Low attendance doesn’t diminish heart of event

Having been part of the first Earth Day as a thirteen year-old eighth-grader in 1970, I knew what sort of impact such a day could have.

Photos of the morning bicycle parade through downtown and a story about the environmental teach-in at Logan Junior High that evening made the front page of the Altoona Mirror. Hundreds of students from the three junior highs and two high schools road their bikes or walked that day instead of taking the bus or being driven to school. Most school buses were half empty.

The teach-in that night was attended by 400 and was highlighted by a talk by respected Penn State Geography Professor Paul Simkins.

Every science teacher (and many non-science classes) incorporated environmental lessons into their classwork that week. My Science teacher, Mrs. Donna Miles, had all of us complete a written report on environmental problems plaguing the nation and world at the time. It was difficult to get away from the topic, especially for school-aged children.

So when well less than 200 showed up for Altoona’s local event in conjunction with the Global Climate Strike two weeks ago, I was disappointed. Organizers had tried valiantly to muster the grassroots enthusiasm we had seen five decades ago, but the numbers and events were a mere shadow of the 1970 crowds and happenings.

I knew with certainty we were in a different and divisive time when a climate change denier walked past and yelled, “It’s a big lie!”

The widespread concern, impassioned actions, and spontaneity that had marked the first Earth Day was missing. That is, until Amalys Zahrouni, took the microphone. Without notes or preparation, the fifth grader from Foot of Ten Elementary school gave the best speech of the day.

I asked if there was anything in particular that raised her awareness about the environment. She and her classmates had become aware of the plague of plastic pollution in the ocean when they saw the now infamous photo of the turtle with the straw stuck in its nostril. “A lot of the fifth graders have stopped using straws to save the turtles,” Amalys explained.

But the young environmentalist’s concerns and curiosity went beyond turtles. And it was clear she was frustrated so many denied there is anything to worry about. In a Greta Thunberg-type moment, she concluded, “Everybody is in danger, whether they believe it or not,”

It made me wonder how she and the climate change denier who yelled at the crowd earlier came to see the world so differently. So I asked Amalys where she learned about the environment. “I learned things in Science. And I read a lot, too.” I suspected she read much more than the unpleasant cynic who had called out to us.

Fearing that I had become cynical about how committed others were to the cause, I reached out to one of the organizers of the 1970 Teach-In, retired Altoona English teacher, John Orr. Not surprisingly, Orr came out for the September rally. While he admitted he’d like to have seen 500 kids in Heritage Plaza, the lower numbers didn’t discourage him.

“I am a believer in the multitude of actions building into a huge, meaningful wave of action. In that vein, our little rally was a success.”

John Frederick (www.johnjfrederick.com) writes about environmental and science issues every other Wednesday.