There was plenty of time after school to walk around on Tangier, and the quiet town encouraged the wonderful sort of walking meditation of the wandering mind. And each walk usually ended up with a mental soundtrack that I took as a clue to what I’d been mulling.
So there’s no daycare, preschool, or summer enrichment. Kids spend the summers helping out on their fathers’ crab boats, or just running free on the island. Children running around free. I saw kids on their bikes, alone or in pairs, with that rare spirit of a free childhood.
One would think that this is a great place to raise kids … basically in the arms of one big family, free from abduction, hit and run drivers, strangers. There’s a strong value of self-sufficiency and independence throughout the community that translates into competent, confident children.
But I think the freedom ends after childhood. On this island boys become watermen and girls become mothers. Or they leave. With that belief system, children aren’t encouraged to fully engage in the developmental stage of questioning and exploring their individual identity. I’m not saying the teens don’t go through the adolescent rebelliousness. I saw a number of kids who probably weren’t in their parents best graces at the moment: There were a few tattoos and piercing, and I’m sure there’s truancy and mischief.
What’s missing, though, is an atmosphere that fosters deeper questioning, or encourages big dreams. I wouldn’t last a month. I’d be burned at the stake. Or I’d learn to keep my yap shut and do a lot of journaling.
Unlike many other small rural towns I’ve visited, though, there’s plenty of young families on the island, so they seem to accept the status quo.
Religion is very important in the community. Nearly 98 percent of the residents belong to the single Methodist church, which is also the center of social activity. There’s no alcohol on the island. Men and women still lead very separate lives. Even though there’s no bar, there’s a sandwich shop that only men go to. It’s as though along with their dialect they’ve also frozen cultural time. I think because their values are so tightly woven into the fabric of their everyday lives — rather than compartmentalized the way most modern children’s often are — they wouldn’t think of questioning it any more than they’d question gravity.
Still, in spite of being surrounded by water, their horizons are so small. They’re free and bound at the same time.