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 ServingSchools.com, 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.
More Industrial Arts...
• Apple blossom time (June 7, 2017)
• Old fogeys, twitchers and stowaways: a birder's evolution (May 22, 2017)
• LifeFlight visits Matinicus Island for community training (March 20, 2017)
• At what risk? (Feb. 7, 2017)
• Using it twice (Jan. 25, 2017)
• Christmas on Matinicus, back a ways and these days (Dec. 19, 2016)
• Remember civilian heroes – A Christmas tree, two guys named Coleman, and a lot of other people (Dec. 19, 2016)
• Eva Murray: Haul away, haul away, boys... (Nov. 23, 2016)
• Politics, the middle ground, and a few probably unwelcome observations (Nov. 5, 2016)
• Islander (Oct. 20, 2016)
• Eva Murray: Brier, Muck and Igiugig (Sept. 28, 2016)
• Doctor Lightning (June 27, 2016)
• Search and Rescue (May 27, 2016)
• It's about the water (May 11, 2016)
• Eva Murray: In defiance of mud season - tips for the inspired homeowner
• Plesiosynchronicity, and a snowy day
• A day of planning and practicing in preparation for major storms (posted March 10, 2016)
• Time to take down the (island) Christmas tree (posted March 3, 2016)
• Snow Day on Matinicus (posted Feb. 14, 2016)
• Going to Rockland for pie (and beer and art glass and ukuleles...) (posted Feb. 3, 2016)
• Eva Murray: Pencil to paper (posted Jan. 21, 2016)
• A new year, a new winter (posted Dec. 31, 2015)
• ‘A tiny, happy place’ (posted Dec. 14, 2015)
• Metal artist Blair Clement brings wave-washed junk to life (posted Sept. 20, 2015)
• Maine veterans and a most sentimental biker (posted June 1, 2015)
• Wild Island Child (posted April 8, 2015)
• Last holdouts of offshore outpost finally accept reality (posted April 1, 2015)
• Truck on boat (posted March 16, 2015)
• Public works (posted Feb. 25, 2015)
• A constant struggle (posted Feb. 14, 2015)
• Pie Hero, Pie Villain (posted Jan. 29, 2015)
• Safely out to sea (posted Jan. 27, 2015)
• Je suis (posted Jan. 13, 2015)
• Making merry on Matinicus, with only a few (posted Dec. 25, 2014)
• The smallest emergency medical service around (posted Sept. 29, 2014)
• Islanders host 'Man Overboard!' discussion, rescue demonstrations (posted Sept. 8, 2014)
• Logistics (posted July 31, 2014)
• Black Hawks over Criehaven (posted July 16, 2014)
• On a sunny Saturday, when the steel band came to Matinicus (posted June 6, 2014)
• The last day of winter (posted April 16, 2014)
• Puppies, basketball champs not injured by explosive five-bulldozer wreck, dump fire, and zoning board (posted March 13, 2014)
• In a good old hardware store (in memory of Everett Crabtree) (posted Feb. 28, 2014)
• What is it like to be one of Maine's Search and Rescue volunteers? (posted Feb. 9, 2014)
• Arts and hobbies (posted Jan. 31, 2014)
• Santa Claus and the yard sales - why I own more monkey wrenches than you do (posted Jan. 15, 2014)
• Quiet on this last day of the year (Dec. 31, 2013)
• A one-room school Christmas (posted Dec. 21, 2013)
• Here's wishing us all a little rebellion in this happy season (posted Dec. 12, 2013)
• Roadside assistance (posted Nov. 27, 2013)
• On the many kinds of emergency responders (posted Nov. 18, 2013)
• (In defense of...) Breakfast for supper (posted Oct. 22, 2013)
• Fish Factory (posted Sept. 9, 2013)
• 350 dot Rockland... and many ruminations on small efforts (posted Aug. 30, 2013)
• Trains and planes and heroes (posted July 15, 2013)
• Joining the community of artists (posted July 4, 2013)
• Worth every penny (posted July 27, 2013)
• It's about showing up. Some thoughts on EMS Week (posted May 27, 2013)
• Ethanol, gasoline, and public safety (posted April 17, 2013)
• A system that makes it hard on people who want to do the right thing (part 2) (posted March 29, 2013)
• A system that makes it hard on people who want to do the right thing (part 1) (posted March 21, 2013)
• 'It's important' (posted Jan. 18, 2013)
• Tree crew (posted Dec. 28, 2012)
• Light the candles (posted Dec. 13, 2012)
• Firewood (posted Dec. 2, 2012)
• Missing man formation (posted Oct. 18, 2012)
• In the middle of the bay (posted Oct. 3, 2012)