Published June 28. 2010 4:00AM Updated June 28. 2010 11:32AM
Fishers Island - When people hear that Sydney Streimer and Andrea Grader take a ferry to and from school every day, they always have a lot of questions.
Like, "Is it cold?"
"I think they think it's like a rowboat," Grader said with a laugh.
But the unique alternative to a school bus is only part of being a student at the tiny Fishers Island School. The two teens from Groton and Mystic were the only seniors at the school this year. They were the only two students in their English and history classes and were co-school presidents.
And last Friday, they were the only two students graduating at a ceremony where there were more speakers than graduates.
In blue gowns and gold-tasseled caps, the girls took slow steps into the gymnasium to "Pomp and Circumstance," laughing in their processional of two, reaching their chairs on stage long before the music ended. They knew everyone in the audience and, almost as at a family reunion, they all watched a slideshow of pictures from when the girls were babies up to the present.
Fortunately for kids in such a small environment, they're also best friends.
So going to school, they said, was just like hanging out with your best friend all day.
Their parents would drop them off at the Fishers Island ferry terminal New London at 7 a.m. every day, part of a group of about 20 "magnet" kids as young as fifth grade, who travel from Connecticut to the school in the state of New York. They would listen to their iPods while they woke up. On the way home, they would sit outside, relax and do homework, not getting home until 5:30 p.m.
Missing the ferry is not the same as missing the bus, since the next one doesn't leave until noon. But Streimer said she only missed it once because of traffic, and Grader never missed it in her six years. Traveling by ferry also means there are no real snow days.
The size of the 68-student school, which is pre-K to 12 with the younger kids living on the island, never fazed them.
"I can't imagine being in a class or in a school where I didn't know everyone," Grader said.
The younger kids become like little brothers and sisters, she said, all part of the family.
Grader was in seventh grade, considering whether to go to the Williams School or another school. Living by the beach in Groton, in a family that owned a boat, Grader was naturally drawn to taking a ferry instead of a school bus. She visited and loved how everybody knew everybody.
Streimer, who lives in Mystic, heard about the school when she first met Grader through a local beach club. She asked her parents if she could go immediately, but had to wait until eighth grade.
Grader remembers her first ferry trip, taking a seat next to the workers playing dominoes.
"I clearly sat in the wrong spot," she said.
And she distinctly remembers Streimer's arrival the next year down to the outfit she wore. There were six kids in their class then, but that dropped to four, then three, until it was just the two of them.
Now veterans who refer to Connecticut as "over town" or "America," they both agree it takes a certain kind of person to love the Fishers Island School.
The students eat together at four tables in the gymnasium, and only get a hot lunch once a week at the community center or when families occasionally come in to cook them a meal.
The school offers three sports: cross-country in the fall, basketball in the winter and golf in the spring. Students as young as seventh grade make varsity to make up a full team.
"To have a team we need everyone who wants to come out," Streimer said.
The same goes for the band, chorus and the play in the spring. But there's no prom. And obviously, there are no boys their age.
"We had a pretty drama-free year," Grader said, laughing.
But they keep in touch with former graduates of the school and kids from their towns. They still have dances or attend other schools' proms.
There are other benefits, too, from having three lockers each to taking a school trip during spring break, the destination of which is chosen by the seniors. They went to Costa Rica this year.
They said the school has a strong focus on community service, and both are involved in Special Olympics, which helped inspire Streimer to want to become a physical education teacher.
Students get the benefit of small class sizes and must also pass the New York State Regents exams. They can get in-state tuition to New York or Connecticut schools in addition to scholarship money from families and businesses on the island.
And, on an island that is largely off-limits to the general public, students get access to the beach, play golf on the island's nine-hole course, go to the movie theater or bowling alley and get ice cream at Toppers. Streimer spent a summer in an island home as a mother's helper, coming home only on weekends.
Gil Amaral, the school's director of guidance, who also commutes to the island, said the school's small environment teaches an important skill: "You learn to get along."
Social contact can be a challenge under such a microscope, he said, but Streimer and Grader know that "kindness really pays off."
He said the two served as role models for the younger students, especially for community service. Because there's a lot of communication with adults, he added, the students learned valuable communication skills for the future.
So as they transition to more traditional schools - colleges that are not on little islands - Streimer and Grader will get fewer questions about their school experience. But when they do come up, answering will likely be less of an annoyance and more a fond memory.