St Croix River Road Ramblings

Welcome to River Road Ramblings.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Island Reunion Begins

Forty years ago Margo and I moved to Washington Island Wisconsin to begin what was to be a year of teaching math and science on the Island.  Washington Island is in Lake Michigan, a ferry ride off of the tip of the Door County Peninsula – a seven mile in diameter lovely piece of northern Wisconsin surrounded by water.

As a newly licensed teacher without experience in a glut of baby boomers heading into teaching, getting a job was difficult.  The Island may have had trouble attracting teachers as they offered a lower salary than most rural Wisconsin districts, wanted teachers licensed to teach a broad range of subjects and of course was unique in location.  

The idea of moving to an island with a very small school system (90 students 1-12), was intriguing to us as well as the only real job where we actually were invited to an interview!  The island looked very much like my own rural farming community in NW Wisconsin—a familiar surrounding with Scandinavians as neighbors and the rural life. 

As a rural school student myself, I had experienced learning in a combined classroom of 8 grades, and was not particularly concerned about teaching all of the science and math to grades 7-12.  My own background with double majors in Math and Physics and heavy in Chemistry left me only weak in Biology for the subjects setup for my first year on the Island.   

I have written some of my memories of the Island previously—stories with a mixture of memories and embellishments that may or may not have happened on the Island or in some ensuing role as a teacher – at my age memories tend to run together with the exceptional items sticking out and the more average disappearing. See Washington Island  for those stories. 

After the 1974-75 school year, Margo and I left the Island under sort of complicated conditions—the school board non-renewed Tom and I for our teaching styles (I think) and then after a community meeting with the three new teachers, Sally having thrown her lot into that of Tom and I,  rescinded the non-renewal. We ended up deciding to leave anyway rather than cause more problems.  We new teachers had come to the island fresh from college and unknowingly changed education there from what might be called “old school” to new fangled methods, causing some controversy and somewhat dividing the Islanders.  We were clueless about this until the non-renewal (teacher speak for firing). 

 I had grown to know three other new teachers quite well during the year and have always remembered them fondly, as I do our year on the Island and the wonderful experiences and especially the students.  We were hopeful that some of the students would remember us as fondly as we remembered them.   

Something like 20 years ago, Margo and I returned to the island quietly to see how things looked. 

 We visited with one of our former teacher friends, Estelle, and visited the Mann store where Orion, one of my students worked with his family keeping the store.  Then things looked much the same although the charming old school with its incongruous additions had been replaced by a modern building (charm replaced by utility).   My room had been in the SE new addition to the old building—I had found it very much to my liking with morning and daytime sunshine brightening our days.   

 I managed to keep up with fellow teacher Tom after he left the Island and moved to a Madison suburb and eventually to Polk County, WI where I grew up and spent summer weekends.  Every few years we visited and caught up, and now in retirement we see each other every few months to check up on things. 

The other new teacher in 1974 was Sally, a native of Antigo, WI and a wonderful friend and colleague as the English and History teacher.  We completely lost contact with her after we left the Island in the spring of ’75.  Tom thought she was in the Madison area, but had lived to Green Bay. 
Not knowing if she married and changed her name, and before the days of Googling, we despaired ever finding her again.  A few years ago, I finally signed up for Facebook, so I could too annoy my friends and relatives with cats, dogs, trees, and political posts.  Facebook tends to pander to those of us wanting to contact old friends, and most women enter their maiden and married names so they are available to be found more easily by their first true loves just in case they feel the urge to dump their current partners. 

Back in 2011, when I still wrote the River Road Ramblings column for the local newspaper, I did a series of 4 stories on our winter on the Island entitling it “Fired on Washington Island” or something lurid like to grab my reader’s attention with their love of gossip about their neighbors.

In thinking about the stories, I visited with Tom for his memories.  He and I agreed on much and differed on much, so I though a third view would be helpful and attempted to find Sally—unsuccessfully at first – as she was not yet on Facebook. 

Eventually I found her and made contact.  She was still working full time.  We talked about a “reunion” of former teachers and a visit to the island, but health issues, jobs (she was younger and still working) and inertia intervened.

Finally, with this being the 40th year since our Island sojourn, I got commitments from Tom and Sally to do it, and finally we set a date as October 10th weekend, the Island Fall festival weekend where some entertainment was built in to our visit.

We delayed getting reservations for a motel until a couple of weeks before, and then scrambled to find them as it was a homecoming weekend for islanders and a color tour for tourists and seasonal folks closing up for the winter.  Margo thought the Holiday Inn (not connected with the big chain) would be nice as she worked there making beds, doing laundry and cleaning for a time while we were on the Island. It and most other motels were filled up for Friday night. Eventually the Townliner, down to its last room gave us a reservation.  

