Story and Photos by Jim Ritch —
Matthew Parks, 18, will brook no “pity parties” this year. Not because he’s the sole graduate in Tangier Combined School’s Class of 2020. Not because COVID-19 restrictions have upended the traditional schedule of graduation events.
He is a man with a plan.
Like his father and generations of Tangier men before him, he will graduate to the sea. More specifically, he hopes to parlay his experience working aboard the Mary Ellen, his father’s deadrise work boat, into a career as a tugboatman. He already holds his Transportation Workers Identification Card and has applied for credentials as a merchant mariner. Then, he can follow the advice of a cousin and several friends who already work for tugboat firms.
He’ll graduate with plenty of academic horsepower to attend college: A high GPA, advanced placement and college course credits, plus the extra math, science and language courses that earn Virginia’s advanced studies diploma. In a normal year, he’d “quite possibly” be the class valedictorian even though he now wins the title by default, said principal Nina Pruitt.
College is only the fallback plan for Parks.
“I don’t really know what I would do,” he said.
Much clearer to him is the path to a good career, with good money, on the water.
Already, he rides the paths and roads of Tangier Island on a shiny scooter that he purchased at age 16 with funds earned working for his father.
Today, he draws $110 per day in the last position of the shipboard production line.
His father hooks the crab pots and brings them on deck. Then, the “shaker” empties the trap and baits it. Then Matthew, as “culler,” separates the crabs by size and sex.
On occasional days when he works as the “shaker,” Matthew draws $150 a day.
That pales compared to wages as a deckhand on a tugboat, which start at about $200 per day and include health insurance and retirement benefits. Even higher pay comes with the more senior ranks of tankerman and engineer, who can earn $300 a day. The former loads and unloads liquid loads; the latter keeps the engines working.
Matthew also hopes to land a job that will keep him on the island. Such positions allow work for two weeks on a vessel, followed by two weeks off.
If his plan doesn’t work out, his principal envisions him as an outstanding teacher.
“He engages everyone, young and old. And he’s game for anything,” said Nina Pruitt.
“But his kindness is what overwhelms me.”
In fifth grade, Matthew’s first year without classmates, the island rallied behind him. When he set out to collect canned goods in an annual competition with other Accomack County middle schools, donations poured in.
He loaded the cans onto a boat and rode with his teachers to deliver the cans in Accomack. When a volunteer arrived in her car and saw the amassed cans, she had to leave to find a truck large enough to carry them. The cans eventually weighed in at more than 700 pounds, and Matthew beat every team from the other, larger schools.
Well, Tangier Island won, too.