by Annie Langan
“Chickadee dee dee.” a bird unseen whistled in the cold morning air. Becca, my science teacher, had often imitated this clear bird call in class. I stopped on the wooden boardwalks that made the path from my cabin to the class building. I had recognized the sound, it was a Black Capped Chickadee, state bird of Maine. “Who am I?” I wondered. I had never in my life had any interest in birds besides a mild fascination with a peacock from a local zoo, and yet here I was identifying local species. While the AP Environmental Class at Thacher has a species identification component in the beginning of the course, Chewonki is dedicated to learning about the natural world around us, resulting in biweekly species quizzes throughout the 4 month semester. On Thursday night, the science classroom transforms into a mini-ecosystem. The long smooth tones of Mourning Doves and bright chirps of American Goldfinches fill the room. Branches of Eastern Hemlock and Pasture Rose are strewn on the tabletops. Tips for animal identification are traded: “The American Red Squirrel has white around its eye” (it is also redder in color than its fellow Eastern Grey Squirrel). For some people the species we see and study are familiar, the same plants and animals they see in their backyards in Camden, Maine or Traverse City, Michigan. For others, those from Atlanta, South Carolina, and Shanghai, mid-coast Maine is a completely new environment.
Of all the schools students come from, Thacher provides the best Chewonki-preparedness program. Our four day, three night “Wilderness” trips in cabins are a breeze after two and half years of Thacher EDTs. While Thacher provides a strong academic foundation for the rigorous work at Chewonki; Ojai makes you take year long sunshine and warm days for granted. “Spring” semester is a bit of an overstatement. Temperatures have yet to rise from the mid-30s in this first week of April but the cold weather allows for fun wintery activity. Skis and snowshoes are available to borrow to go out on the trails on Chewonki Neck. Saturday mornings feature real polar plunges; last week ice had to be sawed away to make space to jump into the frigid water. A baseball size lob of snow flies across the quad in the center of campus and an impromptu snowball fight has begun ending in cold hands, wet hair, and goofy smiles amid calls for revenge.
One of the most differentiating characteristics of the Chewonki experience are science field trips. Once a week, students go out in the afternoon for four hours and tackle class topics hands on, studying topics from salt marshes to snow pack. These trips go on rain or shine. My second trip happened during a blizzard and centimeters of snow accumulated on my rain-tolerant journal as we observed the characteristics of coniferous trees that enable them to survive Maine winters. Although cabins are a new experience living with up to 7 other students, the constant interaction with classmates at Thacher makes it easier to transition to Chewonki’s sometimes overwhelmingly social community.
My favorite time of the day is when the teacher on duty (unfortunately Chewonki does not have a handy acronym like TOAD to refer to these teachers) comes around to check in the cabins. Cabin check-ins range from half-hour discussions about our day to guitar performances to made up tap dances on the spot. Each cabin has a personality, Gordy is perpetually messy, the boys of Gillies are obsessed with sheep pelts, Binnacle always asks for lullabies. South Hall, aka the best cabin, always has snacks and a teacher checking us in to read a bedtime story. These moments are an integral part of the unique relationship students have with teachers here. Teachers are referred to by their first names and a lot of the teachers are younger than 28, creating a relatability and closeness that a larger age gap would make difficult.
Maine Coast Semester is first and foremost a school for academically ambitious students. While academic, especially with the additional pressure of college, can become overwhelmingly stressful, there are also moments like last night when the whole semester sprinted to the farm to watch the birth of a lamb. The experiences are undoubtedly unique but the belly-hurting laughing, the dread of homework, and the delicious satisfaction of a soft chocolate chip cookie are universal across high schools. Both Chewonki and Thacher are incredible experiences. At the end of the day I am a part of the infinitely small percentage of American teenagers who went to two high schools with pig food as a waste disposal option. I am grateful to be a part of these definitely different yet somehow similar communities.