 Margo has sciatica (severe, sharp, disabling pains in her leg from a disc in her back pinching a nerve) and was unsure until the last minute if she could handle the trip.  Two steroid shots in her back and lots of pain killers and a cane and some strong desire to return and keep Tom and I out of trouble pushed her into coming along.  As long as we didn’t walk very far she thought it would be OK – and it was.  She is probably headed for back surgery in a few months if the latest shot doesn’t help.  She had liked the island and islanders and wanted to visit again too.

Should we let anyone on the Island know we were headed back for a 40 year reunion?   Tom worried that as we had left ahead of a tarring and feathering party, we might not be welcomed and should quietly arrive and check things out.  Sally, who had been back previously, but not really publically, did not seem worried.  I never like to do anything surreptitiously especially if it is legal, and was really curious what had happened to our former students and wanted to do it with a splash.  

During our year there I had grown to really like every single one of my students and fellow teachers was hopeful as I blogged “we hadn’t scarred any of them for life.”   One of the good and bad things about living in small community, amplified greatly by living on an island, is the complete knowledge of each other’s good and bad points.  To get along you have to know and accept people as they are and that means toleration of a wide range of behavior, even if you might privately disapprove.  (One of our former student's Melody (Melodie?) has written a poem on this--quite wonderful but I don't have a copy of it).  

The school was a microcosm of the island.  I knew that I would have my 7th graders for the next 6 years, so we had to adjust to each other or both of our lives would be difficult ahead.  

In my life, I have always tried to understand what makes people who they are—that unique mixture of  inborn traits , family influence, church, peers and schools and teachers—the mixture of genes and experience. 

A “difficult” student was, to me, one who didn't learn something or didn't want to learn something while in school or at least attempt to learn something.  The difficulty was in getting them engaged in learning so they chose to learn rather than were forced.   I knew whether or not they thrived in geometry was less important long term than a positive attitude towards learning.  Most important was self control and the self motivation to do things—and a teacher should work with the student to remove whatever was in the way of the self part of learning.

Having spent 2 ½ years working full time in a nursing home as a nurse’s aide between college and grad school/teaching, and getting to know hundreds of folks at the end of their lives and talking to them about their lives gives one a broad view of things.  What seemed to matter?  Attitudes towards life, the ability to accept new things and to change and learn new things as the world changed too.   

Many of the men were WWI veterans; all lived through the Great Depression and World War II—the years of want and deprivation and their ability to thrive and adapt to changing conditions made them successful or not.   I guess I gained a better understanding of people and tolerance for their struggles through life as I saw them finish it in a nursing home. 

If you try to see every person as a result of many conditions out of their control, you can accept them and work with them to bring more things under their own control—education being one of the tools to gain control.  That made me, as a teacher believe what I offered was valuable.  

Teaching is not a one-way street.  Teachers learn a great deal from students and their families if we are open.  Sadly, I didn’t stay on the Island long enough to learn much from my neighbors.  I think the commercial fishing was what I was most interested in, but never made the effort to follow through in that short year, thinking summer vacation and following years would create opportunities – hadn’t really planned to be there only one year. 

On the Island it is hard to think of living off of it; off the Island it is hard to think of living on it.  I felt that during this visit too. 

To alert some Islanders we were coming, I found an Island Facebook page that one of our former students, Melody, was helping – an Island history as seen through the children of the island in previous decades. The website is a growing collection of old photos and reminiscences.  I posted a comment that Sally, Tom and I planned to visit after 40 years on the October 11th weekend and were hoping to find out if any of our former students had come our year there unscarred. 

Friday at 7:00 am  we left Cushing.  An hour later we picked up Tom over by Turtle Lake.  The Google map and estimate said about 7 hours and a ferry ride.  Hwy 8 through Barron to Hwy 53, Hwy 29 to Green Bay, Hwy 42 to the ferry and across.

When we arrived at the ferry loading dock, I asked the ferry center person about our former teacher friend Estelle.  Her father was Arni, the ferry company head for half a century or so and only passed away a few years ago.  “She is not well, in a hospital off the island—not sure where.  She has not been well for many years.”  Margo often spent part of a day volunteering to help in her classroom of grades 1-3 upstairs and they were good friends and kept up by exchanging Christmas cards until a few years ago when she no longer replied. 

Tom struck up a conversation with the man working in the ferry ticket office who it turned out to be a teacher who came in about 77 and taught math (I think) until a couple of years ago.  He brought us up to date on a few of our friends.  On the ferry on the way over, we visited with another original islander going back for the weekend – and I can’t remember her name, but she was the older sister of one of our students and I can’t remember that name either –terrible getting old!  Tom, a Navy sailor before becoming a teacher, headed directly for the bridge where he politely asked for permission to enter (sailors have their way of doing things that we land lubbers are not versed in) and spent the trip over visiting and learning more about the islanders and island and ferries.

