Whether the 10 children attending the smallest public school in Maryland would have gym depended on the weather. If the wind and tides were right, physical education aide Marilyn Evans would come by boat from Ewell, around the channel. If not, they would finish the school day in their seats under the tutelage of "Miss Alice" and "Miss Evelyn."
Alice Evans, the principal and teacher-in-charge who also commutes by boat from Ewell, has had some rough times getting to and from work herself. But as things turned out, the 32-year-old gym teacher (who is not related to the principal) made it over, to the delight of both the children and their two teachers.
Of the three small communities here on Smith Island, only two, Ewell and Rhodes Point, are connected to each other by road, which is sometimes underwater at high tide, causing the larger Ewell school to close. From Ewell and Rhodes Point, you need a boat to get to Tylerton, the smallest of the three towns with 70 households, a store, a church and the one-room elementary school with a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio.
Smith Island is actually a small group of islands in the middle of Chesapeake Bay 11 nautical miles west of Crisfield. Mainland culture has invaded in the form of satellite dishes and videotape recorders. But the 650 residents -- whose surnames are mostly Evans, Tyler, Marshall and Bradshaw -- cling to a way of life that in some ways has changed little since their Cornish ancestors settled here in 1657.
They speak a brand of English that is sometimes described as 17th century Elizabethan, and they live, now as then, by the weather and the water, harvesting crabs and oysters from the bay bottom.
At the Tylerton school, the children draw crayon pictures of sea gulls and work boats, and they wear Rambo outfits and drink from Star Wars mugs. And on a recent morning, they talked about the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
The one large room is partitioned to separate the lower grades, taught by Evelyn Tyler, 43, who is officially a "teacher's aide," from the upper, presided over by Alice Evans, 42, who got her high school diploma through a correspondence course and her bachelor's degree last August from Salisbury State.
Their charges this year include no kindergartners or third graders. The fifth grade is the largest -- it has three students. According to Somerset County School Superintendent Jack Lynch, the fifth graders performed above county and national norms on the California standard achievement test this year.
"My feeling is it's probably one of the best teaching situations in the state of Maryland," said Lynch, comparing it to a private school. "They are almost getting an individualized education."
Tylerton has had its own schoolhouse since 1919. In 1974, the present building, architecturally modern with redwood siding painted gray, replaced the old one. There were 26 students then. Enrollment has been shrinking gradually since, prompting some talk of closing Tylerton School.
Lynch says that won't happen: "If you were to close it, you're asking small children to travel by boat to Ewell. At this point, no one on the school board or I want to do that. If it gets to the point where there are one to three students, sure, we'll look at it, but right now we're willing to keep it open."
Counting heads, Alice Evans figures the school will lose two and gain two next year, staying even. This year, she said, she has seven mothers in the PTA, and, on occasion, she's stayed late to attend its meetings and hired a boat for $10 to get back home. "My husband pays it," she said. "I don't think either one of us thought to bill the county."
Here on Smith, where nearly everybody is a practicing Methodist, the separation of church and state is often blurred. The church, for example, paid for the school's copier. Then, the children turned the making of a banner for the church to take to a mainland conference into a school project. And the Pledge of Allegiance is followed by a prayer the students say in unison:
"Make me, dear Lord, polite and kind to everyone, I pray. May I ask you how you find yourself dear Lord today? Amen."
The close-knit nature of Tylerton is apparent in the school's "Adopt-a-Friend" program, in which students are paired with "widows and shut-ins" whom they visit, read to or otherwise help out. On this island of few last names, the women are known simply by their first names, preceded by "Miss" as a sign of respect, as in "Miss Virginia" or "Miss Doris."
The education here is heavy on the basics. "I'm only giving you one page in a workbook because we've got right much spelling to do," "Miss Alice" told Jason Tyler, 11, a sixth grader wearing Rambo fatigues.
But it's not all cut-and-dried. Evelyn Tyler had one child hold a light on a globe to show them how the sun lights up the world. "I want to be the sunshine," said Andrew Marshall, who, eventually, got his chance, after fellow first grader Bryan Corbin had his.
Like children everywhere, the Tylerton students like recess. When it's too wet to use the playground, they play on their school's large deck, which also has two basketball nets. And, on special days, they have gym.
"Usually from January to March, the waterway's frozen and I can't come," Marilyn Evans said. "This is the first winter since I've been teaching I haven't been stopped by ice." But until she walked in the door, the Tylerton teachers weren't sure she would make it. "Marilyn, you made our day," Alice Evans said.
"Miss Marilyn" then led the children through rope-jumping and the broad jump on the deck, using a tape measure to gauge their agility, and chewed out one student for chewing gum.
After the gym teacher left to catch the 3 p.m. mail boat back to Ewell, the Tylerton students finished their math, school was over at 3:30 p.m. and the two teachers went home, Tyler to her house on Tylerton, Alice Evans to Ewell.
The next day, the weather was nasty. "It rained all day and the tide was real high," Alice Evans said. "I needed a stepladder to get off the boat, but a couple of boys just hauled me on and off. It was just one of those days."