16 March 2009

Little liberals in training

The Earth Day demonstration I blogged about yesterday was not the first demonstration staged by those of us at Harlan Elementary School in Ames, Iowa.

We had practice. And freedom to express ourselves. Life was good.

Earlier that year, it came to our attention that our teacher, Ms. Dashner, was leaving the teaching profession. We adored Ms. Dashner (as we adored all of the teachers in that fabulous, open, experimental school) and were dismayed that she would be forced to leave school just to have a baby. It didn't seem fair to us.

This also just coincidentally occurred a few years after my only younger sibling was born, which may have contributed to my feelings of abandonment by Ms. Dashner.

I have three older siblings (Terri, Kathy and Nick). I was born years after their family clique had been established. As a result, I felt my childhood was a combination of being an outsider, observing a family unit, yet at the same time, being practically treated as if I were an only child. Conflicted and probably psycho in some way, I know.

It was easy for me to disappear completely in any situation. But when I wanted it, I got lots of attention. Then my younger brother, Pat, came along when I was in second grade. The "olders" (what I call the older siblings) had been hoping we were getting a dog, but alas, it was the announcement of a new baby on the way. It was probably at that time that my eyes turned green. I was jealous. I didn't fit into the olders clique. And I wasn't the baby of the family anymore, either.

Don't get me wrong. I'm totally over this :). I was a kid and I'm just sharing my feelings as a kid. I love my siblings - both the olders and the youngster brother. I only tell you this to explain my 10/11 year old state of mind in 1970.

In my mind, it was terribly unfair that Ms. Dashner was leaving us, her adoring students, to have a baby. I mean, the total injustice of it!

How did students handle being aggrieved in 1969/1970? Our class immediately started planning a "sit in" demonstration, of course. We all made signs. We informed the principal of the time and date our demonstration would occur.

We went to recess that afternoon, toting our signs. When the bell rang to signal the end of recess, we all came together in a clump and sat on the playground with our signs. Quiet, but excited. Feeling rather rebellious. Feeling powerful.

We sat there for the rest of the afternoon. No one interfered. No one tried to talk us down. No one tried to enforce rules. They just let us... be.

A couple of hours later the buses came. The principal and Ms. Dashner came out to us with a garbage bin and didn't say a single word. One by one, we got up and threw our signs in the bin. Ms. Dashner had tears in her eyes as she hugged each of us in turn. We got on our buses and went home.

The next Monday we were presented with our long-term substitute teacher, Ms. Anne Pier. (See blog post from yesterday about Earth Day.)

We were a bunch of little liberals in training... testing the limits of free speech in the small world we lived in. I felt closure. I felt accomplishment. I felt respected.

I remember the very first Earth Day. Ever.

I remember the very first Earth Day. Ever. I was in 5th grade. My teacher’s name was Anne Pier.

I went to a public, experimental, elementary school. It was free, liberal, and exhilarating. We worked at our own speed, with individualized attention from teachers who wanted to be part of this new way of teaching (which, unfortunately, does not exist in any place I know of anymore).

Before coming to Ames, Iowa, Mrs. Pier had taught school to children in immigrant farm worker camps in California. She told us about those children many times. Girls with no dolls. Boys with no bikes. Moms and Dads doing back-breaking work in the fields while the crops could be harvested.

I adored Anne Pier then and still do now.

Mrs. Pier was an inspiring force. She gave us the freedom to organize and take action. For months, we planned for the first Earth Day the planet would experience. We learned about littering. We studied about how air and water pollution occurs and what the consequences are to plants, animals and human life. We learned that the health and life of this Earth is our responsibility.

Yes, we knew all of this in 1970! Erin Brockovich was a year younger than we were. This was before Al Gore started presenting his slide show and before his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” was produced. We knew these things when we were in 5th grade, before it was cool and hip to talk about pollution and global climate change.

April 22, 1970 was a day full of activity. As soon as the bus dropped us at school, we hiked to the arboretum and picked up trash. We fished garbage out of the stream. We gathered litter from the ground.

Keep in mind that we had lived the first 10 years of our lives in the 1960s – think Woodstock, Black Panthers, Watts riots, women’s lib, Viet Nam, the Apollo program… counter culture – so we knew the appropriate action for almost every situation that felt unjust… a demonstration.

We made huge signs and waved them in the air. We marched. We yelled. We were covered by local television. My friend and classmate, Lisa Paulsen, read our prepared statement on camera. We pleaded for adults to save the environment for us, their children – the future.

We felt our endeavors were very successful. But now that I’m a grandmother, I wonder.
Did anyone really listen to the children that day?

Let’s clean up this planet and protect its future for our children. And for our grandchildren.

Let's continue to defend the Earth. Please, remember Earth Day.

Note, did some rewriting and reposted 4/9/09. Audio version is posted here.