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School Notes: Hot Air, and Big Ideas in West Fairlee

  • Brian Boland of Post Mills and Jeff Johnson of Warwick, R.I., take off attached to a hot air balloon with a harness at Westshire Elementary School on Tuesday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Brian Boland of Post Mills and Jeff Johnson of Warwick, R.I., take off attached to a hot air balloon with a harness at Westshire Elementary School on Tuesday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brian Boland deflates the balloon after landing. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Brian Boland deflates the balloon after landing. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brian Boland and Jeff Johnson get ready for takeoff. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Brian Boland and Jeff Johnson get ready for takeoff. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Inside the balloon in the school gym, first-grade teacher Alyssa Reiser looks at the hands that have been traced on the surface with Elisia Sonsalla and Hal Ballou. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Inside the balloon in the school gym, first-grade teacher Alyssa Reiser looks at the hands that have been traced on the surface with Elisia Sonsalla and Hal Ballou. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sixth-grader Alexzandria Gritsavage helps kindergartner Zander Clark trace his hand on the balloon’s surface. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Sixth-grader Alexzandria Gritsavage helps kindergartner Zander Clark trace his hand on the balloon’s surface. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • From left, Westshire Elementary School students Lily Otis, Hal Ballou, Norah Lumbra, Olivia Blanchard and Isabelle Perreault, left front, Elijah Mansur watch. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    From left, Westshire Elementary School students Lily Otis, Hal Ballou, Norah Lumbra, Olivia Blanchard and Isabelle Perreault, left front, Elijah Mansur watch. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Brian Boland of Post Mills and Jeff Johnson of Warwick, R.I., take off attached to a hot air balloon with a harness at Westshire Elementary School on Tuesday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Brian Boland deflates the balloon after landing. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Brian Boland and Jeff Johnson get ready for takeoff. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Inside the balloon in the school gym, first-grade teacher Alyssa Reiser looks at the hands that have been traced on the surface with Elisia Sonsalla and Hal Ballou. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Sixth-grader Alexzandria Gritsavage helps kindergartner Zander Clark trace his hand on the balloon’s surface. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • From left, Westshire Elementary School students Lily Otis, Hal Ballou, Norah Lumbra, Olivia Blanchard and Isabelle Perreault, left front, Elijah Mansur watch. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Even the students least excited to be at Westshire Elementary School last Tuesday morning couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the scene that awaited them, as Post Mills balloonist Brian Boland and his friend Jeff Johnson inflated a yellow-and-green striped hot air balloon on the soccer field.

Briefly in West Fairlee, iPods, computer games and text messages were no competition for students’ attention, as they scurried off the school bus to find prime viewing spots. “That’s cool” and “awesome” were common superlatives thrown around by students. Others merely stood, mouths agape, gazing at the spectacle on the soccer field.

“They’re lucky,” said 9-year-old Lexi Garrow, of the balloon riders. Her friend Matika Lynch didn’t share the enthusiasm.

“No, thank you. I think I would die,” Lynch declared.

Meanwhile, Boland and Johnson had stepped into homemade seatbelt harnesses, rigged with carabiners, to ride the balloon without a basket, and were hard at work igniting the propane burner. After a few false starts, they had a successful liftoff. As they drifted away, Boland called down to say that when he and Johnson returned, “I’m going to tell you the story behind this, OK?”

“Awesome sauce!” Nolan Yvon, 10, exclaimed. He and his friend Conner Tatro were enjoying a moment of playground fame, after holding up the balloon’s opening as Boland and Johnson filled it with air.

“Was it awesome holding it?” Meadow Yvon asked her brother and his friend.

“It felt like it was going to blow us away,” Tatro said.

About 15 minutes after takeoff, Boland and Johnson landed in a homeowner’s yard in nearby Post Mills, narrowly missing the rooftop. It was yet another improvised landing for Boland, a jovial, 6-foot-3-inch man who’s routinely touched ground in private yards in more than 40 years of ballooning, and is forever in search of his next adventure.

His next journey begins today, when he plans to board a plane at Boston’s Logan International Airport, and travel to Costa Rica, then to Nicaragua and Panama, bringing the balloon he flew over Westshire.

