Emily Murray grew up on Matinicus Island, a tiny island 23 miles from the coast. Her grandfather helped build a power company on the island in the mid-20th century and then retired there. Her father now manages the island power station and works for the phone company. Murray’s mother is a writer and runs a bakery in the summer. Her parents met on the island when Murray’s mother was a teacher at the one-room schoolhouse.
The population of Matinicus is about 50 people, who share a land mass of roughly two square miles.Yankee Magazine calls Matinicus “the most remote inhabited island on the Atlantic Seaboard.”
Growing up, Murray’s playmates consisted of her brother, who’s a year older, and eight other island children, ages five to 14. At some point, these children moved away, leaving the island bereft of kids save for the Murray siblings. Their parents home schooled them until high school, when they left the island to attend private boarding schools. Murray studied at Phillips Exeter Academy, and chaffed a bit at its rules. “You can’t leave the building after 11!,” she said.
As a child, she freely roamed the small island with the other children, who often went without shoes. If the pack of kids felt like sleeping outside, no parent worried about them. “It was a Tom Sawyer childhood,” Murray described.
The island bred into Murray a deep sense of self-reliance. “There are many things I can do and can count on myself to do,” she said, pulling out the tools she always carries in her backpack — a small knife and a wrench. When she left for Phillips Exeter, she packed a tool box. “Islanders have to count on themselves to do everything. That was the way I was raised. You fix things when they’re broken. You’re on an island — it’s not easy to replace them.” At age 12, Murray helped fight a fire on the island with buckets and hoses. There’s no fire station on the island and all hands were needed.
Her parents were also thoughtful about exposing their children to the broader world off island. Murray and her brother went to the mainland to attend sleepover camps, take music and language lessons, and play sports. “We were not isolated,” Murray emphasized.
Murray, a teaching minor and German major at Bowdoin, participated in this year’s Island Schools Project. She aspires to be an elementary teacher, perhaps in Maine, perhaps on an island, perhaps even on Matinicus. Matinicus gives its teachers two-year contracts to keep bringing in new people with fresh perspectives for the sake of the children. “I would love to be back there, although it’s a tough job,” Murray said. “You have to teach every subject, every grade.”
Part of the reason she wants to be a teacher is because she sees how important they were for her life. She credits her next door neighbor for teaching her art; her English teacher across the street for exposing her to literature; and her dad for teaching her about electricity, celestial navigation and maritime law. “My teachers were a huge influence on me,” she said.