Nantucket Essays


by Robert P. Barsanti

On Saturday, I was driving the island with the heir to my empire of dirt. After a solid month of damp and polar fleece, the rain crept north into the the Gulf of Maine and the fog line remained hung at the horizon off to the east. In that brief moment of true spring, the sky glowed an eternal blue and the leaves grew into a full dark photosynthetic green. Across the rich men’s lawns, the landscapers raced the growing grass.

We headed out to Sconset. This early in the summer, the bicyclists fought the wind out to the lighthouse, the New York Times remained in the rack at the Market, and Sankaty Golf Club had flags in but no golfers. Sconset remained the village from the picture books and postcards, save for some new shingles and plenty of good views of the ocean all the way to the lighthouse.. A few houses remained on the right of the road to wait for the ocean to get the word that climate change is a Chinese hoax, but everyone else has moved left.

We were lucky to enjoy the seventy degrees, but the brides were much luckier; the Weather Channel lottery numbers had come in for them. The band was warming up in the Sconset Casino as the last of the tables were set and the photos were taken in the garden by the chapel. On our way back to town, another set of caterers was preparing the tent the putting green at the Sankaty Club. No storm winds kept the guests in Hyannis, no rain pushed the photos inside, and no cold demanded sweaters and coats. Thousands of June Nantucket brides lined up from the past and held an envious torch high; the weather is as good as they would like to remember it was.

We like our past on Nantucket, even if it never quite happened the way we remember it. We tend to embroider it, as the cushions are at the Sconset Chapel, and we like it that way. The island repeats itself, season to season, year to year, and we build traditions to rhyme through the years. Spring weddings are weddings, even if Ted Anderson isn’t celebrating them anymore. We hope time stopped when we stepped off the ferry.

The high school is also celebrating in rhyme as it graduates another class of seniors. Most of the traditions remain in place; the students all wear blue cap and gown, with white collars and gold braids for National Honor Society. On Nantucket, the students occupy the stage in front of their friends and parents. They invite the adults up to speak. So it was in 1999, when the heir was born, and so it is now.

But history only rhymes, it does not repeat. Seventeen years later, the women do not wear white, the list of scholarships has tripled, and the principal wears his PhD gown to broadcast his academic achievements.

Seventeen years has pronounced judgement on the old graduates. Seventeen years has made those old Whalers into parents, taxpayers, and voters. Seventeen years has brought about lawyers, plumbers, nurses, goldsmiths, golf pros, sea captains, and master shuckers.

In spite of our best efforts, the years have driven change onto the island and among the graduating class of Nantucket High School. This class has thirty-two more seats on stage than the class of 2000 had. Both classes had the same percent of students going off to expensive four-year colleges, but the current graduates could boast of Harvard, Brown, Yale, Bowdoin, Trinity, and Berkeley. Many of this class posed in front of expensive sports cars, smoked cigars, wore Reds and bow ties, then celebrated their graduation at Cisco Brewers. Many of them hoped to drive their new graduation truck into a future of surf instructing and artisanal cupcakes.

But the best of class of 2017 isn’t going to Ivy League schools nor are they lighting bonfires on Barrett Farm Road. They are going to work. Eighteen students from the Class of 2017 were the first in their families to wear a mortar board, then shake with the right and take with the left. Eighteen of them list their plans after graduation as being “employment.” In the class of 2000, less than one percent had a Hispanic background and 96% were white: in 2017, 23% were hispanic and 60% are white. At the turn of the century, only 3.2% were low income: today, 17.3% are.

One graduate worked two jobs in order to buy food, pay rent, and hire an immigration attorney in Boston; a teacher paid for his boat tickets. Another graduate worked through his fifth year after being told he wasn’t going to be allowed to drop out. A graduate knew twenty words of English which included the words “framing square,” “shingles,” and “roof.” Then he went out and showed the sons of Nantucket carpenters how it was done on an eight inch pitch. These graduates stood on a stage to receive applause only from strangers and teachers; their parents were a long way gone.

Then they went back to work.

Every triumph is shared. Uncles, aunts, teachers, and coaches did not let the time wash them away. One teacher in particular, Hank O’Rourke, the walking man, the E.S.L. guide, and the teacher of the year stood for them until he passed away. His greatest memorial stood with big smiles, blue gowns, and flat caps.

No matter what year or what season, the island requires luck, hard work, and help if you want to live here long. Everything on the sand requires sweat equity. The old joke remains true; you call a Nantucketer with two jobs “lazy.” Less than a quarter of the class of 2000 remain on island. Some left to be rocket scientists and some left because Dad’s name and credit didn’t last long enough. Nothing has ever come easy out here.

Seventeen years from now, I hope that the heir is still on-island to hear the year’s rhyme. In that June, I suspect that another band will be practicing in the Casino and a tent will once again be up on the putting green at Sankaty. However, I know that the heir had better be able to speak Spanish.

Articles by Date from 2012