Island Students Away for School: Part 2
The man did not smile. In fact, he looked entirely startled when hearing where our little island girl was about to begin high school. He looked me squarely in the eye. “You realize she’s going to get an excellent education,” he pronounced in his starchiest tone. I can almost see him standing up on his tippy toes in his docksiders to emphasize that truth. It was all I was worth to resist blurting out: “Oh, and all this time we thought she was running away to join the circus!”
Thankfully, this didn’t happen all that often, this business of the prep-school old-boy crowd looking skeptically at a (usually barefoot) island female who knew a good deal more about diesel engines than about field hockey preparing to move to New Hampshire and start in with the rigors of Phillips Exeter. It did happen, though. Usually, Emily just laughed.
She had written her application essay on volunteering at the Common Ground Country Fair, showed them that she knew Ohm’s Law backwards, forwards, and upside-down, told them her favorite word at that moment was “archipelago.” Island students must find their way for high school. They cannot just climb aboard the bus and go to the local school. Sometimes, they move in with a friend or family member on the mainland or on Vinalhaven or North Haven or Islesboro and attend public school there, as our tiny district pays the usual out-of-town student tuition. Sometimes, as in the case of my two, they go to boarding school (we got great financial aid packages). Sometimes, mom sets up housekeeping on the mainland with the kids, while dad continues to fish island waters, sometimes sleeping on the island, sometimes in his mainland bunk. Sometimes, although never on Matinicus, an island student can commute on a mail boat, as long as he or she gives up late-day activities. Hopefully in those cases the school will respect his scheduling needs and the storms aren’t too bad that year.
Sometimes island high school students have to board with people they hardly know at all, and to attend a public school where most of the other kids have grown up together and where islanders feel a deep cultural disconnect. Island kids don’t grow up with team sports and structured activities, with standing in lines to fill out forms, with rules made strictly for crowd-control. They are used to certain freedoms and informalities. They probably already know how to drive. Sometimes school on the mainland can feel like getting all of one’s privileges revoked. Sometimes it’s just plain lonely. Sometimes the dropout rate is fairly high.
My family has been very fortunate. Gould Academy and Phillips Exeter Academy have provided warm, nurturing, friendly environments for my two children, who had never lived anywhere besides Matinicus. That is not to say they’d never been anywhere else. We did try to prepare them for being away from home. It seems to have worked.
As I write, we are just returning from our last high school Parents’ Weekend. A very special, tender, and sometimes downright weird aspect of our year-round island lifestyle ends this year. It was great to see our daughter, but she was doing fine away at school. In fact, she acts like she owns the place. We didn’t need to ask her teachers to give her extra help in math, and we didn’t need to bring her a favorite stuffed animal from home (although she did ask us to bring her ice hockey stuff over). No, this visit was not about homesickness or parent-teacher conferences or college counseling or disciplinary action or even cookies from home. This time, the very last of these visits, was a time for us to realize that this kid isn’t a kid anymore, not by a long shot.
I tagged along as she took over the desk at the admissions office, getting ready to conduct a tour for a prospective student who would be fresh from a nerve-wracking interview. I sat quietly in the back of a calculus class, realizing she’d gotten farther in math than I ever did. She took us through the ceramics studio, where she has a work-study job, but rather than just getting a peek, this time we threw a couple of bowls together (big mother-daughter bonding experience). We went to the bookstore and considered the options for class rings; she will pay half. We went to get coffee in the Grille, and watched some of the other parents, scary professional academics, business people in new suits, tenth-generation prep-school elites. “Are you sure I shouldn’t be wearing my black-and-red plaid wool coat?” Emily just grinned.
For the past five years we have braved the storms, cursed the fog, found substitutes to watch the power company and been stuck in the snow in order to try and be attentive parents each time our childrens’ schools opened their doors and showed off their best side for families. It hasn’t always been easy. It isn’t easy for us to get there; that’s a given when we’re talking about an islander who has to leave his responsibilities for several days in order to travel to his children. Then again, the same can be said for the parents from Nevada and California and England and Korea and Germany and Thailand and Iceland. If they manage it, so can we.
That brings up another story. When Emily started school, she was invited to a special orientation session for kids who were really pulling up stakes to move to New Hampshire. These were students from families where prep school was not just part of the routine, who came from all over the world, or had been homeschooled, or at the very least from Way Out West. Island students, we discovered, were from overseas.
Of course they are.
Parents’ Weekend for a ninth-grader is generally the first time the student will have seen his or her family in about six weeks, and sometimes it’s hard to part again when it’s over. This year, Emily is a senior and a dorm proctor, meaning she’s there to help the younger kids with some of their needs. She knows there will be a certain amount of emotion when the weekend is over, as well as for the kids whose parents weren’t able to attend at all. She stocks up on hot chocolate mix, plans a movie night in the common room, makes sure she is ready to hold a few hands. I’d like to think she learned some of that compassion here on the island (you know, where we are so lawless and cut-throat).
There’s a fair bit of silliness associated with Emily’s home on Matinicus. During her first year away at high school, some rather unfortunate and patently libelous garbage was popping up on the Internet whenever anybody did a search for Matinicus. A few of her friends said things like “You should come to my house for Thanksgiving, Em; Don’t go home, it’s too dangerous.” Those kids are now happily visiting Matinicus when they get the opportunity. There has been a good deal of joking about “the cannibal island,” though, with no harm done, and our daughter figures she may as well enjoy the foolishness, and let them think she had a wild swashbuckling childhood among the pirates and alligators.
After all, the first thing out of Emily’s mouth, at her kitchen table on Matinicus Island, when she got her letter of acceptance was “Did they really mean to admit unwashed savages?”
NEXT TIME: “I never rode a bike on a tarred road until I got to high school…”
Eva Murray lives, writes, and bakes on Matinicus Island.