Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 39 Issue 4 • May 28-June 3, 2009
now in our 39th season

Back Home for Good

by Robert P. Barsanti

School is a tough place to be after Memorial Day.  The sailors have burned their socks, the Figawis have lost their hats, and the seniors have lost their minds.  They come into school each day with plans, shorts, and glad smiles. They go from class to class, whining listlessly and pointlessly about finals, projects, and prom dates.  A whole set of events that have been repeating in their lives for twelve years is coming to a rapidly diminishing end.  Someone is putting out his final newspaper, competing in her last game, or skipping his last test. Every time a senior looks up, she sees the subtitle “Last Time.”

We teachers spend twelve years building for this moment.  From the moment Mom walks away from Junior at the Legos table, we have been thinking of the time when this little one will be sitting on the school committee, installing our new furnace, or pulling us over, late, on a Friday night. 

Naturally, we want them to learn mercy and compassion.  We want them to play fair, clean up their own messes, and share everything. Later on, we want them to know all sorts of other things like diligence, trust, the FOIL method, Seward’s Folly, and the names of Anne Hathaway’s children.  The point of all of the books and all of the ditto sheets was to get them out into the real world with the tools to be useful and successful; we want them to be fat, happy, and forty.  

Now, for most of our students, the road to a plump and prosperous middle age runs through Steamship Wharf.   So we juice up the academics in their studies, plop them into the SAT’s, walk them through their application essays, write mostly truthful recommendation letters, and wait for the envelopes to arrive.  Then, in the weeks that led up to graduation, we would sit in an overheated room in the basement of the school and chose the scholarship winners.

Picking the winners is hard.  Just about every graduate has a compelling story.  This one is the first in their family to go to college, that one has worked a forty-hour week in addition to keeping his grades up, and this other one is phenomenally gifted, although he was not aware just yet.  In the end, we want to make sure that the money is going to be a good investment.  This kid is going to use the money, go to college, and be of use.  We did not want him burying his talents in the dirt, then returning to his old bedroom six weeks and four keg stands later.

This year, Nantucket will give out at least $650,000 in scholarship money and most of it, we hope, will never return to the island.  We train kids in order to send them away.  They will happily accept the check just as they happily accepted the diploma, then they will tuck it under their chairs, give it to Mom, then mail it to Tulane.  If everything goes the way that they dream, she will glide through four undergraduate years at Phi Beta Kappa height, listen to Ellen Degeneres at graduation, then whip through a graduate program that will place her in the suburbs of a prosperous city with a banker fiancé, wonderful year-end reviews, and a full partnership.

It won’t be like that.  We all know it.  Life comes to us with the awful certainty of thunderstorms.  We know it is coming, we know what direction it will come, and we can’t stop the destruction.  Babies pop and drop at their own time, rescheduling work and school around diapers and bottles.  Jobs wither and die far more often than they flourish.  Parents get sick, money gets short, and he runs off with his workout partner.  Life happens, then you head back home for good.

For good.  Those graduates, those scholarship winners who cry on stage may come back across the sound creased at the spine, worn at the edges, and trailing a sequel or two.  They are still our Whalers, and they need what good we can muster.  Wounds are licked, chances are assessed, and the struggle begins again.  In a small town, you can always be of use.  Everyone needs someone who knows what can’t be done, what can, and who to see.  They come home for good; our good will to help them along, no questions asked and no excuses needed.

Others come home in order to do us good. The graduation line trained by Charlie Flanagan and Ritch Leone sends doctors, lawyers, nurses, fireman, teachers, and policemen back to these sandy shores.  They know the history; they know the people; they know the promises and the pitfalls.  They will write the island’s future in laws, contracts, care notices, and purchase orders. These graduates have skin in the game.  They play for more than a paycheck, retirement, and a recommendation.

They all come back to this place because it is their home.  Home is not the last guy to sign the paycheck, the condo complex closest to the train station, or the really cool zip code on the envelopes.  Instead, it is where we neither have to explain, excuse, or justify.  Home is what we taught them back in kindergarten.  They came back to teach it again.  They came back to keep the chain moving. 

Nantucket scholarship money has sent white shoe lawyers to Washington, actors to LA, doctors to Ireland, and teachers to South Korea.  The trustees can happily point to rocket scientists, opera singers, bankers, lawyers, and social workers.  Whalers make themselves “useful” around the world.  But the best return on that money sits in the town building, drives the island in police cars, stands at a desk in school, or packs lunch for her daughter in the Surfside morning.  They came home for good.

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