The chirp of crickets makes it begin to sound like autumn in the dooryard. Brand-new monarch butterflies emerge from their chrysalises to dry their wings and get their bearings on wheelbarrows and extension ladders around the premises because there is milkweed in the garden. A slight hint of red begins to show on some of the ornamental bushes, darkness comes noticeably earlier, and the quantity of visitors to the island drops off. The bakery, the weekly craft market, the Sunday evening church services, and probably the loud fun of “Rock the Dock” wrap up for the year. The passenger boat transitions to charter service rather than advertising long-scheduled weekend trips. The lobstermen can haul on Sundays, the nights are cooler, the stars are brighter, and even with our drought conditions people eye some of the island apple trees, ever hopeful.

Our new teacher is here.

Matinicus Elementary School serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade and is the only school in our district. This week two boys, Eli and D.J., will start kindergarten, and another pair of boys, Hayden and Dale, are expected to represent the middle elementary grades. I say “expected” because, as I write, it is Labor Day weekend and those two young scholars are still visiting family on the mainland. Oh well; they’ll get here when they get here. It was the same when I was a parent 20 years ago, and when I was the island teacher 30 years ago. The notion that islanders never leave this place is a myth, or at least an outmoded idea, no longer accurate. Matinicus kids, these days, come and go like the monarch butterflies, and as with butterflies, some years there are more of them than others.

Teachers, on the other hand, are a bit less mercurial, and generally like to get set up ahead of time. This year’s teacher is Maddi — “Miss Maddi,” most likely, to the children — a young College of the Atlantic graduate originally from Vermont. I stopped at the school to chat for a moment as Maddi was busy making our single classroom ready for kindergartners, selecting books that would interest kids of that age, and no doubt giving pride of place to the smallest of the student chairs.

The presence of a school in this town, a town so small we are not technically a town at all but a “plantation,” like up in the woods, is integral to our identity. Without a school this place could dwindle to become merely a part-time residence for families, an outpost, a fishing station or — much less likely — a summer colony. Without a school, we would be greatly diminished, less than a real community, just a sort of a side hustle for younger residents. That is why even when there are two, or one, or even zero children for a short while, we maintain our school as a functioning legal entity. We pass a budget, pay the utility bills, employ a part-time superintendent and business manager to keep the paperwork up to date, and put the teacher salary in the bank in hopes of needing it soon.

That has happened before, twice in recent memory. A year in which no students are waiting to start in September does not mean that, “Alas, it’s all over, our school is closed!” Not at all. “Closure” would be drastic, and likely permanent, and very expensive to undo, so we hope to avoid it. So far, children have always eventually come back.

Should anybody assume that an island one-room school is a relic of the 19th century, be assured that we are as tech-savvy as anywhere and more resource-intense than many schools. Field trips are frequent, academic work can be rigorous, and children are the center attraction (meaning the administrative load is light). It is certainly not the case that students in small schools are deprived of the things that make for a quality education. Quite the contrary! The amount of teacher attention given to each, and the ease with which students can work at their own level in every subject, give Maine’s tiniest schools the potential to offer a superior experience. Island teachers strive to meet each student where they are. Well — as long as “where they are” is on the island!