by Robert P. Barsanti
The easiest thing to give up is hope. The engines that power Nantucket are far off and implacable. They don’t respond to picketing, petitions, or letters to the editor. Those engines no longer get their feet wet on-island. We sold them off to live on a winning lottery ticket and a one-way boat ride. We converted our homes into asset instruments.
So you have to ignore some things to keep going. So the easiest thing to do is to avoid Old South Road and Nobadeer Farm Road during the week, stay out of town in any month that doesn’t have an ‘r’ in it, and keep an eye open for white sharks. Easier still, keep your head down and wait until September.
But, if you have children, you can’t do the easiest thing. Children live on hope; every day we feed them the hope that the world can be better, the island will be better, and they can make it happen. That hope blooms in September, when parents and children see the new year as a step forward. If everyone is lucky and fortunate, Junior can succeed here, get some scholarship money, then come back and make a difference.
Schools are communities, and communities are centered on their schools. If we remember the championships of the mighty, mighty Whalers, or the attendance at a high school musical, or even the decorations on the Christmas Trees, the connection between town and gown is rubber band tight. If you look at the key and central jobs on-island, you see many sons and daughters of Nantucket High School at the hospital, the fire station, the police station, and, of course, back in the schools. In our lottery ticket present, this makes sense: hire the people who already have housing.
Unfortunately, the sons and daughters of Nantucket are leaving. They are on the boat rounding the Point and may not toss a penny.
In the middle of August, two weeks before the beginning of school, I received an ad for at least seven positions at Nantucket High School. The true hiring may be, I suspect, much worse. Fifteen teachers at the high school have left since the spring. This is worse than any place in Massachusetts, even the City of Boston.
Those candidates for math, science, Spanish, English, E.L.L. have to cross the water to the island, accept a generous pay package, then try to find housing. One motivated landlord asked $4,000 a month for a two-bedroom house in Tom Nevers. If a teacher were to make $85,000 a year, they would be among the highest paid teachers in the state and could just make a $4,000 rent with a couple of bucks left over for student loans, food, heat, and boat tickets. Of course, that teacher will never stay here permanently; the island’s median house price is at $3.6 million, which would translate into $20,000 a month.
So, teachers can’t afford to come out here to begin with, and, once here, they can’t afford to stay. In the sweet past, a contractor would marry a kindergarten teacher, and their combined incomes, with the addition of more than a little sweat equity, would nudge them into home ownership and Nantucket’s middle class. That can’t happen with a mortgage payment of $20,000 a month.
Housing is an identified nightmare. Good people are trying to address the problem with hope. But the fifteen teachers left behind their housing, including houses they owned. They left behind a very generous pay raise.
Most left behind an island that nurtured them, graduated them, and welcomed them back. They were the dream of the John O’Neill’s Vision 2020 from their childhoods: the fresh, ripe apples of hope. And now they are gone. As Ellie Kinsella said in her graduation address “Whenever you feel like you’re trapped, reflect on yourself.” They reflected. And they left.
The frustration that sent them away from a familiar home and high pay must arise from other fires. The support system at the school is cracking. Not only is the school missing teachers, they are missing qualified bus drivers, teacher’s aids, cleaners, administrators, and substitute teachers. Every problem magnifies. A student writes a slur on bathroom walls, is the only solution to close the bathrooms? Without subs, teachers cover for other teachers, leaving no prep time. The “new” building has entered its third decade with predictable issues. When you run out of duct tape, what do you do? The administrators are as overwhelmed as the roof. When your days are spent putting out fires (or finding a new place to live), communication and teacher evaluations fall down the priority list, somewhere below student discipline and above cell phones. The mantra of every troubled school is “I just close my door and teach.” These problems seep through closed doors.
In the familiar past, when Nantucket High School held graduation in the auditorium for fewer than one hundred kids named Gardner, Ranney, and Fox, most of the in-school problems could be addressed. Today’s students are needier than the graduates at the turn of the century. The current high school is overstuffed with more than 575 students (the freshman class has 175 registered). Of those, well over a third learned another language before they learned English. Many have high needs. I would be willing to bet the vast majority of the new Whalers live under roofs that their parents don’t own.
Nantucket Public Schools presents the bromide “Today’s kids, Tomorrow’s future.” Yesterday’s kids made the present. They went to school, excelled, and returned to run businesses, patrol the streets, fight fires, and teach the young. They did what we dreamed. But it’s hard to feel good about tomorrow’s future if ‘Yesterday’s kids’ are drifting away on every tide.
Carol Crowell, long-time island educator, had a needlepoint hanging in her office: “Their parents send us the best they have.” The “best they have” come to high school with hope of making the world and the island a better, fairer, stronger place. They make robots, they plant eelgrass, they think, they argue, they write. And they even build sheds. They will do all, and more than we expect.
But the time has come for the parents to send more than their kids. They also need to hope, dream, and work for an island that, in twenty years, will have the current students return as career firemen, policemen, doctors, nurses, teachers, and town administrators. All of us parents need to help claw back an island where our kids could live and thrive. Hope isn’t just for kids. Superintendent Hallet wants the graduates. “Go out and show the world what you’re made of.” I hope they can come back. And stay.