Wasse Abin High School takes Manhattan

by Bonnie Kogos

NEW YORK CITY—Boy oh boy, what an exciting past week among two teachers and seven students from Wasse-Abin High School in Wikwemikong and your Bonnie in New York City. This is yet another magical connection between the islands of Manitoulin and Manhattan.

A few weeks ago my friend, Bruno Henry, a busy clothing designer and photographer, who lives in Wikwemikong, phoned me at home in New York City. Valerie O’Leary, an art teacher at Wasse-Abin High School, teacher Lisa Kimeon-Morris, and seven amazing students would drive from Manitoulin to New York City for the weekend. The weekend? Yes, to attend and partake in New York’s Couture Fashion Week.

When I phoned the school, I was able to get hold of Ms. O’Leary. You bet. I asked to meet her and the girls, and I would take them around New York City given the time we had.

“Of course,” she said.

“I’ll take you for the afternoon to do what we all love to do! Shopping!”

By now, Ms. O’Leary and I were giggling over the phone. I couldn’t wait for them to arrive. What made this teacher choose such an ambitious road trip for her students? She told me.

“I didn’t want us to be a boring sit-down class,” Ms. O’Leary shared. “I wanted to share real-life city experiences with them, in another world. It would fascinate them to attend a real live fashion show so I went online. New York Couture Fashion Week would be perfect. Doable, drivable. I suggested this field trip to my class and all it would entail to make this adventure happen. Seven students were instantly ready; they had to attend my classes regularly, assist in fundraising activities and, most important, earn all of their scholastic credits.”

Ms. O’Leary offered this adventure in September for the February Couture Fashion Week, and they began fundraising immediately. “Did we work?” she laughed. “We held 15 fundraisers, from bake sales to admission to family dances, prize bingos, movie marathons and we finished with our own fashion show.”

The teacher registered for Couture Week, made hotel reservations, and made sure they received the promised monies from sponsors and donations; enough for gas, touring and food. With all their work, help from friends and family for spending money for the girls, they raised $4,000 for their dream trip.

On Thursday, February 16, two vehicles, driven by Ms. O’Leary and Lisa Kimeon-Morris, one with four students, another three, drove from Manitoulin to Toronto, stayed overnight, and then on to Manhattan arriving late on Friday.

I attended the 8 pm fashion show at the Waldorf and after it was over, took out my red folder that I got at the Wikwemikong Cultural Festival this past summer. In big yellow letters, it read: ‘WIKWEMIKONG UNCEDED INDIAN RESERVE’ over a picture of gorgeous dancers in regalia and under that, ‘MANITOULIN ISLAND, ONTARIO, CANADA.’ I walked around the crowded ballroom.

“Bonnie, here you are! It’s me, Valerie!” We hugged and giggled. Then I met Lisa and the girls. And we giggled again, planning Saturday afternoon.

What fun it was shepherding nine adventurous ladies from Wikwemikong down into the East Side No. 6 subway. We got our tickets, laughed and talked as we held on to the straps and looking at others riding the subway. Fifteen minutes later, we were up the steps and outside, merging onto the crowded, busy, laughter and bargain-filled shops. And it was sunny and warm. Perfect.

“Most important lesson, ladies, hold tight to your pocketbook, do not get jostled and look out for each other,” I instructed, saying it only takes five seconds to be jostled and lose something.

The second lesson was how to bargain New York City Canal Street style. Never accept the first price. It is the haven of haggling, and so much fun! We were going for the not-real designer labels. Those products not shown in shops; people slide up to you and show you pictures. The girls, teachers and I became a full-fledged working team. We were shoppers, looking and bargaining with the tricky, worn shopkeepers. While “my girls” came from hardy Northern Ontario, those shopkeepers came from Hong Kong, Dhaka, Manila, Tokyo and Abidjan, knowing to feign the first bargain request, recoil, raise their eyes and shake their heads. All an act. If the vendor said a certain price, the girls were to offer five dollars less and either meet him at two or walk away. Walk away got you the five off. I stood there coaching, bargaining. Within minutes, the girls got the hang and the slang of it. I thrilled to each purchase as they did. The game is that both parties, shoppers and shopkeepers, feel victorious.

