Message in a Very, Very Safe Bottle

Hi Readers! Here’s a cool story from the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, California. Can you spot the ridiculous safety precaution? Betcha can!

Long Beach pupils’ message in a bottle gets a reply — 10 years later

By Kevin Butler, Staff Writer
LONG BEACH – In 1999, a third-grade class at Mark Twain Elementary wrote letters that were put into bottles and dropped in the Pacific Ocean.  Incredibly, 10 years later – and from nearly 3,500 miles away – the school received a reply.

The bottle containing the May 25, 1999, letter was found June 20 on the shore of Sand Island, a coral island that is part of the Midway Atoll, located about 3,480 miles from Long Beach in the Pacific Ocean.

Sand Island is about one-third of the way between Honolulu and Tokyo.

Lisa Dougan, who taught the third-grade class that authored the messages, said she never expected to get any replies after so many years….

Greg Goldsmith, who was working on the atoll as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said his son found the bottle on the shore when the child was helping clean up the area. At first Goldsmith was skeptical when his son Louis told him about the bottle.

“I thought, ‘Come on, he’s got to be joking,”‘ he said. “We looked at it, started reading it (and) realized that it … had been floating around in the ocean for 10 years,” he said. The letter read: May 25, 1999

Dear Finder,

What country are you from? Wheat (sic) date did you get this letter? When you get this letter please write back to me.

Mark Twain Elementary/ Ms. Dougan 3rd Grade/ Long Beach, CA 90808 USA

Senserly (sic), #16

Dougan said she had the students put numbers rather than names due to security concerns. She doesn’t recall the identity of student No. 16.

The teacher used numbers for security reasons? As the reader who sent this story to Free-Range Kids asks: “Would pirates have tracked the kid down by name if he had signed it ‘Freddie’?”

Hey, you can’t be too careful on the high seas.  — Lenore

43 Responses

  1. But the pirates could’ve shown up and stood outside the school and asked every boy, “Are you Freddie?” “Are you Freddie?” “Is your name Freddie?” “Do you know Freddie?” “No, not that one — we want the one from Ms. Dougan’s class!”

    [eyeroll]

    Angie

  2. So now no kid gets to say, “Hey! My letter was found in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 10 years later!” Way to destroy harmless joy, teacher #12.

  3. @Angie.

    No, no.

    “ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRE you Freddie?”

    A flip of the eyepatch to complete the effect would be lovely. 🙂

  4. I love this! I did message in a bottle as a child and also once message on a balloon and I remember getting a response at least twice. I was so excited to receive a postcard from strangers.

    Definitely do this with your children, even if you don’t get a reply, just writing the note and throwing the bottle in the sea is exciting for children.

    The name = # is of course ridiculous!

  5. That’s a cool story. Except for the number thing. The kid will never know his letter was found, and how excited he should be about it.

  6. I am not a number. I am a free (range) man: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prisoner

  7. Ah, but you’re forgetting about the danger the replier is putting himself in, opening correspondence with a minor. For all he knows, Chris Hansen sent out MILLIONS of these “bottles” in the hopes that just one guy would write back saying “You sound cute- let’s meet so I can give you your bottle back.

  8. @ EazieCheeze Drat, you been me to it.

    I was getting worried that the punch line would be that the guy who took his son to Sand Island wasn’t going to let him write back because the letter might have been a ploy from pedophile.

    Wow, I guess it’s not that hard to jump to the worst case possibility. I think I just earned my helicopter tail rotor badge.

  9. I feel like that teacher should have at least kept her list of the students so she could tell them if they got any responses!

  10. Thanks for the laugh this morning.

    At least we can all sleep soundly tonight knowing that student # 16 is safe yet again.

  11. @ #2 – Damn, you beat me to the obvious Prisoner reference! *hangs geek head in shame*

    Lenore – of course the kid would have had to worry about pirates showing up at his door. Have you not seen the Monty Python skit with the rebel insurance pirates and their giant building ship wrecking havoc on the downtown streets of London? Just think about the damage they could have done to the property values!

  12. As a teacher – we are not legally allowed to put kids real names on projects like this. So please stop blaming the teacher. Having students use pen names and using real names can be the difference between getting permission and not getting permission.

    My students create pen names for themselves – and they have a blast. I keep them in hard copy and on my computer. Everything they publish on the web is done under their pen name.

    If they get a response after they leave my room – I can forward the information to their web locker as long as they are in our district.

    My kids are creating posts about indestructible animals they invented. I’ll post a link when we are finished and you all can tell me if their enjoyment is watered down just because they are using a pen name – like the names all of you post under. Very few look like real names to me – and considering some of the names I see at my school my view of “normal” legal names is quite wide reaching.

