We Live in Interesting Times

by Robert P. Barsanti

This is a weird year. Not only do Washington, London, and Hong Kong seem out of kilter, so does the school calendar. This year, unlike last year, school will begin after Labor Day.

In my beautiful and eternal childhood, the school year always began on the Wednesday after Labor Day. Families in my gently wooded suburb were given the last weekend to spend in Gloucester or North Conway before they drained the pipes, packed the station wagon, and headed back to the playgrounds and bus routes of winter. As time and age have stripped away the golden wallpaper of my youth, school committees and superintendents have moved the beginning of the school year into August. Kids forgot too much during the summer, they said. Parents need us to help out. Snow days will kill us in the winter. So, the last week of August was lost to textbooks and testing.

This year, however, the school year has waited patiently. The last week of August passed with warmth and wave, then Labor Day docked at South Wharf between the Bacchus and the Bouchon. Three days later, it set sail and left the early morning streets to the yellow buses that line up on Surfside Road. The Hope For the Future rides to school and is looking forward to Ms. Myers in her doorway.

We live in interesting times. When we dig our heads out of our phones and cast our eyes beyond the beaches, the mainland has heaved, seized, and shuddered. During August, more than 50 people died in mass shootings across the country. Greenland lost more than 250 billion tons of ice so far this year. A man at the center of a sex ring with children, connected to royalty, movie stars, and presidents, died mysteriously in a federal prison cell. My eyes dip from the horizon to the stop sign on Surfside Road and the rotary on Fairgrounds. My life is better if the biggest problem in my morning creeps bumper-to-bumper on the roadway and doesn’t tweet from the White House. In the cool autumn evenings, I can almost believe that it will all be all right.

And I hope it will. You can’t look at all of those school buses motoring down Surfside Road and not hope that the community of Nantucket will persevere long enough for hand turkeys, holiday pageants, and graduation walks. What we have, right now, thirty miles out to sea, is pretty good and worth handing over to the next generation of landscapers, bakers, and sandwich makers. That would be all right.

It isn’t what we were handed. On one hand, we were handed a lot more clams, scallops, and moorland. On the other hand, we also got intolerance, anger, and abandoned cars in the bushes. When we think about what “all right” means, we can’t think of the past. The past that we remember is not the past that actually happened. We leave out some awkwardness and ugliness, then fill in the potholes with what we wish happened. The Good Old Days weren’t all that good, but they are gone.

On the Internet, a women asked whether she and her husband could retire to the island and rent something for the year: not something grand, just a couple bedrooms somewhere. She and her husband had vacationed out here in the 80s and had always thought this would be a good place to wait for God. “No,” she was answered. “No,” it was said kindly. “No,” we aren’t that island anymore.

No, if we want everything to be all right, one thing that must happen is that the older generation is going to have to adjust to “all right.” We will have to accept “Indigenous People’s Day” instead of Columbus because we know that celebrating the Genoese navigator isn’t good. We will have to accept an open definition of marriage, a fluid idea of gender, and a narrower definition of humor. The Hope for the Future will read fewer books about white boys and more books about brown girls; they will ask each other what their pronouns are; and they will learn how to recycle their straws. That’s the easy part.

For the kids on the buses, “it will be all right” only if some problems are solved…if the island can adjust (or exist) in a warming and melting world, if the top 1% can surrender some of their advantage to the burgeoning 99%, and if they can find a way to buy groceries that doesn’t involve pouring cement into more foundations. For everything to be all right, islanders need to raise their eyes to the horizon.

We don’t want to. The stealthy effects of all of this change nibble at the margins. At school, they will have an active shooter drill sometime this fall where we will teach the kids to hide and throw books if a bad white man with a perfectly legal machine gun steps into the room. But it’s just another drill. Easy Street will flood three more times before next May. But it’s just another storm. Centre Street Bistro, and two other long-time stores will close. But that is just business.

We freak out, then we go get more milk and cookies. We need to pay the mortgage; we need to get the H.D.C. to approve the spec house; and we need to get the kids to swim team. The problem is clear, but it has yet to consume us. We keep waiting for the big one to flood the town, block the channel, and welcome Jim Cantore to the airport. Until then, we hope that it will be all right.

It won’t be all right. For the little ones with Paw Patrol backpacks and back-to-school shoes, nothing good will happen without their blood, sweat, toil, and tears They can’t let things “be”; they can’t let the season return to them; they can’t trust in the astronomical and gravitation swing back to normal. Their Septembers will be warmer, wetter, poorer, and sicker than ours have been.

It will be up to them. When they are parents, I hope that they will feel better watching the school buses roll than I do.