No Matter the Location, It's the Personal Connection that Matters

Feb 21, 2018

For a few very special Maine elementary school teachers, this is a favorite one-liner, our gentle but pointed humor, our erstwhile collective motto, and sometimes our vehement protest:

“This is not Old Sturbridge Village!”

The one-room school teachers of Maine will smile knowingly — and roll their eyes a little — if they happen to read this. Nothing against Old Sturbridge Village, of course, but the tiny public elementary schools serving the children of Monhegan, Isle au Haut, Frenchboro, the Cranberries, Cliff Island and Matinicus are not historical reenactments, museum displays, or creative anachronisms.

Teachers may view accepting a position running a one-room school on a remote island as an interesting sort of career choice, but to the students who show up each morning, it is simply school. It just happens that there are very few children, and commuting is not a possibility.

Yet every one-room school teacher has a funny story to tell of wide-eyed island visitors, noses pressed up against the school windows, sometime even assuming it is perfectly acceptable to wander inside, “just to have a look.” When told that school is in session, and that they are interrupting student work, these good folks generally look astonished.

In 1987, I arrived on Matinicus Island, shivering aboard the passenger vessel Mary and Donna, ready for my year’s adventure as the new teacher. My little class included roughly one student each from kindergarten through 8th grade. I had no internet, no ed-tech or teacher’s aide, no professional peer group, no principal, no curriculum to follow, no records of what the previous teacher had done, and no formal student registration procedure. I was the nurse, the purchasing department, and half the janitorial staff (somebody else came in to wash and wax the floor from time to time). I had a 3rd and a 4th grader who took on spelling words like “Czechoslovakia.” One little boy, my entire 1st grade, registered himself on the first day of school; I had to trust him on his complex family demographic details. I had little kids learning to read sitting beside teenagers trying to get their heads around the idea of moving off-island to attend high school soon.

These days, largely through the efforts of the Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collaborative — a group formed a few years ago by island teachers to support peer mentoring and professional development, shared academic and social experiences for children on remote islands, amazing field trips, and moral support — the sense of “remoteness” has lessened.

The internet has changed offshore education, with students meeting online, using videoconferencing platforms for book groups, aligned science projects, a student council, and even holiday parties. Most children get back and forth to the mainland more often than they did a generation ago, and to be sure, the required school district forms and procedures have been brought up to date as much as possible.

A few years after my stint as the island teacher, married to the island electrician and having started my own family, I was often asked how our children might fare when they would “have to deal with the real world.” The “real world” meant the mainland, as few islands have a high school. I found the question annoying, and even perhaps a bit ignorant, if well-intended. It seemed to me no world is more “real” than one in which you have to deal with life’s problems yourself. On this island if the roof leaks, if you get sick, if your tire is flat, if you run out of milk, there is nothing that smart phone app can do to help: it’s just you, your tool box, and a few resourceful neighbors.

I have since named one of my regular newspaper columns, in which I often write about some aspect of life on Matinicus, “Out Here in the Real World.”

Our children fared just fine, as it happened, and proved a genuine help to their age-mates in high school more than a few times, having arrived at 9th grade with a skill set few who grew up in a protected suburb could match. We raised our children 20 miles out to sea, without paved roads, law enforcement, take-out food, organized sports, or too much attention to rules and regulations. When we would describe this island’s school, which might have only a small handful of students in any given year, people would often say something like, “How quaint. Of course, that isn’t really school.” Sure it is.

It is the one and only school within Regional School Unit 65, run by an elected school board and a certified superintendent, and staffed by a certified teacher, assisted sometimes by a background-checked ed-tech. Just like in the “old days” the big kids really do help the little kids. But, this being the 21st century, they help each other use computers as well.

Setting and facilities can help, or hinder, an education, but they are not of primary importance, especially in the case of younger children. For teens, obviously, physical facilities such as science labs, performing arts spaces, and athletic facilities may matter quite a lot. In every case, though, the interaction between human beings is the main thing.

Teachers, mentors, good examples, encouraging words, wise coaching — this is what matters. A person can learn to read, or for that matter to write a sonnet or understand a circuit diagram, while sitting on a stone wall dangling her legs over the flowers, or while riding the ferry or waiting for the subway. Those institution-green cinderblock hallways we remember, that big pack of other children the same age as you, that buzzer, that bus, those team colors and traditions — all merely incidental. They are not what makes it “real school.” There is little of consequence missing in a one-room elementary school, and in the case of our modern island schools, there is a great deal offered.

Eva Murray is the author of Island Schoolhouse-One Room for All (Tilbury House Publications, 2012) which invites readers inside the school day of students and teachers from Maine’s tiniest schools. While not currently employed in a classroom, Eva is a certified elementary teacher and holds a graduate certificate in gifted and talented education. A full-time resident of Matinicus Island, she is a regular columnist for several Maine publications and the author of two additional books, Well Out to Sea—Year-Round on Matinicus Island and Island Birthday, an illustrated book for children. She is also a member of the Maine Public Community Advisory Board.

The Murray children, natives of Matinicus Island, are Eric, Gould Academy ’09 and the University of Vermont ’13, and Emily, Phillips Exeter Academy ’10, Bowdoin College ’14, and the University of Maine at Farmington ’17. Many of their childhood friends are now successful lobster fishermen.

The column “Out Here in the Real World” appears bi-monthly in The Fishermen’s Voice.