Looking for the Next Island Teacher, Part One
Recently somebody asked me how I came to live on Matinicus Island. Being neither a vacationer nor a lobsterman, I came to this remote community the third most common way.
Twenty-three years ago I answered a classified ad in the Bangor Daily News that simply read, “teacher wanted for one-room school.”
In 1987, two years out of college, I was living in South Thomaston in a two-room camp, lugging my water, reading old issues of National Fisherman in the outhouse, and doing up firewood on the weekends. At a previous interview with the Rockland area school board, a well-known board member who was considered a force to be reckoned with asked me outright whether I was a “real team player.” I lied. They didn’t want my honest answer to that question. I didn’t get the Rockland job just the same; later I heard that I should have learned to speak education-jargon, a lingo quite foreign to me.
I was a substitute teacher, and calls from Appleton at seven in the morning put me in with the fourteen-going-on-twenty-one crowd; there are some deep professional lessons to be learned from substituting with eighth-graders. I worked for Passmore Lumber beside the arch (now EBS,) unloading trucks and shoveling snow and selling nails. Each day after the hardware store closed at 5:00 pm, I headed down through Rockport Village to my other job, washing dishes and frying shrimp at the Sail Loft. One of the women who worked in the lumberyard office didn’t believe I was a schoolteacher because I was too rough-edged and my hair was always a mess. One of the men told me I shouldn’t go to Matinicus because the people of the island were far too dangerous.
The Matinicus superintendent who interviewed me first (at that time Bill Sternberg, retired from Rockland and doing the island’s administrative paperwork on his kitchen table) never asked me whether I was a team player. Instead, he asked me something oblique about whether I had a sense of humor.
Years later somebody told me that the school board liked the sound of my lumberyard job, that it made me sound tough. Uh huh.
Now, having been the teacher, the parent of island students, the district bookkeeper and a bunch of other things, I am a member of that island school board. It’s my turn to help find the next Matinicus teacher. A great deal has changed in 23 years, but a few things have not.
It’s still a long winter.
You have to wonder about people who think they want to teach one-room school on an isolated island. It’s just not a normal teaching job. The happiest teachers on this and other Maine islands are often those who’ve lived aboard their boats or been in the Peace Corps, who have worked in Alaska or who have done lots of other things besides teach grade school. Most school jobs are highly structured, with lots of protocol and oversight, layers of administration, inflexible bureaucracy and specialists for every little thing. While teachers may complain about the red tape and the jargon, the fact is, many career educators really appreciate structure, normalcy, a chain of command and a sense of order.
Don’t expect a lot of that here. Here, it’s mostly about what the weather’s going to do.
Teaching on Matinicus no longer means working alone, and it no longer means starting from scratch. In 1987, I had no useful record of what my students had done the year before, and little contact with others who would understand my job. I started the year doing informal assessments, and discovered that some of the kids couldn’t find Maine on the map. Now, a social studies and a science curriculum template offers guidance and a sense of continuity, and teachers from several islands support each other and stay in touch regularly. The classroom is busy with ed techs, local musicians and artists, visiting specialists, island fellows, community volunteers and guests from off-island such as well-known Maine children’s book authors. Sometimes it seems there are more adults than children in our little schoolroom.
Matinicus students aren’t isolated like they used to be, either. The days of them going on the once-a-year school field trip with money to buy a new pair of shoes are over. The days of the superintendent recommending a movie, McDonald’s and roller skating because the kids never get to do those things are over as well. These children have had their photography shown in art galleries, they’ve been skiing at Sugarloaf, and they’ve been to the opera. They’re still island kids, though…this year’s students don’t happen to do it but island children are quite apt to show up to school on motorcycles or driving pickup trucks, or accompanied by a large pack of dogs which waits for them outside all day. Once, in 1988 when the dirt roads were sheets of ice, most of my students arrived one morning on ice skates.
The island is not a time machine. Our students work on laptops, and the teachers communicate with their colleagues from other islands on video-conferencing equipment. The next teacher will need to be comfortable with the technology; this is not the job for somebody who wishes to go back to the old days. On the other hand, people still give out homemade cookies for Halloween, call each other up to borrow a cup of sugar, and locked doors are just as likely not to be.
You can’t commute. You will not be spending four bucks on a latte each morning on the way to work, but the price of heating oil might prompt a small heart attack. The star of the school play might not show up for opening night if the weather turns and his family decides to head for the mainland. Appropriate professional attire means stable-icers and muck boots. You won’t spend your career here; you might not even spend a summer. Sometimes you will be so busy that you’ll seriously wish for a week or two of just doing “the three R’s.” You’ll learn to detect the sound of the airplane coming before the engine noise is really audible. You’ll realize the value of the last orange or the last drink of milk in your fridge. You’ll see why the fishermen always get up so early. Without a doubt, the Matinicus school will change you more than you will change it.
Next time: hoping to find yourself?
Eva Murray stayed on Matinicus after her term as island teacher ended, as have several others. Most who have taken this job fall in love with the place and return every chance they get (although a couple couldn’t wait to leave.) In recent years, four teachers have married islanders.