We knew from experience if we talked to a few folks and told them about our 40 year return that the Island would soon be aware of things.  My first inkling of this 40 years ago was when after I bought a loaf of wheat bread at the store across the road at the Clover Farm store and one of my students asked in class “So you like wheat bread?”  that things were different.   I suppose there was some practicality to the question, as the store keeper likely needed to know to order an extra loaf of wheat bread each week for us.   So I expected the Island to know we had arrived and was intrigued to find out the reaction if any.  

We had our question down—do you know if there are any “Islanders” who are living here 53-58 years old who went to school on the island.   Islanders tended to mean “born here” with a pedigree of a few generations, but probably in colloquial use indicates folks who life here year round.  I suppose half of our students weren’t born Islanders, but the shorthand quickly distinguishes visitors and summer folks. 

We got off the ferry  by 3 pm and chose to first stop at the school.  It was an in-service day for teachers so no students, and the teachers still in session--a chance to look around the school and possibly visit with some teachers, including Becky, one of our students from 40 years ago now teaching. 

Sue, the administrative assistant or ?? gave us a tour of the building.  Very nice and roomy and well kept up.  Different from our old/new mixture building, but not at all crowded. 

When I thought about the new vs old, as with everything else in my experience, I advantages and disadvantages.  Having the tight quarters when we were there made it easy for us to keep track of students and pushed teachers together – great advantages and probably much of the reason why we worked together so closely and also were able to let students have a somewhat freer campus.  Other than the attic, there were really no places to disappear—and if, for instance, Amy wanted to go to work on the yearbook, we knew someone would be at every place she might be tempted to dally. 

The old school was charming. intimate and, like a spouse you intend to keep, worth ignoring the fault. However, the new school’s extra space would have given us room to stretch and likely have stimulated us in different ways.  I think I would have missed the laughter and excitement spilling into my classroom from Sally’s as she engaged the kids in a new learning game, but probably not missed the longing looks coming from my students as they heard it while struggling to find X. 

Extra room, to spread out projects would have been great too when we were there.  You adapt to whatever you have, sometimes the constraints adding more value than you realize at the time.
Becky, one of our former students, is an elementary teacher at the Island school, and we had hoped to say hi—but the in-service droned on and being former teachers we were reluctant to disturb teachers being educated—so postponed that part of the visit.

We stayed in room 2 of the Town Liner motel, a quiet and pleasant place in a rural setting, yet within staggering distance of the Island center – stores, bars and restaurant all within walking distance.  We had dialed many motels to find one with a room on Friday, and appear to have gotten the last available one.  It was setup so Tom had the main room with a sofa pullout bed and we had a separate bedroom.  We used it only for sleeping, but thought it fine.  Our neighbors were fishermen, early to bed and early to rise and very quiet for the same hours we were there and willing to share some freshly caught and grilled fish.  About $100/night.  It was, as Margo says about me, adequate.  I thought it fine and as it had WIFI, noticed nothing else – a true sign of adequacy.

After checking in at the motel, we headed to the restaurant nearby, the K. K. Fiske (I think) as Sue had recommended it for the Friday fish meal.  “Not serving until 5 pm.”  As it was 4 pm, and Tom was suffering a bout of gout and had sworn off beer as the most likely culprit with any alcohol suspect, didn’t want to mess up what walking ability he still had.  (Tom and I grew up in fundamentalist homes where alcohol was a wicked, iniquitous, sinful beverage brewed by friends of the Devil himself, so even though we have mellowed a little since then, still attribute our bad health to living sinfully).

Across the street is the Mann grocery store, which 40 years ago was one of two groceries on the Island.  “Let’s see if Orion is there,” I said to Tom and we walked over –Margo sitting in the car with her bad leg.  “He’s in the back” said the clerk. 
The grocery store was large and had an excellent selection of foods—much better than local groceries in my neighborhood.   Stepping into the back, we found Orion, taller than his student days, but looking the same.  He seemed pleased to see us and remembered us from the year on the Island.  He got called away to help a customer so we headed to the bar across the road where Tim was still in charge.

Tom, before Sally and I came to the Island to be a good influence on him, had spent some time in the bar.  He and Tim reminisced about streaking the women’s club next door and got reacquainted.   Having not dared to go to the bars as a teacher worrying about his reputation, I had bumped into Tim but didn’t know him.  He was the scoutmaster when we were there and knew the same boys we had in school.  Twelve years later, I too became a scoutmaster when Scott got involved in Boy Scouts in Byron, MN.

Five o’clock and we headed back to the K. K. Fiske for dinner.  Melody met us there – the second student we saw.  As she was as pleased to see us as we were to see her, we decided that maybe students remembered us—and not too terribly.  Amy came later and also had good memories and said she would plan some kind of reunion for Saturday night and for us to stop over when Sally came across Saturday morning.  

I didn’t realize it, but the Island was already weaving its spell on us—the closeness and closed-ness of a self-contained community.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
Your name.