Teaching, teaching, over the bounding main

THE aged tale of Sam Potter and the resumption of his narrative might be happily lost if I don't set it down here for those who run whilst reading -- as many another gem of Maine's great blue-water sailing days has been lost in the meantime. Sam was a farm boy who went to sea, and at the moment in context was a member of the crew of the barkentine Mable Anne, loading lumber at Bangor for ports to the ends of the earth. The cargo was mostly aboard, and Sam was sitting with a bunch of boys in the lobby of the Exchange Hotel, waiting for the call. He was sawing the air with a hand to emphasize the details of his harrowing experience in the realm of derring-do.

Just as his tale hit its high spot and his cronies were all leaning forward to catch his every word, a boy stuck his head in the door from the street and shouted, ``Tide serves for the Mable Anne!''

Sam jumped from his chair, ran out the door, and was able to get aboard the Mable Anne just seconds before the plank was taken up and the lines were let go. The Mable Anne drifted downstream with the ebbing tide, got her sails set so they would bring good fortune by ``filling to the no'th,'' and then went on down the Penobscot River to begin a three-year voyage ``out East.'' Sam would visit storied Cathay and make three round trips Melbourne-to-Liverpool before the Mable Anne would return to Bangor. After the three years at sea, the Mable Anne did return to Bangor.

She came up the river with a coming tide, and gently touched in at the wharf. Lines were hove, the sails were secured, and now Sam jumped to the wharf, raced pell-mell up the street, and burst into the lobby at the Exchange Hotel. He gained the very chair he had left just three years ago, lifted a hand in his suspended gesture, and he said, ``As I was saying . . . .''

On those long voyages the captain often carried his family with him, and in down-Maine parlance a vessel with wife and children aboard became a ``hen frigate,'' which is historical and not particularly meant to please today's feminists. This common absence of the youngsters led to the enactment of a special education act which remains on the books of Maine statutes. In essence, the law provides that whenever children of school age are unable to attend the public schools, the state will send a teacher to them.

The law was enacted in seafaring days, with pressure from citizens who were mostly seafaring folks, and in practice it merely implemented what was already taking place -- a mother at sea became her children's schoolmarm but now got paid for it. A study plan was provided by the state, which the mother followed, and as soon as her ship returned to home port she put in her bill.

As seafaring declined, the ``sending of teachers'' lapsed as well, but the law stayed on the books and held over into a new era of prosperity when Maine began ``letting daylight into the swamps'' and lumbering was at its height. All at once, instead of school-age youngsters off at sea, Maine had school-age youngsters up in the woods -- too far from organized townships for them to attend school. Somebody remembered the old law, and ``put in'' for a schoolmarm. For years there was always an opening for the normal-school graduate who had the temerity, and courage, to apply for a teaching job at a lumber camp. The job usually meant a snowbound winter of unbridled austerity but for a couple of generations our better Maine teachers started their careers as ``sent in'' beginners.

Just the other day I fell in with a youngster upstate, and when I asked him where he was in school, he said, ``Well, I'm what amounts to ninth grade.''

It turned out he lives in an unorganized Maine township, too far for his going each day to school, so his teacher is still sent in. But, in the context of Sam Potter and the hen frigates, his mother is his teacher. The kitchen is the schoolhouse, the table the desks, and his schoolmates are his two brothers. The state sends in a work plan, the mother follows it, and I make a guess that ``what amounts to the ninth grade'' is perhaps two grades beyond any ninth in a public school. Maybe three. When he ``comes out'' to go to high school, the state will pay his tuition.

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