“What do you think?” my brother Edward asked me, shoving a rather crumpled piece of notebook paper under my nose.
I thought that he should practice his handwriting and find a better piece of paper, but I didn’t say so.
“So, kids,” Mrs Watson greeted us cheerfully, “how was your vacation?”
Of course, everyone had had turkey.
Hannah, Marta and Uma, who always do everything together, had also been to the mall twice and the movies once.
Hari and Hemat answered together, “We went to Rochester to visit our Auntie.”
Auntie may be able to tell them apart; I can’t.
Imre didn’t say anything. He’s from Hungary and hasn’t yet learned much English.
Ingrid (Sweden) and Svetlana (Ukraine) speak English perfectly well, but they didn’t say anything either. I think they only speak to each other.
When prompted, Fred, Juan, Kayte, Corey, Phil and Georgia all said “Nothing”.
You could see Mrs Watson thinking, “Just like in class.”
“Watched TV”, “Played Pokemon Go”, “Talked to my friends”, “played with my little sister”, “went walking in the woods”, took care of the rest, except for Jessica who had spent the vacation at the lake packing up their cottage and putting the boat away for the winter. I thought that Thanksgiving was quite late to be preparing for winter, but for the fourth year in a row, there had not yet been a killing frost.
That just left me. “I went to a protest and my Mum got arrested” I mumbled.
Did you say arrested?
What did she do?
Is she in jail?
They all talked at once and I ignored them.
“You went to a protest?” asked Mrs Watson. “What were you protesting about?”
The gas storage north of Watkins Glen,” I told her.
Henry burst out, “Are you crazy? We need the gas to heat our houses.”
“And it gives jobs,” Fred added.
“Not really,” I began, but Phil joined the other boys saying, “And the taxes are good for the county.”
“But….” I began again. This time it was Ingrid who interrupted.
To my surprise, she said, “Nicci’s right. It’s dangerous.”
“I hate to cut you off,” Mrs Watson said loudly. “I know this is important. However, I must take attendance right now, or you will be late for your first class.
“But, Mrs Watson,” I wailed, “we never get a chance to talk about anything important!”
“I know,” she said, “I know. And that needs to change. Let me see what I can do.”
I smiled as I headed for the door. The best teacher ever had just sounded a lot like my Mum.
I wasn’t smiling quite as much at lunch that day. Henry, Fred and Phil are quite nice most of the time, but sometimes they have too much sugar in their lunch – or something like that – and they turn into real jerks.
Together with Cohle, Kayte and Imre, I was headed towards a table, each of us carrying a tray laden with the best the cafeteria had to offer that day. As we passed their table, Henry called out, loudly enough for the whole cafeteria to hear, “How’s your Mom? Is she still in jail?”
I should have ignored him, I really should have, but everyone was looking at me with their mouths open. I shouldn’t have said anything, I really shouldn’t, but they expected me to say something.
I said, “Yeah, she’s sharing a cell with your mother!”
Henry went ballistic. He lunged across the table and tried to grab me by the throat, but Imre hit him on the head with his tray, spilling milk and baked beans all over Fred. Fred tried to avoid the deluge and knocked Phil off his chair. Kayte tripped over him and Fred got another dose of beans and milk.
I shouldn’t have laughed, I really shouldn’t have.
The Principal, Mr. Robinson, didn’t think I should have laughed. He didn’t think it was a laughing matter at all. Neither did I when he explained that I was probably the only person in the school who didn’t know that Henry’s mother actually was in jail awaiting trial for heroin possession.
Not surprisingly Henry and I found ourselves cleaning up the cafeteria.
It was really awkward at the beginning. We picked up all the stuff on the floor and began mopping while pretending that the other one was not there. After a while, I couldn’t stand it any longer and said, “I’m sorry Henry, I didn’t know”.
It would have been okay if he had shouted at me or sworn, or something. But instead, he burst into tears.
“She can’t help it,” he sobbed. “She tries to quit, but….”
I didn’t know what to do so I just held his hand until he stopped crying.
My mum is Elizabeth Jensen, and I live with her, my dad and three siblings: Julia, the oldest, Edward, me and Simon, the baby of the family, although he will be going to kindergarten next year so he is not so much a baby anymore.
I am Nicci. I refuse to answer to Nicola. Which is a bit strange as my siblings refuse to answer to anything but their full given names. They are quite nice as siblings go, but try and call Edward “Ted” or “Eddy” and he can become quite unpleasant. Being called Julie or Jules makes my big sister into a grumpy you know what. How Simon will react we don’t really know as there are not many ways to mess around with his name and no one has tried yet. Dad’s name is Nicholas, and he answers to Nick, but not Nicky, because that could be confusing.
Anyway, we live in a small town in upstate New York. Dad is a museum director and part-time archaeologist, Mum is an artist and part-time teacher.
She does everything for us. She feeds us very well, does the laundry, keeps the house more or less tidy and adequately clean (she will tell you that it is very important to have lots of good bacteria around to take care of the few bad ones, and that a tidy house is a sign of a wasted life), drives us everywhere we need or want to go (Dad doesn’t drive at all), and from time to time she says “I’ve been thinking…..” Although we all tend to groan and roll our eyes when she says that, she has actually had some pretty good ideas.
She thought that we should see the monuments of the American West and packed us into the minivan and drove us to California and back. We camped mostly in the wilderness in two small tents while Dad stayed home to watch the animals (Edward’s large hairy dog called Meatball, a large number of cats who come and go as they please and don’t really belong to anyone, and Julia’s iguana, Pickles, also quite large).
She thought that it would be a good idea to heat the house with hot water (heated by the sun, of course). It works great now, but the first winter was very cold.
She thought (or rather her mother thought) that we should all experience the African bush. Getting there was a bit hairy as we had to fly in the smallest plane it is possible to squeeze six people (and a baby) into. Julia and I took one look at it and cried, “We are going to die.” Of course, we didn’t. In fact it is pretty cool to fly as low as these little planes do. You can see everything on the ground. I liked the way you could see each house with its little yard, usually fenced to say this is mine. Some had gardens, some had a dog kennel. Nearly all had a path to the door.
Neither did we die from eating mopani worms.
We were staying at a place called Ngala Lodge, a private game reserve inside the Kruger National Park. The private part meant that we had rather nice cabins with bathrooms instead of the more common rondavels (round thatched huts) with communal showers and toilets some distance away. Fine during the day, but not so great if you had to go in the middle of the night and the hyenas were howling and the lions growling. Ngala, by the way, means ‘place of the lion’ in Tsonga, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages.
Another advantage of the private camp is that we could go out on evening drives with a ranger and venture off the tarred roads of the main park. We would set off about four in the afternoon when it was still warm and sunny. About an hour later it began to get cooler (it was August, the depths of winter in the southern hemisphere) and we would put on a sweater as the animals began to gather at water holes for an evening drink.
As the sun began to set, it got even cooler and jackets were necessary. When it was dark, it got quite cold and the blankets were pulled out and tucked under our chins. It was about then that Dad would simply roll down his shirt sleeves. He just doesn’t feel the cold!
Anyway, before it got dark, we would stop for refreshments: drinks and snacks.
There are few things that would persuade me to eat a huge fat, brown worm, but the threat of being left overnight in the bush if I didn’t is one of them. It tasted - and looked - just like a cocktail wiener. Months later Mum confessed that the game ranger had just been messing with us - you don’t get mopane worms in winter. Besides they look more like monarch butterfly caterpillars than little sausages. They are hairy with stripes of yellow and blue dots on a black background.
Mum’s mission is to save the earth one compost heap at a time. To get a head start, I suppose, there are five at the bottom of our garden.
