“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.