01 Feb The Penpal Series: Balloons
When I was five years old I went to an elementary school that, from what I’ve come to understand, was really adamant about the importance of learning through activity. It was part of a new program designed to allow children to rise at their own pace, and to facilitate this, the school encouraged teachers to come up with really inventive lesson plans. Each teacher was given the latitude to create his or her own themes which would run for the duration of the grade, and all the lessons in math, reading, etc., would be designed in the spirit of the theme. These themes were called “Groups”. There was a “Space” group, a “Sea” group, an “Earth” group, and the group I was in, “Community”.
In Kindergarten in this country, you don’t learn much except how to tie your shoes and how to share, so most of it isn’t very memorable. I only remember two things very clearly: I was the best at writing my name the right way, and the Balloon Project, which was really the hallmark of the Community group, since it was a pretty clever way to show how a community functioned at a really basic level.
You’ve probably heard of this activity. On one Friday (I remember it being Friday because I was excited about the project and it being the end of the week) toward the beginning of the year, we walked into the classroom in the morning and saw that there was a fully-inflated balloon tied off with string taped to each of our desks. Sitting on each of our desks was a marker, a pen, a piece of paper, and an envelope. The project was to write a note on the paper, put it in the envelope, and attach it to the balloon which we could draw a picture on if we wanted. Most of the kids started fighting over the balloons because they wanted different colors, but I started on my note which I had thought a lot about.
All the notes had to follow a loose structure, but we were allowed to be creative within those boundaries. My note was something like this: “Hi! You found my balloon! My name is [Name] and I attend ______________ Elementary school. You can keep the balloon, but I hope you write me back! I like Mighty Max, exploring, building forts, swimming, and friends. What do you like? Write me back soon. Here’s a dollar for the mail!” On the dollar I wrote “FOR STAMPS” right across the front, which my mom said was unnecessary, but I thought it was genius, so I did it.
The teacher took a Polaroid of each of us with our balloons and had us put them in the envelope along with our letter. They also included another letter that I assume explained the nature of the project and sincere appreciation for anyone’s participation in writing back and sending photos of their city or neighborhood. That was the whole idea—to build a sense of community without having to leave the school, and to establish safe contact with other people; it seemed like such a fun idea…
Over the next couple weeks the letters started to roll in. Most came with pictures of different landmarks, and each time a letter would come in, the teacher would pin the picture on a big wall-map we had put up showing where the letter had come from and how far the balloon had traveled. It was a really smart idea, because we actually looked forward to coming to school to see if we had gotten our letter. For the duration of the year we had one day a week where we could write back to our pen-pal or another students’ pen-pal in case our letter hadn’t come in yet. Mine was one of the last to arrive. When I came into the classroom I looked at my desk and once again didn’t see any letter waiting for me, but as I sat down the teacher approached me and handed me an envelope. I must have looked so excited because as I was about to open it she put her hand on mine to stop me and said, “Please don’t be upset.” I didn’t understand what she meant—why would I be upset now that my letter had come? Initially I was mystified that she would even know what was in the envelope, but now I realize that of course the teachers had screened the contents to make sure there was nothing obscene, but all the same—how could I be disappointed? When I opened the envelope I understood.
There was no letter.
The only thing in the envelope was a Polaroid, but I couldn’t really make out what it was. It looked like a patch of desert, but it was too blurry to decipher; it appeared as if the camera had been moved while the picture was being taken. There was no return address, so I couldn’t even write back if I wanted to. I was crushed.
The school year pressed on, and the letters had stopped coming for nearly all of the other students. After all, you can only continue a written correspondence with a Kindergartener for so long. Everyone, including myself, had lost interest in the letters almost completely. Then I got another envelope.
My excitement was rejuvenated, and I reveled in the fact that I was still getting a letter when most of the other pen-pals had abandoned their involvement. It made sense that I received another delivery—there had been nothing but a blurry picture in the first one, so this was probably to make up for that. But again there was no letter at all… just another picture.
This one was more distinguishable, but I still didn’t understand it. The photograph was angled way up, catching the top corner of a building, and the rest of the image was distorted by a lense-flare from the sun.
Because the balloons didn’t travel very far, and because they were all launched on the same day, the board became a bit cluttered, and so the policy for the students still exchanging letters became that they could take the photographs home. My best friend Josh had the second highest number of pictures taken home by the end of the year—his pen-pal was really cooperative and sent him pictures from all around the neighboring city; Josh took home, I think, four pictures.
I took home nearly fifty.
The envelopes were all opened by the teacher, but after a while I stopped even looking at the pictures. However, I saved them in one of my drawers that housed my collections of rocks, baseball cards, comic book cards (Marvel Metal cards, for those who might remember), and little miniature baseball batting helmets that I’d get out of a vending machine at Winn-Dixie after T-Ball games. With the school year over, my attention turned to other things.
My mom had gotten me a small snow cone machine for Christmas that year, and Josh had really coveted it—so much so that his parents bought him a slightly nicer one for his birthday which was toward the end of the school year. That summer we had the idea that we would set up a snow cone stand to make money; we thought we’d make a fortune selling snow cones at one dollar. Josh lived in a different neighborhood, but we eventually decided that my neighborhood would be better because there were a lot of people who cared for their lawns; the yards in my neighborhood were slightly bigger. We did this for five weekends in a row until my mom told us that we had to stop, and I’ve only recently come to understand why she did that.