Recently, she came back from a conference on restoring biodiversity, whatever that means, and said, “I’ve been thinking: you kids have got to help!” She didn’t elaborate, but I could tell that she was thinking - again!
A few days later, Mrs Watson announced that there would soon be a career day for all 6th graders.
“We are looking for parents, grandparents and friends to speak for 20 minutes or so about their careers. We want to know why they chose that job, what were the good parts, what were the not so good parts, etc. I’m sure you all know someone who could give an exciting talk about how they earn a living and do something good for society.”
Was she looking directly at me? I couldn’t wait to get home.
Falling over my words in excitement, I explained about Career Day and ended “Please, please, please will you come and talk to us?”
“Of course I will,” Mum said with a small smile. Just a twitch at the corners of her mouth. It made me think that if I had not asked her, she would have crashed the party.
There were just three weeks to prepare and as the time drew nearer we began to feel rather neglected. I mean, Dad had cooked supper a few times and, if we wanted clean clothes, we had to put them in the washing machine ourselves (and remember to turn it on) and then dry them before we needed to get ready for school
Meanwhile, Mum was holed up in her work-room with papers, and more papers everywhere, half-finished projects, examples of boxes and stationary, and a small shelf of books which she had decorated, designed, repaired or written.
We heard mutterings of “no, not like that” and a few words that we are not supposed to use, and, “where’s my pencil?”
As the big day grew closer, she abandoned her pencil and spent hours tapping away at her little laptop. The printed clattered, the paper-recycling bin got full and Dad had to listen to endless rehearsals.
Then it was Career Day.
Mum turned up in plenty of time for her 10:40 slot between Mr Harrison who was to speak about his career as a plumber and Mrs Srivinaka who is a pediatric nurse.
Dressed in her favorite black crêpe pants and Indian print tunic, Mum stood up, glass bracelets jangling, pushed to stray lock of hair behind her ear and changed our lives.
This is what she said:
“My profession is bookbinding. That includes designing and making books by hand; it also means repairing or restoring damaged books.
I chose to become a bookbinder for several reasons. I love books, I enjoy working with my hands, a craft like bookbinding is not controlled by language so one can practice it anywhere, I prefer preserving to discarding, and I could be my own boss.
If you have discipline, work hard, and charge enough for your work, you can make a decent living. I made very little money because I am easily distracted and I don’t like to charge people more than I think they can afford.
Nevertheless I was able to work both in Italy and here in the US even if, every so often, I had to stop what I was doing in order to pick up the kids from school. Bookbinding has been my occupation but my career has been the written word.
I taught myself to read long before I went to school and not a day goes by that I don’t read thousands of words. I didn’t go into a public library until I was about 17 because we had hundreds and hundreds of books at home, including dictionaries and encyclopedias. Today, we tend to use the Internet to look things up but my husband still starts with an encyclopedia and often he gets the solution to a crossword clue before I can find it on my laptop. Yes, crosswords and other words games are quite important (if you think solving crosswords is hard, try setting one. What an amazing skill, but not a career I recommend!)
Then I went in for bookselling. Also, not something I recommend as a primary career as the competition is fierce. Not bad as a sideline though.
Along the way, I learned a few languages. Not perfectly, but enough to communicate with people from different cultures and countries. And – not being obsessive-compulsive or anything – I have collected dictionaries and phrase books in almost 60 languages. This (she passed around a little book with many strange words in different colors) is one of my favorite creations – how say thank you in 54 languages from Ameslan to Zulu.
These days, I do little binding. I sell a few books but I volunteer at the library to promote literacy, and I write. I write about the environment and human rights. I write to the newspapers, to our congressman, to our senators, sometimes even to the president. If I see a problem in the world, I write about it. I guess that makes me an activist, but my career is still the written word.
I am not the only person in our family who writes. My husband, Nick, is an archaeologist and museum curator and his job is to write about what he learns from his research.
Even my son Edward is a writer. Last year he won a competition with the story that he called ‘Bag Babies and the Secret of Civilization’. I claim responsibility for the bags and the babies. But the rest was all his.
I love knitting and had seen a pattern for little creatures like this (she held one up, then passed it around) and of course I knitted a bunch of them. When I had my first bookstore – a tiny space selling tiny books – I made a number of tiny fabric bags to hold the books.
One day I was muttering ‘what am I going to do with these?’ Edward went a bit glassy eyed and disappeared. The rest as they say is history. Or, it could be.
In the story, Edward and his dog found one of these little creatures in a bag. He called it a bag baby although the creature – who could talk - said his name was Nick and he was one of the guardians of the secret of civilization.
He had been separated from his siblings and the secret could only be revealed if they were reunited. By various ingenious means Edward and his siblings located all 26 guardians and there was a joyful reunion. Except, none of the bag babies knew what the secret of civilization was. Because their names were Alice, Brian, Charlie, Derek, Emma, Frank, George, Harry, Isabel, John, Keith, Larry, Matthew, Olivia, Peter, Quenton, Russell, Stan, Trevor, Ursula, Victor, Walter, Xavier, Yvonne and Zachary, it was not hard to figure out that the secret had something to do with the alphabet. The kids tried every possible combination of letters but no secret revealed itself.
Eventually, Nicci bursts into tears in class and says “it’s so unfair; we’ve worked so hard. How do we know what the secret of civilization is. It could be anything.”
“Yes,” their teacher said quietly, “it could.”
Edward suddenly realized that the secret was not the letters themselves, but writing. “Wow,” he said, “I never thought of that. Writing things down can make them last forever.”
What if you carried on from there? What if you formed a writing club? You could call it the Bag Babies Club and I will give you your very own bag baby as a mascot.
What do you write about? I don’t know. That is up to you. But maybe, one of you will read about gas pipelines, and decide to write about those. Maybe, you will write to your state legislators to complain that they a ruining the countryside. Maybe, one of those legislators sponsors a bill to stop the pipelines, and you write to him or her to thank them. Maybe you just write to 6th graders in other schools.
What do you think?
Mum sat down and the room was awfully quiet.
Then my friend, Cohle, stood up and said “I think that’s a great idea.” “I do too” said Josh. “Me, too,” said Hannah and Uma and Georgie.
And so, the Bag Babies Club was born.
Mrs Watson was wonderful. At first, she arranged for us to use our classroom after school on Tuesdays. Then she found a way to make the Bag Babies Club a part of our ELA curriculum. At last, we had the chance to talk and talk and talk about things that are important.
Then we wrote letters.
We took out a subscription to The Leader and every morning we read the local, state, national and international news. We also practiced our writing skills by sending letters of condolence to the families of those who had passed away. We wrote letters about the gas storage on Seneca Lake (remember? Where my mum was arrested and that I tried to talk about in class).
We wrote to the governor and to our local paper The Leader.
Amazingly, other sixth graders wrote to us – from schools in Watkins Glen and Ithaca, Geneva and Dundee, Penn Yan, Waterloo, and Canandaigua, Hector, and Hammondsport.
All around the lakes.
With a little help from Mum and Mrs Watson, we wrote a petition:
"We, the children of the Finger Lakes, demand that our most precious resource – water – be protected for our generation and the next and the next. We consider it irresponsible for our elected officials in New York and Washington, DC, to jeopardize our pristine lakes by allowing the fossil fuel industry to build pipelines compressor stations and gas storage in the midst of a bucolic environment which supports wine production, agriculture and tourism, as well as wind and solar. farms."
A few of us – Ingrid and Svetlana, Jessica, Juan and me - were allowed to give a presentation to the whole school about how dangerous natural gas extraction and transportation is. We talked about water contamination, air pollution, destruction of forests and fields. Then we asked the kids to sign the petition. They all did, even Henry, Fred and Phil.
