Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Islands Apart

To start this column, I first wrote, “Having never taught on an island...,” and that did not seem completely right. I thought for a moment and suddenly it dawned that my first teaching job was actually on an island. Apparently, the fact that it was an island with more than 20 bridges and countless car and rail tunnels linking it to the mainland, and a population of several million people confused me briefly. Manhattan’s George Washington High School, where I student taught before working as a long term substitute, sits high on a hill at the corner of 192nd Street and Audubon Avenue, overlooking the Harlem River and the Bronx. In 1776, the British chased General Washington’s army from nearby Fort Washington across the Hudson to New Jersey a rout that later led to the Battle of Trenton and eventually to that famous ferrying of his army across the Delaware.

In 1982 most of the 2000 students were either first or second generation Americans from the Dominican Republic. I could buy sweet milky Cuban coffee in any of eight bodegas between the subway exit and the metal-detector bedecked school entrance. In the school’s heyday luminaries like Maria Callas and Henry Kissinger earned their diplomas there. By my time there a general malaise, probably due to decades of fiscal neglect, prevailed. Historic WPA murals damaged in riots during the 60s and 70s faced their rooms with scarred faces. When I started my student teaching in late winter, the school had recently run out of lined paper and none would be provided again until September.

That a piece of historic American art marred by urban strife could be ignored for decades because of a lack of funding, or that a pre-computer age high school could run out of paper in the biggest city in America calls into sharp relief the differences between these islands and their schools. Here at NHCS, events like Spirit Week build the ties that bind us, connect the elementary children with the older kids, the teachers to students they may not have in class, teachers to other teachers, and all of us to the ideal of community education. We had no such goals on that larger island; keeping the kids off the streets sometimes seemed our sole objective and we felt as if we accomplished something when our pupils showed up.

As Spirit Week, an almost entirely student-organized series of events, unfolded last month, I marveled at the way children encouraged one another through creative, athletic, nourishing, even silly exercises. T-shirt painting and an egg-drop competition allowed us all to stretch our creativity a little; a hungie-gungie lunch provided delicious comfort food; a relay race gave the basketball geniuses a chance to showboat and the rest of us to be supported for our, at least in my case, somewhat less than stellar attempts.

According to NHCS Student Council President Leta Hallowell, Spirit Week coincidentally bumped up against the school’s traditional Gingerbread House Competition. In an apparently dependable part of this tradition, the faculty’s tropical-themed gingerbread house failed to prevail. This is just one sweet occasion created by Librarian Kate Quinn. Neither my last island school nor any school since has employed anyone in the role Kate has created at this school. As most readers must know, Kate delivers a tray of treats to both the faculty and the high school every Thursday. I will remember one of these concoctions, replete with butter, poppy seeds, and just the right amount of jam, as Heaven in a Cookie.

This month we had a mini-Spirit Week with some impromptu Homecoming events to mark the first home basketball games set to commence Friday the 13th. Meatball submarine sandwiches Thursday and basketball shooting contests and a round of Captain’s Coming--a nautical and more sophisticated version of Simon Says on Friday put the whole school in the mood to support our teams in Friday’s games.

True to its reputation, Friday the 13th proved less than lucky for the Hawks as lousy roads in the Bar Harbor area kept Acadia Christian closed and their basketball players leashed. When the home season finally began Monday, the standing-room only crowd saw our young teams demonstrate enviable tenacity and heart against Jackman’s strong, mature Forest Hills teams. Though the visitors won both the boys’ and girls’ games, North Haven spectators could see the teams offer up grace, speed, elegance and sportsmanship.

As freshman Hawk Megan Goodell played the national anthem on her flute to open the game Monday, I could not help but think of the tens of thousands of high school players and spectators hearing that song throughout the country. As I listened, I thanked whatever invisible workings of the universe allow North Haven Community School to offer its unique environment and education to its children, and embody community so thoroughly.

(This column was also submitted to the North Haven News.)

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