Getting your bearings in Baltimore City

Essay: How a boy's geography project became a reporter's assignment.

March 05, 2002|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

I don't know Anthony Giannelli. But if I have anything to do with it - and surprisingly, I do - he's going to get an excellent grade on his fourth-grade geography project. My anxious and unexpected involvement in this project began several weeks ago, when I received a box in the mail containing a stuffed white bear, a laminated journal and the following instructions:

My fourth-grade class is studying the United States regions. I am sending my Ambassabear to collect the information to be shared with everyone in my classroom and school. Please date this journal, tell where my bear is and with whom. Then please send the bear to another home somewhere else in the U.S. The information received by my class will help us learn more about our great land, the United States of America.

I had gotten the bear from a friend in Ohio, who'd gotten it from a friend in Washington state, who'd gotten it from a family in California, who'd gotten it from Anthony, who attends Nathan Hale Elementary School in Schaumburg, Ill., where he will presumably spend the rest of his life in fourth grade unless the rest of us come through for him.

My heart went out to Anthony. It can't be easy to put your yearlong geography project in the hands of total strangers, to wait helplessly in your classroom in Schaumburg, wondering what your bear is doing; hoping no one misplaces it, or spills coffee on its fur, or forgets to return it by the April 2 deadline. Lifting the bear from the box, I was filled with inspiration, eager for the opportunity to make an indelible impression on a hungry young mind, to open a small but significant window onto that great land known as the United States of America.

I put the bear on a shelf and forgot about it.

A week or so later, the phone rang.

"What did you do with the bear?" asked my friend in Ohio. A few weeks ago, when he sent me the bear, he'd warned me there was no time to waste, since the person in Seattle who had sent him the bear had let it languish on a kitchen table for six weeks before mailing it. If I didn't send it along soon, my friend said, Anthony Giannelli's bear might be the least traveled bear in Mrs. Smith's class.

I looked at the class photograph that hung around the bear's neck and found Anthony in the back row, not far from the teacher. He was a slim-shouldered, gap-toothed kid with glasses and uneven bangs. "I can't wait," his shy smile seemed to say, "to read about all the cool adventures my bear has been having, which everyone else in the class is going to hear about, including the tough-looking big kid on the end of the back row who isn't easily impressed, if you know what I'm saying."

As if that weren't enough pressure, I started reading the Ambassabear Journal, and it became painfully clear that our furry wanderer's tour of this great land has been less than inspiring.

"The weather here is nice most of the year," noted my friend in Columbus, Ohio. "Except in the winter when it's gray and cold."

"Your bear is having a wonderful time visiting the Puget Sound area of Washington State. He has gone to third grade with Emily, age 8, Pine Lake Preschool with Charlotte, age 5, and has gone to storytime at the library with Max, age 2."

"We have a neighborhood of warm, friendly, people," wrote someone in Lake Forest, Calif. "The area has shopping and businesses just like Schaumburg. We have big malls."

For Anthony's sake, I had to do better. But what? Back when I was in school, we didn't have Ambassabears. The only creative geography project I ever did involved a cake in the shape of Russia. I baked it for my middle school social studies class the week of Passover and was forced to watch in horror as a group of Jewish kids, realizing that my edible map was leavened, ran to the garbage to spit out half-chewed pieces of Leningrad and Vladivostok.

Now I was nervous. I called Mrs. Smith, Anthony's teacher, and asked her what the other kids' bears have been up to. She tactfully assured me that this isn't a competition, that all the bears are having exciting adventures.

But when I probed further, she revealed that one bear has been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and another to Alaska. And last year, at a school in Connecticut that did the same project, a bear attended a taping of NBC's Tonight Show.

"We were kind of hoping for something like that," Mrs. Smith admitted.

I hung up the phone and considered the possibilities. A trip to Fort McHenry? Too predictable. A game at Camden Yards? Wrong season. A tour of Homicide locations? A gig with the mayor's band? Dinner at a restaurant owned by the brother of the interim head of Afghanistan? If only I lived in Salt Lake City, where every figure skating event would have offered countless opportunities to fling the Ambassabear into the national spotlight.

By now weeks had passed, and Anthony's project was going nowhere. I feared that if I didn't act soon, he would forever associate the City of Baltimore with public disappointment and humiliation. From his perch on the shelf, Ambassabear looked at me sternly. "Anthony's fate is in your hands," the black beady eyes seemed to say. "What are you waiting for? Get me off this shelf and start typing."

Of course. Who doesn't love an animal story? Especially one rife with important life lessons on the perils of procrastination, the monotony of suburbia and the pros and cons of travel by mail in post-anthrax America. Cynics will call this a shameless ploy to get Ambassabear's mug in the pages of a major metropolitan daily.

Fine by me, as long as Anthony Giannelli calls it cool.

Anthony's bear (with a copy of today's paper and a "Destination Maryland" travel guide) was last seen in the post office, bound for Nashville.

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