• by Robert P. Barsanti •
His name popped up on my screen and a chime announced his fortieth birthday. He had been a student and, to my mind, he still was. He would always be the long haired Spiccoli in board shorts and Vans, napping in the back of my classroom. I remember putting his name on the board, sending him to the principal’s office, and just suffering with him daily. Of course, he had talent—that’s why it was painful. He wrote with style, he had complicated opinions, and he wasn’t particularly consistent with bringing them together. In the teacher’s room, we agreed upon his tombstone: “He has potential.”
The world turned and turned again and now he was forty. I found him on the south shore over a grill, with three surfboards, two little girls, a wife and a pick-up with his name on the door. We talked for a moment, remembered the good old times when he threw erasers at me, and moved on. He’s no longer the future, he is the present.
He was a member of the class of 1991. Most of that class left, got an education one way or another, worked and married, and have stumbled across year forty as if it was a log on the beach. Half of the class left the island. They are in Arizona and California, walking step by step through the sand of middle age. But half have come back for good.
As a teacher on Nantucket, I wanted to get the kids off-island. To stay on island was to stay in an old pigeon hole. The person you were in third grade was the person you were going to be for the rest of your life. In order to succeed, you needed to create a life for yourself, one with a college degree. You needed to see a world not bounded by beaches and not punctuated by BMW’s, but laced through with universities, museums, and freeways. Half of the Class of 91 have not moved back; they succeeded they way I wanted them to. Somewhere else.
Twenty-two years later, schools aren’t travel agencies, they are data farms. And data, God bless it, generally comes out of the tip of a #2 pencil. We no longer measure fifth grade in books read or books written, but in the numbers of bubbles filled in correctly. By senior year, we chart out the future of the students and the schools by SAT, AP, and ASVAB scores. We need those tests; they are the only tools that can put a poor kid on the same footing as a rich kid. But those tests tell us about as much as spring training batting averages.
Parents don’t want to hear this, although they know the hard truths of life. Parents want to believe in the guarantees of good grades and Ivy League colleges. They imagine their sons and daughters moving into executive offices with a numbered parking place and a dental plan. In their core, in the quiet kitchen table of reality, parents know the truth. The years never quite award the gentle Connecticut future without some bumps and breaks. Everyone turns forty with their own bruises and scars, as will their kids.
By that age, either you have found your place in the world, or the world has found its place for you. You have been fired or divorced or watched the zeppelin of your dreams burn and crash. Nobody hits age forty without a long look in the mirror and a deep poke in the belly. You can no longer lie to yourself and call it honor. If you want to judge parents, or a school, or a community, look to the forty year old high school graduates.
So what can we say about a graduating class that has not winners of a Nobel, a Pulitzer, or a World Championship ring? What can be said about a class that doesn’t have anyone on the cover of Fortune or Time? Instead, they became teachers, nurses, and lawyers. They run battered women’s shelters, backhoes, and the front door at the Box. They have become our islanders, heirs to the whaling captains and real estate developers.
I don’t think their parents are disappointed. My former student made good: his house, career, and children arose out of hard-earned blessings. The best dreams, the ones that make it through to the dawn, are the humble ones. The cold beer in the evening, the slight burr of sleeping children, the shared bathroom all arrived after a long trip through the dark.
We didn’t make it easy for them.
In 1991, the year of their high school graduation, Nantucket was about to boom again; the island was about to enter fifteen years of phenomenal wealth and greed. In spring of their graduation, a house on Main Street could be bought for $400,000 and a buildable lot for $50,000. The Quaker House was still open, the Downyflake was selling donuts at Children’s Beach, and J.J. Clammps had golf holes, not duplexes. You could get film developed, rent movies, and get a mortgage with a 9% interest rate.
At the most fundamental levels, the island hasn’t changed much in the last twenty-two years. Unfortunately, most of the wealth of the island has been sold to hedge funds and their clients. Nonetheless, visitors come in the spring and leave in the fall. Houses are built, sold, and re-sold. Jobs are created, lost, and then brought back with a new t-shirt. The same advertisements are in the paper, as are the same articles (food is expensive in 1991 as well).
Now, at the tail end of that boom, when that same $400,000 house is on the market for millions and thousand dollar shoes are for sale in the Quaker House windows. The children of 1991 cannot make millions out of sperm whales nor can they by digging holes in the moors. Instead, they were given a toe hold on this island. From that hold, they have dug in, started families, and settled in for good.
For our good. When they graduated, Superintendent Maiocco, said “Those of us so given by nature and circumstance have a responsibility to give back to society.” The Class of 1991 are nurses and teachers, contractors and social workers out here; their lives testify to the forgotten truth of the superintendent’s words. They haven’t made fortunes and haven’t broken records, but they have made lives better. They work at mending the world.
No data point or testing regimen pointed to this. No curriculum sent this class into a future of helping. Instead, they grew up on an island where two hands help each other, two eyes look out for each other, two feet stand for each other. They left us, then came back. For good.