Nantucket Essays

Our Piece of the Pie

by Robert P. Barsanti

On a crystalline Saturday for brides, I crashed a wedding. I had known the groom well in the days when I was able to collect his homework, assign him lunch detentions, and wonder if he would go to the prom. In the stretch of years after that, he flew off to Providence College and found himself in the company of bankers and financiers. Then, in a lurch of time, a woman with grace and laughter tapped him on the shoulder. They married on the bluff in Tom Nevers and celebrated in a hidden house in the scrub. I followed a hovering drone up the street, through the hedges, and into a spill of guests on the grass.

Nantucket weddings, with Nantucketers at the center, are Shakespearian comedies where the actors take on different roles for each performance. In yesterday’s performance, I was the groom and you were the bartender and she was the baker. Today, I will be the baker, she will be the bartender, and you will be the groom. Tomorrow, we switch again, only this time we will have oysters and littlenecks on ice. When I walked into the yard, no one knew whether I was the guest or the gardener. In the ensuing confusion, I collected a watermelon and jalapeno margarita as a badge of membership and joined the crowd.

When you host a wedding with all of your childhood friends, you can’t hide the treasures under some sort of sober modesty. The good wine has to come out-because we all know that you have it. So, the musical parents reformed their bluegrass band for one more set, and a special song for the couple to go with Bob Dylan. The mother of groom took to the loom and wove not only wraps and ties, but also the groom’s dinner jacket. Over a long weekend, his friends and classmates jetted in and returned to being islanders. Behind the hedges and away from the road, the islanders bloom among friends. In spite of the tight pants and the odd tattoos, I envied the luxury of their youth.

On this wedding day, the Class of 2004 represented itself well. They didn’t throw spitballs, staples, or erasers. They didn’t chew gum, or laugh, or text anyone besides the babysitter—somehow they had entered their thirties and had become the people we had over-promised years before. They were parents. They were voters and tax-payers. They were lawyers, bankers, doctors, engineers, and sailing captains. One of them worked for the NHL, another was a rocket scientist, and another had saved a bus load of children. They took off from the island and soared at a velocity beyond hope.

Schools measure their success in one-year increments. We measure how this year’s SAT scores measure against last year’s, how many more students we have this year than last year. And how many students got into Harvard. The voters, the state, and the bureaucrats want quick and easy answers that will fit into a chart and go onto a three-color slide that realtors can show prospective buyers. But effective schooling, and parenting, is only measured by the graduate, not the year. Show me how well the fat, middle-aged graduates succeed in the world, I can tell you how good the school was.

In the gentle gold of a September sunset, these parents, teachers, lawyers, and bankers lined up and posed with a “borrowed” Nantucket High School banner. So this, I thought, was what Vision 2020 looked like.

In the eighties, Vision 2020 was a vision for the schools that hoped to bring them into the right century. The noxious phrase came bouncing out of the superintendent’s mouth constantly. John O’Neill saw the future coming to this island, and it carried a briefcase and kept billable hours.

As Superintendent, he forced the island to upgrade the leaky elementary and middle schools, then to replace the high school. He evangelized to every group he could find, from the Selectmen to the Rotary to the Angler’s Club to the fishermen tied up at the town wharf. He walked into a room with a huge map of the new building, a Franciscan confidence and good humor; he was frequently met with doubt and derision. Voters didn’t understand why they needed to pay more money for Vito and the football team to have a new building. Nor why they needed a swimming pool. His hands would spread, he would smile, and the business class bromides would drop. It was our “piece of the pie.” We had to be ready for the twenty-first century, and we needed “2020 vision.” And, of course, the “train is leaving the station.”

He got his new school and his new teachers and his swimming pool. He got computer labs and developing stations for the photography class and wet suits for the oceanography lab. Then he stepped down. Twenty-seven years ago. The builder’s greatest honor is to be forgotten. John O’Neill remained on island, helped out at the elementary school, and worked with the church— then he slipped away. His building also disappeared. Like most monuments, the school has entered the backdrop of our lives and become the new normal. We pass it everyday on our way to the store. It is unrecognized, unnamed, unremarked. And absolutely vital. Like air.

Eventually, time levels everything. The building will follow its builder into the ground. On Nantucket, monuments tend to burn, fall over, or sink. The high school will suffer the same fate; time will knock down the walls, obscure the names, and empty the rooms. Twenty-seven years from now, it may be the new Island Home.

By then, the building will have done its work. It raised the hopes and expectations for the parents; it raised the capabilities of the staff; and it launched its graduates into the jet stream. The monuments to John O’Neill’s life work wore dress clothes and drank watermelon margaritas. Like their forefathers, they found success in the rest of the world, then brought it back here, to a yard in Tom Nevers on a September afternoon.

Articles by Date from 2012