A couple of Fridays ago, I had the privilege of helping this year’s Topsy Turvy Bus crew through the Staten Island portion of their tour. By this point, I had already been managing the Topsy Turvy blog page (and thus keeping pace with the tour’s zany and inspiring adventures and misadventures) and generally fulfilling the varied and colorful duties of a Teva summer intern for a few weeks. I do not mean to suggest that I believed myself to have a firm grasp on what to expect when I concluded the combined two hour train, bus, and car ride that would take me to Staten Island for the first time and walked up the JCC Camp parking lot to the upside down school bus. On the contrary, in fact–many years had passed since my last days at Jewish day camp, and college had not afforded me ample time to interact with children. As I approached that beloved, bio-fueled behemoth of a bus at the center of a buzzing throng of excited children, I knew only that I would sleep well that night. I did not know that my views towards its cross country sustainability mission would have changed so dramatically by the time I closed my eyes.
The beginning of the shift in my outlook began with a question a camper asked Emily after the group of second grade boys settled comfortably on the bus’s three cushioned platforms and reluctantly heeded their counselors’ instructions to remove their feet from the crew’s pillows:
“Where do you go to the bathroom?”
He had seen the decorative strands of hanging lights, the throw pillows, the sink, the kitchen counter atop which I sat—surely a bus this well supplied would provide for such a basic daily need?
Emily answered with another question, which I would come to recognize as a typical practice for Teva educators in full teaching mode.
“Well, where do you go to the bathroom when you’re on road trips with your families?” she asked.
She nodded when a camper answered with “a gas station,” and then she launched into the seitan and potatoes of the presentation: “Do you think this bus has to stop for gas?”
There was a smattering of yes’s and no’s but nothing further, so Emily asked me to pass her the glass jar of vegetable oil next to me and held it up to the group. This, she explained to the fascinated campers, is veggie oil, and it fuels the bus. “Can anyone tell me what we use veggie oil for?”
“Well, yes, technically all those things. How many of you like French fries?” she asked, and to the bus of raised hands she continued, “We go to restaurants that serve yummy fried foods like French fries, donuts, and chicken fingers, and we ask them to give us their used frying oil to fuel our bus.” She then asked me to hand her a jar of brownish oil, and explained that this was what the oil looked like when they picked it up from restaurants. The twirling tubes she pointed out took the oil through a centrifuge, which spins very quickly and separated the clean oil from the floating bits of food. These bits of food, she continued, as I handed her a jar of sticky, blackish goop (so far my job was proving fairly easy), then became food for the bus’s pets.
“What kind of pets do you think we have on the bus that love this food?”
Alas, it was not dolphins, but worms—though perhaps Emily’s explanation made worms seem almost as cool as dolphins. By eating the goop and—Emily opted for frankness over delicacy, prompting some giggles—pooping it out, the worms were able to make soil, which could grow more vegetables, which in turn could produce more vegetable oil. Silence, and then one camper lightly smacked himself upside the head and shouted, “Oh!” There were many more questions, but the fifteen minute time limit per rotation session soon pushed the campers to the following station, which would explore composting and worms in greater detail and even allow for some digging. While the next two or three groups unfolded in much the same way, I found my mind kept drifting back to the lack of a bathroom. There were five people living on this bus together, sleeping foot-to-face at night without even the temporary personal space of a consistent bathroom. How passionate about environmental education do you have to be to do that and greet children on a ninety five degree day with a smile?
I learned during the dizzying fifteen minute lunch/bathroom/meet-the-crew/orient-the-intern break both that the crew had attempted sleep in the parking lot last night and had largely failed because of the heat and that today, with their typical programming time cut in half to accommodate the hundreds of campers of different age groups, was one of their most hectic days on the tour. Yaakov had said that he could use some help with the bicycle blender station, so I followed him to the lime green stationary bike on the basketball court.
For those less accustomed to their bicycle associations overlapping with those of their blender, the Bike Blender is a stationary, lime green, wheel-less bike sporting a detachable blender. Its design allows the forward motion of its pedals to rotate the blender’s blade, thus allowing for wireless, human-powered smoothies within minutes. Over the course of roughly three hours, I would become fairly adept at smoothie literacy and arm biking. “Smoothie literacy” here refers to putting fruit and juice into a blender and pouring the resulting smoothie into cups. “Arm biking” refers to pushing the pedals with my hands when campers were too short to see both pedals through their full rotations or when a cup-full of frozen strawberries proved particularly difficult to blend with feet alone. These newly acquired ‘skills’ freed up Yaakov to focus on teaching the campers about what he called the “smoothie cycle”: Plants get their energy from the sun, we get our energy from plants (or animals that eat those plants), this energy allows us to pedal bike blenders, which allows us to drink the smoothies, which gives us the energy to learn and maybe grow those plants again. Of course, Yaakov’s teaching was far more engaging than a rote chain of cause and effect. He would ask the campers where they got their energy (“sleeping was the most common answer, followed closely by the correct answer, “food”), what they did with their energy (“Running!” “Kickball!” Riding a bike!”), where bananas come from (the best response, if incorrect, was “monkeys!”), and why a blender that did not rely on electricity might be good for us and for the world.
The answers to this question caused an unexpected frustration to mix (or blend, if you will) with the happy exhaustion of working with hundreds of children. Campers as old as twelve had not yet learned about the existence, let alone issues attributed to, the fossil fuel industry. And while Yaakov happily introduced the children to the these and to the concept and practice of using renewable (versus nonrenewable) resources when time permitted, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat overwhelmed. My generation will be defined, in part, by its ability to effectively navigate accelerating climate change, plummeting biodiversity levels, and the general depletion of ubiquitous and highly convenient nonrenewable resources. Left uninterrupted, these environmental issues have led, and will continue leading to, devastating and potentially irreversible consequences worldwide. Could helping a small child push a pedal to blend frozen blueberries really make a difference in the face of such tremendous challenges?
Falling asleep that night, I realized that I had known the answer even as I asked it. Of course helping campers pedal bicycle smoothies can make a difference. The gravity of the environmental issues facing us today is powerful enough that people allow it to suck in and swallow creativity and humor. Teva, however, is an educational force fighting that pull. It forgoes the somber self righteousness and almost reverent hopelessness that plagues so many environmental educators and organizations and opts instead to foster a sense of wonder and possibility in those who will one day become powerful agents of of Tikkun Olam (rebuilding the world). Images of oil-crusted pelicans and decimated rainforests are in no way unimportant in affecting change, but they are not necessarily keys into the world of activism. Thinking outside the box and discovering the “extra” component of the once-ordinary–learning that veggie oil can fuel a bus, that ordinary worms can make soil, that our feet can power a blender–these are the skills that invite people, and especially children, to learn, to act, and to effectuate positive change throughout their lives. It is because of, and not despite, the magnitude of today’s environmental issues that Teva’s Topsy Turvy Bus happily trades in toilets for tabletop composting and personal space for peanut butter. They recognize that creativity and curiosity are two of sustainability’s greatest allies.