CUTTYHUNK — Gwen Lynch, age 13, has chipped white nail polish, tiny silver star earrings, and a black backpack printed with white daisies hanging off one shoulder. She constructed a shrine to “Hamilton” in her pink bedroom and is trying to determine where to hang her “Endgame: Avengers” poster. After school, she kills time on her iPhone, scrolling through Instagram and laughing at jokes from her friends on Snapchat.
In other words, she’s a typical kid. The main difference is that she is the only kid here — in her class, in her school and, in fact, on her whole island. When she graduates from eighth grade on Monday, she will be the last kid to finish elementary school on Cuttyhunk, an island about 12 miles south of New Bedford that boasts a year-round population of approximately 10.
Perhaps in an effort not to dwell on her singularity, she often speaks in the plural, as in, “We go to school at nine.” When she found out last fall that a 7-year-old from a neighboring island would not be coming back to school after October, she explained, “I was really upset. I was like, oh, that means we’re going to be the only one.”
Her brother, Carter, graduated last year (the island’s first graduate in 10 years), and now attends St. Andrew’s boarding school in Rhode Island. Although a few off-island kids enrolled in the fall, Gwen has been alone since November.
Recently, she became the subject of national interest because comedian Jenny Slate will be her commencement speaker. (Slate, who grew up in Milton, was asked to speak by a friend of Slate’s father who lives on the island part time.)
Even in a classroom of one, Gwen’s teacher, Michelle Carvalho, is rigorous, attempting to provide a normal education. Every morning Gwen recites the Pledge of Allegiance and then rings the school bell 10 times, and every day at 3:30 she rings it again. She does not get out of class early, even in her last week of school.
Lunch begins promptly at 11:45 and ends at 12:45, a period marked by an alarm on Carvalho’s phone. (Gwen goes home to eat.) If she gets in trouble, she has to stay after class, and though she fiercely resists, she is required to perform plays.
“Just as other kids have to do in typical schools, you do, too,” Carvalho said.
“They have choices!” Gwen protested.
The relationship between teacher and student is unique, but formal.
“We have a relatively close relationship, maybe closer than some. However I also try to keep a professional relationship, as any teacher would,” Carvalho said. “When it’s time to do math, we have to do math.”
When Gwen started preschool, there were four kids in her class, and she maintains a veteran’s “good-old-days” view of life back then.
“It was so simple,” she wrote in a draft of her graduation speech. “Our island was alive with laughter and play.”
After the two other kids moved to New York, she and Carter were the only full-time students for the next six years. (About her brother, Gwen explained, “We’re pretty close, but you know, he’s my sibling and I don’t really like him that much.”)
Commuting to public high school on the mainland would have been difficult and expensive, and ultimately Gwen’s parents decided boarding school made the most sense. Gwen will attend the Tilton boarding school in New Hampshire next year; both kids are receiving substantial financial aid.
Cuttyhunk’s one-room schoolhouse will be converted into a “STEAM Academy,” where students from other schools can study for a week at a time.
The school has been a constant in the tiny town, and its closing is “bittersweet,” said Carvalho; she will remain on the island to be the STEAM academy teacher.
Gwen, who despite her circumstances is unfortunately an extrovert, is thrilled about moving on, looking forward to boarding school.
“It’s so much fun, because you get to see your friends every day,” she mused. “Most kids, that’s not new, that’s something they’ve always had. But for Carter and I, that’s crazy. We get to see our best friend every single day? That’s insane.”
The island that has largely prevented her from seeing her best friends is a 1½-by-2-mile strip of land at the tip of the Elizabeth Islands, nestled between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. It becomes a paradise in the summer, when around 500 people stream in, and a close-knit, generations-old community comes to life.
Gwen’s friends arrive and stay for months; they meet on the slack line strung between two trees in her backyard, eat ice cream on the dock, swim in the ocean, and sail. They all go barefoot. She refers to almost everyone as her “best friend,” probably because she has known most of them since she was a baby.
In her graduation speech draft, Gwen summed up the rest of the year: “We mainly just played in the tree and waited for summer.”
That’s because during the winter Cuttyhunk is not exactly an easy place to live. It is only accessible by an hourlong ferry from New Bedford that runs just twice a week in winter (or by a water taxi or private boat or helicopter). Residents walk or get around by golf cart. As Cuttyhunk’s website warns, the island “does not have discos, bars, malls, a singles scene, a party life, video games, parking lots, traffic, or much action.”
Housing is scarce and costs are high; the 10 year-round residents all seem to juggle multiple jobs. Lexi and Duane Lynch, Gwen’s parents, co-own the summertime Cuttyhunk Cafe and the Little Red Shed, where you can buy a lobster dinner for $35. Duane is also a charter fisherman and works in construction and Lexi manages a cluster of rental homes. The chief of police stays on the island from May to October; at other times, there’s no law enforcement (and also no crime).
Carvalho, who has been an educator for over 30 years, said the school board warned her about the job’s challenges when she moved from New Hampshire four years ago.
“One of my first winter weekends, I was one of three people on island,” she said.
There are practical difficulties, too. Carvalho buys groceries for six weeks at a time, forgoing fresh produce. The delivery service Peapod will sometimes drop off at the ferry in New Bedford, but there’s a small freight charge for bringing the goods across.
Medical care is also tricky. When Carter, who is now 15, fell and broke his elbow, his mother splinted his arm and called two friends on the mainland, who motored them by boat across the water to a hospital.
Lexi and Duane, who are fourth and fifth generation Cuttyhunkers, plan to stay on the island “forever” but hope that their children don’t return to live there year-round.
“This is not a place for any young people to spend any majority of time,” Lexi said. She and Duane were sitting on the dock in front of their cafe, chatting as water lapped against the pier and birds pecked at crushed oyster crackers at their feet.
Duane agreed. “Great place for summer,” he said. “But the real world is over there.”
Gwen has no desire to move back. Instead, she wants to live in New York City, probably the farthest location, spiritually, from the place where she grew up, and become a mechanical engineer.
“I want to go off and stay off,” she said.
On her last Tuesday of eighth grade, Gwen made a plan to meet up with a friend off-island to go to a school dance. She packed a yellow sun dress and matching scrunchie, said goodbye to Carvalho and boarded the once-a-day ferry to New Bedford. She knew most of the people on the boat.
The ferry’s engine whirred and Gwen pulled out her pink iPhone, which has a Spiderman sticker affixed to the back. Her hair fell in sheets on either side of her face and, like any other teenager, she stared at her screen as the boat sped away.