Memories of meaningful changes on the very first Earth Day | GUEST OPINION


Sunday, April 22nd, is Earth Day. It is a day for us to consider our world and the effect each of us has on our environment.

You may remember that Earth Day was first celebrated 42 years ago on  April 22, 1970. Its goal was, and still is, to promote a healthy environment and a peaceful world.

Considering the Middle East wars, the BP oil debacle and the nuclear mess in Japan last year, we are not doing well.

Forty-two years ago I was working for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services as a Special Education Teacher at the Maryland Training School for Boys.

The “boys” were predominately inner city teenagers one offense away from the adult criminal justice system. School was not a particularly high priority in their lives and my challenge was to get them engaged and keep them engaged with the limited resources available in the training school program.

My challenge was very similar to what many teachers face every day in many of this country’s public school classrooms.

The Maryland Training School for Boys was located in a beautiful rural area of Baltimore County known as Cub Hill. With its Spanish-style architecture and well-kept lawns it gave the appearance of a very exclusive private school.

It was the appearance of the students who quickly dispelled that first impression. As soon as one saw the predominately young black juveniles all dressed in ill-fitting, Army surplus World War II wool uniforms, you immediately knew that this was not a college prep school.

Whereas most of the staff appreciated and enjoyed the rural setting, the inner city boys were out of their element and some were absolutely terrified of the surrounding forest and woodlands. They truly believed there might be lions and tigers and bears lurking. This fear of the unfamiliar made the need of perimeter security fencing unnecessary as the boys would never think of running or going AWOL into those unknown and scary surroundings.

As a teacher I wanted to have my students participate in this first Earth Day; but realized that

I would be limited by a host of circumstances.

However; like others on the school’s staff; that is, being young, somewhat of a maverick and usually thinking and acting outside the box, I had an idea — we would make and fly kites in the great outdoors and celebrate Earth Day!

Having purchased balsa wood sticks, newspaper, kite string and glue the boys began making their kites. Most had never flown, to say nothing of actually making a kite. There was initial disappointment in that the Elmer’s glue was not the kind of glue they could sniff and get high; but making kites was a break from the routine. Eventually the kites were made and we were ready for Earth Day. Unfortunately,

I did not clear or even think I had to clear this activity with administration. Big mistake.

April 22, 1970 turned out to be a beautiful, bright sunny day with a slight breeze. It was to be a perfect day for kite flying.

To my surprise the boys were actually quite excited about flying their kites and after a brief lesson (remember, I was a teacher) on the art of launching and flying a kite we headed outside. Within minutes there was about twenty boys running around the grounds, some successful and others unsuccessful in launching their kites.

It was a remarkable site. However, the office staff and others around the campus only saw boys running — running away?

Alarm and concern spread. The superintendent was notified. My principal and vice principal were alerted. Security was called.

Once all the concerned adults saw the kites and realized that this was not “The Great Escape,” smiles reluctantly appeared.

Later that day I was cautioned to channel my energies and the boys’ into more classroom appropriate activities. Not everyone understood the concept of a creative activity.

Today like many other communities, Bainbridge Island celebrates Earth Day and focuses its attention on conservation, sustainability, energy efficiency and reducing its carbon footprint — all laudable goals.

Forty-two years ago I just wanted some inner city kids to have fun and leave their footprints on the well tended lawns while flying their kites. On that first Earth Day those inner city  boys had a healthy and peaceful experience as they ran with their kites enjoying the cool breeze, soft green grass and bright sunshine.

There were no lions and tigers and bears, and there was no Great Escape — just clean, healthy fun.

Bob Seaby is a retired public school teacher from California and a Bainbridge Island resident.

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