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Archive for June, 2014

IMG_9289BY KAREN HOLLESCHAU

When the Exxon Valdez struck a reef on March 24, 1989, spilling at least 500,000 barrels of crude oil into pristine Prince William Sound in Alaska, the entire world took notice. I was a first-grade teacher just starting out in Weslaco. My little students and I read the newspaper and magazine articles about the spill and the ensuing clean-up efforts from our elementary classroom. The children were dismayed at the photos of the oil-drenched otters and birds in their Weekly Reader magazines. In Science, they attempted to wash oil from plush toys with Dawn dishwashing liquid to see if it really worked. It did.

My Uncle Jack had been a meteorologist in Valdez for many years. He described it to me as the most beautiful place in the world. The water was so clean and pure that he could see clear to the bottom.

The April 1989 Earth Day would soon be here, and the children were looking forward to a reading of The Lorax and baking, decorating (and eating) an Earth Day cake. We planned to pick up litter in a nearby park and have a picnic afterwards. It was a wonderful day. The children’s hopes were renewed. They believed that such a terrible thing as the oil spill would never happen again.

Then we received the announcement that the annual Just Say No to Drugs week-long activities would begin in two weeks. The culminating event would be a balloon release. Over one thousand bright red helium-filled balloons would be sent soaring over the skies of Weslaco. Coincidentally, (or was it?), my little students found some pictures in a National Geographic Magazine of sea turtles and seals being strangled by plastic six-pack rings and choked by balloons that had been floating in the sea.

Once again, the children were dismayed and hurt, even tearful to such a degree that I had to remove the pictures from the magazine. They wanted to take action. The most timely and easiest idea was to make posters that would educate the rest of the student body, teachers and administrators about what can happen when balloons end up in the ocean. Poster-making became the focal point of every day. The energy and excitement in the classroom was palpable. Children who were not ordinarily interested in academic learning suddenly couldn’t wait to get to class and didn’t want to go home at the end of the day. We put the posters up all over the school. It never occurred to me to ask for permission.

To sum it up, the balloon release was canceled to the dismay of our counseling staff. I was called into the principal’s office (he was actually delighted by it all) and walked out smiling. The children were filled with joy. They were astonished that six-year- olds could affect real change in the world and make it a better place. I’ve been training tiny activists ever since, but it has never been as effective as that spring in 1989 when my first graders prevented over 1,000 bright red balloons from potentially choking a sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Several years ago I visited Prince William Sound. To my untrained eye, it is still a stunningly beautiful place, and nature has come a long way towards healing itself, but 25 years later there are still traces of that terrible day.)

Karen is a member of the LRGV Sierra Club Executive Committee. 

 

 

 

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