What do you do when your knowledge and beliefs collide with those of your child’s school? Do you prevent your child from participating? Do you compromise? Do you use it as an opportunity to educate people?
I’ve been called a rabble rouser, an activist and an educator. I think deeply about things, I enjoy research and I enjoy sharing my research and thoughts with others. I like to plant a seed and wait for it to grow. I especially enjoy engaging in dialogue and finding common ground and compromise. When the conversations go well, we both come away with better understandings. Unfortunately, sometimes people get defensive. I’m always trying to learn from my mistakes and improve my communication style.
I recently had an unfortunate and very unexpected experience with my daughter’s school. I chose this private school with much thought and care because I wanted just the right fit for my nature-loving daughter. The school is known for its environmental message. They have a school garden and edible landscaping. They are located on a beautiful, natural property with wooded trails and wild flowers. I love that my daughter comes home from school with burrs in her socks and dandelion stains on her legs. They even teach peace classes and sing songs like “This land is your land. This land is my land. We work together to make it better.” It is a Montessori school and a very good one at that. I love the teachers and am happy with the education my daughter, AJ has received there.
AJ is especially proud of her work in Peace Class, Geography and Science. She has a fascination with and love of all animals. Some of her favorite animals are birds, especially raptors. My mother, a former wildlife rehabilitator, nurtures AJ’s love of raptors. They go on long hikes, seeking out feathers and signs of nesting birds. AJ knows which feathers are legal to possess. She wears her turkey feathers proudly in her hair and calls herself a wildlife rescuer.
A little over a week ago, I learned that AJ’s kindergarten graduation was going to include a ceremonial balloon launch. I guess I knew that people still did balloon launches. I just didn’t expect it at a school that seemed to me so forward thinking and conservation oriented. Isn’t it confusing for children if you teach them that littering is wrong, but then have them send up a bunch of balloons on brightly colored plastic strings?
I got my first opportunity to engage in a discussion about the launch when I called my husband at work to tell him about it. Julie answered the phone. I’m sure she quickly wished that she hadn’t answered. Julie is on the board of trustees for the school. She has been a good friend and listener. While working together, we have had long conversations about the pros and cons of the school for our individual children. I seized the opportunity and asked her right away, “What is this balloon launch I see on the graduation schedule?” She answered by describing the graduation ceremony, including the balloon launch in a circle with the other children holding hands around the graduates. I went on to ask her how they could possibly think that it was a good idea to let balloons go into the environment. She responded that not everyone is as conscious as I am of these things. This was, after all, Janesville and not the big city. Ok. So Janesville residents don’t know any better. She also spoke of the children’s enjoyment of the tradition. Then she put me through to my husband.
I’ve mentioned before how much I love my husband. We nearly always find that we are on the same page about issues regarding food, politics and the environment. He was appalled at the idea of a balloon launch. Talking with him got me nice and fired up to do some activism and education. I also called my mom. She talked about string in the environment, including balloon string and fishing line. She reminded me of the animals we had seen who lost a foot or worse from getting tangled in string. She mentioned that even cotton string persists in the environment and endangers wildlife.
Before writing to the school, I did some research. I learned that natural latex balloons are biodegradable. They break down about as fast as an oak leaf. I thought back to my years of volunteering at the Minnesota Zoo. Oak leaves were the only leaves that the zookeepers would use in the exhibits because they didn’t readily break down and animals wouldn’t eat them. I found websites defending balloon launches, but offering ideas on making them safer. I also found websites condemning balloons with photos and stories of animals being hurt. I noticed that people who like balloon launches often have strong emotions tied to the ceremony. Balloon launches are used to celebrate events and to memorialize loved ones. I can definitely relate to the urge to do something big in memory of a loved one. Some of the best information I found suggested making the balloon launch as safe as possible by avoiding string.
My next step was to email a school administrator. I carefully composed my letter. I suggested alternatives to a balloon launch and offered to help brainstorm ideas. I mentioned that the balloon string was the biggest problem. I left out the website links and details. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t go into details about the string. My email got forwarded to the principal who responded to my concerns, but perhaps didn’t see the space for dialogue or compromise.
Rather than taking me up on my offer of help, the principal defended the balloon launch as an important tradition and something that gives the children a “sense of wonder.” She listed the many things that the school is doing for conservation, suggesting that the net positive impact of these efforts should negate any damage done by a balloon launch.
Here is my response to her email: Thanks for responding to my concerns about the balloon launch. I do appreciate all that the school does for environmental awareness and conservation. You have a beautiful piece of property, and I think you do appreciate it and try to care for it. That is why the balloon launch caught me off guard. It is really not in character with the other efforts you make to teach the students good stewardship. I probably should have asked about strings on the balloons because that is the most important part. Perhaps you can use small bits of raffia instead of strings. Another suggestion that I found from my research is to have the balloons in a bag and hand them out without strings, though I don’t know how this would work with five and six-year-olds. Traditions can always be tweaked and adapted as time shows us better ways.
I did not receive a reply to my email, but a school administrator pulled me aside as I dropped AJ off the morning of the launch. She told me that she had purchased “biodegradable” hemp string and given it to the balloon store for the school’s balloons. Bless her heart. She really wanted to do the right thing. My heart was in my throat. I felt like I had failed in my efforts of education. Hemp twine is among the toughest of strings. Still, biodegradable string is definitely better than plastic curling ribbon. With the balloon launch just two hours away, I decided not to push for further changes this year. I thanked her and went home to get my scissors.
You see, as a parent, I didn’t want my daughter to miss out on any activity that was part of her graduation ceremony. Yet I couldn’t in good conscience let my daughter send that string up into the environment. The pair of scissors was my solution. As the balloons were handed out, I had my daughter hold her string close to the balloon. I simply snipped off the extra string (nearly five feet!) and walked away. AJ was able to launch her balloon with her classmates, no strings attached.
As I walked away, string curled in my hand, my friend Christy greeted me warmly. I held up the string and commented, “We’re wildlife rescuers.” She replied that she was really bothered by the balloon launch. I told her that the string is the biggest problem and cutting it was my compromise. Hopefully this was the first step in creating a new tradition. Sometimes it takes baby steps. Not every mother has the time and energy to bring her concerns to school administrators and the board of trustees. I decided that this concern was important enough for me to put some energy into it. Would I like to see a new tradition that doesn’t involve the double standard of teaching conservation in school and then having our children release litter into the environment? Sure I would. Still, I’m proud of my final compromise, which allowed AJ to participate with her classmates. I write about my experience here in the hopes that other parents might feel encouraged to engage in dialogue about issues that are important. You can help initiate baby steps in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to talk to other parents and do some research. In the end, don’t forget that compromise and baby steps really do help move things forward.