Discourse Welcomed and All Voices Celebrated

The Legacy of the GDS Balloon Launch Cancellation

Like many a homeowner or apartment dweller, GDS is preparing to move. As we empty out closets and file cabinets, we’re uncovering countless items that help tell our School’s story and, in so doing, remind us of something important about ourselves. One of these belongings recently landed on my desk: a manila folder labeled, “Balloon Launch.”

The Balloon Launch was one of GDS’s long-standing traditions. From what I’ve been able to reconstruct from the file (and alums are invited to correct the record!), the event began at Country Market Day and eventually migrated to Halloween, where it was held prior to the parade. Children could purchase raffle tickets to participate in the launch, with each ticket good for a single, numbered, helium balloon.

To initiate the launch, Lower School principal Ben Benskin would climb atop a ladder and count down from 10 in his unmistakable British accent. When Ben reached zero, thousands of balloons were released from the grasps of young Hoppers, soaring collectively skyward. If your balloon landed and was discovered, you could win a prize.

The controversy around the Balloon Launch emerged in the 1980s. A passionate group of parents and students expressed concern for the environmental impact of countless balloon fragments on the wildlife and ecosystem of the nearby Potomac River. The outcry had its desired effect. One of the more prominent documents in the file is a hot pink flyer dated October 17, 1989 with the headline, “BALLOON LAUNCH CANCELLED! HALLOWEEN PARADE TO BE HELD AS SCHEDULED!”

The balloon launch controversy had strong partisans on both sides. Parents wrote passionate letters (some handwritten, some composed on typewriters, and some printed on state-of-the-art dot-matrix printers) to Gladys Stern, GDS’s third head of school. (Glady, now 101-years-old, lives in Baltimore). Some parents said that the Balloon Launch was teaching GDS students a callous disregard for the environment. Others called the attack on the Balloon Launch an assault on childhood itself, arguing that by eliminating this tradition, we would rob the school of its joyful essence and that “GDS will no longer be GDS.”

While the missives from parents were predictably artful and compelling (the GDS parent body has always been blessed with an abundance of journalists, policymakers, and attorneys), my favorite letter in the file was from a student—I’m guessing a 4th or 5th grader. While the letter merits reading in its entirety, I’ll simply share an excerpt:

I am very mad about what just happened hear [sic] at GDS…It is one thing to be a vegetarian and love animals and try and ban those things that hurt animals but it is another when you ruin one of GDS’s favorite events which is the Balloon Launch…Ever since I was in kindergarten I loved to see the balloons go up in the air…The people who think the balloon launch should be cancelled should just not watch it. I bet if you took a vote of how many people wanted the balloon launch, I bet you anything that it would be 3/4ths for the balloon launch…That’s like taking away the Christmas Assembly, the Thanksgiving Assembly, the Passover Assembly and the end of the year assembly. You have taken away one of the most awaited things of GDS. Maybe you should ban women from wearing fur coats to GDS functions. When will it end?…I could go on and on about all the mistakes GDS has made but I would not like to do that because I love this school…What if I decided to get 6 or 7 people to ban homework. Would that work?

As much as I love this letter, I am especially struck by the hand-written note that is paperclipped to it. I’m uncertain as to the author, but they appear to have worked at GDS. Here’s what the note says:

Gladys-I thought you would want to see this. What a wonderful commentary on the ability of one of our students to express himself so vehemently on an issue!

The fact of a controversy at GDS is unsurprising. As an intentionally diverse community, it is normal (and healthy) for individuals at GDS to hold different views, views informed by their different perspectives and life experiences. These different views can be the source of controversy. So periodic controversy is in the GDS “DNA.”

That a child is given a voice in the controversy—that their viewpoint or perspective is not merely allowed, but taken seriously and even celebrated, that too is GDS. We see our school’s values reflected so clearly in this drama, in the celebration of this student’s capacity to communicate clearly and powerfully and “vehemently.”

All of this brings me back to our impending move. Whenever we relocate, whether as a family or as an institution, we understandably ask ourselves, “What will this move mean for our identity?” Or, even more boldly stated, “Will we still be us?” The balloon launch drama can help us connect the dots between who we once were and who we are today, a passionate community holding diverse perspectives where discourse is welcome and celebrated.

Perhaps the last word on whether and how our School is changing, and what it means to change, should be given to another alumnus. Julia Fisher ’09 returned to GDS this year as a High School teacher. In the fall she wrote the following reflection on GDS—specifically, on what might be changing, how to make sense of that change, and what is not changing at all.

Above all else I am hearing the rhythms of Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” There is nothing new under the sun. There is a perpetual fear at GDS—there has been as long as I’ve known the place, and I’m told there was long before, too—of Old GDS fading away. Every class thinks it is the last of Old GDS, or at least we did in my era, and I imagine that’s likely still true. But really each student is only here for a time—thirteen years, say, or much less. No one era has any ultimate claim to be the truest or most authentic. But when we think we are the last, or the best, or the most indelible, we are not doing anything new, either. We are thinking of our primacy just as everyone else has thought of theirs—because we all live ineluctably in our own moment and think it the center of the universe.

So here’s to the future, a future of joy, controversy, voice, celebration, and young people who think themselves the center of the universe in all the best ways.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment