A visit from an 'Old School' island teacher

By Eva Murray | May 16, 2011

Back in March I was on the telephone with a friend of mine, a Matinicus native who lives and works in the Brunswick area now but who went through eight grades of school here in the late 1950s and 1960s. She was sharing some memories of one-room school days, and going off to boarding school at Kent’s Hill, and landing on Matinicus in the snow in Arthur Harjula’s Piper Cub, which was the first iteration of the air service we count on so much now.

My friend passed on an interesting story, just by way of idle conversation. Most everybody older than me (as I was born in the winter of 1964) can relate their “where were you when JFK was shot?” story. Jeannette was in the sixth grade in November of 1963, and she related the tale of how she and another island middle-schooler, Evelyn (now the grandmother of two of our current Matinicus scholars) had been given the task of lugging the drinking water in from the neighbor’s well. In those days, school was held in what we call “the old schoolhouse,” the traditional one-room school building, which had no plumbing. Drinking water was brought in each day and kept cold in a crockery water cooler with a spigot. Older students had the responsibility to refill it daily.

Jeannette told me that when they got back inside with the water, everybody was visibly rattled and the teacher, Mrs. Carleton, was very upset. It took a minute to ascertain what had happened. One of the earliest telephone calls to Matinicus Island had just been received — the news about President Kennedy’s assassination. Matinicus had only just started the power company, largely for the purpose of supporting the telephone system, and ordinary telephone calls were still something of a rarity. The call shook everybody deeply.

By the way, that water cooler, and the whole lack of plumbing, was evidently one of the things another teacher, just a few years later, objected to when he conducted his one-man teacher’s strike which made national news in 1968; more on that perhaps another time.

Anyway, only a few days later (not 1963, but a few weeks ago), I got a telephone call from Dave Duncan, our current Matinicus teacher. He told me that a woman who had taught out here many years ago was coming out to visit at some point soon, and asked if I’d like to meet her. Of course I would. He said that he’d let me know when he found out exactly when she was coming. “Do you know her name?” I asked. “It was something like…Colton…maybe? I don’t think that’s her name any more.”

Sure enough, it was Mrs. Carleton, now Mrs. Heald…as it happens, the same Betty Heald who writes the “Baking with Betty” column for this newspaper!

When I got word from Dave that Betty was on Matinicus, I immediately drove down to the school. I found her sitting at the table in the old schoolhouse, now our municipal office, talking to the assembled children about what school was like in her day. She mentioned the huge old furnace that took up so much of the back of the room — and we told her we’d only just hauled that away a couple of years ago! She admitted with some reluctance — and a smile — that she’d snuck her collie dog into the classroom. “Nobody objected then, but don’t pass that on, I’m sure that’s not considered proper for a teacher…” We assured her that lots of dogs had hung around in school over the years (although we’re not recommending it this year).

Betty told us about the job she took after she left the island (her own son was almost school-age and she thought it was best if she didn’t become his teacher). As a new teacher in a fairly rough school in New Jersey, she encountered some tough boys who tested her to see if she’d scare easily. One of them announced to her in front of his buddies, “I’m going to hit you.” Betty said she thought of her Matinicus boys, some of whom stood way over her head. “You do,” she replied, “and I’ll mop the floor with you!” Betty then explained that she knew she might get in trouble for that, but, “I didn’t really care if I taught in New Jersey anyway.” A long teaching career lay ahead of her though until, upon retirement, she came back home to Maine.

Lobsterman and town assessor Clayton Philbrook showed up at the town office next; he had been one of Betty’s students and hugs and photographs were in order. I pushed a pile of tools and cable out of the way and she climbed into the passenger side of the telephone company pickup truck for a short drive to the South Sandy Beach, where she and I almost got the truck stuck in the mud (thankfully, it had four wheel drive). After lunch, as we chatted waiting for the mail flight at the airstrip, we discovered that we were both writing for the same newspaper.

Much of her description of teaching on the island sounded familiar to me. I think, with the exception of the school building itself (I taught in the “new school,”) my job in 1987 more closely resembled Betty’s in 1963-1964 than it resembles Dave’s school day now. Just by coincidence, I was the Matinicus teacher right in the middle between Mrs. Carleton and Mr. Duncan. Betty and I both worked alone. We figured out what the students needed alone, we chose the activities alone, and we dealt with problems alone as best we could. Island teachers now enjoy collaborative projects, a somewhat aligned curriculum and professional development opportunities with other island teachers... and of course, the Internet. So much has changed in a one-room school! Some things, we discovered upon Betty’s visit, have also remained very much the same.

Betty also never indicated that she thought going without running water was any particular hardship.

 

Eva Murray lives on Matinicus Island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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