Cranberry Isles voters knew immediately it was going to be a different kind of town meeting, when, at the entrance to the Islesford Neighborhood House, we encountered a 10-year-old holding a sign that read “Vote for the Ashley Bryan School.”
Islands with dwindling populations feel increasing tension when hard decisions have to be made at town meetings. Debates can be heated and long. This year, one warrant allowed our community to take a break from issues like expensive road repairs and trash removal, and to take a close look at who we are, what we stand for, and the legacy we want to leave our children. The result put a smile on every resident’s face—a testament both to the democratic purity of our traditional New England town meeting and also to Islesford resident, writer, artist, children’s book author and illustrator, Ashley Bryan. Indeed, one of the smallest communities in the whitest state in the country made history last month by being the first community in Maine to name its school for an African American.
The animated debate before lunch started off quietly, focusing on the fact that change is hard, and that Islesford’s two-room school house has graduated up to four generations bearing the name “The Islesford School.” A turning point in the discussion came when teacher Lindsay Eysnogle described how Islesford School students had reacted during a social studies lesson about rights and responsibilities. Students declared that they wanted to exercise their rights to free speech and to protest. “What do you want to protest?” Lindsay asked.
“We want to make sure our parents vote at town meeting to change the name of the school to the Ashley Bryan School,” the students declared.
Surprised, Lindsay learned that children had heard their parents talking about the proposal, and the students had strong feelings about the subject. After they wrote persuasive letters outlining their arguments, Lindsay observed that in every letter, points fell into two compelling categories.
Students felt it was unfair for Great Cranberry students to be referred to as “Islesford kids” on field trips, at sporting events, etc., and by other island students in their Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collaborative (www.outerislandstlc.org). The K-8 school presently serves nine students from Islesford (aka Little Cranberry Island), and three from Great Cranberry Island, the two year-round communities in a town of five islands.
Secondly, students wanted to express their admiration, honor and love for Ashley Bryan. These students were not concerned about past history or precedents. They were unanimously clear that they wanted to graduate from the Ashley Bryan School.
After Lindsay recounted this story, an avalanche of hands went up offering memories about the many contributions and interactions Ashley has had with our school and community over the past 60 years. One by one, voters stood and spoke passionately about how Ashley had influenced their lives and those of their parents and children—taught them to draw, craft, write, appreciate poems, stories and the world around them. Great Cranberry resident Ruth Westphal reminded the town that it was to “her” island, Ashley first came following his tour of duty in WWII, and that “Ashley belongs to us all.”
Some people spoke about the parity of having both island schools named for famous poets; the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow School on Great Cranberry remains open, but has been unused as a school for 10 years. Others spoke about Ashley’s long list of prestigious awards and accolades, including being named a 2008 New York City Library Lion (with Salman Rushdie, Nora Ephron and Edward Albee), the 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, and the 2012 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in children’s literature and education.
Speakers reminisced about visiting Ashley’s house. Despite his busy travel schedule, work demands and deadlines, Ashley always has time for visitors from around the world and down the street. Guests delight in endless displays of his paintings, drawings, books, mechanical toys and objects of culture and art from everywhere in the world. Like his more than 40 published books, his puppets—hand crafted from objects mostly found on island beaches—carry his message and philosophy of humanity. “When performing with them, I always make the scariest-looking puppet the hero of my stories, and the most attractive puppet the villain,” he tells his visitors. “Even in children’s puppet theater, it is important to challenge our stereotypes about people’s appearances.”
What an observer would have heard at the Cranberry Isles Town Meeting this year is that Ashely Bryan is a teacher. His books, many based on African proverbs and tales, teach about his own heritage. But through his stories and paintings, he teaches about humility and respect. Ashley has taught our islands by word and deed, the essential qualities of humanity and love. His unceasing generosity, his art, books and daily walks across the islands, all show a youthful exuberance for life and for our communities that is infectious and humbling.
When introducing the warrant at town meeting, Selectman Richard Beal read from the letter submitted by a resident who initially proposed the change: “…Ashley Bryan does not need this honor,” the letter said. “We do.”
Eighty-nine year old Ashley Bryan sheepishly admits that having our school named for him is the greatest honor of his life. “No matter where I travel or how far,” he says, “the Cranberry Isles is home to me, and I miss my island family.”
Letters, cards, emails and gifts continue to pour in, congratulating Ashley Bryan and the town. Last week, Ashley received a collection of signed books by his friend, poet Nikki Giovanni. The books were inscribed to “The Ashley Bryan School.”
To send your own congratulations, you may write, (not email!) to: Ashley Bryan, c/o the Ashley Bryan School, P.O. Box 8, Islesford (Little Cranberry Island) Maine 04646.
Donna Isaacs is a teacher at the Ashley Bryan School and a resident of Islesford.