The journey began with the visit to Westshire, as students there will be connected by Boland’s balloon project to schoolchildren in Central America.

After landing last Tuesday and reloading the balloon and gear in the back of a van, Boland and Johnson returned to Westshire, and spread the deflated balloon on the gymnasium floor, where students and teachers gathered. When the balloon was spread out on the floor, the hands and names of children, outlined and written in Sharpie markers, were visible. Boland had brought the balloon to Thetford Elementary School a week earlier for children to sign, and now Westshire’s students had a chance to do the same.

The lightweight nylon balloon was built for his trip to Central America, Boland told the students. “We’re going there and visiting schools and doing what we did today,” he said. It’s a project Boland calls “Hands Around the World.” He hopes to eventually take the balloon around the globe in 80 days, a la Jules Verne, allowing for transatlantic plane travel, to have children from all corners of the globe sign it.

As if seeing a hot air balloon in their school gym wasn’t exciting enough, students at Westshire erupted after Boland told them that by signing, “you each automatically get seven years of good luck.”

After finding empty spots on the balloon, students took different approaches. Some outlined their hands and wrote their names inside. Others added their birth dates or the name of their school. A few left messages for a classmate named Ben, who’s living in Costa Rica with his family for the year.

Leara King, 7, put a peace sign inside her outlined hand. “I really like peace signs, and I like peace,” she said.

Fifth-grader Eadie Molesworth decorated her hand with a Livestrong bracelet, then helped kindergartner Christian Ditcheos.

“Put your hand right there,” Molesworth told Ditcheos, helping him place his hand on an unmarked portion of the balloon. “Now you write your name inside of it.”

Boland and Johnson capped their visit by partially inflating the balloon once again, this time allowing students and teachers to enter as it sat on its side. Kids ran around, trying to find their hands on the inflated balloon, and many jumped around in what resembled a bouncy castle.

“It’s right there,” said Zach Dexter, 12, pointing to his hand in the flapping balloon. “It’s the one that looks like scribbles.”

“We all have the same name, so we put ours together,” said Morgan Wagner, 10, after she and friends Morgan Severance, 11, and Morgan Goodrich, 12, found their names.

Last Tuesday was a successful test run for Boland’s balloon trip. In Central America, he will face the additional hurdle of a language barrier, as well as the fact that “none of these schools know we’re coming.”

In the past, Boland hasn’t always taken such details into account as he’s executed his ambitious ideas. He famously didn’t seek permission from the town of Thetford before constructing the large Vermontasaurus sculpture from salvaged materials on his Post Mills property, and the structure ran into opposition from neighbors upset over traffic and noise that visitors were causing.

He’s traveling to a country where he knows little more than the local word for “beer,” and will be dropping in on schools unannounced. (He did have his ballooning equipment OK’d by the FAA and Transportation Security Administration before boarding his plane today.)

Yet Boland is not concerned about what reaction he might get from local people in Central America when he takes his balloon there. He’s managed to land his balloon by surprise in the past in rural South America, where residents had never seen a hot air balloon, and conveyed to them what he was doing. “There’s ways of communicating that get a dialogue going without having to speak each other’s language,” he said.

“I’m looking to have my life enhanced,” Boland added, “by interacting with people from a foreign country and people that are so wonderful, happy, innocent.”

Boland’s balloon trip to Westshire infused some magic into an otherwise ordinary school day, much to the delight of students, though teachers would be hard-pressed to match the excitement of the morning. As Assistant Principal Tammy MacQueen said, “We’re going to have to really make math fun this afternoon.”

Events

The Oxbow Union High School Drama Club will perform Jim Cariani’s romantic comedy Almost, Maine at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the school auditorium. Almost, Maine is the drama’s club entry in this year’s Vermont Drama Festival. Admission is by donation.

Deans’ Lists

Jacquelyn Potter of White River Junction was named to the dean’s list at Bentley University. Stephanie Parker of Windsor was named to the dean’s list at New England College.

School Notes runs each Tuesday. Email news and announcements to kbryan@vnews.com.