Smith Island: The book closes on an era as the doors of Tylerton's one-room schoolhouse shut for a final time.


June 08, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

SMITH ISLAND -- Washed by an ebb tide of memories, a little sadness and lots of fun, the last one-room school in Maryland closed forever yesterday on the island town of Tylerton.

For more than a century, everyone born on this island was educated at the school at the edge of the reed marshes on Union Church Lane. Tylerton's one-room school symbolized a way of life, shaping generations of families who worked the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

But yesterday three of the island's seven students raised the flag on the deck in front of the school for the last time.

Miss April Tyler, the principal-teacher, rang the iron school bell just outside the door at 8: 48 a.m., and the last school day in Tylerton began.

"We're late," Miss April told the class, not at all distressed.

She asked an assemblage of reporters and photographers for an hour of quiet with her seven children. Tylerton's a place that swells with the quiet of times past.

She and her assistant, Evelyn Tyler, are not related but there are lots of Tylers here, which is, of course, why it's called Tylerton. There are plenty of Marshalls and Smiths and Corbins and Bradshaws, the names the kids bring to school with them. And the names in the Methodist church graveyard, too.

Tylerton's one of the three small islands that make up the Smith Island group. Twelve miles across Tangier Sound from Crisfield, it lies at the end of the Eastern Shore like a dark, thin smudge on the horizon, a wobbly line on blue-gray note paper.

It's a lovely out-of-time place with tidy homes, roses in full bloom, narrow lanes without cars, doors left unlocked, quiet nights, and a dwindling population.

Life centers on home and family, church and school, patriotism and the waterman's trades.

"They're losing a good part of their way of life," says Charles Simpson, the supervisor of instruction on Smith Island. "Because the school here's like the whole community -- the school and the church.

"So part of the heart of this community is not beating. That's the sad part. It's a shame everything has to be translated down to money and budget."

The community tried everything they could think of to keep the school open. Although the children usually go to school by boat in Crisfield after finishing the sixth grade, Tylerton held onto its four seventh-graders this year to bolster its enrollment. The community also explored taking in foster children.

"It's a perfect place to raise children, and many children would be privileged to live here," said Janice Marshall, who has a grandchild and two nieces at the school. "It just didn't pan out."

So the school held its last graduation in the basement hall of the Union United Methodist Church last week and practically all of the 75 or so people who live on the island came. Daniel Smith, a spindly boy with a Huck Finn grin, was the only sixth-grader to graduate.

Just two students would have been coming back to Tylerton school next fall. Somerset County says that for only two students can't justify the $60,000 a year it takes to keep the school open.

Tylerton has had a school on the same spot since 1919. Some folks say there's been a school on the island since the early 19th century. The current school was built in 1974. Made of weathered cypress and surrounded by island pines and cedars, it looks like a beach house. Otters nested under the deck for two years, and Miss Evelyn has had to sweep away a snake or two.

Inside, the classroom is a bright open place, where every available surface is cluttered with educational equipment. There are computers, and old-time portraits of the presidents hang on the wall.

Miss Evelyn, a warm, helpful woman who has helped teach two generations of Tylerton children, went to school here as a girl. Her kinfolk have been going to Tylerton school for three or four generations. The same is true of most of her students.

There are two sets of brothers in this last class: Casey and Adam Corbin and Daniel and Dustin Smith. The other three students, Jacqueline Bradshaw, Maria Marshall and Dianna Laird, are cousins.

Survival handbooks

Miss April and the five oldest children will go to the middle school in Crisfield, 12 miles and 40 minutes away. Miss Evelyn, Dustin, 10, and Casey, 8, transfer to the elementary school at Ewell, the largest of the three tiny isles that collectively make up Smith Island.

Nobody's happy about the end of the Tylerton school. But Casey, the youngest Tylerton student, may be the most unhappy.

"The problem is traveling on a boat everyday," says Casey, a big, bright boy who's already reading Tom Sawyer. "I'm scared when real rough."

Casey is an island kid who can't swim, a waterman's son who doesn't like rough weather, especially thunderstorms.

"I'm afraid of bad weather," the second-grader says. "I'm scared of big waves."

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