ROCKLAND, Maine — “When you ask a 13-year-old boy to sit still for six hours, you ask for trouble,” said Bruce Gamage, a math and science teacher at Rockland District Middle School.
Gamage walked six of his students down to a dock at Rockland Harbor on Thursday, like he does most days.
“The kids here, the system wasn’t working for them. They have behavior issues.”
So what happens when you put teenagers in a boat for an hour of their school day?
“Our behavior issues are down. Attendance in school is up,” Gamage said.
Gamage helped start the school program with Station Maine, a nonprofit in Rockland that takes groups rowing, free. One day near the beginning of the school year Gamage ran down to Station Maine with his idea, then back to the administration. By September, students in the middle school and the high school were leaving social studies class to pull oars a mile down the road from their school.
Last Thursday six eighth-graders piled in as Gamage waved goodbye from the dock. Leading the mission was Muriel Curtis, the director of Station Maine. At the beginning of the row, she was the coxswain, sitting oarless, directly facing the six teenagers.
The paddles are supposed to move together, synchronized. On this particular day, paddles clicked against each other out of time.
“Give me your fists,” Curtis tells one rower, grabbing her fists and yanking them forward, the child’s back nearly parallel to the boat’s floor boards. “There. That’s a stroke.”
Curtis gives up her seat at the front of the 32-foot Cornish Pilot Gig and takes an oar, allowing a student to order her classmates and Curtis around the harbor. Every student in the program has directed their classmates. This in itself can be terrifying, Curtis said.
Noticing 14-year-old Nick Cormier’s particularly strong strokes, Curtis shouts at him, asking him to join a competitive racing team. He shouts back that he can’t.
“I always have to stay home and watch my brothers,” he tells her.
This is typical.
“Three out of the 35 [in the program] are cheerleaders. The rest of them have no after school activities. No drama. No sports. No music. No nothing,” Curtis said. “You get camaraderie in an extracurricular. You gain a lot. None of these kids had that. We forced that experience into their lives and they’re blossoming.”
A few months ago, the students weren’t as sure in their strokes.
“They started out shy and scared. They were everywhere with their oars — it was like a spider out there. Now it’s amazing watching them. The kids are proud,” Curtis said.
They’re the brave kids in school.
“It was 4 degrees last week when the high school kids went out. If you can do that, it sets you apart from your peers. You’re tough,” Curtis said. “I won’t put a child in danger. I let them believe they’re in danger. When you’re afraid is when you’re the most real. You can go on or you can curl up like a little girl. On a boat curling up like a little girl isn’t an option. Until you’ve been challenged you don’t know that you have courage.”
Curtis hasn’t had disciplinary issues with the students. They don’t ask why they have to do what she says. “It’s obvious. To live,” she said.
This has translated to a greater respect for schools rules and authority, teachers said.
According to Kevin Martin, the middle school counselor, the students are behaving better, attending school more and feel good about themselves.
One girl who used to frequent the principal’s office was asked to row.
“She honest to God thought she was going to die. When you get in a boat, it’s tippy. But she found out, ‘OK, I can do this.’ She overcame something,” Martin said.
She doesn’t get sent to the office any more.
To Martin, the program just makes sense.
“We live in Rockland, Maine. It’s known for its harbor. I think it’s a good thing to integrate into the school, the waterfront,” the school counselor said.
And the rowing is integrated into the lessons.
“It’s part of the curriculum now. The kids look at it like going to math. They’re going to rowing,” he said. “It’s all integrates. It helps them learn how to use math.”
And although the students miss about two hours per week of traditional coursework, which they have to make up, their grades aren’t dropping.
And the students seem to like it.
“This is really fun,” said Savannah Tinker, 14. She said after rowing she feels refreshed.
“I get excited to get to school,” said Nick Cormier, 14. “[Rowing] is learning, but in a real situation. You’re actually doing something not at a desk. You learn a lot about how to work with people.”
Katie Cormier, 14, took the front seat of the boat last Thursday. She said she’s made friends through the sport.
Next year all the eighth-graders in the Rockland school will be sent to Thomaston, farther from the docks. So the program will instead serve seventh-graders in Rockland. But instead of a select 35 students, all seventh-graders will get to row — about 100 students.
The program is free for the school and free for the students.