Every small town has its local joke about the old-timer who stands up at the annual town meeting and insists, “We didn’t have those new-fangled things [electric lights, or school buses, or something equally unremarkable] back when I was a young feller, and I turned out fine!”
We’ve all heard the boasts of, “When I was a kid I had to walk to school uphill — both ways!” We might crack a slightly exasperated smile at this stuff, but we know those old chestnuts refer lightheartedly to a financial conservatism, an admirable frugality and a physical heartiness we all respect.
However, it isn’t a joke when children are denied some advantage not out of true economic necessity but because adults in their community are harboring resentments they’d be better off letting go of.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of friends and respected colleagues — and a couple of adult bullies who can just stuff it — I have observed something that troubles me both at home and in other small towns. I disagree vehemently with an attitude so prevalent that it’s sort of assumed to be the conventional wisdom.
It boils down to: “I didn’t get it back then, so nobody else should get it now.”
Some adults feel that to offer any “extra” programs or advantages to students now somehow reaches backward in time and picks their pockets. Things we might do to improve life for current students somehow robs them in retrospect.
The attitude surfaces regardless of the specific issue. The catalyst could be breakfast in school, or it may be girls’ sports, advanced courses or counseling. Here, on this tiny island where taxpayers are called upon to support no sports, no school bus fleet, no big breakfast and lunch program and no full-time administrators, it is a source of stomach acid when few students benefit from special education services, and all of our students need to go to high school off-island.
We still occasionally hear chatter about how these essentials — these non-negotiable, obviously beneficial and legally obligatory pieces of the educational package — are expensive fluff we can do without, or can at least minimize, pay for unwillingly and carp about as though we were somehow being ill-used.
We are not being ill-used.
Sometimes people who care deeply about their communities and about the sustainability of their schools still cannot push their personal feelings, sometimes truly hurt feelings, out of the way when it comes to allowing the present to be better than the past.
Special education is heavily laden with regulations and confidentiality issues, as it should be, so I’ll limit my comments there except to mention that this is not the only small town where community members have muttered, “I want to know whose kids are costing us all this money!” That’s not a piece of information to which they are entitled. Too bad, it’s federal law, we will pay for special education, subject closed. Deal with it.
Those who say, “We didn’t have it in my day, and I turned out fine,” didn’t always turn out fine. Adult illiteracy is no small problem in remote rural areas.
The high school issue is loaded with emotional baggage here because in every single case it points to a time of family upheaval. As in any school district without a high school, RSU 65-Matinicus Isle pays a state-average, standardized, non-negotiable tuition to any Maine public high school that a Matinicus student chooses to attend. It pays that same amount — and no more — to any private school the student may attend, with the family obligated to figure out the rest of the funding or assistance on its own.
High school always involves a child moving away, and can cause significant internal stresses within a family. The decision of where to go to high school has everything to do with where the student can lay her head at night, as a daily commute is not possible. (I didn’t say “expensive.” I didn’t say “inconvenient.” I said “not possible.”)
Yet some of us seem to resent students having advantages now, whether the the option of private school or help navigating the application process, amazing field trips, electronics or special programs that kids did not have in “their day.” But decisions about how we should support education now have nothing whatsoever to do with what anybody got — or didn’t get — a generation ago. Nothing.
I assert that we should be proud to provide every local child with the best educational experience we can possibly stretch to afford considering our present resources and nothing else. Hard feelings over what people or their children may or may not have been offered in the past have no place in decisions about how to best provide for the youth of the present.
Eva Murray is a year-round resident of Matinicus Island where she serves as an emergency medical technician, local emergency management director and solid waste and recycling coordinator. She’s a former school board member.