From Outcast to Overseer: An Interview with a Penikese Island Outcast

by | Jul 14, 2022 | Heidi's Updates

On the day Hope Beyond the Waves released, I received an Instagram message from a man named John. He congratulated me on the book’s publication and told me he’d been a student at the Penikese Island School in the 1990’s.

My heart gave a small leap. I’d conducted intense research about the island for my novel—not only surrounding the Penikese Island Leper Colony (1905-1921) but surrounding the Penikese Island School, a non-profit private residential school for troubled boys (1973-2011). While I read much about the school and watched documentaries, I was not able to find a student to interview, for obvious privacy reasons.

But now, a student had come to me! Sure, it was after the release of the book, but I couldn’t wait to talk to him. In Hope Beyond the Waves, Emily’s grandmother (whose fictional husband helped start the Penikese Island School in my story) tells her granddaughter that most of the boys attending the school did not turn their lives around. A survey conducted seven years after the school’s opening found that only 16 out of 106 boys had made progress away from crime, drugs, and destruction. An incredibly small number.

I wondered what kind of story I could expect from John. 

Within minutes of talking to the now forty-one-year-old, I was put at ease. I liked him immediately. We were the same age. In fact, he’d grown up in my own hometown, although our paths never crossed. He was transparent, down-to-earth, and spoke sweetly to his daughter whose small voice interrupted our conversation to ask if her father might help her find her American Girl doll.

As John spoke of a troubled childhood, my heart ached for the young teen. I sensed rebellion in him, and though John never claimed to be a blameless student, I sympathized with him over the failure of our school systems. I had been a teacher’s aide at a high school years ago—I realized all too well that not all teachers are fair. Many are overworked and overwhelmed. 

One day, John’s teacher did not allow him to use the restroom during class—something the teacher had allowed one of the “smart” girls to do. If there was anything John couldn’t stand, it was being treated unjustly. His language and rebellion led to him being kicked out of school, leading to a long line of similar events. 

John described himself as “kind of an outcast” and a “hellion.” 

“I was on the poorer side, and we used to take cars,” he says. “One of the cars we happened to take had a 38 revolver under the seat.” John hid the gun in his closet. When his mother found it, she called the police. 

At this point, John had been kicked out of nine different schools. Because of that, the next step for John was a juvenile detention center. John’s mother asked for the Penikese program instead. 

The court agreed. 

That was the beginning of a long stay on the smallest of the Elizabeth Islands for sixteen-year-old John. 

The program was intended as a six-to-eight-month rehabilitation. John’s stay would be longer. 

“It was odd when I got there. It was definitely a place where you have a bunch of alpha males. At the time, I wouldn’t have considered myself an alpha male, but I quickly assimilated to what I needed to do. And it was an odd balancing act to be the kid that was caught with a gun, and also a kid that really liked the program, as much as I hated to admit it.”

John liked the competition of the rigorous exercises in the morning. He liked learning to work the forge. “I loved chopping wood, something that I wouldn’t have thought to this day that I would still love to do. It was like therapy.”

A typical day on Penikese for the nine to thirteen students included waking up at 5AM for a run (even if there was a foot of snow on the ground!) or other morning exercises. After breakfast, the students would split into two groups—one group would go to school, and one group would go to work. After lunch, they would swap.

There was no electricity on the island. Running water was on a cistern, a solar panel charged a cell phone and CB radio, and they had a propane fridge. Work for the students consisted of chopping wood, shoveling out the outhouse, putting in the infrastructure for a forthcoming compost toilet, or building an addition for the school. Pigs and chickens needed constant attention.

John is still in touch with one of the teachers from Penikese. He describes Shawn as a “nature guy,” “just an all-around good guy,” who played guitar with him and served as a role model. He remembers another teacher, Omar, as a more “military” type who reinforced the “powers of observation” to his students. Omar would leave Newport Lights around the island and the boys who found the cigarettes received the reward of smoking them.

Once John received his home passes, however, he found himself in trouble once again. As punishment, he was “grounded” to the island for future visits to the mainland.

With only a month or two needed to graduate, John decided he’d had enough. He told the staff to call the boat for him. “I’m done with this,” he said. “Take me to jail, I’m done. I just can’t do it anymore.” 

To John’s surprise, they did call the boat. 

“I remember sunning myself on the foundation of the addition I’d helped build, waiting for the boat, wondering if they were sending me to adult jail or juvie. You know, I think about it a lot differently now, at forty-one. At the time I couldn’t understand that the length I was there [on the island] was being perpetuated by my own actions. I felt I was missing out on my life. All I remember is this feeling of unfairness.”

Once on the boat, Penikese behind him for the last time, John asked the captain where he was taking him. When the captain answered, “home,” simultaneous feelings of relief (he wasn’t going to jail!) and rage (if it was this easy, why had they kept him on the island for so long?) surged through John.

He had been on the island for one year, and was almost eighteen when the boat brought him home. After returning to the mainland, he worked in a sheet metal shop and attempted to finish high school, but failed gym and science class last semester of his senior year.

Though John never heard much from his father, he remembers receiving a call from him after the failure. “You’re a f’ing idiot,” his father told him. 

“But hey, he cared enough to call,” John said, “so in a weird way that gave me the fuel to finish school.”

John jokes that he graduated second in his class of two at summer school. After he graduated, he continued on at the sheet metal shop and worked in HVAC for most of his life.

“Now I build labs. I work for a contractor in Boston. Penikese taught me work ethic lessons I didn’t grasp right away, but as the years went on, they stayed with me. Even as little as seven years ago, I could feel them taking root.”

What were those lessons? That life’s hard, but there’s always a reason to keep going. That hard work is rewarded. Just last year, John’s already decent salary doubled when he was promoted to a managerial position with a company that recognized his strong work ethic.

“It was a long road, but a lot of things I did on Penikese ended up carrying over into the rest of my life. It trickled down,” John said.

John now lives with his wife and four children on 3.5 acres in beautiful New Hampshire. One might still be able to hear the rough-and-tumble kid in the echoes of his voice, but it’s the hardworking man that loves his family and strives to succeed that will stay with me long after our conversation.

While Hope Beyond the Waves is a work of fiction, there’s nothing fictional about John’s life, or the other boys who came to Penikese. Many, like John, are living proof that change can happen—that love and care can plant a seed, that there’s always a reason for hope.

Photo Credit: Warren Wong on Unsplash, Lukas Rychvalsky on Unsplash, and Angela C from Pixabay

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