MONMOUTH — Students from Monmouth Academy and Monmouth Middle School had no idea that when they spruced up the Monmouth Center Cemetery, they would receive a civics lesson from a disgruntled cemetery association.
On Oct. 28, as part of a history lesson, social studies teacher Jocelyn Gray led a group of 15 students on a sunny Sunday afternoon to clean up the cemetery.
The students, ranging from seventh-graders to sophomores, arrived eager to work for nothing more than light refreshments and the fulfillment of a school project.
Gray's first words to her students while handing out equipment were, "Be careful."
And they were — they didn't even allow rakes to scrape too close to the many marble and limestone monuments.
Leaves were raked onto tarps and hauled off to the woods beyond the graveyard. Dead branches also were removed and placed in the woods. Students clipped grass around monuments and used gentle brushes to remove fungi from the flat tops of stones.
Money was also raised by the students to repair the headstone of Seth Martin. The monument's base had apparently broken, toppling the gravestone and revealing a pair of 19th-century keys.
Students and Dennis Price, a teacher who is knowledgeable about monuments, went to work, applying epoxy and a band clamp to the broken stone.
When the bright, young faces adorned the Sun Journal the next day, however, not everyone was impressed.
Monmouth Academy Principal Rick Amero soon received a call from Monmouth Cemetery Association President Hugh LeMaster, who was was afraid the kids' presence would be detrimental. He gave what amounted to a "cease and desist" from the cemetery association.
Amero said the town is, and has always been, very supportive of the kids and referred to any misunderstanding with the association as "gaps in communication."
That communication gap continued when LeMaster called a meeting with Gray, who brought four of her students with her to the meeting.
Amero, who had been unable to attend the meeting, said his feeling was that the students were no longer welcome in the cemetery.
Following the meeting, Amero said he received an email from LeMaster, outlining how students were to proceed if they were going to continue the project, adding further confusion for teacher and students.
"What's really wonderful is, these kids own this," Amero said, "When they thought they might not be able to — they started troubleshooting. How do we do this — who do we contact?"
Amero said he is really proud of the students and supports them.
"We want the project to continue," he said.
Meeting with LeMaster, Gray said, "He praised us for our efforts," but because the kids weren't professionals, they would do more harm than good.
Gray said she was given permission to let the kids continue raking, providing they had chaperons from the association.
She said she was told the group could not continue their repair work on Martin's headstone, even after Martin's great-great-granddaughter, Mary Cobb, contacted Gray to express her gratitude and gave her consent for their work.
Speaking of her students at the meeting, Gray said, "I know that they did not feel very welcome."
She said they did not understand why people were upset about all they had done.
According to Gray, issues were brought up regarding numbers of people allowed in the cemetery at one time, citing instances of theater-goers eating their lunch there or walking among the stones.
Gray said she was told by LeMaster that even a little brush of your hip can topple a stone. Questions about the use of cleaning chemicals were also repeated to Gray, who assured him that not even water was used.
"I know my kids want to do more — they're very frustrated," Gray said. "It's about doing something nice for the community."
Undaunted, Gray said her students are currently researching their rights and responsibilities in such a case. She said the kids want to know what they are and are not supposed to do.
Gray said, "They love their town and know the majority of the community supports them," but at the same time, "I think they feel like teenagers are not listened to because they are teenagers."
Gray said, "I'm just very proud of my kids that even if there is a setback or roadblock, they can find the right way around it."
Word quickly traveled among the students following the meeting, allowing their frustration to be shared as seventh-grader Morgan Crocker reached out to the Sun Journal.
"When she told us this, all of our mouths dropped," Crocker said. "We were just so mad and confused about why they would do this."
In an email conversation with Crocker, she said, "They said that we would do more harm than good. Just because we were teens! Most people I know who have talked about us said that we were a great group of students. I think that a lot of people would stand up for us if they knew."
Although Crocker was quick to voice her frustration, she remained positive.
"We are still very upbeat about this," she said. "Every time Mrs. Gray tells us something new, we all get so excited."
As far as Gray and Amero know, work will resume at the cemetery at some point. Currently, regardless of the cemetery association's decisions, Gray plans to meet with Mary Cobb on Nov. 16.
When they meet, Gray plans to present her with the keys found in Martin's headstone and Cobb plans to bring some family artifacts, including a quilt belonging to Martin, who died in 1897.