We weren’t on the island last year in September, having returned home for three weeks so Ted could fulfill a commitment he had in Georgia that month. We returned in October, but being away from Mackinac the day after Labor Day in 2008 meant we had missed the parade we saw going down the hill this morning. Looking out the kitchen window as I sipped my second cup of coffee, a little of army of children – helmets on their heads, new backpacks on their backs – sailed down Cadotte Avenue. It was the first day of school on the island.
Some rode or walked with older brothers or sisters, some walked with their moms or dads (or both), some walked or rode by themselves. No carpools here. It’s bicycles and walking until enough snow falls that the snowmobiles can come out. Snowmobiles are allowed on the island, and with required training and certification, they can be driven at the age of 12.
The island school is K-12, and there are usually just under 100 students enrolled each year. Class size is about six per grade. The school was completed in the late 60’s and renovated extensively in 1992 and again in 2000. The latest renovation doubled the school’s size.
With a population as small and tightly knit as the winter community of Mackinac Island, I wasn’t surprised to learn that on the first day of school there was a picnic – and everyone on the island was invited. The students had classes only a half day. Then they were dismissed to eat lunch outside with their parents and anyone else who wanted to show up for hamburgers, hotdogs and all the trimmings. Did I go? You bet I did!
On the ferry going to St. Ignace on Labor Day to walk the bridge, I had met Liz, a science teacher at the school. We chatted the whole trip over, and I asked if it would be ok for me to come to the picnic. She said, “Sure, everyone is invited!”
When I arrived, the crowd was already going through the food line and getting Koolade and lemonade from two giant thermos jugs set out on lunchroom tables from the cafeteria. The older kids had claimed their own hill, and the younger children were playing a variety of games in the schoolyard. Bikes were everywhere!
The entire community turned out for the picnic – not just parents or grandparents. Policemen, ministers, firemen, friends, uncles, aunts, cousins – even people like me who happened to get invited on a ferry. Jill was there and introduced me to a whole new group of nice ladies.
Inside the school, which was sparkling clean thanks to custodian Mike, there were classrooms where teachers were working hard to get ready for the first full day of instruction, a beautiful gym, and a media center with a fireplace!
I ran into Liz, the teacher from the ferry, in the hall. We talked a moment, then Jill took me into the school office where Barb, the school secretary, was busy doing 12 things at once – including eating lunch!
Outside I found another one of those art turtles – this one decorated with children’s faces. Mike was busy folding up the tables that had been used for the picnic and preparing to take them back inside.
As I walked around the school grounds, I had to wonder how on earth these teachers and children concentrate on learning when they are surrounded by so much beauty. The views from the front steps of the school and from the playground are enough to take even the most scholarly mind off into a wonderland of imagination.
On Wednesday, when the first bell rings, the playground will empty, and the children of Mackinac will gather in the classroom. They will settle down and read, and write, and do math, and map out the world away from this island. And when the final bell of the day rings, they will get on their bikes, and most will ride back up the hill. Because to these children, who for the most part have lived here all their lives, this is not a resort area or a vacation spot. To these children, Mackinac Island is simply home.