After that, we sent a copy of the petition - and a video of our presentation – to forty-four middle schools (two for each person in our class) in the entire Finger Lakes region, and asked them to do the same. That is, we asked each to contact at least one other school.
There are about 1280 middle schools in New York, and we hoped to reach them all.
We also wrote up a mission statement (because that is what grownups seem to do) for the Bag Babies Club and sent that with the petition.
The Mission Statement stated (because that is what Mission Statements do) that our mission was to contact every sixth-grade classroom in New York and encourage them to form a writing club and to write, write, write.
Rather impulsively, we promised a bag baby to any school that formed a club. Now, there is no way that Mum could knit that many bag babies as each one takes nearly an hour, so she appealed to other mothers who like to knit. She printed out the pattern and went to see the owner of our local yarn store. Would you believe that there was soon a Bag Babies Knitting Club? Dozens of women descended on Woolly Minded twice a week to knit with very fine yarn on number one needles (thinner than a toothpick). Soon there were baskets and baskets of bag babies, each one cuter than the last, each with a different outfit and character.
There was one which had an umbrella! The woman who made it had bought some of those little umbrellas used to decorate cocktails, and painted them to match the yarn she had used. Next thing everyone wanted one and we kids spent a lot of time painting tiny paper umbrellas. We thought quite seriously of changing the name to the Umbrella Babies Club as these ones all had umbrellas, and no bags. But it sounded a little silly and isn’t as easy to say. So, the Bag Babies Club it stayed.
Signed petitions started to pour in. Boxes and boxes of them. We had to figure out what to do with them.
So we went to Albany. Mum and Mrs Watson rented a 56-seater bus and we asked kids to sign up, and get their parents to cough up $25 to pay for it. Quite a few parents wanted to go to Albany with us and soon we needed another bus. Mum made an appointment to meet with our State Senator to whom we would present the petitions.
So as to disrupt school as little as possible, we went on a half-day (parent-teacher conferences), leaving at 8:30 for the long drive to Albany. It was a lovely sunny day and we drove 200 miles through rolling hills covered in trees and green fields. We drove beside the majestic Susquehanna River making its way to Chesapeake Bay. We drove past towns with quaint names like Owego, Appalachin, Oneonta (which boasts the National Soccer Hall of Fame, although no one seems to know why it is there and not somewhere else), Unadilla, Cooperstown (home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but not where Abner Doubleday invented baseball - he didn't invent anything), Cobbleskill, Schenevus, Duanesberg. I wonder who Duane was and where the “berg” was, as I didn’t see many hills in the area.
Eventually, the bus deposited us next to the Capitol Building along with six handcarts each one loaded with three bankers' boxes holding the petitions. Someone had kept track of them coming in and counted 5,372 sheets of paper. As each sheet had 20 signatures, we were about to hand over the opinion of more than 100,000 middle school students. I was impressed.
We had to go through metal detectors and have our bags checked before we could make our way through the Administrative building to the Senator’s office. It came as no surprise to the adults in the party that the Senator was unable to get away from an important debate on the floor in order to meet with us. So we had to present the petitions to one of his aides, who appeared with us on the front page of the Times Union the following morning.
I wondered who had invited the press.
No visit to Albany on official business would be complete without a visit to the Senate Chamber. The walk through the building was amazing - enormously high ceilings, sweeping staircases, arches, columns. The Chamber is huge, but they must have finished the important debate as there were only a few senators present, talking on their cell phones, chatting to their neighbors. One was even having lunch, a healthy-looking salad out of a styrofoam box. Ugh.
After a much-needed bathroom break, it was back on the buses, where our own lunch was waiting for us. We had sandwiches, a packet of chips, an apple or grapes and water or juice served from large containers into the reusable mugs or bottles we had all been told to bring. I must say for Mum that she practices what she preaches. She had brought several buckets to take any organic matter (a very few uneaten scraps and apple cores, headed to her compost heaps, plus the paper bags and napkins); there was also a small garbage bag for the chip bags and plastic wrap from the sandwiches.
Then most of us went to sleep. Seven hours of driving for one hour in Albany may not seem worth it, but it was. The Times Union was not the only newspaper to report on our visit and the Bag Babies Club went viral.
Meanwhile, something even more amazing was happening. Three grandchildren of the deceased for whom we had written letters of condolences wrote back to us. One was from Texas, one from Louisiana and one from Montana. Daphne began corresponding with Raul from Texas; Hari and Hemat started writing to Mike in Montana, and Jessica, who has always wanted to visit Louisiana, struck up a correspondence with Beulah in Baton Rouge.
I can hardly believe what happened next. Mrs. Watson got letters from their teachers asking for help in setting up similar programs in their schools, and their cousin’s school, and their sister-in-law’s school in Missouri, and on and on. Mrs Watson had requests for training from 72 sixth grade teachers – all hand-written.
But what were we going to do? Obviously, Mrs. Watson could not quit her job (we wouldn’t let her) to go from school to school to spread this crazy idea about writing. We needed help.
That’s when Edward had the outrageous idea of writing to Mr. Monroe, head of WYSIWYG Computers (not their real names, of course, but I’m sure you can guess who he meant). What Mum didn’t tell you about Edward’s story was how it ended. In his words,
“the next morning while we kids were having breakfast there was a knock at the front door. I opened the door and there was Mr. Monroe on our doorstep.”
“Are you Ted?” he asked politely. “May I come in?”
Blah, blah, blah.
Then Mr Monroe asked if he could buy the Bag Babies. “They’re not for sale,” was Edward’s short response.
They talked a bit about why Mr. Monroe would want them (to take them around the country to help kids learn their letters). Julia and I butted in to say what a wonderful idea that was, but Edward was adamant – the Bag Babies were not for sale.
But, he added, addressing Mr. Monroe, “you may borrow them any time you like.”
Without really thinking it through, Edward dashed off a letter and mailed it that very afternoon. A week later, he got a reply. The letter said that Mr. Monroe would be in Corning the following Thursday and would like to meet with me, Edward, Mum and Mrs. Watson. Could we do lunch? Seriously, that’s what he said.
At the restaurant of our choice.
WOW. Ten times WOW. Mrs. Watson thought she could arrange for Edward and me (and herself) to get out of school, but where to go for lunch? We rejected Donna’s (our favorite diner) and Atlas (our favorite pizza place). McDonald’s. Subway, chinese and mexican didn’t seem quite right. Reluctantly passing over about a dozen great restaurants, we decided on the Market Street Brewing Company which does brew beer right on the premises, but more importantly, has an upstairs room where we could have our meal and meeting without other diners gawking at Mr.”Monroe”. After all, he is quite famous. And quite rich.
Edward agreed to wear a clean pair of jeans and a real shirt (but no tie), but we girls (at least this girl) tried on every item in her closet, and Julia’s and even Mum’s. I eventually settled on a flouncy, short black skirt with a plain white top, and the vest that I had asked Mum to crochet for me, but never worn.
Mum stopped by the restaurant and explained the situation. “No problem”, they said and reserved the upstairs for our little party of five. It was a beautiful day and we sat on the terrace, basking in the early spring sunshine. I also wore pretty sandals to show off my pale pink toenails.
Conversation was a little awkward to begin with but then Mr. Monroe ordered drinks: cokes for Edward and me, a bottle of white wine for the ladies and a bottle of red for himself. That reminded Mum of a story about going out to lunch in Rome with a man who ws 7’ 2”. Not only does he have an enormous appetite, but he also drinks a lot. Apparently, before they had even finished the pasta course, he called the waiter over, waved a hand towards the wine bottles on the table and said “We’ll have some more of those”.