On the fifth weekend, Josh and I were counting our money. Because we both had a machine, we each had a separate stack of money that we put together into one stack and we then split it evenly. We had made a total of sixteen dollars that day, and as Josh paid out my fifth dollar, a feeling of profound surprise consumed me.
The dollar said “FOR STAMPS”.
Josh noticed my shock and asked if he had miscounted. I told him about the dollar and he said, “That’s so cool, man!” As I thought about it, I came to agree. The idea that the dollar had made it right back to me after changing so many hands floored me.
I rushed inside to tell my mom, but my excitement coupled with her being distracted by a phone call made my story incomprehensible and she responded simply by saying “Oh wow! That’s neat!”
Frustrated, I ran back outside and told Josh I had something to show him. Back in my room, I opened the drawer and took out the stack of envelopes and showed him some of the pictures. I started with the first picture, and we went through about ten before Josh lost interest and asked if I wanted to go play in the ditch (a dirt ditch down the street from my house) before his mom came to pick him up, so that’s what we did.
We had a “dirt war” for a while, but it was interrupted several times by rustling in the woods around us. There were raccoons and stray cats that lived in there, but this was making a little too much noise and we traded guesses at what it was in an attempt to scare each other. My last guess was that it was a mummy, but in the end Josh kept insisting that it was a robot because of the sounds that we heard. Before we left, he got a little serious and looked me right in the eyes and said, “You heard it didn’t you? It sounded like a robot. You heard it too right?” I had heard it, and since it sounded mechanical I agreed that it was probably a robot. It’s only now that I understand what we heard.
When we got back Josh’s mom was waiting for him at the kitchen table with my mom. Josh told his mom about the robot; our moms laughed and Josh went home. My mom and I ate dinner, and then I went to bed.
I didn’t stay in bed for long before I crept out and decided that, due to the day’s events, I would revisit the envelopes since now the whole affair seemed much more interesting. I took the first envelope and set it on the floor and set the blurry desert Polaroid on top. I laid the second envelope right next to it and placed the oddly angled Polaroid of a building’s top corner on top and did this with each picture until they formed a grid that was about five by ten; I was always taught to be careful with things that I was collecting, even if I wasn’t sure they were valuable.
I noticed that the pictures gradually became more decipherable. There was a tree with a bird on it, a speed limit sign, power line, a group of people walking into some building. And then I saw something that vexed me so powerfully that I can now, as I write this, distinctly remember feeling dizzy and capable of only a single, repeating thought:
“Why am I in this picture?”
In this photograph of the group of people entering the building I saw myself holding hands with my mother in the very back of the crowd of people. We were at the very edge of the photo, but it was undeniably us. And as my eyes swam over the sea of Polaroids I became increasingly anxious. It was a really odd feeling—it wasn’t fear, it was the feeling you get when you are in trouble. I’m not sure why I was flooded with that feeling, but there I sat floundering in the distinct sense that I had done something wrong. And this feeling only intensified as I looked on at the rest of the photos after the one that had so powerfully struck me.
I was in every photo.
None of them were close shots. None of them were only of me. But I was in every single one of them—off to the side, in the back, bottom of the frame. Some of them only had the tiniest part of my face captured at the very edge of the photo, but nevertheless, I was there. I was always there.
I didn’t know what to do. Your mind works in funny ways as a kid, but there was a large part of me that was afraid of getting in trouble simply for still being up. Since I already had the looming feeling of having done something wrong, I decided that I would wait until tomorrow.
The next day, my mom was off work and spent most of the morning cleaning up around the house. I watched cartoons, I imagine, and waited until I thought it was a good time to show her the Polaroids. When she went out to get the mail I grabbed a couple of the pictures and put them on the table in front of me as I sat waiting for her to come back in. When she returned, she was already opening the mail and threw some junk mail into the trashcan and I said:
“Mom, can you come here for a second? I have these pictures—”
“Just give me a minute, honey. I need to mark these on the calendar.”
After a minute or two, she came and stood behind me and asked me what I needed. I could hear her shuffling with the mail behind me but I just looked at the Polaroids and told her about them. As I explained more and pointed to the pictures her frequent “uh huh”s and “ok”s decreased, and she was suddenly completely quiet and only making a little noise with the mail. The next noise I heard from her sounded as if she was trying to catch her breath in a room that had no air left in it. At last her struggling gasps were conquered and she simply dropped the remaining mail on the table and ran to the kitchen to get the phone.
“Mom! I’m sorry, I didn’t know about these! Don’t be mad at me!”
With the phone pressed to her ear she was walking/running back and forth and shouting into it. I nervously fiddled with the mail sitting next to my Polaroids. The top envelope had something sticking out of it that I thoughtlessly and anxiously pulled on until it came out.
It was another Polaroid.
Confused, I thought that somehow one of my Polaroids had slipped into the stack when she threw the mail down, but when I turned it over and looked at it I realized that I had not seen this one before. To my dismay, it was me, but this one was a much closer shot. I was surrounded by trees and was smiling. But it wasn’t just me, I noticed. Josh was there too. This was us from yesterday.
I started yelling for my mom who was still screaming into the phone. I repeatedly yelled for her until she finally responded with, “What?!” and I could only think to ask, “Who are you calling?”
“I’m talking with the police, honey.”
“But why? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do anything…”
She answered me with a response that I never understood until I was forced to revisit these events from the earliest years of my life. She grabbed the envelope off the table and the picture of Josh and I spun and slid, landing next to the other Polaroids in front of me. She held the envelope up to my eyes but I could only look at her and watch as all the color began draining out of her face. With tears welling up in her eyes she said that she had to call the police because there was no postmark.