Meet Jennifer Troiano-Breudigam, who flies to South Bass Island every day to work as the kindergarten teacher at Put-in-Bay School.
Troiano-Breudigam, 48, has been commuting for the last 17 years of her two decades at the small school, where she averages a half-dozen kids in her class every year.
Yes, it’s difficult. She pays for the flights herself. And when the weather is bad and the plane can’t fly, she gets stuck on the island overnight. That’s gotten more complicated with her kids, 8- and 5-year-old sons she calls Trouble 1 and Trouble 2.
But she loves the circle of life, watching her 5-year-old students grow into high school seniors who leave and eventually return to the island, to have their own children.
“You know them so intimately that you know them almost like pseudo parent,” she said.
We talked to Troiano-Breudigam at the start of her winter break, when many school families head to Florida. She’s simply staying in Huron for the week, no worries about weather making it impossible to get home to her kids.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How on earth did you get this job?
I graduated from Ashland University with a degree in communications. I worked in recruiting and marketing, and I went to Dusquesne University to get my master’s degree with the intention of working in a college. I worked in HR and headhunting for a while, living in Columbus. I was just by chance boating with friends for a day, and I happened to meet the new principal of Put-in-Bay School, who docked his boat next to my best friend’s family. I said, hindsight is 20/20; I should have tried teaching. I was kind of burnt out. He said I should apply.
Three weeks later I had the job. A week later, I started.
I thought, I can do anything for a year. My mom was a teacher for 30 years. It was an adventure. As you can see, I never left. It was a fluke. It literally dropped into my lap. It was the right time at the right place.
So you lived on the island for the first 2 ½ years, before you got married and moved to Huron. What’s it like to live on an island in the middle of Lake Erie, in the middle of winter?
There’s something beautiful about the simplicity of the island in the winter time. It’s very low key, very much community oriented. Every time I had an issue or a problem, someone would help. People just drop what they’re doing to help you, all the time. One time I was stuck in the mud; three islanders stopped what they were doing to get me out of the mud.
It’s also very desolate to be there and a little bit lonely. Islanders really think outside the box. They’re the most resourceful people I’ve ever met. They are problem solvers. They have to be because not everything is at their fingertips. I can’t stress enough what a wonderful place it is.
Does it bug your husband, or your boys, you commuting every day to an island?
It’s really been a year-by-year situation. It does make him nervous and wary me flying every day. But he’s gotten used to me being a tough nut and independent.
It’s never pretty but we make it work. We have a phenomenal babysitter. She’s like our lifeline. And my best friend — she and her husband and my husband and I went to Ashland together — she’ll pick up boys.
It is a stress, and it makes you feel very guilty as a mom. But at the same time, my son got to fly a plane for his fifth birthday. There are trade-offs.
It’s made me feel a lot of self-worth. There is a lot of appreciation for the job I do, and that’s why I keep doing it. I don’t think another community would treat me as well as Put-in-Bay does.
I don’t hate waking up in the morning.
What’s it like to teach at such a small school?
I have four students this year. It’s almost as if you’re homeschooling, and education is individualized. You can work with them one-on-one.
We may not have a football team, but we have other unique opportunities. The middle and high school kids do trips to Washington D.C. We buddy up with another school. Last year, we had wonderful weekend trip to Mackinac Island.
We have boating and sailing classes. The gym teacher does a lot with kayaking and canoeing.
Just last year, toward the end of the school year, we took all kids on the Tour Train. We’ve gone down to Crystal Cave and to the OSU fish hatchery. They got to learn about gobies and zebra mussels. We got to go on Tall Ships for ride. They’ve gone to Perry’s Monument You live right there, sometimes you don’t get to enjoy those things. When April and May hit, their parents are back to working 50-60 hours a week.
What are some of the weirdest Put-in-Bay stories?
I just flew two weeks ago with $2,000 worth of minnows because there was a minnow shortage. It’s almost comical the things that happen. Or when I’m in a plane with a dog who won’t fit on the seats.
I love the early weeks when the bread comes in: 12 boxes of freshly made bread. I just want to tear them open and eat them.
You take a plane for about 100 days a year and a boat for 80. Do you get so excited when the ice melts and you can be on the Miller Ferry again?
I love taking the boat because it’s peaceful and you get 18 minutes to decompress. But there’s extra time with loading and unloading, driving all the way to Catawba. It adds 40 minutes to my day, 40 minutes I don’t get with my kids. Though at least when I take the boat, I’m 95 percent guaranteed I’m going to get to school normally.