Readin’, Writin’, and Reality for an Island Teacher
As a member of the Board of Directors of RSU #65, which means a school committee member on Matinicus Island for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, until Town Meeting does us part, and as a former island teacher myself, and a school bookkeeper, and the parent of two little island students in homemade sweaters, I feel like I know a thing or two about what an applicant for this job ought to think about.
The problem is we’re not supposed to talk about much of it.
When I made my way out here for my interview in May of 1987, the winds were fierce and the airplane flight was something like riding a buckboard over a dry-rutted ox track in the middle of the Oregon Trail. Teacher applicants, be advised: that ten-minute flight gets bumpy sometimes. If you’re afraid to fly or have a delicate stomach, you might think twice before you take this position. Oops, excuse me. I take that back. Only your professional qualifications warrant discussion.
My interview happened to fall on what I later found out was Subpoena Day, when most all the male residents of the island were wasting their time cooling their heels in Rockland, waiting to be called to testify in a case of some non-violent neglect of the rulebook. Many were not asked to speak, and came home generally aggrieved for the imposition. One of them was married to member of the school board. He indulged in a bit of harmless theatrics for my benefit:
He stomped into the kitchen, tore off his shirt, flung it rather dramatically into the corner, grabbed a large jug of whiskey, knocked back a hearty slug of the same, looked me squarely in the eye and began to ask the sort of obnoxious questions, meant in fun, geared to judge whether I was apt to recoil in horror.
It brought to mind all the northern-Maine crazy logger stories I’d heard while a teenager.
Deciding that an island lobsterman was more or less the same as a woodcutter, just with a different set of hardware and a decidedly worse smell about his clothing, I settled into my chair and grinned at my overacting host.
Of course, as a board member, I would never attempt to jerk the figurative chain of our eager young applicants. Not face-to-face, anyway.
Somebody’s got to tell them that if they have a spouse or a partner, that person may not find work out here, not steady, regular work anyway. Not right away. They definitely won’t be welcome to catch a few lobsters. Of course, we can’t officially say that either, as by law anybody with a license can fish anywhere in their zone. Sure they can. Yup. It’s your nickel, fella.
Somehow, we have to broach a few subjects that really do not belong in any employee interview. The school building has a ramp, but the actual island itself is scarcely “handicapped accessible.” Getting on and off the smaller boats requires climbing a ladder, the ferry comes only thirty times a year, and the airplane is an option but if you can’t manage the contortions you will require an assistant. Those are simply the facts. We aren’t trying to be difficult. Likewise, there is no physician, no clinic, and no paramedic-level care here. If that’s going to worry you, keep you up nights, or give you an ulcer as it did my husband’s grandmother who tried living here in the 1970s, best you consider this ahead of time. Of course, that is no business of ours.
Think you’re going to church every Sunday? It’ll be some cold. Planning to go jogging all winter? You’ll break your neck. Scared of dogs? They’re everywhere. Will your teenagers be living here with you? They will be bored. Believe me. After a while, they will be bored. I know of what I speak.
Somebody has to make sure the prospective teacher understands that the job can change in a hurry. The school community is a comfortable place at the moment, with three year-round families who do all they can to support their children, but this is not Little House on the Ledge-pile. All it takes is one family with significant baggage deciding to move here, on the run from whatever it might be or with a lunatic agenda or a genuine need for more help than this tiny community can supply, bringing one or two or a handful of troubled children, and the idyllic vision of a one-room school turns into a twenty-four/seven endurance challenge against social dysfunction and somebody else’s family problems. Your day just got a lot longer.
Hopefully that won’t happen.
We don’t get a lot of fresh vegetables all winter. I’ve told you already, electricity, oil and propane are expensive. Travel is really expensive. If you think you’ll never want to leave, you’re nuts, or eventually will be. Spare time is largely a myth. The wind blows hard all winter.
Still, we are, for the most part, good to each other. Nearly everybody is a good cook. If you need help, you will get it, as long as you don’t whine or stomp your feet. When the fog clears in the winter, you can see the stars.
A few suggestions, purely as a Down East columnist, a neighbor, and a troublemaker — and not, I repeat not, as a proper and civilized school board member: Read “The Water is Wide,” by Pat Conroy. Read “Icebound.” Read “Danny, the Champion of the World,” by Roald Dahl, which you will love, and if you still have time, read “Dakota.” Ignore most efforts at anthropology and all efforts at recent fiction having to do with coastal Maine. Consider whether you’ve ever thought about moving to the Yukon, or sailing alone, or through-hiking the AT, or substitute teaching junior high school. If you just have to have that half-caf venti caramel every morning, forget it. If you don’t know how to change a light bulb, learn. If you thought the Peace Corps was fun, we look forward to meeting you.
Eva Murray lives surrounded by good friends, cultural enrichment, excellent food, startling natural beauty, and admirably brave neighbors on Matinicus Island. Really.