Keflavík became a potpourri of Icelanders who had their extended families scattered around the rest of the island.

During the Second World War the American Navy built a Naval Station at the town’s threshold and stayed until 2006. Keflavík saw a fresh influx of people searching for jobs and settling in the area.

The Americans brought the modern world with them in the form of television and a radio station broadcasting contemporary music 24/7. This absolutely modern media was only available to the inhabitants of the Reykjanes Peninsula, setting them still further apart from the rest of the islanders. They had a window to the rest of the world. Keflalvík was “a Room with a View.”

Surrounded by natural wonders

In this atmosphere of ceaseless transition Ólafur Jón Arnbjörnsson was growing up. He later left to study in Reykjavík, then Demark and later in the US. Now a teacher, Ólafur moved back to Iceland to be assistant headmaster of a secondary college in Sauðárkrókur in North Iceland and later took up the position of headmaster in his hometown, Keflavík.

Ólafur has very fond memories of growing up in Keflavík. “It was great,” he says, “it is quite funny but I don’t have any conscious memories of my life before the age of twelve, but it doesn’t take much to trigger older memories. It happens when I brows through photos from that period or, I enter a house which has a certain smell of old people’s powder or perfume. Old smells, sounds and pictures have been my way of recalling my life until the age of twelve. The things I remember most is travelling around the Reykjanes Peninsula with my parents. They much admired the peninsula’s geology and we would go on daytrips to appreciate the natural wonders surrounding us. I still find the Reykjanes Peninsula to be one of the most beautiful parts of Iceland.

The Age of Music

At the time I wasn’t aware of Keflavík being different from anywhere else. I never wondered about the window we had to the world through the American TV and radio. I am sure I assumed it was accessible to everyone else in Iceland. Anyway, throughout those decades provincial pundits kept closing them down and reopening them in a perpetual frustration over the impact it might have on our amorphous souls. During my teenage years we had a relatively open-minded authorities; the dangerous American influence stayed open. And, I loved being a teenager in Keflavík.

Due to our proximity with a radio station broadcasting all the latest musical trends in Europe and America we were aware of the Beatles very early on. We liked what we heard and Keflavík became consumed in some sort of a musical craze. There were pop bands all over the place. Everyone and their uncle were forming a band, rehearsing in every garage, shed and stockroom they could get their hands on. No one was plagued by an inferiority complex when it came to music; there were no barriers and you didn’t have to have a clue how to play an instrument. I didn’t know how to play an instrument but I played with several bands. Well, we never actually played anywhere, but we rehearsed like mad.

Big changes

Indeed, the musical life in Keflavík was so rich we always had live bands at school dances. Then there were the local dancing halls. I was small for my age at that time and born late in the year making it difficult for me to gain access to the dancing halls. I had to wait much longer then my friends who were more mature, or born earlier in the year. How I envied them. Still, these were great times.”

Changes are an integral part of Keflavík. When the American Navy left in 2006 there were many who predicted a speedy decline, even death, to the communities on the Reykjanes Peninsula. To add to the unemployment problems were changes in the fishing industry. The fishing grounds had shifted further away and technology had advanced, permanently altering life in fishing towns across the country. This process had already started in 1995 when Ólafur returned to Keflavík, after more than two decades away. Keflavík had changed, and it kept changing, but in they way many had predicted.”

Communal ups and downs

“Of course I could see the changes when I came back,” says Ólafur, “but, then again, my outlook had also changed. The town was going through a transition period, once again. When I started working there as a headmaster, 500 students were attending the school. When I resigned three years ago, the number had increased to 1.200. Keflavík, and the neighboring communities are the fastest growing area in Iceland outside the Reykjavik metro. It is a lot more diverse and offers much more opportunities. It really is a melting pot with changes happening very fast.

All cycles are larger and faster in this area then the rest of the country, resulting in lesser stability. This applies to both nature and economics. This is a very young area with the comparatively the largest age group between 18-25. Five years ago, unemployment for this age group was tremendous. Today, there is a shortage due to projects developing and being launched in the area, mainly in connection with increased tourism, as well as, new and changed opportunities in the fishing industry.”

Realizing the potential

Three years ago, Ólafur resigned as headmaster of the secondary school in Keflavík to launch a brand new project, The Icelandic College of Fisheries. The College was founded in Grindavík, to the south of the peninsula. “When I came back to Keflavík, I realized a big portion of the local teenagers would not go on to secondary school for a further education. As I have always been passionate about matters concerning education I set out to identify the problem. The primary question was: Why would young people rather settle for a life working in fishing factories than attain more education? After analyzing the communities and possibilities around the peninsula I had to ask myself: Why aren’t we educating young people in the field of their choice?

We are not all cut out to become academics at the age of 16. We all have different talents. We all seek different lifestyles. And, as a community, we need this diversity. I started discussing the matter with municipality authorities in communities across the peninsula, as well as, comities responsible for further education and last but not least – the fishing industry and the unions. Everyone was interested. So, we launched the school. For the first year we had a handful of students and I was the only staff member, doing everything from teaching, to maintenance and cleaning. Today we have 70 students in Grindavik and seven permanent staff members and growing. There are satellite projects now in the West-fjords and in the North-West and more on the way – and run recruit programs for some of the bigger companies in Icelandic fish processing. “

Offering an alternative

“What we offer is an alternative to sixteen-year-old kids who want to work and live in the area; kids who don’t want to know more about subjects they are already fed up with and have no ambition of pursuing further. Why not offer them a two-year education in the profession of their choice? Why not offer the technical know-how they need?

We offer a variety of courses for seamen, net makers as well as workers in fish processing factories and fish farming to certify them for the profession they have chosen. The fishing industry has always been important for this area and will continue to be so. There is no reason to forget all about the industry that has maintained this nation throughout the ages, just because we have new job opportunities coming into the area. We simply have to adjust, embrace diversity and do better than ever before.”


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