We had visited the island for April break last year as well, only discovering Alton Ballance’s connection to the Island Institute after booking four nights at the National Park Service campground, tucked into the dunes that line the Hatteras National Seashore. Alton showed us around the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, including the panoramic view from the top of the former Coast Guard building, and introduced me to Gwen Austin, the Ocracoke School’s middle school social studies and health teacher. She gave me a tour of the school and spoke to me at length about how it is structured, and what she saw as its needs (state funding) and strengths (unilateral community support, among other things). The visit was informative and highlighted the similar needs of our two communities to thrive, as well as the things that make us each unique.
Alton came up to Rockland last fall to give one of the keynote addresses at the Island Institute’s Sustainable Island Living Conference. After the conference, Alton made a brief visit to North Haven Community School, where I teach, and gave a presentation to most of the student body. He spoke about Ocracoke history, geology and weather, and piqued the students’ interests about this un-bridged island community to our south.
When Bill and I started planning this April’s vacation on Ocracoke, I wanted to further the growing relationship between North Haven Community School and Ocracoke. I got in touch with Alton, who put me back in touch with Gwen, the middle school teacher. She said she would be able to make her students available for me to present to while we were there. I got in touch with our middle school teachers and asked if their classes would be available to work with me on putting together some photographs and text that illustrated North Haven. Middle school students would rather hear from other middle school students than from an unknown adult, and our students were able to anticipate many of the questions the Ocracoke students would ask.
The middle school social studies classes brainstormed a list of “things we have on North Haven”-everything from farms to lobstering, from volunteer EMS and fire crew to Ames Knob and the town park. “Wow,” said one eighth grader, looking at the list we generated, “we have a lot of stuff.” The list covered the entire white board.
The students chose items from the list that interested them, and took photographs or found pictures to illustrate them. They built Keynote slides, and we assembled the presentation over the week before vacation. We ran through it on the Friday before the break, and on Sunday it was on its way to Ocracoke.
The Ocracoke School is a low wooden structure with a bed of irises in bloom and a carved wooden dolphin in front. The main part of the building was built as an open-plan school in the 1970s, though partitions have been gradually added to create more classrooms as the island’s population increased due to a wave of Mexican immigration in the last decade. The elementary and preschool wing is new, and construction has just begun on a new gymnasium-the island’s first regulation-sized gym.
I visited the school briefly between beach trips on Tuesday to set up a presentation time with Gwen, and introduced myself to one of the sixth grade groups. They began politely firing questions at me as soon as I said where I was from. How many people were there? How many kids in the school? Did we have a ferry? I told them they’d find out when I came back, and Gwen and I set up a time on Thursday for the presentation.
Thursday after lunch all the school’s sixth through eighth grade students, plus a few high schoolers who slipped in, gathered in the wood-walled room in the heart of the school. Carpeted and filled with wooden tables, the room serves as cafeteria, work space, meeting space, and waiting room for the school’s 150 or so K-12 students. Notices about Teacher Appreciation Week and banners celebrating the school’s academic achievements cover the walls. Gwen and a student taped white paper up over some cupboards, and Bill helped us set up the projector.
I opened with a picture of Maine, then Penobscot Bay, and then narrowed the focus further onto the Fox Islands and then North Haven. The questions began immediately. Students and teachers raised their hands over and over again, eager to ferret out the similarities and differences between our communities. Some of the questions reflected their immediate concerns-a proposal to have a $10 toll charge added each way to the currently free Hatteras Ferry made them wonder about our ferry cost-and some were delightfully preadolescent, such as questions about the number of horses on North Haven, and what our basketball team’s record was. By the end of the hour, the Ocracoke Dolphins had challenged the North Haven Hawks to a basketball game and the teachers and I were conspiring to have our students Skype with each other. On their way out the door to the Arts Week presentations, a young girl smiled at me. “You did a great job,” she said. She had asked what we could do as an island school that other schools might not get to do-a question I’m still thinking of answers to.
The sustainability of island communities is a hot topic right now, as seismic shifts threaten school funding, transportation subsidies and taxation. It’s important to reflect back on what we have in our community, and to share with people in similar places. I hope the relationship between Ocracoke and North Haven continues to blossom, as kids and adult alike can learn from each other.
Courtney Naliboff teaches music, drama and English at the North Haven Community School.