Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Building a ship in a bottle teaches important lessons

When I was teaching a class called "Recreational Leadership" at Christian College, the semester project in handicrafts was to put a ship in a bottle. The students knew this early in the semester, and I warned them that "You’ll need patience, dexterity, ingenuity, perseverance ... all of that and more."

Recently, Judy Cunningham visited us and brought along the ship in a bottle that she made in my class 32 years ago. It was beautiful. The little ship had three white masts and was rigged with white "ropes." It rested on a bed of modeling clay and had a pad of clay outside to keep the bottle from rolling. It was, without doubt, better than any ship I ever put in a bottle. And I’ve done several.

When our Walt was 6 years old, I worked for several days to get a ship in a bottle for his birthday. He unwrapped it and stared at it for a long time before thanking me. I felt that he really liked his gift. A few weeks later he said, "Mom, could you ever make me a ship like that and not put it in a bottle?"

Judy chose a tall, round whiskey bottle with a small opening and a long neck. The smaller the opening, the smaller the ship, of course. The longer the neck, the more difficult to set the ship in place. I told the students to improvise tools, sticks or use long knitting needles to press the ship into the bed of clay once it was completed, folded and pushed through the bottle neck. I told the girls to come to my office if they needed help, and some came. Some frustrated ones cried.

There are at least two ways to get a ship into a bottle. People ask, "Did you cut a hole in the bottle and put the boat in?" No. The ship, sails, rigging, etc., must all pass through the neck. Each part can go through the neck, separately, the hull going in first. The sails and rigging can be added and glued down, one at a time.

That’s the hard way.

The other way is to insert the completed ship all at once. The masts are hinged with tiny tape, and the ropes are glued just right. The sails are gently rolled for the trip into the bottle. A long thread is then pulled to raise the masts and sails after the ship is pressed into the clay. What a thrill to pull that long thread and see all of the masts stand in place! What a tragedy if it isn’t right.

A spot of glue is put on the tip of the bow to hold the thread and is cut off later. What an accomplishment! Pride comes when a friend says, "You didn’t do that, you bought it."

Some students put this project off till near the deadline. Their bottles had smudges of modeling clay on the interior glass and some had specks of glue. Many girls, like Judy, made beautiful ships in shiny clean bottles. And she admitted, "Yes, I cried."

Why did I ask them to put ships in bottles? Because it required emotional stability. It taught them something about handling stress, about solving life’s problems.

Thirty-two years after she put that ship in a bottle, Judy said, "I learned so much that has affected my life."

Can any old teacher receive a greater reward than that?

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