Mr.Monroe was very amused, and the ice was broken, as they say. We stopped Mum telling more stories about meals she had had as a child with overly generous hosts, and set about ordering.
We decided on two appetisers for the table:
Spinach dip with jalapeno, onions, tomatoes and montery jack, served with crisp lemon pepper/cumin pitas and a double portion of sweet potato fries. Edward and I went for plain burgers, while the adults chose a variety of salads: the southwestern (grilled chicken tomatoes and Monterey jack cheese on a bed of romaine lettuce tossed with southwestern ranch dressing finished with black bean corn salsa and tortilla chips); the steak salad (sirloin steak fresh mushrooms tomatoes gorgonzola and romaine tossed in a roasted garlic balsamic vinaigrette); and soup and house salad. You can guess who had what.
We talked about Edward’s story, about how important writing is, about how kids want to write, and about how teachers need help finding a way to add important writing to the curriculum.
We were all far too full for dessert. Then, and I could hardly believe my ears, Mr. Monroe said “That was a delicious lunch – good choice. I think that we can have training workshops in place by the week after Easter.
WOW times 100.
He was as good as his word. The New York training took place – surprise, surprise – in Corning. 340 sixth-grade teachers from Buffalo to the Bronx packed into The Corning Museum of Glass auditorium for a full day of discussion about how to incorporate writing based on Mum’s ‘Be Nice’ philosophy
into an already very full curriculum.
Be Nice is actually made up of three parts:
Be nice to everyone
Be kind to animals
Be gentle with the earth
Of course, everyone has their own idea of what it means to be nice, and that was where the discussion started, as Mrs Watson reported to us. In the end, they decided that teachers should not tell their kids what it means to be nice. They decided that that should be up to the kids. Yay!
For the next few weeks we did little writing but lots and lots and lots of talking. We talked in class, in the cafeteria, on the bus, over dinner. We consulted the dictionary. We consulted the thesaurus. Did you know that there are 69 synonyms for nice? Did you know that in the late 13th century “nice” meant foolish, stupid, senseless, careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, or foolish.
Later meanings were fussy, fastidious, dainty, delicate, precise, or careful. In the 18th century it came to mean agreeable or delightful and, later, kind or thoughtful. Too much information, I know, but what an interesting word!
Eventually, we decided that nice is the opposite of nasty, which is much easier to explain: mean, offensive, objectionable, vicious, spiteful, unpleasant or disagreeable. So nice is NOT all that. In other words, if you are going to be nice to everyone, you need to be polite, pleasant, respectful and kind. Being nice is not the same as being a doormat. You can – and should – disagree, but you must do so without being disagreeable, as they say.
So to be nice to people, you do not call them names, you do not make fun of them. You talk to them as you hope others will talk to you. And if you have nothing nice to say, you keep quiet.
Being kind to animals is quite easy, especially for pets. You make sure that they have food and water, and a comfortable place to sleep. And you treat them like your friends – talk to them, love them, have fun with them.
It’s a little more complicated with farm animals which may end up as dinner. Julia is vegan, meaning that she will not eat anything that comes from an animal, or wear any product – like leather – that comes from an animal. This is really difficult, and we have spent many hours discussing eating meat. And we really had to practice being nice during those discussions!
I think, for what it’s worth, that it is OK to eat an animal if it has had a good life, and is killed quickly and painlessly. I do not think that it is a good idea to eat animals that have been raised on factory farms where conditions are horrible.
So far, these are ideas – according to Mrs Watson – that can be “instilled” into every lesson and subject area: they do not need to be specifically included in the curriculum.
“Be gentle with the earth” is another matter. But it can be done. And sixth grade is the ideal time as the science curriculum is largely about the environment anyway. Same goes for the ELA standards. One unit is on the use of pesticides. We are supposed to do this: “Through structured discussions and decision-making protocols, students form their own argument about the use of DDT. Students then apply their research to write a position paper in which they support that claim with evidence.”
As DDT was banned long before we were born (even Mrs Watson), we decided to write our position papers on Roundup instead.
Collectively, we wrote 117 pages about Roundup, its main ingredient glysophate, and Monsanto, the company that makes it. Out of 22 students, not one argument was in favor of Roundup.
By the end of the school year, there were 7,254 school districts with Bag Baby clubs, and around 1.2 million 6th graders had resolved to be nice.
Then Mr Monroe issued a challenge. Could we kids, over the summer, come up with legislation to save civilization? Really, that’s what he said. Of course, he was ready to give us loads of help with a website/blog for communicating with each other and a Twitter account @savecivilization. The website would list the problems that are threatening human civilization: desertification, droughts, climate disruption, pollution, aquifers drying up, not enough food, too many people, poverty, war, cruelty.
Yeah, sure Mr M. We can do that! How on earth do you expect a bunch of kids to come up with a solution to problems that have stumped world leaders?
Mum and Mrs Watson gently explained that we had a much better chance of finding solutions than world leaders because we were still innocent. To begin with we (alright, I) thought that was a bit condescending, a concept that I had just read about in “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. But they were very patient and went on to say that children our age are old enough to think about and understand adult matters, but we have not been spoiled by politics. Politics, it seems, is when adults are so keen to be rich and powerful that they will say anything that makes them sound good, even if it is not true.
As we had all vowed to be nice, it followed that we would stick to the truth.
I guess if you are very, very rich and know lots of important people, you can make things happen. Those things are not always very nice, but a rich person who cares about other people can make really good things happen.
Anyway, while we kids were blogging and tweeting and writing and revising and consulting, Mr M. was lobbying members of congress to introduce the “Kid’s Initiative to Save Civilization” bill in the fall.
I don’t know how he did it, but by mid-August he had persuaded 32 members of the House of Representatives and 16 Senators to co-sponsor the bill that we hadn’t yet written!
Not only had we not yet written it, we were about ready to admit defeat. We had 76% of outgoing 6th graders plugging ideas into the site that WYSIWG Computers had set up for us. They had set up algorithms to process and combine all the ideas into recurring themes.
We had a so-called steering committee of 18, each with two advisors from each state. (Actually, there were two states that didn’t join in at all, but I won’t embarrass them by naming them.) And, we were getting nowhere.
In desperation, we set up a video conference to try to decide what to do.
“So, hi, everyone,” I began. “What are we going to do? We have all these great ideas, but how are we going to turn them into a bill to present to Congress?”
“We can’t,” said the kid representing California, Oregon and Washington. Just think about that for a moment. Here was a 12-year-old with 6 advisors – some also 12, some still 11 years old – speaking for about 700,000 other kids. (We had been busy in math class, and I can tell you that you don’t just ask Google how many 6th graders there are in California. We had to be a lot more creative.)
“What do you mean?” asked VT/ME/NH.
“It’s just too difficult for kids,” said MT/WY/UT.
There was a very long silence. I know what we were all thinking: of course it was too much to expect of kids our age, but Mr M. had put his confidence in us, and we were letting him down.
Eventually the kid from MI/WI/IL said, “Here’s the problem. We want people to be nice and do the right thing. You know, be polite to each other, treat animals well, and work to look after the planet well. All the things we have talked about so much. But if we make it a law, we turn those who aren’t very nice into law-breakers, or criminals.”
Everyone started speaking at once. “That’s right. You can’t make a law that tells you not to yell at your little brother.”
“Or make a law which says how you heat your house.”
“Or how you raise your cows.”
“Or run your business.”
Another long silence.
“Right,” said FL/GA/AL, at last. “We can’t make it a law. So is there some way we can make people want to be nice?”
“How?” about six people asked at once.
After a long time, there was a small cough and Marilyn, one of the advisors from Ohio, made a suggestion: “We could ask people to make a pledge.”
