The Cruz Bay waterfront looked like old-time St. John on Wednesday afternoon, February 14, as about 40 children floated their hand-crafted toy boats into the sea.
Third graders from across St. John, in both private and public schools, took part in a “Flotilla of Stories,” the brain-child of former Guy Benjamin School teacher Jill Olesker.
After relocating to New York, Olesker conceived the idea of creating a program that bridged St. John with stateside resources, and “North Meets South” was born.
Last year Love City school children participated in a one-day workshop where they made kites and watched their creations take flight.
Inspired by Mural
This year’s program was inspired by a painting in a historic Cruz Bay bar, explained Olesker.
“When I was here last year I went to Mooie’s and I was inspired by the murals there of the two children with toy boats,” Olesker said. “I was also in-spired by the Coral Bay Yacht Club’s flotilla that raises money for the Guy Benjamin School. So I started brainstorming and the idea with boats just kept coming.”
“I was thinking of what we could do with the history of boats and the connection with elders and stories,” continued Olesker. “I wanted the children to realize the importance of oral histories.”
The former GBS teacher asked Mooie’s proprietor Theodora Moorehead about the painting, which was done years ago by Ezio Marsh.
“Theodora told me about the boats and when she was young and it was just perfect,” Olesker said.
Life Before K-Mart
There weren’t many places to buy toys when she was a child, explained Moorehead.
“Back in my day we created our own world,” Moorehead said. “There was not K-Mart or anything, so we made our own toys.”
Olesker teamed up with Maureen Mullen who teaches at the Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in Manhattan. Third graders at Mullen’s school will also take part in the “Flotilla of Stories” program.
All of the students were asked to discuss their connections to nature, which they turned into story scrolls.
St. John students created their scrolls at Guy Benjamin School on Tuesday, February 13. That day the students also crafted two different kinds of boats.
Fostering Community Ties
Traditionally boys — who had more experience with tools — made toy boats out of wood and girls made boats out of coconut husks using only their hands.
While the program was designed to pass on the culturally-specific tradition of toy boat making, it was also intended to foster a sense of community, according to Olesker.
“Having a strong community is a gift and what started North Meets South in the first place,” Olesker said. “There is such a great community here and whatever nurtures that is positive. Any way we can bring two communities together is wonderful.”
Life in Big City
Collaborating with students their age in New York also contributes to a greater sense of community, Mullen added.
“We go through this interview process first and the kids share their stories,” said Mullen. “This helps the kids in both situations.
Students here have romance and myths about what life is like in New York and kids in New York have the same about what life is like on a small island in the Caribbean.”
Just bringing school kids from different schools on St. John together bridges gaps, explained Olesker.
“The very first thing was to bring kids together who don’t really meet,” Olesker said. “This is one piece. The kids are a community and one day they’ll be a community of adults too.”
Childhood and Tradition
The workshop also keeps traditions alive.
“What I’m enthralled with is exploring different things about childhood and tradition,” said Olesker. “I think these things are very important.”
Despite having moved off-island more than two years ago, Olesker continues to give back to the St. John community.
“I just had such an incredible experience here,” said the former GBS teacher. “I got so much out of the experience and I felt that
I made deep connections here and I wanted to share that with the people I bring down. I wanted, in some small way, to give something back.”
After making their scrolls and boats on Tuesday, February 13, the students gathered in the Frank Powell Park on Wednesday afternoon, February 14, and prepared to put them to sea.
First, however, Julius E. Sprauve School and GBS librarian Faye Fredericks retold a traditional Bahamian story about Ananse, the trouble-making spider.
Floating Out to Sea
With their heads full of stories, the students crossed the street to the Cruz Bay beach and tested their vessels. The boats held up well and floated out as far as the attached strings allowed.
In a moment of pure serendipity, St. John-native Dr. Gilbert Sprauve happened to be coming off of a boat in the harbor and lent a helping hand to the coconut vessels.
Before the afternoon was over, Moorehead returned from Mooie’s with someone in tow — the very same Ezio Marsh who painted the mural which inspired the entire program.