By KIMBERLY ANDERSON
On Earth Day 1990, I took a class trip to Washington, D.C., with my high school history and civics instructor. Not everyone went—just those who could afford it and those really interested in the environmental movement. I fell more in the former group. At 16, I jumped at the chance to get away from my parents.
There were five of us students with Mr. Happy Slappy, as we called him, playing off something he’d say when we frustrated him. He’d slap his head, ruffling the hair he combed over his receding hairline, and exclaim, “Well, happy crappy.” We were honors students, but we weren’t beyond exploiting weakness in teachers.
That week, we visited the Capitol, the White House and Arlington National Cemetery with hundreds of students from all over the country. We attended forums where intuitive teens voiced their opinions on important social issues. When Mr. Happy Slappy told us we were going to the Mall to celebrate Earth Day, I thought we were going to shop and hit the food court. We took the metro, jamming ourselves onto a crowded car. I sat with a girl from another high school in Louisville. Her name was Jennifer, and her boyfriend was a long-haired drummer in an ’80s metal cover band. My boyfriend was a long-haired lead singer. We were fast friends, lost in conversation on the metro about our problems with groupies.
I barely heard Mr. Happy Slappy cue us to get off the metro. Jennifer and I never stopped talking, and I remember hearing another passenger yell at us, “You better hit and bite your way off of here,” as we passed nonchalantly through the bodies. We made it to the doors only to watch them slide shut. I could see my history teacher on the other side, eyes wide, mouth curved in a dramatic “No!” As we started off, he ran a little with the tram, waving his arms, but we quickly lost him.
No big deal, I thought. We’d just catch the next metro back. So we did, but there was no history teacher to be found. Okay, no big deal, I thought again and decided to move on to the Mall, still thinking I’d catch up with the group at the food court.
I was so wrong. Underneath the Washington Monument in the vast plain of grass was a literal mass of people. I thought instantly of Woodstock, tie-dye, braless—sometimes shirtless and braless—women everywhere. Then I panicked. Jennifer was no help.
I couldn’t call my parents because they would panic helplessly from hundreds of miles away and ream me for being so irresponsible. So I called my only friend with some logic between the ears, Traci. Traci should have been there; this was really her type of thing. She was smart, bookish and a tad disapproving of my antics. Traci’s advice was to call the hotel. Enjoy the day. Take a taxi back. Luckily, I was loaded up with cash for shopping. The cab ride back would cost $40.
Jennifer and I giggled about our newfound un-chaperoned freedom and the prospect of all those naked people. The only thing environmental I remember about Earth Day 1990 was how stunningly clean the grounds of the Mall were, despite the 500,000 people in attendance.
After reuniting with my group at the hotel, I forged a new relationship with Mr. Worthington, though I think it was out of pity. He was devastated about losing me. The remainder of the trip was just as memorable, but, thankfully, uneventful. My roommate was the most awkward and tormented girl in the school. I groaned when I learned I had to bunk with her. But she turned out to be sweet and accommodating. There was a dance at the end of the trip, and I danced with Michael, a boy in my class who was shy, short and cute, though not my type. He and I remain friends.
For years afterward, I continued to leave a brontosaurus-sized carbon footprint on the world. I graduated college with a bachelor’s in English and got a job with a transportation corporation. My parents teased me about my pre-unemployment major, so I was proud when I got promoted to supervisor.
Within a few years, I worked my way into corporate communications and believed I had flopped into my destiny. My degree now applied to my job, which involved writing, editing and laying out a publication for employees. But then a friend and coworker, Bobbi Buchanan, had a dream about launching her own magazine called New Southerner, and she needed a graphic designer. I signed on. The mission was familiar enough—environmentalism, which had long been my mother’s passion. But more important, the magazine shined a light on where I stood in life.
My husband and I hadn’t wanted much: two baths, a garage and basement, convenience to expressways and a good school for the kids. But I was fettered firmly to suburbia—sidewalks leading to nowhere, strip malls, traffic, SUVs, a corporate job and two industrial-sized garbage cans for our family of four. Then came New Southerner.
That’s when I learned to start small. Step one for me was buying less stuff. Less stuff meant less trash and more money for what I really wanted to do, which was to work less and mother my children. Then came the leap of faith. I left my job all together. I chose breastfeeding over baby formula. I used cloth diapers when possible. I ate less, but better. I shopped at farmers markets. I lost my lust for red meat. So much was driven by lack of money. Our footprint got smaller by attrition.
In celebrating the 40-year anniversary of Earth Day and the five-year anniversary of New Southerner with my partner Bobbi, I have some new moves to make. And I feel lost, yet again. Save the whales. Eat organic. Protect the rainforests. Support local businesses. I’ve written my representative about the need for sidewalks in the neighborhood, the devastation of mountaintop removal mining and the harmful effects of agribusiness. But how can I be sustainable when the reusable mug my mother got me to fill at convenience stores was made in China (she didn’t read the label)? And why isn’t there free recycling pickup where I live?
It reminds me of New Year’s resolutions—the agony of reflecting on old goals unmet, the stress of refining new ones. How can I resolve to change the world when I am still smoking? Lost on Earth Day is every day for me. But hey, at least I’m using my college degree.
Kimberly Anderson is a contributing editor for New Southerner. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with her husband, Jim, and sons, James and Parker.