“That’s a great idea,” I chimed in, “but, I don’t think that pledging to be nice instead of grace before dinner or whatever is going to change the world.”
Another small cough. “No, but what if, instead of pledging allegiance to the flag, we pledged allegiance to the land?”
This call was becoming more about silence than speech, as once again there was a long silence – a very long silence. I was thinking “Wow, what a phenomenal idea!” Could we possibly make it happen? I’m sure others were thinking the same.
The kid from MI/WI/IL piped up again. “There already is one. An earth pledge. It says:
“I recognize that the whole earth, every forest and glade, plain and desert, every mountain and valley, river, stream, lake and ocean, every creature that calls them their home, every form of life on land, in water or borne on the breeze, every mineral in the ground, the wind and the rain, the sun and the entire universe that surrounds them are part of a single web of life.
And I recognize that because I cannot know what will happen if I damage even a single thread, I shall live in a way that aids its flourishing, that whatever I take from it will be replaced and that I will strive to cause no harm to any part of it unless it be necessary for my survival”
“Too long” said Antonio from Oregon. I agreed. So did several others.
Lamar from Kentucky spoke for the first time. “My Dad told me about a scientist, Neil Degrasse Tyson, who mocked the pledge. His version is “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the Divided States of America, and to the Pacs for which it stands, one nation, at odds, divisible with Liberty and Justice for some.“ Perhaps we could do something like that. I mean, take the existing pledge and replace ‘flag’ with ‘earth’.”
At that point, I think there were 17 people speaking at once.
“Quiet,” I yelled. “That’s a brilliant idea. Let’s end this call and work on the idea. Share your thoughts on the website. We’ll talk again in a week.”
At this point, it occurred to me that I had been overlooking a source of wisdom and advice - my brilliant father. So after dinner that evening I finally asked him, “What would you do?”
He smiled as if to say, “What took you so long?” As always, he did not give a direct answer, but asked another question: “Is there a good reason to replace the currently used Pledge?”
“Not that I know of,” I mumbled stupidly. “Is there one?”
“Maybe,” Dad answered. “Perhaps you should find out.”
“But how can I do that?” I wailed. “I’m only a kid.”
“That hasn’t stopped you so far,” he replied. “What if I arranged for you and Edward to meet with Prof. Parkman at Cornell. He is an authority on American history and I’m sure he could help you understand how the Pledge came into existence.”
“Would you come with us?” I asked sheepishly. Having lunch with Mr Monroe had not seemed like such a big deal as he had asked to meet us, but I felt intimidated by the thought of asking a professor from such a famous university to help us.
“Of course,” Dad smiled. “It will be good to see him again. I’ll arrange it.”
And he did. Three days later, the entire Jensen family went to Ithaca. Mum, Simon and Julia went to the Museum of the Earth and on to the Ornithology Lab as Julia is just a little besotted with birds. The Lab is in the middle of Sapsucker Woods, and a sapsucker is a tiny woodpecker. Not to be confused, Julia tells me, with the Hairy or Downy Woodpecker. Whatever. They are all very cute.
Meanwhile Dad, Edward and I met Prof. Parkman at the Boatyard Grill which overlooks Cayuga Lake. It is lovely to sit on the terrace and look out over the water.
Just like Mum with Mr Monroe, Dad started reminiscing about how they used to have lunch at Lake Bracciano just north of Rome. It was just Julia and Edward in those days and Julia has never been too keen on water. Edward, on the other hand, loves the water. He had a sort of vest attached to a rubber tube under his arms, and Mum and Dad just dropped him into the water while they had lunch. He spent hours happily bobbing around or paddling a little bit while the rest of the family had a leisurely meal.
Simon loves water just as much as Edward does, and when they joined us later in the afternoon, he just jumped right in. It’s a pity that he had forgotten his flotation vest as he does not yet swim very well. But his big brother jumped in after him and dragged him (not quite kicking and screaming, but not very happy) back to shore. At that point we had to leave because Mum had not thought to bring him a change of clothing.
Fortunately, we - the important people - had had a good chance to talk about the Pledge of Allegiance before the interruption.
Prof. Parkman was wonderful. He talked to us as equals, not like children. Often adults act as if children are stupid and unable to think about what is happening around them. We were very lucky to have a mother and father who also treated us as equals (except when we did something stupid, and then it was go to your room, or you’re grounded!)
We also had a wonderful teacher who had high hopes for us. Then there was Mr Monroe who was expecting us to save the world! Cripes.
Anyway. Prof. Parkman talked about the history of the Pledge. He told us how a certain Rear Admiral (above commodore and below vice admiral, whatever they are) and veteran of the Civil War, George Balch, in 1887 wrote a pledge that read: “We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag”. It seems that he wanted to teach children, especially those of immigrants, loyalty to the United States.
Edward and I looked at each other. We had talked a bit in school about the idea of loyalty. A couple of kids had asked whether it is right to be loyal to your country just because you were born there, or whether the country needed to make itself worthy of loyalty. (No decision yet.)
Later, Francis Bellamy came up with a new version: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
This new Pledge was first recited in public schools on October 12, 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. We all know that Columbus actually thought that he had landed in India (which is why native Americans are often called Indians), so enough said about that.
At this point, Dad asked the question that Edward and I were too shy to ask - “Why was it necessary to have a pledge?”
“Good question, Nick,” said Prof. Parkman with a smile which said that he had been waiting for one of us to ask. “The short answer is that it was not necessary. But the early pledges were written at a time when there were lots of new immigrants arriving, and many people were worried about how they would assimilate, that is, how they would fit in and become part of the American culture. Reciting a pledge of allegiance to their new country would, it was thought, help them become real Americans.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Edward asked, rather rudely.
“Two things,” the professor explained. “This reciting of the pledge was first introduced in schools. Kids, many of them younger than you, were being told to stand up, salute the flag, and recite some words that few of them would really understand.
“You,” he gestured towards the Jensen children, “and your Bag Baby Clubs, are exceptional. You have thought about it, and you have questioned the practice.”
This was the point when Mum and the others arrived, Simon jumped in the water and we had to leave, so we never did hear what Prof. Parkman’s second point was.
So, a week later, we had another conference call. But that was after a lot of activity on www.savecivilization.solutions. It was amazing to find out how many other people had already thought about replacing the pledge.
One suggestion, written in 1992 by Robert Allen Balder was:
I Pledge Allegiance to the Idea of our Mother Planet, the Earth, and to the Environment in which we live, one Global Home, Indivisible, with unspoiled water, unpolluted air, and protected natural resources for All Life!
Sunchi from Washington shared one by a man called Vern Barnet, a United Unitarian pastor:
I pledge allegiance to the earth and all life:
the fields and streams, the mountains and seas, the forests and deserts, the air and soil, all species and reserves, habitats and environments;
one world, one creation, one home, indivisible for all, affected by pollution anywhere, depleted by any waste, endangered by greedy consumption, degradation by faithlessness;
preserved by recycling, conservation, and reverence, the great gift renewed for all generations to come, protected, preserved by reducing, reusing, recycling.
With conservation and reverence, the great gift renewed for all generations to come.
“But,” she commented, “it’s not very well written. He talks about all the problems we are hoping to fix, but he does go on a bit. I tried to shorten it, and was left with just the first line. Sorry.”
“Don’t be silly,” I responded, “there’s nothing to be sorry for. You have given us something else to think about.”
Somebody, I forget who, offered a pledge written by David W. Neuendorf which said:
I pledge to protect the Earth, And to respect the web of life upon it, and to honor the dignity, Of every member of our global family. One planet, One people, One world, in harmony, With peace, justice, and freedom for all.
