Not that much has changed in 30 years...

Eva Murray: How to get a teacher to an island

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 10:15pm

As we meet this year's new Matinicus teacher, and as he meets his little class, I recall my first few days working on this island 30 years ago.When I taught school, the group included very nearly one of each grade. My second grader is an island fisherman with a little boy of his own now, the young fellow still a preschooler but a big wheel in the chicken industry around here. I see my kindergartner's two sons out here every summer.

Last month I was treated to a happy surprise when a very special student — my third grader, now married and in her 30s — appeared in my bakery. I remembered a 9-year-old who read Mark Twain and who wrote like a high school student. She was many years advanced in her schoolwork, but family didn't make her childhood easy, and she left the island the next year. I had always wondered what she'd done next, and it was wonderful to see her smiling face.

Tuesday was the first day of school here on Matinicus, as it was in many places. We don't even think about having our little elementary school open before Labor Day for a variety of reasons, not least among them that there would most probably be nowhere for the teacher to live if he or she arrived in August.

No, the teacher doesn't live on Matinicus year-round; not typically, anyway.

As school opens I think back on my own arrival here as the new teacher 30 years ago. Keep in mind that the job of schoolteacher on Matinicus Island is nobody's career. Before I moved here in 1987 I thought — as many people who have never been here do think — that the offshore islands have long-term teachers, people, presumably starchy old ladies in sensible shoes, native born, who have deep island roots and who never leave, who exist in a sort of way-back machine and who have taught generations of island kids the same lessons, with globe, pointer, and a bun in their hair, and who hold a sort of unbreakable tenure that comes with being a cultural institution. Nope.

(Well, I did meet a teacher on one of the Casco Bay islands a few years ago who nearly rose to that rank, and who had been there for decades, but she was the exception rather than the norm. She is also a real person, not a caricature of a one-room school teacher from Tom Sawyer's day.)

On Matinicus, and on Monhegan, and on Isle au Haut, and on Frenchboro, and on the Cranberries, the teachers stay a year or two; occasionally, as much as six or eight years. Here, at least, the position does remind folks a bit of a Peace Corps posting. Often people only expect to be here a year, and have no illusions about "moving here" with all of their possessions. Frequently, they store their furniture, pack a few duffels bags and cardboard boxes, and figure they're in for an adventure. Even if a teacher wanted to stay for more than a couple of years, and could find a place to rent that allowed for some stability, and their family went along with the whole deal which is unlikely, this community knows that it is beneficial for our students to have a few different teachers over their elementary school career. After all, no one person specializes in everything, and it is one person. Maybe two. It seems that for the moment, anyway, this year's teacher works alone. Likewise, when I was the teacher, I worked alone.

That teacher from Casco Bay with the many years of experience once offered a comment on this two-year business common to the other small islands: "Only two years? It takes people two years just to learn where all the light switches are!"

I made my first trip to Matinicus on the airplane when I interviewed for the teaching job in May. I had answered a classified ad in the Bangor Daily News a few months before, reading only, "Teacher wanted for one-room school."

I was to apply to the superintendent in Rockland. That's not how they do it anymore. These days, advertisement for teachers go online, through a nationwide network called, and the island school board gets applications from all over the country. That brings with it some potential for complication if a teacher is hired who hasn't yet thought about seasickness, bush pilots, and log stretches of fog. Sometimes the superintendent has to explain things to an applicant who has not yet looked at a map. No, you cannot commute. No, there is no bridge. No, we don't pay for all of your transportation.

Mine was not a random lark of an application (although a few South Thomaston neighbors worried I was venturing into quite a den of iniquity).

Before Matinicus, I'd considered a teaching position in Kotzebue, Alaska, recommended to me by the career help folks at the University of Maine. I had applied for a job in Rockland's own SAD 5 in 1986, but they kept asking me whether I was a "team player."

When I squirmed a little trying force myself to reply in the affirmative they could probably tell I wasn't a genuine "team player." The superintendent who hired me for Matinicus never once asked about being a "team player."

I remember well the airplane ride to the interview. The air service was called "Penobscot Air Service" at the time, just recently changed from "Stonington Flying Service."

Will Smith was the pilot and the wind was blowing hard. We stayed high over the end of the airstrip and then, as I recall, powered down through the wind ("dive-bombed it for the airstrip" was how I described it years ago, before I understood a bit more about back-country flying). There was plenty of kidding about how, if the teacher applicant didn't puke on the way to the interview, it was a check-mark in their favor.

These days, one of the islanders makes the suggestion on a regular basis that the way to sort the applicant pool should be by e-mailing interested teachers and simply indicating that, "Your interview will be at 10 a.m. on Thursday the third," or whatever, "at the school on Matinicus." Offer no other information or assistance, no instructions, definitely no hand-holding. Do not book their passage for them. Answer questions only when asked. The successful applicant would be the one who figures out how to get here.

A few years ago, when I was on the Matinicus school board, the dispatcher at Penobscot Island Air mentioned that we didn't really need a school board interview at all; they could tell us who the successful applicant would be, just based on how the individual applicants handled the logistics and reacted to the flight.

Some arrive late, in the wrong footwear, and seem annoyed; a few look a little shell-shocked or a turn a bit green.

Some get off the plane grinning from ear to ear.

That is always a plus.

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