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Cover of Spring - Summer 2003 Issue


Teaching on Tangier ... Virginia's Island in the Bay

Bobbie Burton
Vice President for University Advancement

Paulette Parks '75
Paulette Parks, Longwood Class of 1975, has taught at the Tangier Combined School for 28 years
Thursday, March 27, 2003, 12:30 p.m. I am aboard the Courtney Thomas, mail and supply boat, docked in Crisfield, Maryland, and bound for Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay - the only way to reach Tangier in the off season.

The aft deck of the Courtney Thomas is loaded with UPS packages and U.S Mail for that day, several pieces of luggage and miscellaneous supplies for the islanders - bins of beautiful red strawberries, oranges, lettuce, frozen french fries, Zip Lock bags, rolls of paper towels, a number of unidentified cardboard boxes and even a stack of lumber. After stowing my bag on the supply deck, and descending into the cabin amidships I find myself in a bus-like enclosure between the supply deck and the bridge - four rows of three comfortable seats on either side of an aisle - room for about 24 seated passengers.

For the most part the rest of the dozen or so passengers appeared to be going about their daily business. Two women were loaded with packages from shopping and were actively stewarding a very large yellow bow with long flowing streamers. Another group of three women were sitting at the one table in the front of the cabin eating lunch they brought with them - deliciously aromatic fried seafood. Several men, probably watermen, took their seats and chatted quietly during the 40-minute ride to the island.

During the tourist season, May through October, tourist ferries run from Reedville and Onancock, but my purpose for being there is to experience the very real life of one of our own who was born and raised on Tangier and has taught in the Tangier Combined School for 28 years - Paulette Parks, Longwood Class of 1975.

The Courtney Thomas - a mail and supply boat
The aft deck of the Courtney Thomas is loaded with UPS packages and U.S. Mail for that day, several pieces of luggage and miscellaneous supplies for the islanders
Arriving on Tangier early afternoon on a bright, sunny day - warm for March - I was met by a golf cart from Shirley's Bay View Inn, a delightfully quaint and comfortable B&B owned by Paulette's friends Shirley and Wallace Pruitt. A couple from Delaware joined me for the five-minute golf cart ride and were also staying at the Inn - they come several times a year for a few days to enjoy the quiet, slower pace of Tangier to recharge. On the way to the Inn, they asked to stop at one of two small groceries for a few things since only one of the half-dozen small seafood eateries is open.

The golf cart, in many varied versions, is the primary mode of transportation on the island, next to walking. About half of the families seem to have one. There are also a number of mopeds and motorcycles. Bicycles are everywhere and a vintage classic with a large basket in front is Paulette's island transport. There are a few motor vehicles on the island consisting mostly of rescue and emergency vehicles, a trash truck and a few others privately owned with largely functional uses. Only a few people have them for personal use on the island, but about half of the families own one that is kept in Crisfield to be used for excursions away from the island. Paulette's best friend, Henrietta Crockett, also a teacher, keeps a car in Crisfield that they use for shopping and entertainment adventures mostly to Baltimore and Salisbury, Maryland or the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area.

After settling in at Shirley's Bay View Inn, I walked, literally a stone's throw, over to the Tangier Combined School to meet Paulette. School was just getting out for the day and as the children left the building I was struck by just how much they looked like kids at any other school - perhaps a little more neatly dressed, even. Passing several groups of students on the pathway, however, I found them to be unusually polite but a bit shy with this obvious stranger.

Students arrive for class at the Tangier Combined School
Students arrive for class at the Tangier Combined School
The Tangier Combined School is made up of about 100 students, K-12, with a faculty of a dozen or so including the principal and several teaching assistants. Obviously the classes are small. Paulette teaches kindergarten in the morning with seven students and Home Economics in the afternoon with six students. While Home Economics has been abandoned as a discipline by many schools today, it is still a critical part of the curriculum on Tangier. A practical approach to education is necessary where probably more than half of the students choose to continue to follow the water or to become housewives and mothers, supporting the watermen.

The school's obligation then, is to insure that those who do go on for postsecondary education are adequately prepared and that those who follow the water have the life skills necessary for the quality of life to which they are accustomed - not an easy task with such a limited faculty. Most are multitalented - teaching more than one thing, and at times the administrative officials also teach classes. And, yes, they are connected to the Internet with computers in every classroom and the library.

Opportunities for electives are limited as are specifically defined advanced courses. Recreation/athletic facilities consist largely of an outdoor basketball court and extra curricular activities are few and far between. But Paulette passionately believes that the Tangier students get as good an education as anyone else, perhaps better - because everyone on Tangier is practically family. Paulette knows every child and has since they were born. Not only that, she knows their parents and probably their grandparents in most cases. And she knows the limitations and special circumstances that each child may experience long before they begin school.

Discipline, when needed, and Paulette is convinced that it is less needed on Tangier than in larger schools, involves a frank discussion with the parents - someone who Paulette probably grew up with. That relationship between student and teacher extends well beyond the walls of the Tangier Combined School. Out strolling in the evening, each child on a bike or playing with other children or walking a dog is greeted by name and sometimes with an expression like "Have you done your homework, yet?" Or "your brother wasn't in school today, was he sick?"

On an island about three and a half miles long and a mile and a half wide, a 40 minute boat ride to anywhere else, and 700 residents almost all of whom have known each other for life, it is hard to hide any serious mischief. Paulette says that in very recent years an occasional drug problem has crept into the island, but it is closely watched and quickly disciplined.

Teaching on Tangier continued >>