Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: A one-room school Christmas

Posted:  Saturday, December 21, 2013 - 8:15am
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At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 18, the dark road in front of our little school was lined with trucks and jeeps as most of the few islanders still here assembled to see what the school kids had prepared this year. There is always something — some sort of event, some bit of festivity or song or performance at the school before the Christmas vacation — because, well there always has been. At the moment there are only three students in the entire school, and because so many other recent activities had filled the calendar, assuring a shortage of practice time, the children and teacher decided that a holiday "open house," rather than a rehearsed Christmas play this year would be more enjoyable. They would show their parents and neighbors what work they'd been doing recently — learning about Asian countries and about owls, among other things — perform a bit of seasonal music, and invite everyone to eat cookies and enjoy the decorated tree in the bright, comfortable classroom.

As we crowded into the single schoolroom, each one of us in some different brand of big rubber boots, we were invited by the teacher to check out each student's display and to ask questions. First-grader Skylar counted in Japanese, carefully showed us a mobile she had made displaying elements of Japanese culture and told a circle of adults about the dietary preferences of snowy owls with the dispassionate straight face of a scientist and an air of complete confidence. We nibbled cookies and circulated around among the student displays. Emma, in eighth-grade, described the crippling practice of foot-binding once customary among wealthy women in China. It is clear from her voice that this bit of history had made quite an impression.

On one side of the classroom was a new kitchenette area, built recently by a local carpenter with funding from an island art sale after Emma, this year's entire graduating class, helped the school become the recipient of an almost-new kitchen stove. Across the room was the Tandberg teleconferencing unit, similar to those on Monhegan, Isle au Haut and other small islands. This technology, along with common use of the Internet, now connects Maine's six one-room schools, enables more academic collaboration, improved teacher-peer support, and help to cement friendships. On a third side of the room, a comfortable library area, welcoming and cozy, offered a display of holiday-season children's books and big cushions for the relaxed reader. In the middle was a table laden with refreshments including "gingerbread" houses (actually graham cracker construction) and each with a good-sized chocolate "woodpile" beside the door. A Christmas tree, delivered by one of the dads, was decorated with songbirds and animals. Nearby, a borrowed steel drum — a real steel pan on loan from a steel drum band Down East — stood ready for fifth-grader Max's holiday musical offering.

Neighbors chatted about the snow and the conditions of the roads and everybody wanted to play with Eli, 10-months-old and the center attraction in the room. He will be the seventh generation in his family to grow up on Matinicus, if I've got my numbers right.

On the little kitchen counter sat an open laptop computer, and on the screen, the face of Rob Benson in a Santa hat. Rob is the minister from the Sunbeam and a friend of all the island kids. Unable to attend in person, he was "Skyping in to say hi." Sunbeam got to Matinicus with better weather the next day.

After everybody had made the rounds of the students' tables, the three gathered beside the tree to sing a version of a popular holiday hit: "The 12 Days of Christmas on an Island," which included "eight years of schooling," "six island schoolhouses" and Skylar throwing her arms wide apart to belt out, "five island dogs!" Then, Max played "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" on the steel drum, we all ate some more goodies and grinned at Eli, and each began the process of getting rigged up to go back out into the cold.

It doesn't require a large group of kids to make a school, and it doesn't take a huge gang of townsfolk to make for an enjoyable island event. The 20 or so adults who climbed into their four-wheel-drives or onto their cross-country skis and came up to school that evening for an hour of community spirit and white sugar all had smiles on their faces. It was no big deal, to be sure; in fact, our school hosts a very small celebration, but this is one of the things we like to do this time of year — and hopefully will for years to come.


Eva MurrayEva Murray lives on Matinicus

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