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Students from South Hamilton Elementary ‘plait’ the maypole in the 1980s at the Florida Folk Festival.

Over the past several days, my mind has gone more and more to the South Hamilton Elementary, White Springs, Florida. A large part of my life was spent at South, eight years as a student, five years as a teacher, five years as principal, and then three more years as principal, over two decades of my life were spent at the school from 1964 until its closure in 2017. Oh, I forgot, seven years as a school board member. I guess we are up to close to 30 years now. Half my life spent in one place. During those years, I saw much change, some good, some not so good, and some in between. I choose to recall the good, the traditions, the beauty of a place and a people. 

What comes to mind so much this time of year is the amount of practice our kindergarten put into "winding the maypole.” You may think taking long strips of material and "plaiting" and "re-plaiting" a Maypole sounds simple, but try doing it with more than a dozen 5 and 6 year olds and get them all on the same path and organized. I still think of those annual events and shake my head in disbelief and think of the love, patience and hard work that went into that annual event that was treasured and so eagerly anticipated by our entire community each year.

Each year, as part of our May program in the auditorium and, at times, as part of a major performance at the Florida Folk Festival, Mrs. Ruby Williams, the kindergarten teacher, along with the able assistance of Mrs. Barbara T. Edwards, Mrs. Earnestine Johnson, Mrs. Linda Erixton and with Mrs. Delores Howell on the piano, would lead these young students through the intricacies of the beautiful ceremonial dance rooted in ancient tradition of plaiting the maypole as proud parents, grandparents and community members beamed with pride watching young students carry on something with "roots in the community.”

It was more than just a dance, it was part of the fabric of who we were as a community. It was a link to the past complete with smiles, laughter and sometimes a few tears, too, shed and unshed.

I thought of the lessons taught by teachers to their students plaiting that maypole and how many of those same lessons could apply to us in the present day, as we are immersed in a world wide pandemic. 

Here are a few.

  1. H: Help one other. Students and teachers did help one another. When one student faltered, another reminded them of what was needed to make the event a success, and the dance went on.
  2. O: Organization. It took some organizing on the part of students, teachers and parents to bring the Maypole dance to fruition. It took time to select material and colors for the decorative strips of material hanging from the maypole to match identically to the skirts and vests worn by the Maypole dancers. It took organized time to teach little folks how to weave in an out moving in time with the music to create a beautiful plaited maypole and then to move in an opposite direction to unplait the pole. 
  3. P: Patience, pride and perseverance were needed as the age-old dance was taught and re-taught and learned and re-learned year after year. 
  4. E: Enthusiasm never waned as students and community members watched with awe the dancing of the Maypole.

You will see by now that the four points made in this article about the simple childhood dance of the maypole spell out the word, HOPE, a sometimes underestimated word and concept in today's world; maybe not as underestimated today as it was a couple of months ago.

In small communities such as my "own" White Springs, Florida, we knew better than most, who in the community had suffered tragic losses, happiness and everything that lay in between. We knew a lot about each other over a long period of time, maybe because of destiny, maybe because of chance, we knew the strengths and weaknesses of each other, and we lauded, forgave and tolerated maybe more easily thank folks in larger places, because like the maypole dancers we depended on each other.

Thinking of the dancing of the Maypole as an annual event that took place in the large auditorium of a small town and rural north Florida school is a precious memory I cherish. The memories of children today will contain many precious gems, but not the dancing of the Maypole.

It taught us so much, that dance, cooperation, assistance, empathy, encouragement, humor and, in the end, a lot of joy.

During these seemingly dark times when the weather is just beautiful and the spring flowers are so brilliant, continue to move, continue to encourage, and continue to weave and re-weave the wonderful stories, memories and traditions that make each of us unique and special and, in so doing, we will "dance our own Maypole dance" with hope in our hearts for a brighter tomorrow.

I am so happy I grew up where I did. We were small town, in a small corner of the world, nestled on the banks of a river, made immortal by a man who never saw it, and even though many of us could not afford to go to the world, the world came to us on the banks of the Suwannee  containing gifts too numerous to mention, from operatic arias, to Greek dancing, from Bill Monroe to Arlo Guthrie, from lye soap making, and tasting everything from Seminole Indian fry bread to baklava, to fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread and sweet potato pie, the fabric of our lives like the fabrics in that Maypole were woven by those who had a vision to bring a Folk Festival and Florida Folk Festival to the banks of the Suwannee and in so doing, were all offered a wider, broader vision of our world, and, as we danced the maypole at the age of 5 or 6, we learned that HOPE did indeed exist in the world if we remained positive, persevered and kept dancing.  

In the words of the late Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. "Keep the faith baby." Keep praying for our nation, and don't lose HOPE!!!

From the Eight Mile Still on the Woodpecker Route north of White Springs, wishing you a day filled with joy, peace, and, above all, lots of love and laughter. 

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