Movements: Wanderlust, Heritage and my Professional Life
Mr. Brigham in class at Shead High School.

Movements: Wanderlust, Heritage and my Professional Life

Originally published: 5 September 2016.

movement (noun) 1. an act of changing physical location or position or of having this changed 2. a group of
people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas

It is with the joy and sadness reminiscent of the many graduations that I have witnessed over the years that I would like to announce that my family¹ and I will be leaving Eastport and Shead High School to join the faculty and community at Monmouth Middle School in Monmouth, Maine.

My adult life and professional career have been an odd combination of wanderlust and heritage, and our family’s upcoming move follows in the same pattern. Wanderlust led our family to Eastport, Maine, where we have been incredibly blessed to have our lives enriched by the incredible people and the amazing, vibrant community and where I have had extraordinary opportunities to grow professionally. Our next move will return us to some of my heritage, as Monmouth is located a short distance from a family home on Flying Pond in Mount Vernon where I spent a fair portion of my summer holidays as a child.

I am particularly excited by the upcoming move because it will provide me an opportunity to return to teaching middle school alongside exciting educators who are doing some sensational work in KIDS RSU 2 and the surrounding schools, very similar to the experience that I had working at Tahanto Regional Middle/High School in Boylston, Massachusetts early in my career. I am looking forward to working more closely with Dan Ryder, Jeff Bailey, Matt Drewette-Card and others now that the physical distance between us will not be as great. I am also looking forward to the proximity to our state’s capital that this new position will offer me, as I will be able to continue and hopefully increase my engagement with educational initiatives, particularly those involving disadvantaged students, on a state-wide basis.

While I am excited by the upcoming move, as I mentioned, it is part of a much larger story. As a young man and recent Penn State graduate, wanderlust led me to fly from Philadelphia to San Diego on April 1st, 2000 with $215.00, a packed suitcase and the clothes on my back as my only possessions.² At the time, I longed to explore the world and leave my family, hometown and all things familiar³ as far behind as possible.

My time in San Diego was a mixture of almost constant wonderment and joy with a fair amount of struggle. From witnessing the magnificence of the sun disappearing into the Pacific Ocean to standing on street corners attempting to save the world by raising funds for Save the Children, from experiencing sunshine and perfect temperatures daily to being “el solo gringo en el autobus“, from meeting and falling in love with my incredible life-long partner and mother of my child to witnessing and sharing in the stories of struggle faced by my disadvantaged students at San Diego High School and the homeless veterans in Ocean Beach, everything was new, foreign and amazing.

While San Diego thrilled and titillated my senses, I never felt truly at home there. I missed the green of the Mid-Atlantic and New England, any proximity with my family, and most of all, the ability to be outdoors and alone simultaneously. When Yarrow, my partner, the circle touching mine, decided to leave San Diego and return to Massachusetts to help her family through a time of struggle, I knew that I would follow, not only because I loved her madly, but also because however amazing San Diego was, it was not home.

Boylston, Massachusetts is the center of my family’s heritage. My mother and father grew up, fell in love and owned their first home in Boylston. As a child, my family traveled to Boylston at least yearly to commune with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We spent our visits sharing time with family and nature, walking together along the shores of the Wachusett Reservoir or swimming in Grandma Fay’s pool near its shore.

At the time of Yarrow’s move, Boylston, Massachusetts also happened to be searching for an English Teacher, so I flew to Massachusetts for an interview that would change the course of my life. After the interview, I was invited to join the faculty at my parents’ alma mater, Tahanto Regional Middle/High School. Although I was not at home in San Diego, I was still unsure if I was ready to leave the wonder of that place. I had a decision to make, a future to create. Irresolute about which path to follow, I did what my family does and took a walk along the shores of the Wachusett Reservoir, alone. As I sat by its shores, gazing at its waters, sensing the earth where my ancestors had tread below me, meditating on the choice I had to a make, a small turtle emerged from the reservoir’s waters and sat beside me, no more than two arm lengths away, sunning itself.

