Gusting over fifteen knots, the wind knocks the tops off the distant rollers, creating slivers of silver that sparkle under the hot, August sun. Waves crash wildly against a nearby sandbar, frothing about my legs before racing to shore. A white balloon ribbon rolls in, pausing momentarily at water’s edge before succumbing to the undertow and drifting back to deeper water. I wait, patiently, for the ribbon to ride the next wave. Was it released to commemorate a funeral? A wedding? A birthday? I quickly grab the ribbon and stuff it in a trash bag, remembering that day in 2007 when I stood before the sparkling faces of forty-two fourth graders.
“Oooh, gross,” were the first words spilling out of their mouths as they plugged their noses and eyed the pile of litter I dumped on their classroom floor. Invited by Quincy Elementary School teachers Kathy Nemeth and Donna Altman to speak to their fourth grade classes about the Great Lakes, initially I was stumped as to what to share. And then walking alongside Lake Michigan one morning, I knew.
“Where did all those balloon ribbons come from?” someone asked.
I said nothing, watching the kids survey a floor littered with bottle caps, candy wrappers, straws, and plastic containers. Heaped in the center of the pile was a giant mountain of ribbons tied to remnants of balloons. The mound reminded me of a volcano with thin strips of colorful lava flowing in all directions.
“I never thought of balloons as trash,” a voice piped up.
“Me, either,” exclaimed another.
“Most people don’t think of balloons as trash,” I said. “So what could you do to inform people? To let them know? So that when you visit the beach, there are not so many balloon ribbons littering the sand?”
“Pick up balloons we see on the beach and put them in the trash,” a voice blurted out.
“Not let go of balloons,” several shouted simultaneously.
The class promised to do both.
“What else?” I asked. The faces look puzzled. “Do you think other people consider balloons trash? What if we created a multimedia campaign to educate people? What kinds of things could we do?”
“Make posters to put in the hallway.”
“Do a skit for the school.”
“Pass out flyers in our neighborhoods.”
“Take a field trip to the beach and pick up balloons.”
Like tiny flames in a fire pit of dry twigs, each idea sparked another.
“Create a movie.”
“Yeah! Create a movie!”
“Put signs in the windows of stores selling balloons.”
I wrote furiously on flip charts, racing to keep up, determined to capture every idea.
“We can write letters to the editor.”
“And send them to newspapers in Wisconsin and Illinois,” a little boy said knowingly. “We have to let the people on the other side of the lake know because the wind come out of the west and blow their balloons on our beaches!”
Soon the classroom blackboards were wallpapered with sheets of paper reflecting the creative exuberance of the fourth graders. Orange dots became ballots to mark favorite ideas, to prioritize the campaign’s efforts.
“Every good campaign needs a slogan,” I told them.
Theirs was perfect. “Don’t let it fly or the Great Lakes will cry.”
With passion, intensity, and dogged determination, the students blanketed their community with the message. When they learned two local high schools were planning to release hundreds of balloons at the upcoming graduation ceremonies, they invited the principals to visit their classroom.
A heaping pile of sandy balloon ribbons was stacked in the corner of the classroom, the result of a field trip to Saugatuck State Park. Above the pile, a photograph of a fish skeleton entangled in a long, black balloon ribbon was taped to the wall. Evidence.
The students, like diplomats, pleaded their case, imploring the principals to have the senior classes throw beach balls in the air, release bubbles, or butterflies—anything but balloons.
The orders totaling 450 balloons for the Zeeland, Michigan high schools were cancelled.
In June, eight years later, the fourth graders graduated from those high schools in celebrations that remain balloon-free. Memories of this class, led by two fourth-grade teachers who understood the true meaning of leadership, inspire me to greatness. They were, and will always be, my heroes.
Will you join the campaign, finding other ways to celebrate, honor,
and memorialize important events? Help keep our beaches clean?
Please . . . Don't Let it Fly or the Great Lakes Will Cry!
8/5/2015 02:44:23 am
I love that you circled back to this story as these students graduated from high school this year. I know that the impact of your awareness building will remain with them for a lifetime.
8/5/2015 03:06:14 am
I can see myself in that 4th grade class, absolutely coming alive as you skillfully and playfully ignited my passion. It would have been one of my favorite school days ever.
Mary Ellen Miller
8/5/2015 03:35:32 am
My teaching career has shown me that a room full of students armed with knowledge and passion can be a powerful force. Kudos to you for informing and igniting these youngsters who are now high school graduates to do their part to keep the Great Lakes balloon free.
8/5/2015 03:39:32 am
Mary, this is so well written and the message is so important! Educating young people is the best way to change our world. I've often wondered why well-meaning people release balloons in the air without considering where they will eventually end up. I almost lost a friend once over a discussion about this, but they finally realized how each balloon has the potential to end the life of something, plus adds to the garbage that pollutes our lakes and streams.
8/5/2015 09:26:06 am
In each of us there is a teacher. We may not know how to release that gift, but all of us have the capacity to influence lives, to draw out what lies within the hearts and minds of others. This beautiful story reveals that along with all of your other talents, you have the soul of a teacher, my friend. It's clear that you know how to provide the spark that ignites us dry twigs. You talk about heroes? You're our hero, Mary. Keep inspiring us!
8/5/2015 12:48:20 pm
What a great project those kids came up with! And I know it made a difference. Thanks for your work on behalf of the lake and of the planet.
9/2/2015 03:52:47 am
Oh Mary, thank you for this post. As I reflect on my teaching career as I am now retired from teaching in the Public Schools, this was by far my most inspiring and satisfying experience. I was flooded by emails this year from these students, thanking Donna Atman and myself for their learning experiences as a fourth grader. I would hope that is what every teacher hopes for - leaving a legacy of some type in the lives of their students. Many said it was a PROUD moment as they blew their bubbles into the sky during the graduation ceremony knowing that they had made a difference in this event yet wondering about who else they had affected! NO BALLOONS! 450+ times 9! Wow, that has made a significant impact. Thanks again Mary for joining our TEAM! Together Everyone Achieves More! AMEN!
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
from your local bookstore
or online retailer
and on this site.
The Ideal Gift
Tiny Treasures, a collection of wildflower photographs and poetic prose, available by clicking on the Purchase Products button below.
The 2nd Edition of Tiny Treasures is designed for use on PCs, tablets, and phones and is available at online stores. To learn more, click on the Ibook/Ebook button below: