An Island Point of View Nantucket Events

From the Stage

essay by Robert P. Barsanti

To know the future, know the graduates.

Nantucket High School, for most of its recent past, puts its graduates on stage for the family and for friends. They sit there, arrayed in the ceremonial cap and gown, and present themselves to the town. Neither the superintendent, nor the faculty, nor the school committee present them to the public wrapped in blue and white. Instead, they present themselves. “Here we are,” they say, “for better or for worse, we are the best this community could do. You have committed the future to us.”

I only learned what that meant when I became a parent. Up there, on the stage, in an awkward smile and a straining glance, are several bottles of pre-natal vitamins, plates and plates of sliced grapes, hours of driving, the entire collection of trains for Thomas the Tank Engine, broken furniture, and a few cups of tears. Raising a child is a long, shoeless walk on a dirt road. You take careful step after careful step, build up the callouses, keep an eye on the road, and hope there are no snakes. The walk is not fast, nor easy, nor painless. But after putting one foot in front of the other for years, you come to a brief rest at graduation.

We see them all.

All of those gowns and caps look as they once did. Of course there are differences. Women wore white and boys wore blue, which, in our more enlightened time has evolved into everyone wearing blue. The class was once small enough that graduation could be held in the auditorium, with enough seating for all of the Moms and Dads. Now, the class and the families are so large that the graduation must be outside in the always pleasant Nantucket spring weather. For twenty years, the school graduated about 100 students. Now, the class is half again as large.

We recognize the kids we have known. We know the sailors, the lacrosse captains, the valedictorian. We remember them from the plays and pageants, the games and the races that punctuated their childhoods. We saw them at the Film

Festival, at Oliver and in Annie. They have always been our scholars and now they are off to NYU, Clemson, Harvard, and points beyond. We know their parents. We know their grandparents.

And we know the kids who aren’t there anymore. We see them still.

We see something else. The graduates, and the school, and the island, are not as homogenous as we used to be. Further, a large number, perhaps even a majority, learned another language, in another place, before they learned English. Many of our graduates also speak Spanish, Portuguese, Nepalese, Russian, Somali, and Bulgarian.

The miles they travelled to the Nantucket High School graduation measure in the thousands. They crossed the Darien Gap and avoided the smugglers. They crossed the Rio Grande. They flew over the Atlantic. What they survived, we could not even live. Yet here they are.

The island was not their home yet; they didn’t go to Wee Whalers. They didn’t act in Frozen II or decorate their trikes for the Fourth of July or catch fish in an Angler’s Club tournament. Aqua Caliente is as far in the past as it is on the ground. As is Sofia. As is Sao Paolo. As is Kingston. They have photos. They have stories. They have scars.

The adults in their lives followed the work. Many are sleeping in a bed with siblings, or parents. They share a house and a bathroom with three other families. They are in basements, attics, boats, or in backpacks. They move with sun and the seasons. And then they work.

The island is their home now. They are whalers, just like the originals who put their mark on the ship’s manifest. They came from dirt, drugs, and disease to wash up on-island and find work, whether with a mower or a harpoon. We’re Americans. We follow the work…always have. We know, in some deep way, what it is like to leave the gangs, the poverty, the sickness, and the disease. Rome wasn’t a fun place after the war, nor was Dublin, nor was Cape Verde nor Sao Paolo.

From the stage, what do they see?

They see us. They see the people who took care of them and the ones they will need to take care of. They see employers and customers and patients.

They all see those who aren’t there anymore. They see them still.

But they also see a hurricane season with 4-7 major hurricanes, which may be the lowest number of major hurricanes they will see for the rest of their lives. They see island infrastructure, from sewers to electricity to boats that have been pushed to the maximum and beyond. They see the houses that are rented and the houses that aren’t.

They see they challenges. They see the opportunities.

The future of this island isn’t in any downtown office, in the select board’s room, or among the Real Estate Investment Trusts. The future of the island is sitting in a cap and gown on the football field.

Recognize them.

Articles by Date from 2012