Back to 1991 - A Time Capsule and a Dream

I wonder where my head was at in 1991? What was I into? I have a pretty good idea I think, but I'm sure there's something I've forgotten about. I almost even forgot about the time capsule.

I pursued its whereabouts back in 2001 and a little bit beyond, but was stonewalled, and then today, out of the blue, comes word — pick up your time capsule.

Rumour has it they were never buried — probably left for dead in a pile of junk at the bottom of some dusty storage room, but I have it now.

In 1991 I was in fourth grade at Dorothy Lynas Elementary School in North Vancouver. The school was brand new, and we were the first group of students in it. Now the school looks old. I remember thinking we had such a cool new building mostly because it had digital clocks. This was a major coup back in the analog days! The paint was fresh and the floors bright. The students at this new school came from several surrounding schools as the population had boomed in the area, so for this first year, we were all in effect — new.

My teacher was a man named Anthony Hassard, or Tony Hassard as he was mostly known, and he is a man I am most indebted to. For one, I was a geek. I sucked at pretty much every sport. I wussed out of soccer as a youngster after getting beaned in the face with the ball. I stopped swimming because I didn't want to go underwater and my instructor forced me under against my will — no more swimming. I didn't take much to pressure and authority in those days. I also had no real direction. I used to spend my days riding around on my bicycle pretending I was in a car — playing out imaginary cops and robber scenarios in my head. I was liked well enough, but spent a lot of time alone — independent by nature and default — a loner. There weren't a lot of options for a kid like me.

Mr. Hassard was weird, but thinking back the man left more of a mark on my life than almost anyone I have ever met, yet I hardly know him, nor do I know anything about him now. Last I heard he had gone scenile. To be honest, I'm not sure if he's even alive — such are the rumours that make teachers into legends long after your time together. If he is around I hope that he reads this and can appreciate how rich these memories are for me even to this day.

His weirdness wasn't the kind of weird that we have now, riddled with tattoos and large gauge tunnel piercings, his weird was an intellectual kind of weird.

His dream in 1991 was to link us up with our pen pals in Sierra Leone via satellite, so that we could speak face-to-face, so to speak. It was a dream he had been chasing for years before I was in his class. The dream was called Project Telstar, and if my memory serves me correctly it was going to cost some $200,000 dollars for us to make it happen. In the meantime we would write to our pen pals, mine was Abdul Ghandi from Freetown, Sierra Leone, and send drawings, pictures, and even audio recordings. It was an elaborate project for a 9/10 year old, but 20 years later I remember the details as vividly as I remember crying at the sound of my own voice played back on audio cassette. So self conscious was I.

This is the first time I've thought about Abdul and even the town of Freetown since fourth grade, yet I still remembered his name in an instant.

I think about Project Telstar now as if it were all still that complicated. I still can't fathom it happening despite the obvious innovations in technology and the internet since. In my mind connecting with people in a war torn other side of the world is still this grotesquely complex task, but that's what makes it amazing. At that time communicating on that level was a dream, and to me it still is.

Mr. Hassard not only dreamt big, but he was a man on top of innovation. He had a Sony 8mm video camera with 10x Power Zoom. We would use it to film different projects. So fascinated by this was I that I even volunteered to film the school's Wizard of Oz production. It was a somewhat fortuitous occurrence for me. With my paper route money I bought a cheaper RCA knock-off of the same Sony Camcorder and started making videos of things. Later in my life I went to film school and became a videographer/cinematographer and now focus on video and film production for a living.

On top of all of this we researched countries, but not like other classes researched countries. We had to make calls to consulates and embassies for promotional material. My country was Norway. Imagine being 9 years old in the pre-internet age and getting a giant envelope full of glossy brochures and a letter from the Consulate General of Norway? It certainly trumped the one from Tony the Tiger that I received in grade two when my mom signed me up and paid through the nose for me to join the club and be Grrrreat!

