Island Students Away for School: Part 3
Son Eric called up in November of 2005 from Gould Academy, in the western mountain town of Bethel, Maine. He’d lived all his life on Matinicus Island, and now was a freshman in high school, unsentimentally reveling in his new life as a mountain kid. “I need all my outdoor gear, and I need it right away. I’m joining the Ski Patrol.”
“You’re doing WHAT?”
“Ski Patrol. I know a whole lot about medical emergencies. I’ve been watching you guys (the island EMTs) for years.”
“Sure. All I have to do is learn how to ski.”
Imagine the quizzical looks on our faces. We joked about that naively enthusiastic telephone call; after all, Eric was in school with kids who had been skiing since they could walk. Gould Academy offers a wide range of on-snow sports and extra-curriculars, including the only National Ski Patrol training program in the country for students. Some Gould students are nationally-ranked competitive skiers who apply there specifically because of the school’s proximity to, and relationship with, Sunday River Ski Area in Newry. Our island boy thinks “all he has to do” is learn how to ski. Sure.
He did. He learned to snowboard, actually, and quite well — well enough that he can concern himself with an injured person’s needs, rather than his own, even when conditions on the mountain are less than ideal. He’s hardly a competitor, but that was never his goal. He likes being a rescuer.
Eric did not grow up around competitive sports. He had no coaches urging him on and no heroes in sports as a child. He grew up around people who set out to sea in dangerous conditions to help whoever was out there, friend or enemy (and numerous total strangers). He grew up around people who fought fires with or without training, who handled the bodies of the dead and broke the sad news to the families, who went out in storms to clear trees downed on the power lines or to deal with arcing transformers, who took care of neighbor’s children when things at home got rough, who made midnight trips to the mainland in their lobster boats to transport seriously injured people, drunk or sober, bloody or suicidal or pregnant or crazy, not as public safety professionals but as fishermen who knew that they had to do what they could.
You can see that I was really worried about the lack of the character-building influence of team sports on my son’s childhood. There have actually been people who, while criticizing the idea of raising children in such an isolated community as this island, use the lack of organized sports as an example of our sub-standard lifestyle.
Back in Bethel, Eric also was on the mountain biking team for a couple of seasons. We sometimes called it the “Gould Academy Bike Wrecking Team.” Have you ever watched a mountain bike race? As newly-minted Sports Parents, with no history of Little League or Pee Wee Football behind us, no team sports of any kind as part of our kid’s island childhoods and, I would submit, no sense, we took ourselves to Sunday River during our first ever Parents' Weekend in October, 2005 and set out to be spectators at our son’s chosen sport for that term.
It was raining. Along with a very small cluster of other Good Parents, we watched as a large group of riders started up the trail and disappeared into the muddy woods…kids from Gould and Camden Hills (one of the strongest teams and, by the way, one of the very few public schools to offer mountain biking as a sport), from Carrabassett Valley Academy and Kents Hill, from Kennebunk and Hebron, and a couple of others. About thirty seconds later, we parents were hunkering under the downhill-end mechanism of a ski lift apparatus, sheltering from the rain, and there we stood for about a half an hour before catching a quick glimpse of our riders as they crossed a gap in the trees to start their second circuit. They were soaked. We cheered, clapped and shouted their names, but they didn’t have time to notice.
Every now and then, a rider would come walking down the mountain with pieces of the bike in each of two hands. Chains come off, things break…sometimes they can affect a repair on the trail, sometimes not. Wheels get, as they call it, “tacoed.” Those cannot be repaired. Sometimes riders come limping down with a bloodied leg, or with a teammate helping the wiped-out rider manage on a wrenched ankle. When the race was over the riders, looking a bit like drowned rats, thoroughly enjoyed their time to loudly rave and sputter about the deplorable trail conditions (thus the other group title, the “Mountain Bitching Team”). The bicycles were loaded on top of vans and into trailers, generally in need of some serious shop time now. We smiled at our son and at his buddies. They ate whatever snacks people had brought and seemed none the worse for wear, minor bodily insult notwithstanding. Coaches patted backs and snarled and roared and tweeted and organized. Moms grinned, and winced, and tried not to imagine how that bloody shin must feel. The smallest kids seemed always the hungriest, as they stuffed their pockets with refreshments for the road.
A year later, we find daughter Emily on her high school’s cycling team. The riders of her team are out on a training excursion, which tend to be long, hilly, and arduous. Road cycling is scarcely any safer than mountain biking; even though they don’t ride through the woods and over the rocks and roots, they navigate urban traffic, they get stuck between city buses, they take on long hills at full speed, they pile up in bloody tangles, they face idiot drivers who have no awareness of the bicyclist’s existence, and all this with nothing between them and the street but a thin layer of Spandex and a Styrofoam helmet. Cycling is not a sport for the anxious.
Their training is serious business; the coach might casually announce that they’re going to ride to Massachusetts. If the weather is too poor to ride (ie. a tsunami or perhaps a small tornado,) he’ll just have them run up and down the gymnasium stairs a couple hundred times — touching only every other step, that is.
At any rate, Em’s team hit a construction site at one point in their training route; the blacktop had been removed and only rough gravel presented itself as a surface. On their skinny-tired racing bikes, nearly all the riders wobbled or dumped at one point or another. Nearly all, because even though her bicycle was not really up to the task, Emily managed to get through it without a ditching. “How come you didn’t have any trouble in that construction?” a teammate asked.
“Are you kidding? I’d never ridden a bike on a tarred road until I got to high school.”
Don’t let anybody tell you that unless you have been in sports since toddlerhood you will be unable to compete as a teenager. Island students disprove that myth quite handily. You may, however, have to find an oddball sport that makes the best use of your own particular skills developed in youth, be they riding in the ruts of a semi-destroyed dirt road, enduring miserable weather and a certain amount of physical pain, repairing equipment, or understanding, deep down, that it isn’t always really about the team — sometimes it’s about doing what you have to do, out there, by yourself.
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. Eric Murray, now in college, is a member of the National Ski Patrol. He also assisted with a medical emergency on Matinicus last summer.