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Preserving a Way of Life and Learning on Smith Island

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Smith Island, Md.

Evelyn Tyler lovingly cradles a snapshot of a toddler in her palm, offering it to a visitor like the answer to a prayer. "Here's our future," she says with a smile.

Cody Bradshaw, the happy child in the photograph, is more than two years shy of enrolling in the pre-K classes here at the Tylerton School.

But resting on his tiny shoulders are the slim hopes of Tylerton's roughly 90 residents to keep the doors of Maryland's last one-room schoolhouse from closing forever--and, by extension, hopes to hold together a community that has survived centuries of brutal toil and deprivation, wresting a living from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

Generations of Tylers, Bradshaws, Evanses, and Marshalls, descendants of the Cornish families who settled Smith Island in the 1600's, have learned their ABC's at the Tylerton School.

The wood-frame building sits at the southern tip of this 16-square-mile dot of sand and marsh that straddles the line separating Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake from Virginia's. The front door is close enough to the shallows that the rustle of reeds in the wind is the first sound to greet visitors. But a familiar yellow sign, posted at the corner of one of the island's narrow streets, warns residents and visitors alike that they are entering a "Drug-Free School Zone."

Evelyn Tyler, who speaks with the distinctive Elizabethan vowels of an island native, remembers the wood-burning stove and the meager school supplies that characterized her early years at Tylerton. "For Christmas, we got a sheet of red construction paper and one of green, and we thought we had struck it rich," she recalls with a laugh.

As recently as the 1970's, when the school was rebuilt on the original site and Tyler took a job as a teacher's aide, more than 20 children were enrolled. Today, the K-6 school has computers and videocassette recorders and books aplenty. But only nine children are enrolled. And five of them are in the 6th grade.

In the natural course of events, next year the nine students would have begun riding the daily schoolboat to the "mainland," as islanders call Maryland's Eastern Shore. But the people of Smith Island, who are nothing if not resilient in the face of adversity, persuaded the Somerset County school board to keep the school open for two more years.

When a member of Parliament from American Samoa, where a sister school to Tylerton is located, visited last spring, parents seized their moment in the spotlight. With local officials and the news media at hand, they pleaded for a reprieve until their children were mature enough to hold their own with older high school students.

"All of the sudden, I got this brain wave," says Mary Ada Marshall, the parent of a 6th grader and three graduates of Tylerton. "I think the Lord spoke to me, because it come to me so plain."

She and other parents persuaded the board to provide the necessary refresher courses to insure that April Tyler, the school's lone teacher, could teach 7th and 8th graders. In exchange, they agreed that children would forgo the extracurricular activities available at mainland schools.

But, barring an unlikely leap in the birth rate, the school will nonetheless close just as Cody turns 4.

"It's not only possible, it's probable," says John Ent, the school board chairman and an admirer both of Tylerton's academic performance and its sense of community. "We cannot, under any circumstances, keep the school open for three kids."

Life on the Water

The Chesapeake Bay's once-bounteous waters have furnished the independent "watermen" of Smith Island a steady, if difficult, living for centuries.

Sowing no crops, they harvested the striped bass, the oysters, and, above all, the blue crabs that once thrived in one of the world's most prolific estuaries.

"It's a 'hunter gatherer' existence," notes Harry Smith, a school employee. And one that is wary of outsiders.

Officials noted in all seriousness that it was best for a reporter to arrive on a boat captained by a native islander. Otherwise, they warned, locals might suspect the outsider of working covertly for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the islanders' traditional adversary because it enforces state fish and game laws.

Even today, notes Evelyn Tyler, though island girls aspire to college, most of the boys still dream of following their fathers onto the water. "It's just as they say, 'it's between their toes,"' she notes. "They're born watermen."

Sadly, for some reasons known to science and others as yet unexplained, the promise of a life on the Bay today is largely hollow. Fish and crab populations have long been drastically reduced from their historical peaks, and oysters, the traditional winter standby, threaten to be equally sparse this year.

The future of the Tylerton School, like so much of life here, will be determined largely by the elements.

"Our jobs, my job, depend on people whose livelihood depends on the water," says Janet Evans, who teaches at the island's other elementary school in the small town of Ewell, where most of the islanders live.

But Ewell Elementary, which enrolls 30 students, thrives, according to Principal Alice Evans, "because we're still having babies here, thank God."

Deal With the Devil

Outsiders are generally quick to argue that, instead of postponing the inevitable, the islanders should close the school and ship their children across the narrow strait that time and tides have whittled between Tylerton and Ewell.

But, Marshall notes, "it would be almost like a death in the community to close the school," which also serves as a public library and civic center.

Moreover, while on a sparkling September day, with a light breeze stirring a mild chop on the water, a skiff glides almost effortlessly from Tylerton to Ewell in minutes, the winter conditions here are very different. The cost of supplying a boat fit to cope with ice and high winds and a captain qualified to run it would simply be prohibitive, even though the current per-pupil cost of keeping the Tylerton School open is twice the county average.

Like so many rural schools nationwide, Tylerton's fate is unlikely to be altered by the faith alone of those it serves. Instead, islanders are reluctant, but willing, to strike a devil's bargain with the outside world to keep it alive.

"We're hoping people will move here with children," Marshall says. "You have to live here in order to understand."

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