Kelley Watson and the Port Townsend Maritime Academy Graduation

hallie kopaldYouth Programs

Kelley Watson reflects on the Port Townsend Maritime Academy school year and graduation.

I had forgotten until last night that our first week of school, we didn’t even have classroom space. The eighteen students (from Port Townsend, Chimacum, and Coupeville) gathered around the compass rose out in the courtyard on the Tuesday before Wooden Boat Festival.

I took a deep breath. We were undertaking a new journey in public school education; we were embarking on the Port Townsend Maritime Academy. I had been working on this dream that was now a reality for several years. I was working on it before I ever knew what it was. And now, on September 7th, 2019, we launched. First, setting sail with tiny toy boats the students made across a kiddie pool.

The first month we rowed. Some students were quite competent out of the gate and ready to take on SEVENTY48. Some students had barely ever been in a boat before. One awesome student was hesitant; we tied a long line to the bow, pushed them out, and they hesitantly rowed back to the safety of the dock. Within weeks that same young person confidently rowed the 1.25 miles to the marine science center in a 12-foot skunk island skiff without stopping.

The next month we sailed (well all of the students sailed with Captains Sonia and Samuel), and on their off days, they hung with me shoreside, and we tirelessly tied ALL of the knots on the Able Bodied Seaman’s license. We tied knots that I’d never tied before, tied them ‘til we could tie them with our eyes closed, behind our backs, while jumping with one foot up in the air.

November brought sunshine, which is hard to imagine, but it did, which was lucky for us since it was our Drill Conductor Unit. The drill conductor unit is fishing vessel safety where students learn the skills to respond to fire, crew overboard, flooding and to abandon ship. They drill and drill and drill until our responses are practiced and happen without too much thinking. We learned the seven steps of survival: recognition, inventory, shelter, signals, food, water, and last (but not least) play. (Captain Sonia adds an 8th – sleep!).

December brought monkey’s fist tying with Emiliano and Salty Sue, which led into January and a rigorous unit of Navigation, generously supplied by Captain Jeff Sanders and the US Maritime Academy.

Quickly it was February, and all hands were put to work helping Schooner Adventuress prep and paint all of their new blocks, getting the Maritime Center fleet prepped and ready to go for the upcoming (hah!) spring season. The Schooner Martha crew supported our students in the fine and finer points of spar prep and painting. We all donned N-95 masks back when you could buy them at Admiralty Ship Supply.

And then came March, roaring in like a lion, we embarked on our Wilderness Advanced First Aid Unit. We talked about scene safety, and PPE, back when none of the students knew what that acronym was. We taught CPR, without putting your mouth on the mannequin because the news of the coronavirus started to become real.

I remember sharing a New York Times article with my students that week about just what this virus was, how it spread, and what we know about it. We looked at the CDC and WHO websites, we talked about sanitizing surfaces, washing our hands. We had all of these conversations, huddled around our classroom tables.

And then two hours later, after class had ended, I got an email that we wouldn’t be meeting again for 6 weeks. A temporary school closure had been mandated. I never even got to say goodbye to my crew.

We started up online/distance learning and I rolled out ambitious plans, over-functioning in a situation that was clearly going to require my students to adjust to a new normal, to challenges of not seeing their friends, of lacking real routine, of being home for 24 hours a day, to working suddenly a lot more hours, because their jobs were deemed essential and suddenly they could.

We gathered online for zoom classes and spoke to guest speakers. We learned how Chris Kluck was captaining a container ship when COVID-19 news began to dominate the airwaves. He talked to us directly about what that was like, and the students could ask him anything. We “met” with Alaska fishermen quarantining before starting their summer seasons, we tried to “catch-up” online over Zoom. It was hard, and it pales in comparison to anything we’d done together all year long.

AND THEN, there was graduation. At 6:45 PM on June 10th, I logged onto our virtual graduation/celebration to find five people in the “waiting room.” By 7:05 PM we had three full screens of students and their families. We had family members from Washington, California, and Arizona sharing space with all of us.

By 7:06 PM my screen froze and I swore, and then I hoped that it was really frozen and all of my families and students didn’t hear me swear. My partner, Jim, furiously tech-solved the issues, why I fiddled around with an iPad I couldn’t make work. Captain Sonia tried to start the show without a script.

I logged back on by 7:10, and as the ceremonies unfolded, each student presented “citizenship” awards to each other and then shared what they were most proud of for themselves throughout the school year. Student Captains Katie and Matt gave speeches, I shared my thoughts and a few tears, Captain Sonia and Director Shani spoke.

You will have to take my word on this—but it was powerful. It gave me hope. Kids believe in themselves and that is so important.

I can’t write in a public forum of the challenges that many of our kids face. But believe me, many of the students you know have challenging life situations to deal with. Far bigger situations than any of us think young people should have to deal with…but they do. And then, when those kids show up day after day, not always perfect, but always there, and always open to learning, and always being kind to others. I wonder, could I do the same?

This group of young people captured my heart. I fell in love with being their teacher. I never once thought, “Ugh, I have to go to work,” or, “I have to work with this or that kid,” or, “If only,” or… Instead, all school year, I thought YES! Is this real? Can I really love my job and this crew as much as I do? And the answer is yes. YES.

Right now I know—this is our work. Our work as a community, state, country, and the world is to support the next generation lovingly and to inspire them into learning situations that are real, that are hands-on, that are meaningful, collaborative, and where they can contribute to a greater world.

Thank you for joining me in celebrating the inaugural class of the Port Townsend Maritime Academy! I am so proud of each of them and for all of the hard work and enormous learning they have accomplished this year. May their dreams be fulfilled by their hard work, tenacity, curiosity, and kindness. I miss them all already.

Here are a few of my favorite comments from the chat last night:

  • I’m so very proud of my nephew. He’s had a lot of adversities to get up and over and he did it!!
  • I am proud of each of the students and their perseverance throughout the year and through closure!
  • I am proud that we have this program available to us in PT. I think the students who took this opportunity are brilliant!
  • I am proud of achieving things in times of uncertainty and chaos, of persevering over things that seem scary. 💕

I want to thank the enormous generosity of the Northwest Maritime Center in making this program possible! We also strongly appreciate all of the support from West Sound Technical Skills Center, the Port Townsend School District, Schooner Adventuress, Schooner Martha, and our many generous sponsors!