Several people said they liked that one. I did too, but it was not original. It wasn’t something we had written. “Has anyone written one themselves?” I asked.
It seemed that quite a few had but they were keeping those for the conference call. Fair enough.
Two others that were posted were:
I pledge allegiance to the earth
and to the flora fauna and human life
that it supports,
one planet indivisible
with safe air, water and soil,
and peace for all.
by the Women’ s Foreign Policy Council
Then there was the one I liked best, by Maria Montessori, the woman who understood little kids so well. She simply said: "I promise to be good to the earth and to all life on this planet.”
Obviously, we had all thought about these existing pledges when trying to come up with our own, but it was quite amazing - every one of us who attempted to write a pledge based it on the Be Nice principles that we had been working on since the Bag Baby Clubs first started. They were almost exactly the same. It was not hard to take the best parts from each one and end up with:
I am a global citizen and I pledge to be nice to my fellow humans, kind to animals and gentle with the earth to ensure health, happiness and justice for all living things.
We couldn’t figure out who should have the honor of sending our pledge to Mr Monroe, and we couldn’t figure out how we could all sign an email to him, so in the end he got 114 emails, one from each of the Steering Committee and advisors.
He loved it and hurried off to Washington to present the idea to the 32 Representatives and 16 Senators who had agreed to sponsor the “Kid’s Initiative to Save Civilization”. From what he told us, the legislators were a bit surprised to find that their bill was only thirty three words long. And even more surprised to find that those thirty three words were not really a bill at all: the initiative was a motion to replace the Pledge of Allegiance.
We were a bit disappointed that there wasn’t a vote the very next day. I guess we still have a lot to learn about how Washington works (not very well, says Dad).
So we all packed our backpacks and started seventh grade. Hearing the stories of boring summers made me wonder why everyone thinks that a really long vacation is such a good idea.
Cohle had spent a lot of the summer with his father and three sisters just outside Alfred where his father is an assistant professor of Mathematics during the school year, and a farmer during the summer. They have chickens all year round and raise piglets three times a year. Cohle and his little sister Chloë are in charge of collecting eggs. One day there was a tragedy when a fox got three of the chickens.
“The others were so upset,” Cohle told us. “They talked, and squawked, and squawked and talked until we all understood what a terrible experience it had been for them.”
Some of the boys (you can probably guess who) made fun of Cohle for thinking that chickens actually communicate. But I believed him. And if you ask Julia, she will tell you that there has been lots and lots of research which shows that birds are pretty smart and they talk to each other, so why not to the strange “birds” that bring them food as well.
Jessica, who seems to do all sorts of cool things, had been to Madagascar for two weeks. Well, actually about 10 days as it takes nearly two days to get there, and another two to get back. She had about a thousand pictures on her phone and told us all about baobab trees (which look as if they are growing upside down), and the tsingy, a word which means "the place where one cannot walk barefoot”. No kidding! It looks like a giant fossilized hedgehog, made up of razor sharp needles of limestone. And of course, she saw lots and lots of lemurs. They are soooo cute, especially the ones with stripy tails that they hold straight up in the air.
“We went to the Zoo in Antananarivo,” Jessica said, “and the animals were amazing. We were so lucky. We saw an Aye-Aye feeding. They are nocturnal, so usually only appear at night, but this one was new to the zoo and her sleep patterns had been disrupted, poor thing. Aye-ayes are a kind of lemur but they are the weirdest things you have ever seen. Imagine a rat with bat’s ears and a squirrel’s tail, teeth that keep growing and an extra-long middle finger like ET. And bulging eyes that glow in the dark. It’s not at all like Maurice in the movie. But the fousa is pretty accurate.”
I had to admit that my summer had been pretty tame compared to a trip to lemur-land.
The class was pretty much the same. Hari and Hemat had moved to Rochester, and Imre’s family had returned to Hungary. Taking their places were three kids who had been in Bag Baby Clubs at their old schools in Hudson, New York, Wilkes Barre, PA and Atlanta. Only Marie-Pierre, whose family had just moved to Corning from Fontainebleau near Paris, did not know about the Clubs and the Pledge.
Of course, we immediately told her all about our activities over the past ten months, but there was not a lot of enthusiasm left. We had had so much fun writing letters, getting to know kids in other schools, learning about other parts of the country. Now what?
It was even hard to work up much enthusiasm for school work after spending so much time on something that had seemed really important - a way to change people’s behavior enough so that they would be nice enough to each other to perhaps avoid war. They could stop killing each other accidentally or on purpose with guns. Companies could share their profits with the workers because that is nicer than putting profits before people. At least they could start paying a decent wage, and letting real people do the work rather than machines.
And the part about being kind to animals. Don’t kill them for sport. Don’t kill adults so that their babies can be put in cages. Don’t experiment on them. Don’t take away their homes and food. Don’t beat them when they don’t do what you want them to.
Be gentle with the earth. It’s the only one we’ve got. I thought back to that road trip with Mum and all the beautiful places we had seen. How many of the forests, I wondered, had been cut down or burned? How many trees had been destroyed by insects which live through the milder winters that global warming has caused. What would we see if we did that trip again, just a few years later?
I was depressed. And I was angry. I wanted to use some of those words that Mum used when her presentation at Career Day wasn’t going so well. Hell, I wanted to use even worse ones. It was so obvious that you cannot be a nice person and do terrible things to each other, animals or the planet.
We, the sixth-graders of the United States, had offered Congress a solution. What were they doing about it? Nothing! Nada. Zip. Zilch. Diddly squat. Naught. I mean nothing.
I wanted to cry, and frequently did.
Turns out I was not the only one. Our website, www.savecivilazation.solutions, had turned into a blog/chatroom. A few of us posted regularly, and quite a few posted now and then.
We heard, for example, that Isabelle from Grand Rapids was missing school two or three days a week. And that LaToya from New Orleans had been to the emergency room for cutting herself. And that many, like me, felt lost and miserable.
This was not good. It was awful. It certainly was not what Mr Monroe had had in mind when he enlisted our help. But who knows what he was thinking as we had heard nothing from him in weeks.
Mum tried her best to cheer me up. She tried to get me interested in the things she was working on, but they all seemed a bit flat after trying to save civilization.
Eventually, I agreed to go with her to a three-day conference at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. It is a lovely place in the woods. Our accommodation was in a sort of permanent tent. The showers and toilets were a ways down a winding path, but the dining room was warm and cheerful and the lectures were held in a well-equipped hall. Throughout the year the Institute offers classes and workshops on health, yoga, meditation, self-awareness and other stuff I find a little creepy (well not the yoga so much), but once a year they have this sustainability conference. The speakers were all very famous, but I really didn’t understand too much of what they said.
There was a large Indian woman with a huge red dot in the middle of her forehead who talked about how many farmers were persuaded by Monsanto to give up their traditional ways of farming to try special seeds that had been treated to withstand Roundup. This all made sense as we had done all that research on Roundup at the beginning of sixth grade before Mum and Mr Monroe got us going on writing clubs and supposedly life-altering legislation. What happened to the poor farmers is that Monsanto would give them seeds the first year, and they would get great crops. But by the second year, the Roundup was killing off most of the life in the soil and the crop wasn’t as good. The third year, the farmers had to buy the seed, sometimes on credit, but again the crop wasn’t that good and they were not able to pay what they owed.
I may not have the details quite right, but the Indian lady said that eventually they were so much in debt to Monsanto that they killed themselves, sometimes by drinking Roundup. How horrible.
And this conference was supposed to make me feel better!
