Mr. Popper’s Clipper Ship Curriculum, by Trisha Remetir

Placing a ship in a bottle is easy if you make the sails first. Not the bodied hull first, and never the stern, because both can easily slip through the bottle’s neck. It is in fact the complicated mass of rigging and square sails that need to be cut, knotted, and laid flat along the deck so that once the body is pushed through the mouth, a single string attached to the bow activates the intricate netting into place. It’s much harder to fit, say, a cruiser or a destroyer within the container, which is why I stick to clippers and their sleek, water-cutting bodies. But if everything is correct, the little rig with its masts and sails will come to life, will breathe, rise and look back at you through its little glass home.

I spend a good portion of my time looking into these nautical worlds, admiring their modest beauty in fluttering topsails and weighty hulls. It’s empowering to build ships out of pencil wood, floss, and my own pudgy, fumbling hands. And lo! a world: a tiny piece of art, a snappy clipper or a Scandinavian longship, all through the lens of yesterday’s beer bottle!

I often imagine myself aboard French frigates and schooners, wondering how it feels to walk a varnished deck from bow to stern, tie an anchor or climb three-inch masts to scale. If seamanship were based on passion and history, and maybe also stout arms, semi-clogged arteries, and general rotundity, then I’d say there’s a seaman in me! Nevertheless, I am who I am, and who I happen to be is a ship fanatic.

There’s nineteen clippers sailing around my classroom, but my students, thirty-one hormonal, middle-class thugs whose heads I have been appointed to steer from darkness, are lost causes. Every day I try to illuminate the ship’s subtle intricacies, and point out which bows are curved or straight. What’s the difference between the poop and the deck, if I may ask? Eyes roll, laconically. I teach them history and they configure rudimentary line drawings of me sweating through my armpits. They don’t understand.

—-

Once while illuminating the benefits of maritime sailing during the Gold Rush, Tim’s hand shot up and asked why the whole 8th grade curriculum was planned around ships. 

My courteous reply: although I would seriously reconsider some students’ levels of intelligence, this is technically an accelerated class, so specialized study is required. You are adults (in the eyes of the public education system, that is), and you are supposed to be mature and thoughtful. Please act accordingly. But anyway, there’s a whole world in this bottle. You don’t really know something until you immerse yourself in it, until you live it.

To which Peter replied, “Well then, how did they fit you through the neck?”

The class laughed.

After school I uncorked the Snow Squall, a fully rigged ship with a rounded hull and a narrow, sharp hollowed bow. Despite this model’s crooked foremast and precariously placed topsail, in reality the Squall could travel a remarkable 250 nautical miles a day. With one eye I peered stern-side into this encased cosmos.

They would have trouble getting all of me in there.

—–

Despite my dismal expectation for the leaders of tomorrow, I once saw Hannah Wu staring into this mysterious world. One fatefully rainy lunch period I caught her lingering around the merchant vessels, meditating on the Cutty Sark’s elegantly excessive sails. As if lost in a world of her own, she wore the same expression I wear when studying the Cutty—contemplative and enraptured, and even a little teary-eyed.

I walked over, preparing myself for any questions she might have,[1] but then Peter, daily bane of my existence, barged in with his soiled, sagging pants and accosted her. He muttered something incomprehensible and she started to sob.

“Hey, hey,” I said, reluctantly inserting myself between both of their tiny shoulders. “What’s the problem now?”

Hannah’s silence was a good indication I should’ve stayed clear, but they were now hovering quite tensely over my rig whose rudders I spent four hours carving. And Peter, obviously taken aback that my large frame deigned to drop in at this crucial moment of teenage tragedy, turned bright red. There was (I’ll admit it) an awkward pause. Something was coming, I could tell. And with the dramatic timing of a Shakespearean tragedy, Peter stared at me, the ship, and me again, furiously harboring his pubescent contempt until with one over-sized jacket sleeve the little devil cleanly punched the Cutty Sark’s neck, sending it spinning into the Elysian air. 

“Oh God!—”  I lamely bellowed, watching the little world spin around and wobble to the table’s precipice. It paused, and from there wretchedly lingered—before finally teetering into the abyss.

What was I supposed to do? Well, reader, I dove. I dove openly and fervently, arms stretching, fingers reaching, eyebrows soaring, nostrils flaring—every part of me was moving to save this little world from falling apart. I dove like a mother for her child, a captain for his crew. And as my outstretched hands found the base of the bottle, I thought to myself, Jesus. I should have been a football player.

 When I got back up, I turned her around in my hands. Thank goodness; of the minor damages only the hull had disconnected from the base and topsail had undone. But for the most part my ship weathered the storm beautifully. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Weel done, Cutty Sark.”

For awhile I cradled her affectionately, until the bigger world, the world which I float in so honestly and openly, washed over me. Enter Peter and Hannah, staring at me in disbelief.

“Well,” said the sodding devil, still red from my embarrassing display of selflessness, “__ you anyway, you __-ing ___!”

Bleeps provided by me.

Needless to say, Peter didn’t go far in life.[2] And now the history department, due to a parent’s complaint, is reevaluating my curriculum. But all in all, life is still the same. Frankly, I don’t mind taking these ships home if it’ll save them from the claws of pubescent beasts. And besides, if there’s one person who’s looking into these little guys, taking care of them and giving them the love they need, and if that person happens to be the measly, blubbering me, then I’d say I succeeded.


[1]          Birth: 1869. Figurehead: the Nannie Dee. Tonnage: 921 tons. Hull length: 212 feet and 5 inches, precisely.

[2]   Actually, he is currently enrolled in the 9th grade. Nunez, his teacher and my colleague, says he’ll be a poet one day.

Trisha Remetir once had an eighth grade teacher who really liked clipper ships.

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