MILLINOCKET, Maine ― A national Chinese newspaper set off a cold war of words among town leaders and a national U.S. magazine this week by deriding Stearns High School and calling Millinocket a place where “the biggest kick for kids is hanging out in a supermarket parking lot.”
In a strange turn in the Millinocket School Department’s quest to enroll 60 Chinese high schoolers at Stearns in September, the Global Times, a Chinese- and English-language newspaper, ran a withering editorial column on Millinocket’s effort, and The Atlantic magazine responded by calling the Times a tool for communist propaganda.
“Stearns is a run-of-the-mill high school and doesn’t appear on any ‘best high school lists,’” guest editorial columnist and self-described adjunct college professor Patrick Mattimore wrote on the Times website on Monday.
“The school building is over 40 years old. The school has only one Advanced Placement class and the school maps date from the Cold War era,” Mattimore wrote. “Millinocket is isolated. The closest mall and movie theater is one hour away. The town gets 93 inches of snow per year. Millinocket has about 5,000 residents but has experienced increasingly hard times since its paper mill filed for bankruptcy eight years ago.
“There were about 700 students at the high school in the 1970s. Today there are about 200 and the biggest kick for kids is hanging out in a supermarket parking lot,” Mattimore, a former U.S. high school teacher, added.
Millinocket School Superintendent Kenneth Smith answered with a robust broadside of his own on Friday.
“The author is very suspect,” Smith said of Mattimore. “It depends on which story he is writing. One time he is [described on the website as] an adjunct professor, then he is a professor and another time he is [described as] nothing, and my suspicion is that he knows very little about Maine and certainly less about Millinocket. He is taking articles and other people’s writing and concentrating on as many negative points as possible.”
Max Fisher, an associate editor of The Atlantic, took Smith’s side. In a column published Thursday on the magazine’s website, he described the Chinese government-owned and -operated Times as “a regime tool” that is often used “to flatter the Communist Party and to assail its enemies.”
Fisher linked his column to a blog called Shanghai Scrap written by Adam Minter, an American writer living in Shanghai. In a blog entry written Thursday, Minter wrote that, “It struck me as patently unfair that a subsidized newspaper, circulation 1.5 million, would pick on a small town in Maine, population 5,000, without giving that small town the opportunity to respond.”
Minter elicited point-by-point rebuttals from Smith and Town Manager Eugene Conlogue, with Conlogue saying that Millinocket is actually a pretty neat place to live, even without a mall.
“We offer a fine school system, a safe community, a clean environment where you can breathe the air and drink the water, and experience nature in ways not available to metropolitan areas,” Conlogue wrote. “Our lives revolve around an ethic of hard work, good neighborliness, and community pride. The physical condition of our schools [is] of the highest standards because we invest in them and maintain them.”
Stearns does not rank in the top 10 in the statewide annual Maine High School Assessment tests, Smith said, but the school boasts a solid academic curriculum. It features championship-caliber sports, arts and music programs ― including top-ranked math teams, show choirs and jazz bands, and a championship football team ― which indicates how the school offers an exceptionally well-rounded educational experience despite its small size.
“If I wanted the best scores in the state, I can move to Falmouth,” Smith said Friday. “They always have the highest scores. There they value education highly, and most of the kids who go to school there are from families from whom you would expect that.”
“We have kids from both ends of the spectrum here,” Smith added. “Kids who graduate from Stearns go to all the same schools ― Harvard, Stanford, the University of Maine ― that all the other kids do. It is really up to the kids how hard they work, and whether they have the money to go to the schools.”
A committee from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Public Secondary Schools praised the school staff’s dedication, student pride and the school board’s leadership when it visited Stearns in 2006.
Calling Stearns “the heart of the community,” the committee complimented school staff on helping students overcome living in an economically depressed area where families often are split by the scarcity of jobs and unemployment is double the state average.
“There is a wonderful relationship between students and teachers,” the report stated. “A visitor can quickly sense the caring and the nurturing. Teachers give freely of their time … to help students.”
Smith seemed amused at the columnists’ tussle over Millinocket and predicted that Stearns and the town would profit from the controversy.
“My suspicion is that Chinese parents are fairly well informed. I think they will read rebuttals to arguments like this and realize that this is a great place to send their kids,” he said.