Why nobody here knows where a high school is

Here in down east Maine we have the annual high school basketball tournament, boys and girls, and then come March and April, we plant the green peas, and we brace for the rigors of a crisp summer, which brings in the tourists and we all make a much-needed penny. Under this dedicated educational program, the youngsters never learn to parse applesauce, but every high school graduate can dribble through a swarm of bees and never touch a bee. The strange thing about this is the fact that nobody in Maine knows where a high school is. This opens the door on a concise history of Maine scholarship, to explain how this can be.

When you come to visit me "from away," you will cross the bridge from New Hampshire and be in our gateway town of Kittery. On what I remember as Williams Street you should find Traip Academy. Then, as you move up into Maine, you will notice the frequency, in town after town, of similar academies, institutes, and seminaries that are privately operated but amount to a high school for the community.

Are you ready for a bit of American history you never heard before? The romantic clipper ship, extolled so highly in our maritime lore, was born of the California gold rush, and lingered as queen of the seas a brief 13 years, the "Clipper Decade." Passage from New York to San Francisco took but a fleeting three months, and the redesigned "extreme clippers" cut that shorter by day-to-day new records.

Then the clipper ship went out of business. Hard, dry California wheat, without reference to the gold rush, could stand the 14,000-mile voyage to Europe, and there was need for ships to move it. The "down-easter" was then designed by Maine shipwrights, and while she had some clipper lines, she was decidedly a new ship. (A ship was a three-masted vessel, fore, main, and mizzen.) The down-easter was nigh wholly a Maine venture. Maine craftsmen built them in Maine yards, they were sailed by Maine seamen with a Maine master, and they were rather-much owned by Maine businessmen.

The down-easter extended the age of sail some 30 years into the age of steam. With speed, the down-easter had ease of handling at sea, less expense for crew, and a dead-rise that allowed heavier laden. And the down-easter era was an era of the fast buck in the Maine style of living. Fortunes were turned on a single voyage.

Then the era ended. Maine sea captains retired with money laid by, and as the 1900s began, the "free" high school caught on. Heretofore, eight grades of schoolin' had sufficed and the taxpayers were done. In my own time, I heard the town meeting debates over a "free" high school.

This opened the custom of bequeathing to a high school fund, and, largely with sea-captain money, towns in Maine had private academies as public high schools, to which the small towns paid tuition in lieu of appropriating taxes. Such schools seldom used the name of the town, but opted for a benefactor or region. Consider some of the names: Erskine Academy, Gould (no relation) Academy, Lincoln Academy, Kents Hill Seminary. Some took a town name: Bridgton Academy is in Bridgton, but Lincoln Academy is not in Lincoln, and Kents Hill Seminary is in Readfield.

So then, years after the founding of private high schools, came the consolidation of the School Administrative District. Town after town had its established "free" high school absorbed into a union. You couldn't name a consolidated school after any one town, so a new name without reference to its location had to be found. The town of Newport now has Nokomis High, whereby the daughter of the moon has been brought from Lake Superior to Lake Sebasticook. This was good, because if Newport had gone for a local Indian name we would probably have a Molly Molasses High. Maine does have some good Indian place names, but most of them mean Place Where Squaw Dipped Water, Where Moose Splashed by Tree. This is dandy Amerind, but is it educational?

Suffice that in general Maine lives with the stubborn fact that North Yarmouth Academy is not in North Yarmouth, Mt. Ararat High is in Topsham, and nobody knows the whereabouts of any other branch of learning.

THE matter is in context because the public television stations have brought us the full tournament, game by game, boys and girls, and it really isn't much fun to watch two unidentified teams play their hearts out when you have no idea which is which. For some reason, the people at public TV don't tell us where a school is. For one game, they did use initials, and I saw on the screen that Schk was competing with Wdld.

Grateful for that, I presumed that Schenk High was playing against Woodlands, which is as close as we usually come here in Maine. Schenk is the high school in Millinocket, and we have two Woodlands. One is a town in Aroostook County, and the other is a village in the Washington County town of Baileyville.

Whichever it was, I think, won, and I think it was the girls. Nowadays, the boys and the girls play the same game, so I'm not sure. I think the girls dribble full as well, but have trouble with three-pointers. I could explain more about Maine towns, basketball, and TV, but I doubt if you'd understand it either. Dirigo High did well, but nobody knows where it is.

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