When Home Is The Schoolhouse
A NEWSPAPER story tells us many leery parents are teaching their children at home - an "alternative" to the public schools. I dedicate my approval to a niece of whom I am fond who has five kitchen-table pupils who call her Mom. The nine-year-old recently suggested a witenagemot - a wise-guy euphemism for a conference to discuss ichthyology. He wanted me to take him to Fresh Pond to seek the elusive Salvelinus fontinalis. I had to look it up just now, but he spelled witenagemot lickety-split. Here in Maine an oddity of our cultural history is relevant. Back in our earlier days the great ocean that forms our front dooryard was our prime asset. In 1830, for instance, 16 sea captains all named Carter brought their separate vessels into Liverpool harbor on the same tide. All were brothers and cousins and hailed from Carter's Corner, here in Maine, a community assumed in Liverpool at that time to be America's principal city. After some years of such seafaring, Maine captains began to take their w i
ves and families on long voyages, and a family vessel was known as a "hen frigate."
In the late 1800s the "downeaster" was developed, a craft Howard Chapelle of the Smithsonian called "the highest development of the sailing ship." A downeaster was built in Maine, commanded by a Maine master with pretty-much an all-Maine crew. The family quarters astern were sumptuous, with every comfort and convenience known at the time. So the family went to the ends of the ocean with Daddy and the youngsters knew Rangoon and Bombay as well as they knew the blueberry patch behind the barn back in Sear s
port or Blue Hill. Going to school was no problem.
Being dominant in Maine at the time, the coastal influence got a special education law through the legislature. It provided that children unable to attend an established district school would have a teacher sent to them by the state. On some offshore islands this meant a teacher, but aboard ship it meant Mother. Following instructions provided by the board of education, Mother brought each of her children along at the right grade level so they were abreast of classes back home. Or, often, ahead of that.
After a voyage the youngsters would be tested, and Mother would go to the townhouse and put in her bill for teaching her own offspring.
Later, when choppers began "letting daylight into the swamps" and the Maine wilderness turned attention from the sea, the same law provided teachers for the "unorganized townships." Many an eager graduate of Maine's normal schools got her first job in a lumber camp - a school year of spartan endurance that ended with a canoe trip down river after the ice went out and the luxury of the first all-over hot bath since September. After such a year a job in town could be expected.
Do you want to know something? Harvard is not without distinguished Maine alumni who learned their ABC's far up in wilderness townships still designated by surveyor's numbers rather than names. But most of the teachers who began that way have long since exhausted their fringes.
But to some extent, that ancient Maine law continues in certain places and under certain circumstances. The seafaring family is no more and the mechanized lumber camps of today harbor no children. But there are still isolated families where Mother is the teacher that the state "provides." Still using instructions and curricula forwarded from the state house, she fetches her brood along in a manner that has official approval.
I know one such family and one such mother. The summer recreation camp they operate during summer and fall is a favorite with longtime guests, but when snow clogs the woods road in November things are reduced to a woodstove radius until mud-season is over in May. From preschool through Grade 8, classes keep every day. When it's time for high school, such isolated pupils "go to board" and the state pays their tuition at a distant high school or academy. The older boy took his exams two years ago and sco r
ed far ahead of the high school entrance requirements. He expects early acceptance at some place called Princeton. But when he comes home for vacations, his mother helps him with his Latin. At no charge. She told me he has trouble with the conjugations. She doesn't understand why, because his brothers and sisters, on the other hand... .