We sat around a metal picnic table, three grown ups squished on to each bench. "I'm thinking solar panels, all across these flat rooftops," the one with the curly hair said. She held up her hand and gestured grandly toward the roof behind her.
Squinting, I could practically see those dark panels. I imagined them glistening in the September sunshine, the meter churning backwards. I jotted some notes to myself. Grants were a possibility. Perhaps the school might have some extra money lying about someplace that we could tap for this greater greener good.
Eight months later, I passed a father and son doubled over in front of three upended garbage and recycle cans. They methodically separated plastic from metal, hardly noticing the passersby who filed out of the school library. Finally, the son, a teenager, glanced up at me. "We're doing this for the school, not ourselves," he explained, blushing. His father straighted and looked at my friends' and me. "We made over a hundred dollars this week," he grinned.
How wonderful, we gushed. Keep up the good work, someone encouraged. I saw a fourth grade throw a can over there, a friend remarked, rushing to dig it out of a trash can - only to find that the father and son team were steps ahead of us. We thanked them for their hard work and dragged our borrowed ice chest of donated sodas back to the empty locker room.
These sodas were bake sale leftovers from the school-wide rummage sale we held last week. We were selling them for $1.00 a piece and they were far too valuable to simply give away. Sell enough of them, recycle all those bottles and, heck, we might be able to fund the volunteer-led music program for another year.
Last September, I had grand green plans for my son's charter school. Composting and recycling were not enough. I wanted to take it to the next level. But the economy didn't cooperate. The choice between solar panels and a PE program was an easy one. Even for me.
I don't think that solar panels, as dark and elegant as they may have been, however, could have delivered to me the heart-wrenching hope I felt last week. In six weeks, we filled abandoned locker rooms with donations from school families. People who had lived without jobs for months found books and clothing and old bicycles to donate. Families fighting foreclosure gave up toys, kitchenware and baby strollers. Still others, who could not donate things, came to haul, sort, clean, and price. Bleary-eyed at 1am the night before the big sale, I turned to look back at the gymnasium that had been my home for the last three days. The place where I'd made new friends, where I'd shared gardening tips and learned school secrets, where I'd felt dizzy just by looking at the amount of items donated for our school, and I felt hope - true and tingling.
We raised over $17,000 the next day for our little school. An amount almost unthinkable in its enormity yet one that pales compared to the companionship, the community, the collective drive to save something so many people believe in.
We may not have installed solar panels. Our school lunches may not be made of local ingredients. There are no aerators on our bathroom faucets and the paper towels are made from recycled paper only if donated that way.
But we did save thousands of items from the landfill and recycle all of our bottles and cans while doing it. We did allow hundreds of people to acquire new to them goods without the environmental footprint or high price. We did pass on those things that didn't sell to charities - to people who need dress clothes for job interviews, to babies whose parents cannot clothe them, to families freezing in the wilds of Afghanistan, and even to the cats and dogs who sit, lonely and ready for a home, at the local shelter. And we did revel in the generosity of community, the heady elixir of effort and hope. We did raise that money for our school and we did it the only way we could. With hard work and friendship.
And, that mixture, I think, will not only save our community. It will save this planet.