Actually it did because there were two boys there with long hair and unpronounceable names who performed a couple of rap numbers talking about the state of the environment and how kids are helping to make it better. The younger one (whose name sounds like Its-cat-lee) was only a little older than me and, although I was too shy to talk to him, I did listen to him talking to other people.
Boy could he talk! Yak, yak, yak, yak, yak. Nobody else got to say anything. Ask him a simple question and off he’d go. I was amazed to learn later that he had gone on a silence strike.
He did not say a word for 45 days. As he put it:
“I was sitting in the Newark Airport in New York after performing at the Omega Conference with my family getting ready to return to Colorado and I thought, what does it matter anyway if I go to school or go to college and learn all this stuff, if there is not going to be a world worth living in?” He decided to take a vow of silence so that others would speak up for future generations.
These two boys run the youth section of Earth Guardians. They were in the front row of the People’s Climate March in New York City, and they went to Paris for the Climate summit. WOW.
I also learned about a group of children, aged 8-18 who sued the US government for failing to ensure a safe world for them to grow up in. And about three girls in Massachusetts who took on their City Council and prevented a wooded area near their homes from being cut down.
Kids CAN make a difference. Perhaps they won’t save civilization, but they can save a forest.
There is limited internet access at Omega, and I hadn’t even bothered to take my laptop. When we got home I logged on to our website www.savecivilization.solutions. I found about 340 messages waiting for me.
That’s at least two from each of the 114 active drafters and advisors and at least 46 from Mr Monroe: the Kids Initiative was in committee.
Probably this was very exciting news, but I had to go to Dad to ask him what it all meant. As usual he explained the process in a way that I could easily understand. Bullet points help here:
Any member can introduce a piece of legislation
the proposed legislation is handed to the clerk of the House or placed in the hopper (a box on House Clerk's desk where members deposit bills and resolutions to introduce them)
in the Senate, Members must gain recognition of the presiding officer to announce the introduction of a bill during the morning hour, and the morning hour only. (are they all too tired by the afternoon?) If any senator objects, the introduction of the bill is postponed until the next day.
Actually “morning hour” is a little misleading as it is 90 minutes on Mondays and Tuesdays and you have to reserve a slot to speak for five minutes.
Next, the Speaker of the House or the presiding officer in the Senate refers the bill to the appropriate committee. (this was a bit of a challenge, apparently, as there had never been a bill like this before. In the end they formed a so-called select committee which is set up to examine issues that do not belong to any standing committee. It was also a joint committee made up of 6 Republican Representatives and 6 Democrats and 6 Democratic Senators and 6 Republicans. Then, to avoid a tie in any voting, they appointed the Independent Senator from Vermont to Chair this Joint Elect Committee.
Comments about the bill's merit are requested
Hearings may be held.
Then, there is a vote by the full committee and the bill is "ordered to be reported.”
But before it can be reported it has to go to the rules committee, where, it seems, they can set whatever rules they like - how long discussion can be, whether there can be amendments or changes. If the committee doesn’t like the rules, they have options including a Calendar Wednesday procedure. (I’m not joking, that is what it is called. From the name it seems as if this only happens on a Wednesday, and you can only discuss it for two hours. I wonder what they do on Thursday and Friday?)
At long last the bill is placed on the calendar in the House or the Senate, or both.
There is debate
The bill is voted on.
If it is passed by both houses, it goes to the President.
That’s not so complicated, I hear you say. That’s because you don’t know about the parts that Dad left out!
Still, how long could this possibly take? After all, even with an introduction suggesting that the Pledge of Allegiance be modified to read “I am a global citizen and I pledge to be nice to my fellow humans, kind to animals and gentle with the earth to ensure health, happiness and justice for all living things”, it was less than 100 words.
But we are just kids. What do we know? There could be all sorts of new rules. The Chairman of the Committee could have been sick on Wednesday. Obviously, there are all sorts of reasons why it takes so long to get a bill turned into law.
In many ways, our 7th grade social studies teacher, Mr Obweneku, originally from Ghana, was a lot like Mrs Watson. He saw what we were interested in, and helped us find out more. We started watching C-SPAN, which is probably the most boring TV channel that was ever invented. However. If there is an issue before Congress that you care about, you can learn an awful lot. But, boy, oh boy, do those congress people go on and on.
To keep us from falling asleep, Mr Obweneku let us do something else like drawing or making origami boxes. I knitted. I wasn’t very good yet, but while watching C-SPAN, I made scarves for the whole family. Christmas presents. Knitting is supposed to be relaxing. All those ladies who made the Bag Babies thought of it as therapy. I was as tense as a porcupine in a balloon factory, or an aye-aye tapping for bugs with its eerie middle finger.
We watched debate on road widening in rural Montana (yawn); should wolves be on the endangered species list (of course they should be: people keep shooting them. You can’t believe how long those men argued about what is a no-brainer); do wooden cribs meet safety standards (probably, as everyone in my mother and father’s generation slept in one. If they were so dangerous, we wouldn’t be here, would we?); parking restrictions near the White House (more yawn) and should the tax credit for putting solar panels on your roof be dropped from 30% to 29.8%. (even more yawn).
How much longer did we have to watch this stuff? When would our bill make it out of Committee? When would the debate begin?
Looking ahead, Mr Monroe offered to take anyone who wanted to go to Washington to view the debate - if it ever began. I understand that 17 kids wanted to go. There would have been more, I’m sure, but they had to have a parent or guardian with them, and most parents work.
Mum would happily have taken me. Part of me really, really wanted to go and see this big drama happening in the nation’s capital. But another part of me said that if it went on too long, I would get so tense and nervous that I would probably throw up. That’s one way to make the national news (like President George H.W. Bush throwing up over the prime minister of Japan. Poor man. How terribly embarrassing) but I thought that if I was going to do any throwing up, I would like to be in my classroom, or - even better - at home.
As our bill stayed in committee for six and a half weeks, it began to seem as if I would never even get the chance to find out if I would throw up, or not.
It was really strange.
We are probably the last family in New York to still have a landline. Not just a landline, but one with an 800 number attached to it. Mum insists that it is the best way for the family to keep in touch. “This way,” she says, “there is no excuse for not calling: you can always find someone to let you make a toll-free call.”
She must have been thinking ahead to when we were all old enough to be out by ourselves and needed to say that we were going to be late home, or something. Or when we started driving and the car broke down. Things like that. So far, the only one in the family who has used the 800 number is Dad, who doesn’t have a cell phone and finds it useful to be able to call from the airport to say that he has arrived and needs to be picked up. He doesn’t drive either, as I think I mentioned.
Anyway, one evening while we were having supper, this old-fashioned bit of technology made a noise. Mum answered, listened and then handed the thing to me. Once I figured out which end to speak into (the one nearest the cord), I said hello.
“Good evening,” said a woman, “I am Gabriella Johnson from Congressman Howell’s office. The Congressman asked me to call and tell you that The Children’s Initiative Bill is out of committee and discussion will begin in both the House and the Senate at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Are you there?” Ms Johnson asked anxiously.
I nodded. Then I realized that she couldn’t see me and managed to croak, “Yes”.
I felt dazed and was about to hang up. Mum, who had been standing close enough to hear, grabbed the phone and thanked Ms Johnson for letting us know, and asked her to thank the Congressman for his thoughtfulness.
She turned to me, beaming. “This is it,” she said, bubbling with excitement.
The day we had been waiting for for so long was finally here. So why wasn’t I as excited as my mother was? Suddenly, I didn’t want tomorrow to come. I didn’t want to hear a decision. What if they turned it down? I looked at Edward. He must have felt the same way. He looked as if he was about to cry. At the very same moment we both asked to be excused from the table. Abandoning our favorite meal of cottage pie and peas, we fled to our rooms without a word. I cried myself to sleep.
