• by Robert P. Barsanti •
Deep in Nantucket High School, stared at by bored department heads or truculent students, are a series of deeply formal pictures of the graduating class of Nantucket High School. The young men wear jackets and ties, the young women have dresses, and they stare at the camera in virtuous black and white with the dome of the Capitol Building behind them.
I don’t think the high school sends Seniors on class trips anymore. The expense of flying, or busing, the entire senior class to Washington D.C. would be mind-boggling. In addition, we ask more things out of our young people than we asked in the past. We ask them to work various jobs for the visitors that arrive in the first week in May, we ask them to catch and throw baseballs and softballs deep into the spring and past graduation. We ask them to fundraise and volunteer and practice all sorts of other civic virtues. A trip to Washington would be too far, take too much time, and be too expensive. If I remember my Nantucket history well enough, the trip was handed off to the fifth grade until it got too expensive and too unwieldy for them. For a few years, the high school students went to Plymouth and Salem, but that faded as well.
We keep to the island. Nantucket exerts a small town gravity on all of us. Every day has its own battles and marches; each demands that we gird our loins and settle into battle with lawns, dirty sheets, and cedar shingles. Adding one more battlefield, be it for fundraising or just for travel, can be that one bridge too far. Moreover, it can be hard to take the mainland seriously. After all, you can’t see it. Boats, planes, and phone calls come from there, but everything else is visible, and quite pressing, right here between the beaches.
In addition, family tugs at us. In the spring, the calendar runs short for the seniors in the spring, when the phrase “never again” starts to be a daily occurrence. They sit in the cafeteria and are pulled to the faces that they may never again see. Their mothers and fathers feel those same tugs of time, only they see it at the breakfast table, on the sofa, and on the bunk beds. Taking these young people away for a week, a whole week, at the end of the spring, jerks their heart strings even more. They came back, had prom, had graduation and then…
Still, when you look at the pictures on the wall, you see all of those young people dressed up and lined up. When you look closer, these are the people who built the island we live on now: Gardners, Flanagans, Sylvias, Viscos.… They ran the businesses, sat on the committees, and got things done, for good or ill, over the last fifty years. While the Washington trip, by itself, did not bring about their success or our success, I think it may have helped quite a bit. Even more, it would be worth while to reconsider for our modern teens.
First, getting off-island, in and of itself, should be its own graduation requirement. We spend so much time on our own little patch of gray and green that we forget how small and provincial our little place is. Every room we enter, from the Yacht Club to the Chicken Box, has at least one familiar face in it. We never travel on a road that we haven’t travelled one billion times before. In Washington, every road is strange. We would know absolutely nobody at the market and at the restaurant. You can be sure of little. When you walk in Washington, you walk as a stranger and as a tourist. Nothing is familiar and everyone is strange; just as it is for just about everyone who lives on the mainland.
Second, and as a result of losing ourselves in the big city, we find ourselves. When we are mucking and muddling through a sodden winter and a mildewed spring out here, our differences cling to the bottom of our shoes. Wrongs grow into grievances, and then sprout the mold of sin. But pluck us off the sand, drop is in a strange city of stranger people and the differences wash away. Islanders make islands. We turn to each other, in our noxious familiarity and wipe away the mud.
Finally, the city calls us. Washington, from without, sinks in its own filth and irony. We speak of it in a sneer; it has towers of venality, hypocrisy, greed, and dull bureaucratic stupor. But, once inside the city, the true light burns through; it’s earnestness. Nobody can stand in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and not feel the pain and the honor of that sacrifice. Nor can you stand at the feet of Lincoln, with those two magnificent speeches carved into the walls on each side, and not feel called to the “better angels of our nature.” History pauses at each corner, and not just the blood-dappled history of greed and foolishness, but the earnest lives of humble people who came to the city to make a difference. People come to Washington to do something good, whether they come on a march or on an election.
As Americans, we laugh off the pomp and ceremony of the older nations. Still, you would need a heart of stone to watch the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier and not feel the ground raise you up to be something better than we fear we are.
All those Nantucket High School Seniors stood at the Lincoln Memorial, at the Capital Building, at Arlington. What did they feel? Did they sense the ground beneath them? Did they feel that it was all some historical joke? Or did they feel that they could do something to make the world, the country, and the island a better place?
We don’t know what they felt. We know what they did. They came back and become teachers and coaches, policemen and soldiers, selectmen and committee members. They were grew and were educated in our small community, but, perhaps, a visit to Washington set the ground beneath them.