The Path of Kristine May from the Jersey Shore to the Shores of Sturgis

Being a turtle at the Bronx Zoo, 1985

Exploring Hawaii, 1983

As I searched the Internet for schools to apply to in November of 2015, knowing that my family would be relocating to Massachusetts the following summer, I didn’t expect to find a school that would have a personal connection for me. The moment I arrived on the Sturgis website, the first thing I saw was the sextant. A sextant has very deep meanings and memories for me, having learned to use one during my own unusual high school days. Yes, literally. I had to read further.

My childhood was spent on the beaches, farms, and forests of Monmouth County, New Jersey, a beautiful place. As a toddler, my mother (an early childhood and nature educator) was sure to enroll me in every nature class and farm day program, and we spent our summers beachcombing and traveling. From childhood, I was drawn to two careers: marine biology and education.

I attended a unique high school, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST), on Sandy Hook. Sandy Hook is a barrier spit, a peninsula of sorts that extends into New York Harbor. My alma mater is a county vocational school, geared toward teens who are interested in immersing themselves in marine biology, technology, and engineering. All students enroll in the Naval Junior ROTC program. MAST is a small school; my graduating class included just fifty-four students, and the school has a family feel. It’s hard to convey the atmosphere of MAST to most people I meet. But then again, if you’re reading this, I think you understand.

Cadet Lieutenant Kristine Cusick, second from left, 1997

Okay, so the military part of it is very un-Sturgis-like. But trust me, outside of that, it is strikingly similar. It is acceptable there to be smart and driven, admirable to be quirky and creative, and absolutely celebrated to be unique. The school has a collegiate atmosphere, and my teachers were phenomenal. MAST has a 65-foot research vessel, the R/V Blue Sea, which, at that time, docked at the local Coast Guard station; we would go out on a regular basis for full-day trips with our science classes. In those four years, I met some of the best friends I’ve known, and  graduated with the school science award, and the Guidance Counselors’ Caring Award. Foreshadowing!

Exploring Costa Rican ecology on horseback, 1998

When I made my college decision, there was much to think about. Like many Sturgis students, I was self-motivated and driven. I chose Stockton University in southern New Jersey for its marine biology facilities, small size, and forest location. 

I like to mention this when I am counseling strong students; although I was accepted to schools from Boston University to Florida Institute of Technology, “fit” was most important to me. I have always preferred being a big fish in a little pond; students should consider the school atmosphere that fits them personally. But I digress. At Stockton, I earned my BA in education and BS in marine biology, and had many leadership and study opportunities that I may not have had in a larger school.

Diving in New England Aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank (GOT), 2005

After teaching in New Jersey for two years, I married my college sweetheart (a friend from high school; you never know what twists your story will have!) and moved to Quincy, Massachusetts. My husband Timothy decided to attend law school at Suffolk, and I found myself without a Massachusetts teaching license. I chose to take a teaching hiatus, and sow my oats, so to speak, in animal care. I had worked at a small aquarium while in college, and have always loved visiting them.

First I worked at New England Aquarium. Primarily, I bred a dozen species of jellyfish for the aquarium’s special exhibit, and sold them to aquariums across the country as well. But I also spent time diving in the Giant Ocean Tank, feeding the penguins, and rehabilitating the Cape’s beached sea turtles. Time passed, and I decided that for more mammal experience, I would take a job at the Franklin Park Zoo. There, I was a senior keeper, feeding, cleaning, and caring for animals, including the rare Amur leopard. I amassed a catalogue of stories that continue to entertain my students to this day–and they know that asking about the zoo is the best way to get me off track in class!

Receiving kisses from Masai giraffe Beau at Franklin Park Zoo, 2006

As my husband approached his graduation, we found ourselves wondering where to live. In the end, we loved Massachusetts, but we are also closely tied to our families, and decided to return to New Jersey. I obtained a teaching job at a charter school for the performing arts outside of Atlantic City, and we rented a tiny cottage on a beautiful bay. The school wasn’t a good fit for me, but had a tremendous effect on my life. Some of my students were living much harder lives than I had experienced, and a few chose to eat lunch with me. Looking back, I can see that this was my first counseling experience. I didn’t see it that way at the time, until one student with a particularly difficult year thanked me for my care, and told me that I should “go be a counselor.” A counselor? I had never even considered the thought, and I shelved it.

Graduation from Monmouth University, 2015

After finishing out the year, I was able to find my New Jersey niche, at a medium-sized public high school in my hometown. It was a land of football games and pep rallies, and some of the best colleagues I’ve ever had the joy of learning from. During my nine years there, I gave birth to my son James, my best buddy, and earned my master’s degree from Monmouth University in school counseling. I still felt torn, though, between my passion for biology and a talent I knew I had.

Hayride with James, 2017

Which brings me back to the beginning of my story: a decision to return to Massachusetts, a move to the South Shore in 2016. My parents followed soon after. So now I spend my days commuting to Hyannis, unbelievably teaching biology AND counseling teens at a school that feels so much like my own. I’ve replaced my summers on the Jersey Shore with a different version, and my family and I explore the forests and bogs of our new home. I love to travel, read, hike, and practice singing and nature photography. It’s been a very long path, and a very unique one–which is just the way I like it. I want my students to know that a winding road with twists and turns is not a bad thing; on the contrary, it has given me such a wealth of experiences and memories. Time to go make some more!

 

 

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