Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lets do it!

If I remember correctly. Corning, New York (my home town) is a clean place. People generally don't throw their trash in the river. If there is a garbage can you won't see kids, young adults, even old adults throwing their trash on the ground next to it. As a teen I spent a lot of time downtown rollerblading. Living in a clean place instilled decent values in me. During many of those long days downtown on 8 wheels I carried wrappers in my pocket or empty coke bottles until I found a trash can to unload in. It was normal and that made it easy. By taking care of my own trash I was not at all special. It was just something that everyone did. Petrosani is different than Corning.

For there being so many trash cans on the street I was seeing an awful lot of trash on the street. It wasn't something that really popped out at me at first. The more that my Romanian counterparts, friends, and acquaintances mentioned their "dirty country" the more I noticed dirty things. The only obviously trashy parts of the area are the streams and rivers where rainstorms displace the garbage of the freshly dog scrounged, overflowing dumpsters into the local waterway. The "problem" really hit me when I was walking behind one of my students on my back to my block after dropping a bag of my own garbage into my dumpster. He was only about two meters from the trash can when I spotted him dropping a wrapper of a candy bar on the ground. "Razvan, pick that up and put it in the trash can" I said. My limited Romanian, at the time, combined with some English and some useful body language to get the point across and Razvan obeyed. I have pondered and discussed that experience a lot since it happened and I have come to the conclusion that while in Corning it was normal to through trash in the can, here it just simply isn't. At least not yet. Razvan is not a bad kid at all. He's actually one of my better behaved students and a pleasure to have in class. His practice of throwing his trash on the ground was just something that he has always done, and has seen others doing.

So last fall, in my "don't turn down an invitation" part of service I was invited along on a trash pick-up. On a Saturday when I could have been lying in bed, watching a movie, and being lazy, instead I was pulling rubber gloves over my hands and grabbing hold of a trash bag. Did I mention there was a free t-shirt involved? A green t-shirt (my favorite color) that said Omaha Nebraska on it. Maybe I'll go there someday. If I go there I have a great shirt to wear showing my support for a town that I currently know nothing about. On trash pick-up day 2010 I pulled that same shirt over my head and headed for city hall. Trash pick-up day 2010 was special for a couple of reasons. Reason number one was that it wasn't just a small group of 30-some highschoolers and a couple of teachers, it was a nation-wide campaign to clean up all of Romania. Reason number two was that it wasn't just on any random day, it was on my 25th birthday. I made it to a quarter century!!! Reason number three was that I was with a really cool friend who, when I told her that our weekend activity was picking up trash, became just as excited as I was.

Lets do it Romania! as I understand it is modeled after a successful Estonian project several years ago; a project that cleaned up the entire country of Estonia in a single day. While last years trash pick-up consisted mostly of students with few teachers involved, Lets do it Romania! was more for the common citizen. Anybody could make a team, register that team, and finally that team would be responsible for cleaning up a certain part of Romania. As I approached city hall it already appeared that my town was ready to get to work. People packed into the meeting hall as a lady called out the team names and the area of the region that they would be responsible for cleaning up. On our way out of the hall I was handed a water and a small bag which included a piece of fruit and some sponge cake. From there we walked to the spot on the edge of town to begin our work.

My team was made up of half teachers and half students. We were responsible for cleaning up a creek and nearby road that was located just beyond Aeroport, the southern most neighborhood in my city. My friend and I seemed to hold up the rear. She was so determined to fish the potato-chip bag, or the shoe, or the shirt out of the middle of the creek. If there was a piece of debris that she couldn't manage to reach she would seem so bummed. I admire her determination. Anyway eventually we caught up to the rest. As we reached the bottom of the road we added our two heavy bags (full of water-logged trash, clothing) to the already huge pile of trash. We were already finished.

Ten years ago if you told me that I would one day go and pick up trash for fun I would call you crazy. There I was on a cloudy, somewhat rainy Saturday morning, on my birthday none-the-less, with friends and students having a blast picking up trash. I don't know actually how effective these trash pick-ups actually are. I hear from a lot doubters that if I walk by that same spot two weeks from the time of the clean-up, it'll be yet again covered in trash. Maybe they're right, maybe there really isn't way to clean up Romania. For me it wasn't all that much about the cleaning anyway. It was more about the conversations that I had on the walk with my students. It was about the determination of my friends and my students to get that shirt out of the middle of the stream. It was about getting your feet wet and your hands dirty just to get the cup that was half buried in the sand under the water. It was about the smiles, the good pictures taken and the working together. Razvan was there. He was the only student from his class that was present. Maybe next time I'm walking behind him I won't have to remind him to put the trash in the trash can.

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