The decision was made. I was returning to the land of my ancestors.

Once there, I settled into Grandma Fay’s home, and I began teaching four classes of 8th-grade English and one class of Honors 11th-grade American Literature. Like any teacher in the first year of work at a new school, especially those early in their teaching careers, I struggled with the rigors of the teaching profession in the first year. I spent hours at Grandma Fay’s kitchen table most evenings, reading, preparing lessons, assessing student work, fighting fatigue, often just one-day, and sometimes just one-hour ahead of my students.

It was sitting at this kitchen table in the home where my father grew up, that I truly began to understand Henry David Thoreau. Those who know me well know that the writings of Henry David Thoreau have had a tremendous influence on my thinking since I began teaching at Tahanto. While I found a tremendous amount of joy working with the amazing students and faculty there, I occasionally felt my youthful wanderlust welling up, urging me to go, to explore, to pioneer. When Tahanto and the Berlin-Boylston Regional School District decided to fire one of my outstanding colleagues for refusing to follow an ultimatum that was not in the best interest of our students, I decided that it was time to give in to my wanderlust.

When Yarrow and I made the decision that Eastport, Maine a chance, most of my family had reservations, to say the least. I recall one conversation with a family member in particular, during which the concern that I may have joined a cult was discussed. While my decision to move to Eastport was not religious, it certainly was spiritual. If you replaced “the woods” with “Eastport” in the following famous passage from Thoreau’s Walden, my reasoning for this move is easily explained.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God…

The majority of my experience in Eastport and at Shead High School has certainly been sublime. I have had the privilege of working with many phenomenal students, families, faculty, staff, and administrators at Shead. My students and my work have been profiled in the Bangor Daily News on multiple occasions (“He’s Got Game…”, “How 2 of my students…”). I was honored as the 2015 Washington County Teacher of the Year and a semi-finalist for the 2016 Maine Teacher of the Year and was able to bring many of my students to the Hall of Flags in Augusta to celebrate this honor with me. Most recently, I had the pleasure of working with our students, my colleagues and members of the community to rethink high school as part of the XQ Super School Project, and been part of a group that was named one of 50 finalists nationally from over 700 initial applications. Again, this small community’s work was featured in the Bangor Daily News (“Maine high school dreams big…”), this time as a source of inspiration for others and an invitation to dream big.

While Eastport has certainly offered more sublimity than I ever would have imagined, it is also not without its meanness as the members of our community fight a difficult struggle to survive financially, and in typical small-town fashion, some neighbors are less than neighborly. So, despite the majesty of this place in our hearts, we have decided that, like Thoreau, we have other lives to lead.

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men, and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

As we continue our journey on this earth, my family and I will always remember what Eastport has given us, and we will never be strangers to those students and community members who have touched our lives. My students are my students forever, and I am never more than an email or a Facebook message away.

“Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.” -Walt Whitman

The journey calls. The movement continues.

Notes

¹When I say that my family and I will be joining the faculty and community, the statement is true. In recent years, many people have said to me, “I don’t know how you do it,” referencing the amount of time that I dedicate to teaching and coaching our school’s students, coordinating our school’s technology needs and engaging in local and state-wide educational projects. The truth is that I do not do it alone. I am only able to do what I do as an educator because of the love, support and inspiration that my amazing partner, Yarrow Rivard, provides me. Intelligent, strong, wise, caring, funny, tireless, Yarrow is the strength in our family, and much more amazing to me than anything that I have every accomplished professionally. So when we leave Eastport and travel to Monmouth and I begin teaching at Monmouth Middle School, it will be our family who is joining the faculty there. I could do little of what I do without Yarrow, who is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen on this earth, and truly my better half.

Yarrow Brigham with a lobster.

²The airline lost my suitcase, permanently, I believed until it showed up in my friend’s apartment several weeks after my arrival in San Diego.

³All things familiar, other than my fraternity brothers, with whom I would be living and sharing time and experiences.