Maine School Binds Isolated Island Together Monhegan Island, off the state's central coast, has only 50 year-round residents. Monhegan Island School has seven students this year, ages five through 12.

Maine School Binds Isolated Island Together

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Monhegan Island is 10 miles off the coast of Maine. In summer, boatloads of day-trippers and painters go to hike its trails and enjoy the rustic quiet. The island is what is known in Maine as a self-governed plantation even smaller than a town. Two-thirds of Monhegan's taxes are spent on its only school. In the second in our series about one-room schools, independent producer Neenah Ellis has this story.

NEENAH ELLIS reporting:

Fifty people live year-round on Monhegan Island. They're strong-willed and here by choice. Winter lobster fishing puts cash in their pockets, and the one-room school helps provide the community they need.

Mr. STEVE ROLLINS (Resident): It takes a special person to live on an island this far out. The community out here is small compared to some of the other islands. Big difference.

ELLIS: Steve Rollins grew up here, hauling lobster traps in the winter months from December to May, as they have on Monhegan for 99 years. Get up in the dark, drag a skiff to the water, row out to the lobster boat and wrestle steel traps in subfreezing wind.

(Soundbite of lobstering)

ELLIS: Sea smoke rises from the water when it's this cold, a vapor blowing sideways in the wind. It's ominously early this year. The lobstermen are out on a Friday morning in December, but things are slow. The catch is down. Some sternmen have already been let go.

Group of People: (Singing) Christmastime is here.

ELLIS: Up the hill, at Monhegan Island School, the kids are rehearsing for the annual Christmas play, which is a Monhegan tradition. There are seven students this year. The teacher is Sarah Caban(ph).

Ms. SARAH CABAN (Teacher): Quinny(ph), you're going to meet me at the blue table. Dalton, blue table.

ELLIS: They'll be watching a film today about lobstering on Monhegan 30 years ago. One of the teaching aides, Donna Cundy, was a student back then and tells the kids what they're seeing.

Ms. DONNA CUNDY (Teaching Aide): My dad's the only one left who bags bait like this still. Everyone else uses the plastic bait bags. That's how they used to do it.

Unidentified Child #1: Who is that?

Ms. CUNDY: Debbie. Her name is Debbie.

ELLIS: It's like watching home movies. Kids recognize most people on the screen. Teacher Sarah Caban is eager for the kids to know everyone and for the community to know them, to be involved. All during the school year, she invites people to the classroom. The schoolhouse door hasn't always been open, though, says Marian Chioffi. Her son is a student, and she's on the school committee.

Ms. MARIAN CHIOFFI (Mother): Sarah is the first teacher in a long time to bring the community back into the schoolroom, and to get people saying, `Hey, can I come up? Can I show the kids what I do? Can I tell them about it?' I think that's pretty special.

ELLIS: A school in a tiny community like Monhegan is a natural meeting place for minds and hearts. And if the one teacher can understand that and act on it, new things become possible.

(Soundbite of "Charlie Brown Theme")

ELLIS: This year's Christmas production is an adaptation of an American classic.

Unidentified Child #2: All right. Quiet, everyone. Our director will be here any minute, and we'll start rehearsal.

Unidentified Child #3: Director? What director?

Unidentified Child #2: Charlie Brown.

Unidentified Child #1: Oh, no! We're doomed! This will be the worst Christmas play ever.

ELLIS: All the kids perform, one school mom, too. Angela Ianicelli is Frieda in lobster boots.

Ms. ANGELA IANICELLI: (As Frieda) Oh, this can't go on. There's too much dust. It's ruining my naturally curly hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIS: On the weekend, the first snow of the year makes the main road treacherous, but people walk anyway, to the post office, to the woods to cut a tree, or out to Lobster Cove with the dogs. All six of the schoolboys spend the day sledding.

(Soundbite of children yelling)

ELLIS: In the kitchen of her small grocery, Katy Boegel, who has two sons in the school, has her recipe book opened and two friends to help with hand mixers and long-handled spoons.

Ms. KATY BOEGEL (Mother): This is the eggnog for the school Christmas party. It's a pretty traditional recipe except that we use rum instead of whiskey, because that's what everybody on Monhegan would rather drink. That's probably good, huh, Lisa?

ELLIS: They pour jugs of rum into the eggnog and leave some unspiked, too, for those who don't drink or who've given it up. Like so many fishing communities, Monhegan has its share of alcoholism. The isolation gets to people, the cold. A trip to the dentist takes three days by boat. There's no movie theater, a slow Internet connection. You can't go for a drive; there's no pavement. Marriages break up for all the usual reasons. Three out of the five moms at the school are single and two of them fish for a living. Angela Ianicelli is a sternman.

Ms. IANICELLI: You know, we go out, we haul lobsters, and I have to measure the lobsters. I have to band the lobsters. I have to do bait bags, put the bait in the traps, take the bait out of the traps. That's gross and stinky. I'm standing up the whole time. I'm using my arms, my legs the whole time I'm on the boat. And then I head home. The kids are just--they've had a whole day at school. They've been playing outside. Everyone's cranky at 5 or 6 at night, you know. They just seem to need so much, and I--it's all I can do to give it to them at the end of a fishing day.

ELLIS: Angela says she wouldn't be here if not for the school, the support of the whole community and her mom, Kathie, former head of the school committee.

Ms. IANICELLI: A large part of the community realizes that if we have no school here, we're dead. There's nothing living in this community. I mean, we are, yes, but the future is dead.

ELLIS: And so the Christmas party is embraced, and at 5:00, people arrive, families, singles, former spouses, fishermen with windburn faces, women in sparkly clothes and the kids.

(Soundbite of Christmas play)

Unidentified Child #4: Is there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Unidentified Child #5: Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

ELLIS: The kids come through with prompting from Donna Cundy, the teaching aide.

(Soundbite of Christmas play)

Unidentified Child #5: And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and they were sure afraid that...

Ms. CUNDY: (Whispering) And the angel said...

Unidentified Child #5: And the angel said...

Ms. CUNDY: (Whispering) ...unto them...

Unidentified Child #5: ...unto them...

Ms. CUNDY: (Whispering) Fear not.

Unidentified Child #5: `Fear not. For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people.'

ELLIS: After the play, there's a dinner buffet. They polish off most of the 31-pound beef roast and a lot of the eggnog and wait for Santa, all of Monhegan Island, in the one-room school.

Group of People: (Singing) Hey! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh. Hey! Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh...

ELLIS: For NPR News, I'm Neenah Ellis.

MONTAGNE: See the small white clapboard school sitting in the snow on Monhegan Island at npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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