Growing up in the real world

By Eva Murray | Oct 30, 2011

Our first-born has just turned 21. Sometimes people around that age start to think about their entry into the “real world.”

When our son Eric was little, people asked us: “How do you dare to raise your kids out there on that island? There’s no pediatrician!”

I had the chance to get trained as an EMT when Eric was three, and that helped with some of the worrying. You don’t normally need a pediatrician first thing, anyway. What you need is to figure out whether your little one’s problem is an emergency or not. Do you then need a quick trip to the hospital, or do you make an appointment with a pediatrician during normal hours, or will some remedy or treatment you can do at home be enough? These days, fewer and fewer parents seem ready to make that assessment. The EMT course was a huge help with that. If things looked like they might be getting worse and the weather was deteriorating, we’d leave the island while we could, and not wait for the emergency to prove itself out at 2 a.m. in a screeching gale. What I didn’t realize until much later was that by becoming the EMT myself, I was setting an example, and teaching a lesson to my son.

As he got a little older people started asking all the time about school on the island, and when I’d talk about the one-room school, they’d look at me like I was from Mars. Eric did attend the island one-room school, and he also had some home-schooling. Just about every experience, every outing, every activity resulted in a child asking, “Does this count as school?” Everything was part of the island education, the education of a future adult.

He made hundreds of flights in the air service Cessnas, sitting in the copilot seat and getting unofficial flying lessons. He learned to drive a standard transmission in the old ex-telephone company trucks and the neighbor’s battered Subaru, and learned to run the bucket truck, to read meters and wire a switch. Now, he’s a theater electrician, a lights-and-sound man, a backstage techie, perhaps to become rigger, roadie, stage manager, pyrotechnics man, lighting designer, master electrician. He’s a fix-it guy, the one in the dorm who has tools, somebody people go to for help. Nothing could make us more proud.

He learned to camp and to understand the starry sky and to build a fire and to cook, and boy, can he cook. He won the first island chili contest, as an eighth-grader he made peanut butter balls for the Ladies Aid Christmas baskets. For a couple of summers he ran a grill at the Farmer’s Market with the spicy turkey paninis a specialty. A kid can get away with that on an island. Now, we are glad when he’s home, which isn’t often, because we know the food will be good.

He grew up in a home that is more workshop than normal residence, where the kids got vise-grips and electrical tape and WD-40 in their Christmas stockings. He didn’t lobster much — his buddies Dave and Tyler from grade school are now lobstermen in their own right, boat owners and captains — but he went third man enough to understand how the hometown industry works.

Mainland people asked me about raising children without benefit of organized sports. I don’t think he ever kicked a soccer ball in his life, but he went to swim lessons at the Camden Y and hockey skating at the MRC rink and once or twice to a snowboarding lesson at the Camden Snow Bowl. He went to camp at China Lake and he took drum lessons in Waldoboro. Island neighbors asked, clearly skeptical of my economic sense, “How can you afford to go to the mainland for all that?” as if suggesting that either I had a secret stash of money buried in Mason jars in the backyard or that real island children don’t take music lessons. Baloney. We just spent what money we could on those instead of on other things. Somewhere he learned to paddle a kayak; I have no idea where.

As he grew close to high school age, people asked, “How is he going to manage when he has to deal with the real world?” That one always annoyed me because what could be more “real world” than a place where kids might be full-fledged members of the community, dealing with the rough stuff as well as the celebrations? When one islander died unexpectedly, he babysat the little kids that first terrible day. When a big grass fire broke out and threatened to become a forest fire, he ran, without waiting to be told to go and without asking anybody’s permission. That one night, during that fire, where he was among the first to get there and the last to leave, I believe he grew up about five years. When he and Jake and Emily were on the beach and saw somebody caught in a dangerous rip current, they managed a rescue, and I’ll admit to being just as happy I didn’t know about it until it was over. He cleaned wounds, he dug graves, and he put up Christmas trees for shut-ins. That’s the real world.

One of my favorite stories comes from his freshman year at Gould Academy. Matinicus students have a choice of where they go to high school, and Eric chose Gould (and they, thankfully, chose him, too, as he needed substantial financial aid). In November of his first year, we got a call from an excited kid: “I need all my outdoor gear and I need it quick. I’m joining the ski patrol.”

“You’re joining the what?” Remember, he’d lived all his life on this island, and been to the Snow Bowl maybe twice in his life.

“Ski Patrol. I know all kinds of stuff about medical emergencies. I’ve been watching you guys for years. All I have to do is learn how to ski!”

Now, this is Gould Academy, practically in the shadow of Sunday River, and filled with students who have been on skis since the day they could walk. He managed it, though, working through the Outdoor Emergency Care class, learning to snowboard, going through several winters of rescue training on the mountain. Turning 18 before the first snow of his senior year, he worked that season for the Sunday River Ski Patrol. A ski patroller is like an EMT on the mountain, trained to deal with everything from nervous kids to massive trauma.

Here’s why that matters: Last summer, when I had my unexpected little swim in the deep water, with subsequent rescue, I was an ugly-looking, bloody mess. My face was terribly cut up. Eric was one of the first to see me once I was delivered to the mainland on the airplane, before the ambulance crew got there. He opened up the plane and worked to get blankets and tarps or whatever for us hypothermia patients. The air service dispatcher asked him: “How are you doing? Are you OK?” He reportedly said something like: “I have to be a ski patroller right now. I’m telling myself this is a skier who hit a tree; this isn’t somebody I know. If I think of this as my mom, I can’t work. I’m in ski patrol mode right now.”

Thank goodness for Gould Academy, and for my son’s island childhood, and for his growing up in the real world. I am thankful for every hardship he ever went through, every fire, every funeral, just as I am thankful for every success, every good chili, every hockey stop, every Christmas tree. He is now an adult who brings a lot to his larger community. He knows he must run whenever anybody calls out “Help!” He knows how to bind up wounds and read to children and repair things and bring food when somebody’s sick and, yes, deal with the hard jobs. He grew up on an island.


Eva Murray lives on Matinicus Island.



If you appreciated reading this news story and want to support local journalism, consider subscribing today.
Call (207) 594-4401 or join online at
Donate directly to keeping quality journalism alive at
Comments (2)
Posted by: Terri Casey | Nov 03, 2011 09:11

I love reading your stories, this one especially. Although I've never lived on an island, I have lived in the remote woods of Maine and chose to homeschool my kids for many years. I had similar reactions from family and friends about socialization, organized sports, etc... I don't regret a moment of that decision. My eldest is off in college and doing great and my other two are in public school now and have acclimated quite well. I think people's opinions often come from ignorance. The ignorance of not understanding what they are unfamiliar with.

Posted by: Bridget & Richard Qualey/Stetson | Nov 02, 2011 00:36

This is just a beautifully written essay.  Thank you Eva Murray.  Bravo for island childhood experiences!  Such great insight into how life experiences overlap and intertwine in an isolated environment and what a great set of life experiences personified in son Eric.

If you wish to comment, please login.