On top of that we organized our own field trip to Chinatown. We took the bus and organized it all ourselves with little help from the teacher. He really believed in us as little people. I wonder if I would have the same trust in a nine year old?

For a guy who was teeming with brilliant academic ideas and a zeal for inspiring in the classroom he also made another important contribution to my life outside of the classroom. Mr Hassard, 52 at the time, had recently quit smoking and taken up distance running as part of the life change. Rather than go it alone he started a distance running club that met 3 times a week at 7:00am. At 9 years old I was running 6-10km 3 times a week at 7am. I can barely muscle that out now. This tradition continued and I had run The Vancouver Sun Run 5 times before my 14th birthday. I have continued running ever since and that also parlayed itself into a serious high school mountain bike racing career.

I wish I could say that I was an early running prodigy, but to be honest, I totally sucked. I would enter track meets and get beat by girls. I was painfully slow, but I did it anyway. I was included in this sport unlike other sports I tried out for. This was somewhere I could do my best and the challenge was to beat myself, not others. Later on I actually became quite competitive in local track and cross country meets, but at that moment in time I sucked. It didn't matter one bit.

Recently I had to deal with some all consuming personal challenges and the only way I could deal with them was to run. I would just put my shoes on and run — sometimes quite furiously. I've tried a number of morally compromising ways to deal with frustrations, but running has always taken the cake. I can't imagine my life had I not had all of these experiences at such a young age. Where would I be now? I had all the makings of a potential delinquent, and despite a few major mistakes along the way, I have managed to stay out of that trough. I owe this in large part to the teachings, musings and inspirations of Mr. Tony Hassard — the man who taught me about Goldberg machines, satellites, communication, innovation, focus, big dreams, solitude, and inner strength. It's weird to think that fourth grade would turn out to be the most important year of my life, but everything that has come after that year has only built on what I learned then. It's a real testament to the power of an inspired teacher.

So I'm sitting here staring at this time capsule and I'm overwhelmed by a strange calm. I want to know what's in there, yet I want to savour the unknowing for a while. Somehow I feel what I find inside of this 20 year old manila envelope is going to be moving and I want to savour that moment. The older I get the more the world becomes somewhat overwhelming. I feel more and more ant-like everyday. Simple feelings that I once could explain have given way to a dull ache that is totally unexplainable until you feel it for yourself. It's a feeling of helplessness mixed with this boyish wonder and ambivalence at how incredible this world is, and how amazingly significant each moment is for me, but also how small that massive feeling is in the big picture.

At that time in the world Operation Desert Storm was in full swing, Brian Mulroney, George Bush Senior, and Margaret Thatcher were all running countries. There was also a guy called Schwarzkopf. The internet was space age technology. People listened to audio cassette tapes and rented movies on VHS from the local movie store. The Simpsons were relatively new and not many would see it as a pop culture tour de force. Corner stores still existed. People conversed face-to-face or at least by phone. There was a hole in the ozone layer. Recycling was a new thing. Aerosol cans were under a hailstorm of bad press. Gas was cheap. People still drove cars, not SUVs. People were poor in Africa and people from other nations around the world new so little of how much they had.

At that time in the world there was a man named Tony Hassard that had a dream, a seemingly impossible giant dream, to have a simple conversation face-to-face with a group of kids on the other side of the world to show a bunch of suburban kids on this side of the world what life was like somewhere else. Maybe what we would have discovered, and I suspect Mr. Hassard knew this all along, was that people on the other side of the world were not unlike ourselves. They too yearned for a simple connection.

Despite where I am at, and how much has changed from then until now, today I'm that wide eyed awkward fourth grader, full of wonder and humbled by the immense possibility that exists out there in the world — somewhere.

Chris Stenberg is a Canadian travel photographer, filmmaker and researcher. When he’s not wielding a camera or raising a family you can find him running, biking and boarding in the mountains or eating an apple under a tree in an orchard.