Written by Jenna Gersie, a current Island School Literature Teacher
Early in the morning on March 17, Derek Walcott passed away at the age of 87 in his home near Gros Islet in St. Lucia. Walcott is the Nobel Prize-winning author of Omeros, the epic poem read by Island School students since the school’s first semester in 1999.
Leita Hamill, an English teacher at The Lawrenceville School and a current board member at The Island School, was one of the teachers to decide to include Omeros as the signature text in the Island School’s literature curriculum. “We chose Omeros because we were looking for a genuine Caribbean voice, not a colonial or contemporary white voice about the islands. We wanted a piece of literature that would evoke the land, the sea, the sounds, the people, the culture, and the history of the islands,” Hamill said. “In Omeros, we certainly found all of that and more.”
Indeed, the sea—that glassy, aqua picture that we look out on each day at The Island School—is the central character in the story. When once posed with the question “What makes Caribbean literature unique?”, Walcott responded, “It may seem so simple to say that it is sea. But it is the sea.” Reading about the sea—reading about the place where you are—allows Island School students to develop their sense of place through literature. We read about “the shallows’ nibbling edge” and “the encouraging sea”; we envision the “tide-mark where the pale crab burrows” and “the emerald breakwater of the reef.” Then we go outside and experience these images.
Sarah (Seegers) Karlo was a literature teacher at The Island School during the school’s first semester. Karlo speaks to the challenging nature of the poem, for students and teachers alike: “It was dense and hard and required us to find the delicate balance of enjoying the language and dissecting the story and allusions. I remember fearing that I didn’t get it all and expressing that to Leita. [She reassured me] that ‘getting it all’ wasn’t the intent. Finding comfort in that discomfort was so much of what The Island School is all about, and I think that is why that piece of literature has stood the test of time.”
For nearly twenty years, Island School students have been annotating their worn, salt-sprayed copies of Omeros, diving into the discomfort of dissecting a difficult text and thereby finding jewels in Walcott’s verse—the “conch-coloured dusk [that] low pelicans cross,” “the zebra-streaked afternoon on a white quilt,” and “the golden moss of the reef,” just to name a few.
This week, the Spring 2017 Island School students begin their journey into Omeros. As we honor and commemorate Walcott’s life and work, our students embark on one of many Island School traditions: reading this epic poem of a place and its people.