I did wake up in the middle of the night and think that I should let the others know, but just couldn’t make myself get out of bed and go to the computer.
It didn’t matter because my wonderful mother had gulped down her meal, asked Julia to put her little brother to bed, and logged on to www.savecivilization.solutions. I never did find out how she got the password.
Nor how she figured out the way to issue an alert so that all 114 kids who had also been waiting for this moment saw the news before they went to bed. There was just about enough time for them to alert the other kids in their areas.
I imagine that very little work was done in 7th grade classrooms across the country on December 16th, 2017. Breakfast in our house was interesting. Edward and I said nothing and ate nothing. Julia, Dad, and Simon had their breakfast as though it was a perfectly normal day. And Mum couldn’t stop talking. I guess she was a tense as we were, and this was her reaction. What she waffled about would have been very interesting at any other time.
From what I heard her say, December 16th is a very significant holiday in South Africa. Originally called Dingane’s Day, it celebrated the victory of the Voortrekkers over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River where 470 Afrikaners defeated nearly 20,000 Africans, killing 3,000 of them. Who knows how many were wounded. The Afrikaners had guns and walls to shelter behind, and the Zulus had assegais (spears) and small shields make from animal hide.
Later it became known as the Day of the Covenant because those crazy Afrikaners promised to build a church and keep the day sacred if God helped them win the battle.
Even later, after Afrikaners no longer controlled the country, it became known as the Day of Reconciliation. As that could also be called the Day When We Decided to be Nice to Each Other, I thought it was a wonderful, wonderful day to have our bill discussed in the house. But I still felt sick.
At 10 o’clock schoolchildren everywhere tuned in to C-SPAN, prepared to spend hours watching Congress debate our bill. C-SPAN 1 was covering the House, and C-SPAN 2 was covering the Senate, so we kept switching from one to the other.
We saw the Senate Majority Leader introduce the bill and ask for a Motion to Proceed. Then the debate started. One of the Senators from Minnesota stood up and said “This bill speaks for itself. It is a much better idea to pledge allegiance to the earth than to the United States. I suggest that we proceed to a roll call.”
And they did.
While the Senate roll call was happening we tuned in to the House debate, which went on a little longer. A Representative from Oregon began by asking for an explanation of how a change in the pledge would “save civilization” as the bill suggested.
I thought that if he had to ask, he hadn’t thought about this much and would almost certainly vote against it.
Many members of the House weighed in with their ideas, but Representative Marilyn Wainwright from Arkansas summed up exactly what we had tried to say.
She began by repeating the words of the new pledge:
I am a global citizen and I pledge to be nice to my fellow humans, kind to animals and gentle with the earth to ensure health, happiness and justice for all living things.
Then she said, “The current state of the world can only just be called civilized. Humans in general - and Americans in particular - consider ourselves to have a manifest destiny. That is, we think of ourselves as superior to all other creatures on earth. In fact, we think that those other creatures, as well as the plants and minerals of the earth were put here for us to use in any way we choose. But we have forgotten to consider future generations.
We continue to abuse the earth by mining too many minerals, by extracting and burning fossil fuels, by polluting the land and the water through industry, by cutting down forests and destroying animal habitat in order to build more cities, by disrupting water cycles.
We also continue to breed like rabbits. In the past 200 years, human population has increased from a manageable one billion people in the early 1800s to over 7 billion people today.
These 7 billion people all need food and water, clothing and houses. That we can manage. As Mahatma Gandhi said "The Earth provides enough for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed.”
But people are greedy and many want more - much more.
I will not go on longer. I don’t need to. It is obvious that unless we make significant changes to the way we view and interact with the natural world, human civilization is doomed. It seems to me that this pledge will bring about the necessary changes. After all, it is very difficult to undertake to be nice to humans, animals and the planet and then attack them.”
Quite a few Congressmen (men, please note), spoke against the idea that being nice could possibly save civilization, but it was pretty feeble stuff. “There will still be war; there has always been war.” “How can we live without eating animals? That’s not very nice, is it?”
This last one was said with a smirk as though he had made a really good point. It made me so mad that I actually jumped to my feet and shouted at the TV. “Moron! It’s not eating the animals that’s not nice, it’s how you treat them! Do you know nothing about the Native Americans and how they apologized to the animals they killed and thanked them for their sacrifice. Then they revered that sacrifice by using every single part of the animal for food, clothing, shelter, not a bone or sinew was wasted.”
Mr Obweneku quietly suggested that I should sit down and shut up (although he didn’t put it quite like that) so that the others could hear what was being said.
I did, but I was still seething. Didn’t these men get it? You will only have to change your attitude and behaviors if you’re not already nice. Nice people don’t shoot endangered animals just for sport and then cut off their heads to mount on their wall. But perfectly nice people may kill a deer for food.
At that point someone suggested that we check in with the Senate. We were just in time to hear the Clerk say, “The motion passes.”
It took a moment for that to sink in, then there were whoops and hollers and hugs and high fives. Our motion had passed the Senate. But what about the House. Back to C-SPAN1, where the Minority Leader was making a sort of closing statement. What she said was:
“I urge my fellow Representatives to vote in favor of this motion, not because I think it will automatically “save civilization”, but because it is a much more positive and inclusive sentiment than the Pledge of Allegiance. It acknowledges that we Americans are just one part of the world. It encourages us to think about the impact of our actions on our fellow human beings AND on the natural world. We have done so much damage. We need to repair what we can. It’s the nice thing to do”
She then asked the Clerk to call the roll. In the House this is done electronically, or as the House website puts it, it is “compiled through the electronic voting machine by the House Tally Clerks under the direction of the Clerk of the House”.
So thankfully we did not have to sit through 435 yeas or nays. During the very short time that it took to tally the votes, the cameras turned to the visitors gallery.
And there was Mr Monroe!! With him were just three of our team. This was not too much of a surprise as it had all happened so quickly that there really was not enough time to get there. Just before the cameras swung back to the floor, we saw a man with a microphone approach Mr Monroe.
As happened in the Senate, all we heard was “The motion passes”.
Much more whooping and hollering, louder and longer. This was unbelievable. All that remained was for the President to sign the motion, and Americans would no longer pledge allegiance to one flag, but rather to the whole world.
But there’s the rub, as Hamlet said, would the President sign? With his America first policies, he might veto it.
“Guys,” Cohle hissed, “Look what’s happening”.
We all turned back to the TV where the man with the mic was speaking to Mr Monroe.
“This is Walter Curtis with Bill Monroe, live from the House of Representatives. The House has just passed an extraordinary bill, written by school children. Tell us about your involvement.”
MrMonroe almost blushed. In spite of his fame and immense wealth, he is quite shy. He quickly explained about the Bag Babies Clubs and his challenge to the sixth graders of America.
“Will the President sign?” Mr Curtis asked.
“How could he not?” Mr Monroe replied. “Look at the attendance! I understand that there were 97 senators present, and I counted 412 here in the House. That’s unprecedented for a minor motion.”
“True,” Mr Curtis admitted, “but, will the President sign?”
“He may say some very stupid things, and he may have made some very poor decisions about the welfare of the country, but no President in his right mind would veto a bill that passed both House and Senate unanimously.”
I couldn't believe my ears. Nor, it seems, could the others. Unanimously! That meant that every lawmaker present, every one, had voted in favor of being nice.
Mr Monroe was still talking. He turned directly towards the camera and spoke to us.
“Well done kids. You have truly changed the way we Americans will behave going forward. It is no exaggeration to say that you have saved civilization. Well done, indeed.”
Then he winked and added:
“NEXT YEAR - THE CONSTITUTION”