During our hours of exploration, the girls ably bargained, shopped and stayed together. I was proud of them as we weaved among thousands of others out in the warm sunny day. Even I, a serious shopper, am consistently bedazzled by so much merchandise available: watches, hats, designer handbags, t-shirts, baby clothes, dresses, baby clothes, sneakers, boots, shoes and jewellery.

Yes, fakes, fun, foolery, stuff, enjoying and being careful in the bustling cadence with others from over the world. Tiffany Kanasawe, Kristin Gaiashk-Shigwadja, Clarissa Pangowish, Kayla Recollet, Katie Cooper, Rebecca Shawana and Brianna Klauser all got A+ for navigation on Canal Street and coming back to the hotel, okay with sore feet, but with treasures.

Quietly and tiredly, we took the subway back uptown to the Waldorf so Valerie, Lisa and the girls could change into glamorous dresses. They would sit in the front row in the Grand Ballroom, next to designers, fashion press, organizers, department store buyers, students and those who simply paid to see all the elegance. We viewed people wearing vintage costumes, others in those exaggerated high heels, and beehive hairdos. People in the New York fashion often dress to amaze and have you stare and admire. Our girls took it all in stride.

Drum rolls and music: out on the runway appeared tall, elegant models, wearing jaw-dropping couture; dresses, suits, pants, and scarves made with luxurious fabrics. Each model purred down the runway, with well-practiced bored expressions on their faces, knowing the clothes were the objects of desire. All of us, young and old, fresh and seasoned, wide-eyed or weary, from Manitoulin or Manhattan, sat mesmerized to see what was possible in fashion, originality, in shocking way out and also in tailored elegant beauty.

I found designer Peruvian Luis Machicao’s creations reminded me of well-designed Northern Ontario Aboriginal clothing, which are beautifully displayed each summer at the Wikwemikong Cultural Festival and powwow. I silently wished that Bruno Henry and other Wiky designers might show someday in New York City.

While the ladies from Wasse-Abin High School fixed their eyes on each model gliding down the runway, I watched the rapt attention of Tiffany, Kristin, Clarissa, Kayla, Katie Cooper, Rebecca and Brianna. Each girl brought something special to the trip with her enthusiasm and sense of humour. Watching them as they listened and learned, I was exhilarated. Cameras clicked, notes were made, elbows nudged and memories were made in this musical fashionable panorama of glitz and glamour!

Later, Ms. O’Leary had arranged for pictures to be taken with the elegant models. And she asked me to come into the picture; the flash bulbs snapped for minutes. “Is this what it might feel like to be famous?” one of our girls asked.

On Sunday evening, after the last fashion show, I bid the group good night and walked home. Knowing how to navigate, they hired a limo and went to Times Square, driving around the bright lights. They had also gone to Ground Zero to pay their respects.

“Leaving New York City was much easier, now that I knew my way around,” Ms. O’Leary told me on the phone two days later. “The girls loved the entire experience of being in New York all the way from sightseeing, shopping and the whole reason they came, was for the fashion and the atmosphere. In the midst of the most glamorous people in the world, they mingled with the designers, the models and others in the audience. I believe they’ve brought back something important from the trip that they can use in their own life.”

“What you and Lisa and the girls accomplished this past week was astonishing. I loved every moment with you all!”

“Thanks, Bonnie, I wanted to do something unique for our students in the domain of overall learning.”“

What she did, last week, driving from Manitoulin, overnight in Toronto and onto Manhattan to stay at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue with Lisa and seven of her students, was extraordinary!

“I wanted the girls to be impacted by all they saw, learned and did. The trip would not have been possible without our families, and then when we reached our goal, our time away,” Lisa said, thoughtfully.

“I’m waiting for you to come back,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “We’ll work on it.”