EAU CLAIRE, Michigan. In this homogenous town in southwest Michigan, where 91% of the residents are white, middle-school children lead a sheltered life as they are chauffered from home to school and soccer in oversize American-made sport utility vehicles. So when sixth-grade teacher Carol Oberg began to teach a social studies unit on genocide in the former Balkan nation of Freedonia, she encountered a roomful of blank stares.
“These kids had never heard of Freedonia, or the Balkans, or even Europe, for that matter,” Oberg recalls with disbelief. “They thought SpongeBob SquarePants was Secretary of State.”
So Oberg designed a class project to teach her students tolerance towards others; they would attempt to collect enough used dental floss to create a single strand as long as the earth’s diameter at the equator–7,926.41 miles–to show that all people are connected, or something like that.
“We thought about doing something on the Irish potato famine, but we don’t have the facilities to store produce here,” Oberg says. “Dental floss is much better, assuming it hasn’t got spinach stuck to it.”
The class project was modelled after one undertaken by a middle-school in Whitwell, Tennessee, which attempted to collect six million paper clips, one for each victim of the Nazi holocaust. The project was so successful it spawned a movie and ended up collecting 28 million paper clips, touching off violence against Masons, Jews, Poles and gypsies around the world to make up the difference.
Freedonia is a mythical Balkan country that forms the setting for the Marx Brothers’ movie “Duck Soup.” It is surrounded by Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aston-Martin, Pouilly-Fuisse and other upscale consumer brands, and was the scene of sectarian and ethnic violence throughout the 20th century. “Today, most people can’t even find where Freedonia was on a map,” says Eino Ortugen, executive director of the Freedonian-American Cultural Society of Michigan, as tears form in his eyes. When a reporter points out that this is because the country was imaginary, he becomes proudly defiant, asking “What’s your point?”
The dental floss project has expanded from a program that focussed on history and culture to one that has connections to many other subjects in the school’s curriculum. “My cat Rocco digs dental floss out of the wastebasket and eats it,” says Courtney Oxford, a sixth grader. “Then we find it in his kitty box, so we know he can’t digest it.”
Parents here disagree on the academic value of the program, with some saying it was well-meaning but soft-headed busy work that kept their kids from advancing further in math and reading. But all agree on one thing–they don’t want the dental floss back when the school year ends this Friday.
So what does Oberg plan to do with it all? “The object of the Dental Floss Project was to spruce up my resume so that I can get a better job next year,” she says, and indeed she will move to a new position in Bloomfield Hills, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the state, next fall. “For all I care they can dump it in Lake Michigan.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collections “Hail, Freedonia!” and “The Spirit of Giving.”