There’s an unusually shaped school in North Anson. The main rooms of the school form a rectangle. But at one end, the architecture changes dramatically.

At Carrabec High School in 2015, students Ted Gower and Alaena Merril learn how to swing dance as part of a program designed to promote socialization and a good workout, according to instructor Jack “Kap” Kaplan. Popular Wednesday and Friday dance routines in the Carrabec gym are led by Kap, who even gets teens to wake up at dawn for a noncredit workout-team building program. David Leaming/Morning Sentinel, File

The rectangular shape morphs into a wider circular igloo shape. The large domed gym makes the whole school look like an exclamation mark.

Exclamation marks express celebration, and there is much to celebrate at Carrabec High School. Our school has been challenged by the pandemic, and the socioeconomic challenges in extremely rural Maine are daunting. But recently the school staff gathered to tell our story.

A theme emerging in education is to control the narrative. Tell your story, so others can’t tell it for you. The stories teachers shared on our workshop day celebrated our school’s academics, soft skills for job success (leadership, teamwork, organization, communication, etc.) and, finally, sports.

Our community unites for basketball playoff games in the Augusta Civic Center. This year, for the first time in a generation, both boys and girls teams made the playoffs. It’s uplifting to cheer on our athletes and chat with their parents in the stands.

Every school has trophy cases, but our whole school has become a showcase of participation and achievement. Hundreds of team photos line the halls with a thousand smiling faces. Plaques and certificates of achievement are everywhere too. Whether acknowledging our National Honor Society’s trip to support the Winter Special Olympics or this year’s Mountain Valley Conference championship math team, you can’t walk the halls without seeing models for greatness.

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The Math Team’s championship is a first in 25 years. Likewise, both basketball teams excelled when we most needed something to cheer in the third year of COVID disruptions. Banners in the cafeteria celebrate the math team and two basketball players who scored their thousandth point this year: junior Luke Carey and senior Cheyenne Cahill.

The cafeteria also displays Maine-themed murals, and individual artworks are displayed in hallways to and from the cafe. Each dining table has a large bouquet of paper flowers designed and created by students. The once-annual show is now museum-like, with rotating installations, guided by our art teacher, Heather Vaughn. The cafeteria food’s been getting healthier every year, a nationwide trend. I recommend the fruit smoothies served during breakfast.

During break and lunch, students shoot baskets in the gym, also known as The Thunderdome. The Carrabec gym is the dot at the bottom of our exclamation mark, and that’s fitting. This year, finally, we were able to cheer on the basketball teams in person. The Thunderdome is also home to Willpower.

Jack Kaplan, Maine Secondary PE Teacher of the Year in 2017, describes Willpower as a mentoring and character-building program. It meets three mornings a week at 5 a.m. They meet in the best-equipped gymnasium in the state. Willpower is voluntary, and students receive no credit, but Willpower students are often the top athletic and academic achievers in the school. In 40 years of teaching, I’ve never heard of a teacher like “Kap,” who gets high school students to voluntarily get up at dawn for a workout and team building toward ethical citizenship.

There’s a lot to exclaim and smile about at Carrabec, and the Thunderdome is the space where smiles are most prevalent. Two traditions in health and fitness classes are Wacky Wednesdays and Freaky Fridays, which generally feature a fun and even silly dance routine. While many teens are wary and might even groan at first, “Kap” charms them, and by the end of the dance, almost everyone is smiling. Students who I never see smile smile in the gym.

It can be hard to smile if you live a hardscrabble life in extremely rural Maine. But I’ve never seen so many people, with so little, give so much. That’s my school, shaped like an exclamation mark, where celebrations of excellence are growing.


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