When Peter Miedema was a high school student in Accord, N.Y. (population 562) he worked at an IGA owned by a local family and over the years became part of their clan.
But when they invited Peter to travel with them to India to celebrate their daughter’s arranged marriage, he hesitated.
“I had barely been out of New York state. I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “If someone today said, free trip to India, I’d say ‘Yes’ in a second.”
Peter, who has taught history for 11 years at the Shelter Island School, draws on his own fear of the unknown when he talks with his students. “I work very hard to say, ‘You have opportunities here. Go on the trips. I know you might feel scared or intimidated, but go.’”
Peter’s father, Harm Miedema, came to New York from Holland in the 1950s. In the company of his best friend, they settled near New Paltz, N.Y., and married sisters. “My dad was a dairy farmer,” Peter said. “Farming is what I was going to do.”
His mother’s father was a laborer, who loved to take his grandchildren to work. Before Peter and his brothers were old enough to ride bikes, their grandfather picked them up in his truck to spend the day with him, baling hay and building sheds.
He’s youngest of four with two brothers, and a sister Suzanne, a brilliant student who earned degrees in literature, music and French. Suzanne’s passion for learning and teaching inspired her little brother to become a teacher rather than a farmer, earning a BS in secondary education from SUNY New Paltz, and a Masters in educational psychology from the College of Saint Rose.
Around the time Peter graduated from college, his mother died of a heart attack. Flu was going around and everyone was sick. When his mother told him that she wasn’t feeling well, he figured she was coming down with the same flu that he had a few days earlier, and suggested she take it easy. By the time he returned from the gym, he found she had collapsed. She later died in surgery.
Mary Miedema took care of everyone and everything in their home, and suddenly she was gone. It was a family that took love and comfort from each other, but didn’t express it verbally. “We never said thank you, or I love you,” Peter said. “We did things because that’s your family and you just do things for people.”
Peter’s sister was still home, but his older brothers were not, and Peter felt tremendous sadness, as well as the need to step up.
“I was trying to handle my own grief and not thinking about my dad’s grief,” he said. He had to learn to cook. “He’d come home and my sister and I would have dinner ready for him.”
Peter had done some substitute teaching in college, and in 2000 got his first teaching job in Germantown, N.Y., working with kids who struggled in a regular class setting, and were often disruptive. From that school he went to an even tougher one, a year and a half at Pius XII, a residential facility for kids who were in flux between home, detention centers, or awaiting trial. It was a long way from splitting wood and working at the IGA.
His education did not completely prepare him for the students he met in those first years of teaching. “I had to adapt because these kids were not going to. I couldn’t just stick a textbook at them, and say do your work. They were acting out because they couldn’t read, they couldn’t do their work.”
In Germantown, Peter met a fellow teacher, and they married. Her parents had a place in Noyack, and while visiting them Peter first discovered Shelter Island. They moved to Long Island in 2005, and Peter began teaching at Child Development Center of the Hamptons (CDCH), a charter school for kids with learning disabilities.
CDCH had no sports program, so Peter, a lifelong athlete and avid sportsman, decided to apply for a position coaching basketball at the Shelter Island School. He started coaching basketball and baseball, and still does to this day.
A year into his coaching duties on Shelter Island and still teaching in East Hampton, Peter met the late Jack Monaghan who had learned that Peter taught history, and wondered if he would consider taking an interim position for a teacher who was on medical leave. Jack made a powerful impression on Peter, who agreed to come to Shelter Island even though it meant giving up a permanent job with no guarantee of future employment.
He started commuting from Southampton, and took the South Ferry one bitter January day in a shirt and tie. “As a kid, I would not wear a coat,” he said. “The school would call home and say, ‘If you can’t afford a coat …’ And I heard my mom tell them, ‘We have coats! He won’t wear them.’”
As he rolled off the ferry, Glenn Waddington, who was on the crew, pulled him over with bad news. Peter’s tire had a piece of metal stuck in it. Seeing that his son’s coach was not dressed for a mid-winter tire change, Glenn ordered Peter to park his truck at the ferry and leave it. “The keys are in my truck, take it, go to work,” Glenn said.
Two students in Peter’s class were also in the mechanics program at BOCES, and during a study hall went down to the ferry, took the tire off Peter’s car, fixed it, put it back, and found a volunteer to ride down to the ferry with Peter to return Glenn’s truck, refusing the money Peter tried to give them.
If he had any doubts that Shelter Island was the place to be, that settled it. “I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” he said. “I’ve been in all kinds of different schools, and I give a nod to the gods that this turned out to be a perfect fit.”
He’s not afraid of letting his classes get into touchy topics. “I hope they take the discussion in a direction that is uncomfortable, because we need to discuss things,” he said. “We set ground rules and we talk. It’s not always solved by compromise, but we get the issue out there.”
Peter’s still close to his friends from high school. “I have a core group of people I trust who are by my side — five or six people, we call, or text, we go on vacation together. For 25 years, we’ve always been there for each other,” he said.
After Peter and his wife split up in 2013, he moved to Shelter Island. When he’s not teaching, he’s coaching, working with a student group or walking around the Heights with Adele, a 4-year old French bulldog with black spotted ears. She also loves to ride shotgun in his truck, and Peter claims she only snores “when she is really, really tired.”
What do you always have with you? If I’m not in school, my dog Adele is with me.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? The beach at Menhaden Lane.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Nashville with my friends.
When was the last time you were elated? This summer, when I met Joe Namath eating dinner at Isola.
What exasperates you? People who text and drive.
When was the last time you were afraid? During the recent storm there was one crack of thunder — sounded like it was right outside my door.
Favorite book? ‘Cash’ by Johnny Cash.
Favorite food? Shepherd’s pie.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Jack Monaghan.
Most respected elected official? Teddy Roosevelt.