Crossing the Water: Eighteen Months on an Island Working With Troubled Boys -- A Teacher's Memoir

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9780743202381: Crossing the Water: Eighteen Months on an Island Working With Troubled Boys -- A Teacher's Memoir

Off the coast of Cape Cod lies a small windswept island called Penikese. Alone on the island is a school for juvenile delinquents, the Penikese Island School, where Daniel Robb lived and worked as a teacher, not far from the mainland town where he grew up. By turns harsh, desolate, and starkly beautiful, the island offers its temporary residents respite from lives filled with abuse, violence, and chaos. But as Robb discovers, peace, solitude, and a structured lifestyle can go only so far toward healing the anger and hurt he finds not only in his students but within himself -- feelings left over from the broken home of his childhood. Lyrical and heartfelt, "Crossing the Water" is the memoir of his first eighteen months on Penikese, and a poignant meditation on the many ways that young men can become lost.

Ranging in age from fourteen to seventeen and numbering up to eight at a time, Robb's students at Penikese have been convicted of crimes including arson, assault, and armed robbery. They are tough, troubled kids who are sentenced to the school by courts in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. During their time at Penikese, they live in a house together with the staff of four and share the responsibilities of living on the island -- chopping wood, cooking meals, maintaining and repairing the buildings, caring for the farm animals, and doing other chores. For many of the students, it's the first time they've experienced such a combination of discipline and freedom, or the kind of trust extended to them by the staff. And despite their resistance and sometime wildness, Robb soon finds that they have the capacity not only to confound but to surprise him, both with their insight and theirvulnerability. In "Crossing the Water," he renders the boys' voices and his life with them -- the confrontations, the rare epiphanies, the flashes of humor -- with great vividness.

Passionate, poetic, and deeply felt, "Crossing the Water" is a powerful and moving book, and the debut of a tremendously gifted young writer.

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Review:

It's a rare pleasure when a new author shows not only notable talent, but the skill and chutzpah to go where no one else has gone before. Daniel Robb takes a subject that many have considered but few understood--juvenile delinquents--and writes about it with rare insight. For a year and a half, Robb was a teacher on Penikese Island, off Cape Cod, where teenage boys are sent by the courts and social services to put six months between themselves and their chaotic daily lives. During this time they experience safety, a routine, hard work, and the decency and constancy of adults better adjusted than the ones they've known. The place is less a school, Robb writes, than "a family, or a way of life, a rhythm, a discipline, a music, with many voices of boys competing with my own for ownership of the tale." The boys have varied résumés: Mose shot a man who threatened him one night; Edward torched a boat for money; Alan is the king of substance abuse; Burt's parents have both been in jail since he was 7. But Robb finds that they all have a number of things in common--childhoods fraught with so many uncertainties that they never learned cause and effect, the lack of a father's guidance--the same things, it turn out, that plague Robb's own heart.

Robb has a gift for evoking their natural surroundings on the island in a language that resembles poetry while capturing the cadences and tribulations of his surly yet charming students with perfect pitch and clear-eyed sympathy. Not only does the dichotomy make for compelling reading, it works on the kids as well: Ned, the longhaired metalhead, gives CPR to a mouse and actually revives it; Wyatt, who stole cars out of boredom, considers his absent father's legacy after reading a Gary Snyder poem. Robb is a literary voyager in the most unlikely of places, and, in the end, reveals that even boys such as these have a poetry all their own. --Lesley Reed

About the Author:

Daniel Robb, a carpenter and writer, has been an editor of academic journals; a teacher in Mississippi, New York, and Massachusetts; a political consultant; and the proprietor of a literary services business. He holds degrees from Middlebury College and the Breadloaf School of English. He lives in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

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