There were a number of questions that made me curious about certain details about my childhood and so I spoke with my mother. Exacerbated by my questions she said "why don't you just tell them about the goddamn balloons if they're so interested. This story will provide some greater context for the previous story, which I think you should read first. Though the order isn't of vital importance, reading that story first will put you in my place more effectively since I remembered the events of Footsteps first.
If you have questions or anything, feel free to ask and I'll try to answer them. Also, both stories are long, so heads up on that. I'm just hesitant to leave out any details that might be important. When I was five years old I went to an elementary school that, from what I've come to understand, was really adamant about the importance of learning through activity. It was part of a new program designed to allow children to rise at their own pace, and to facilitate this, the school encouraged teachers to come up with really inventive lesson plans. Each teacher was given the latitude to create his or her own themes which would run for the duration of the grade, and all the lessons in math, reading, etc.
These themes were called "Groups". In Kindergarten in this country, you don't learn much except how to tie your shoes and how to share, so most of it isn't very memorable. I only remember two things very clearly: I was the best at writing my name the right way, and the Balloon Project, which was really the hallmark of the Community group, since it was a pretty clever way to show how a community functioned at a really basic level. You've probably heard of this activity. On one Friday I remember it being Friday because I was excited about the project and it being the end of the week toward the beginning of the year, we walked into the classroom in the morning and saw that there was a fully-inflated balloon tied off with string taped to each of our desks.
Sitting on each of our desks was a marker, a pen, a piece of paper, and an envelope. The project was to write a note on the paper, put it in the envelope, and attach it to the balloon which we could draw a picture on if we wanted. Most of the kids started fighting over the balloons because they wanted different colors, but I started on my note which I had thought a lot about.
All the notes had to follow a loose structure, but we were allowed to be creative within those boundaries. My note was something like this: "Hi! You found my balloon! You can keep the balloon, but I hope you write me back! I like Mighty Max, exploring, building forts, swimming, and friends. What do you like? Write me back soon. Here's a dollar for the mail! The teacher took a Polaroid of each of us with our balloons and had us put them in the envelope along with our letter. They also included another letter that I assume explained the nature of the project and sincere appreciation for anyone's participation in writing back and sending photos of their city or neighborhood.
That was the whole idea—to build a sense of community without having to leave the school, and to establish safe contact with other people; it seemed like such a fun idea Over the next couple weeks the letters started to roll in. Most came with pictures of different landmarks, and each time a letter would come in, the teacher would pin the picture on a big wall-map we had put up showing where the letter had come from and how far the balloon had traveled. It was a really smart idea, because we actually looked forward to coming to school to see if we had gotten our letter. For the duration of the year we had one day a week where we could write back to our pen-pal or another students' pen-pal in case our letter hadn't come in yet.
Mine was one of the last to arrive. When I came into the classroom I looked at my desk and once again didn't see any letter waiting for me, but as I sat down the teacher approached me and handed me an envelope.
I must have looked so excited because as I was about to open it she put her hand on mine to stop me and said, "Please don't be upset. Initially I was mystified that she would even know what was in the envelope, but now I realize that of course the teachers had screened the contents to make sure there was nothing obscene, but all the same—how could I be disappointed? When I opened the envelope I understood. The only thing in the envelope was a Polaroid, but I couldn't really make out what it was.
It looked like a patch of desert, but it was too blurry to decipher; it appeared as if the camera had been moved while the picture was being taken. There was no return address, so I couldn't even write back if I wanted to. I was crushed. The school year pressed on, and the letters had stopped coming for nearly all of the other students. After all, you can only continue a written correspondence with a Kindergartener for so long.
Everyone, including myself, had lost interest in the letters almost completely.
Looking for a Childhood Book? Here's How.
Then I got another envelope. My excitement was rejuvenated, and I reveled in the fact that I was still getting a letter when most of the other pen-pals had abandoned their involvement. It made sense that I received another delivery—there had been nothing but a blurry picture in the first one, so this was probably to make up for that. But again there was no letter at all This one was more distinguishable, but I still didn't understand it.
The photograph was angled way up, catching the top corner of a building, and the rest of the image was distorted by a lense-flare from the sun.
You are here
Because the balloons didn't travel very far, and because they were all launched on the same day, the board became a bit cluttered, and so the policy for the students still exchanging letters became that they could take the photographs home. My best friend Josh had the second highest number of pictures taken home by the end of the year—his pen-pal was really cooperative and sent him pictures from all around the neighboring city; Josh took home, I think, four pictures. The envelopes were all opened by the teacher, but after a while I stopped even looking at the pictures.
However, I saved them in one of my drawers that housed my collections of rocks, baseball cards, comic book cards Marvel Metal cards, for those who might remember , and little miniature baseball batting helmets that I'd get out of a vending machine at Winn-Dixie after T-Ball games.
With the school year over, my attention turned to other things.
My mom had gotten me a small snow cone machine for Christmas that year, and Josh had really coveted it—so much so that his parents bought him a slightly nicer one for his birthday which was toward the end of the school year. That summer we had the idea that we would set up a snow cone stand to make money; we thought we'd make a fortune selling snow cones at one dollar. Josh lived in a different neighborhood, but we eventually decided that my neighborhood would be better because there were a lot of people who cared for their lawns; the yards in my neighborhood were slightly bigger.
We did this for five weekends in a row until my mom told us that we had to stop, and I've only recently come to understand why she did that. On the fifth weekend, Josh and I were counting our money. Because we both had a machine, we each had a separate stack of money that we put together into one stack and we then split it evenly.
H&M group | Recycling
We had made a total of sixteen dollars that day, and as Josh paid out my fifth dollar, a feeling of profound surprise consumed me. Josh noticed my shock and asked if he had miscounted. I told him about the dollar and he said, "That's so cool, man! The idea that the dollar had made it right back to me after changing so many hands floored me. I rushed inside to tell my mom, but my excitement coupled with her being distracted by a phone call made my story incomprehensible and she responded simply by saying "Oh wow! That's neat!
Frustrated, I ran back outside and told Josh I had something to show him. Back in my room, I opened the drawer and took out the stack of envelopes and showed him some of the pictures. I started with the first picture, and we went through about ten before Josh lost interest and asked if I wanted to go play in the ditch a dirt ditch down the street from my house before his mom came to pick him up, so that's what we did. We had a "dirt war" for a while, but it was interrupted several times by rustling in the woods around us.