Down East 2013 ©
Going away to high school isn’t always all fun and games.
I’ve written about my own children’s experience, from the perspective of four years in. As it happens, they have enjoyed high school. We have a photograph of Emily loading her bicycle aboard the passenger vessel Robin R. with a wide grin on her face. Fine. It would be a mistake to make believe that every student from every family on every island sails away to the mainland, with a wink and a salute to the Ol’ Man, stack of books under his brawny arm, still wearing his hauling boots and nary a worry at all. It doesn’t work that way.
My children also had the privilege of attending wonderful boarding schools, without our family having anything approaching the money to send them. They were scholarship kids, in a very big way; thankfully, these days, the stigma that was once attached to that is gone. However, in the present economy, a lot of the endowment funds are “gone” too, and financial aid is tighter than ever. The paperwork involved in applying for financial aid is no small chore; I don’t mean to make it sound like it just happens by itself. Island students are often looked at by private schools as desirable additions to the school community, though. We can joke about their being “from overseas” but they do contribute to the diversity of the student body, and that’s a good thing. A couple of private girl’s schools have full scholarships reserved for islanders.
Some mainland or larger-island high schools, which have a regular influx of isolated islanders, have begun programs to facilitate an easier transition, to truly welcome the island kids, to minimize the culture shock or the scheduling headaches or the loneliness.
We had the luxury of knowing from our childrens’ early days that they were most likely going to be going to the mainland for high school. We raised them with an eye toward their independence. Does it sound horrible to say that we raised them to leave? I hope not. That does go against one of the prevailing romances about islands, though — that one should wish never to leave, that leaving is, by definition, sad. Remember, we’re not talking about vacationers here…we’re talking about teenagers. They generally have mixed feelings.
This past week, on Election Day, while some of us hung around the polling place (the old schoolhouse) munching on two kinds of homemade doughnuts because, of course, life is rough out here, one of our neighbors told the story about how he was prepared for his trip away to high school — or, should I say, not prepared. In those days it was common for Matinicus kids to stay put; as a child he traveled off the island, he told us, exactly once a year: for a few days each August, to visit relatives farther down east. Much of the time, a child’s whole world had the borders of the island. Clothing came from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. Going away to boarding school wasn’t a shock — everybody knew that would be coming. What the kids wore at Gould Academy in the 1950’s was, however, a bit more of a surprise.
Edwin’s family had outfitted him with three new sets of clothing — the clothing all the men wore on the island in the ‘50s. This ninth grader showed up at boarding school with a green Dickies shirt and matching pair of work pants, a tan Dickies shirt and pair of pants, and a blue Dickies shirt and pair of pants. Do you remember those? They’re still around. Oh, and to go with the three outfits, a sport jacket and tie, all mail order from the Sears catalogue.
After six weeks, the family came to visit Gould on Parents’ Weekend. “Is there anything you need?” they asked Edwin. You’d better believe it. “We have GOT to go shopping for some clothes!”
He can laugh about his Dickies now, but it couldn’t have been easy. One island kid might wring every bit of mileage out of his or her so-called “unique” childhood, being the only kid in freshman crew who knows bow from stern. She might smile at being the one the Pink Girls run to when there’s a spider in the shower or a mouse in the broom closet, or be the only beginner willing to dive off the high board backwards because after all, it’s sort of like the wharf in the harbor. For others, there’s no joy in standing out. “I can’t try out for the team because you guys practice late and I have to catch the boat” isn’t necessarily a point of pride. It can go either way.
No two students will have the same experience. There is no “island template” — not for this, not for anything. Let us lay that myth to rest. Starting a new school is always stressful, even if it is fun. Moving is always stressful, even with lots of help. Being fourteen is always stressful, especially without the daily backup of your lifelong friends. Imagine going through all three at once; oh, and you can’t go home at the end of the day. (But then you go to the post office and somebody has mailed you a blueberry cake.)
There is occasionally an unspoken worry that the kids will come back different, if they come back at all. There might be some fear that the children will be taught to reject their parents’ world. There might be some reality in that fear. On the other hand, sometimes leaving the island is the best way to grow to appreciate it.
If it’s any comfort, we might remember all the people who in middle age reject their yuppie culture, their cubicle job, the structured activities, the commute, the dry cleaning and the Blackberry and pursue their dream of moving to their particular beloved island. They’re crazy, and so is each teenager who thinks his island home boring.
The important thing is to remember as the island’s children grow up, whether they endure high school or love it, whether they move away forever or stay and fish or do some combination of both, is that this is a process, not a rut.
Eva Murray writes, bakes, and bandages skinned knees on Matinicus Island, and will defend the logic of raising children on islands to any who will listen.