  13. Just as an aside, also a literacy-promotion project – when I was stationed in New England in the Navy in the 70s I had a shipmate who was a huge H. P. Lovecraft fan. (Whoops, can’t have adolecents reading that – it might give them nightmares. Put on a Freddy Kruger movie instead.) Anyway Bill would scour the junk stores around New London for antique bottles, and then would handwrite (on 100% rag, with a cartridge pen) these first-person Lovecraftian stories about a wooden sailing ship in the North Atlantic that had been taken over by A Giant Horrible Invisible Thing And I Am The Only One Left Alive, But Not For Long! Then he would stain the paper with Lipton’s tea, dry it on the line, roll the story up and put it in the bottle which he would then seal with a cork and some wax, and toss it in Long Island Sound as the tide was going out. Great fun. Do kids even read Lovecraft any more?

  14. This is sad; it would have been wonderful for the sender and receiver to have a conversation.

  15. dang, other people beat me to the Prisoner ref : )

    that’s the looniest thing I have heard in a long time. glad all those (now) teenagers are safe…

  16. I really thought this was going to be about this story:
    http://www.royalgazette.com/siftology.royalgazette/Article/article.jsp?articleId=7d9972f30030010&sectionId=60 about a girl whose bottle was found.

    And really– couldn’t all this talk of pirates have waited just another couple of days until “Talk Like a Pirate Day”? Arrrr…. http://www.talklikeapirate.com/

  17. I love this story, even though the number thing is stupid.

  18. From a certain point of view, it makes sense to use pen names (numbers is going a bit far): if you drop the bottled message in the ocean, it’s probably not going to travel very far. For every Louis on Sand Island finding a bottle ten years later, there are probably a thousand beachcombers finding bottles within 24 hours and a hundred feet of launch.

  19. @kherbert, That makes sense. IF you keep a list of who used what pen name. But this teacher didn’t.

  20. Actually if she could get her hands on her roll sheet from then – it would be the 16th kid on the roll sheet. I use class numbers for class supplies. For example I have writer pads (word processors that also teach typing) – the 3rd kid on my roll sheet always takes the Writer pad #3.

  21. I can’t imagine anyone keeping a list of names for 10 years!

  22. Years ago, there was this lovely “Northern Exposure” episode about a package that shows up at the post office. Turns out it was sent by a little boy and the letter inside the box asked the people of Cicely, AK to put in a local treasure and send it on to another far-flung place. It was an episode filled with the wonder of the big, wide world and a sense of real joy that all of these people were working on this project. I suppose now it would be too much of a security risk/breach of confidentiality/dangerdangerdanger to try something like that.

  23. EdnaKay actually my grade is going to do something similar. We are planting some geo caches around our area and asking people to take the original trinket and plant it at another geo cache spreading out from our area. Then log its location on a website and e-mail me.

    Then the person from the 2nd geo cache will take it to a 3rd location and log it and e-mail me (because I’m the tech person). I will be creating google earth presentation showing the locations. (These will be called Superstar Graduates) We are asking some basic questions about the locations’ ecosystems, natural disasters and hoping the people will e-mail us the info.

    On the flip side we are sending a group of lost shooting stars to some friends and other teachers. They are going to plant them in geo caches in their area. We are asking the same questions with these – but we are asking the geo cachers to help the lost shooting stars make it back to Deaf Smith Elementary by taking them to closer geo caches. These will also be tracked via google earth. The kids will use their pen names not numbers. Our district is encouraging activities like this.

  24. jim! love it!!
    I like the idea of pen names. When I was in third grade, the teacher gave us an assignment to write a letter from somebody fighting in the civil war to someone back home. I wrote this long, sappy letter to My Love Sincerely Elias. It was fun.

  25. Jim, I’m a huge Lovecraft fan, but even 35 years ago when I was a teen, I was the only person I knew reading him. I wonder, too, if anyone does now.

    As for the # thing, my stepsons had a teacher who made them write their first name and an assigned number on everything they handed in. This was in a small elementary school, w/ fewer than 30 kids in the room. I never asked why, but every time I saw that at the top of a paper I felt like my kid’s status was less than fully human. There’s got to be a better way.

  26. I just went to my library site and ordered an H.P. Lovecraft book. All your comments got me wondering about them as I have never heard of him.

  27. I am more and more convinced that I need to moved out to another country once I have a kid, no way he/she will be rowing up in US….

  28. all of the teachers in our district use the number thing with the first name, at least up to grade 3 (that’s where my oldest is now). I find it a little insulting, like the teacher can’t be bothered to remember who’s who. For crying out loud, even 1st graders can write their first AND last names on assignments on the off chance there are 2 of the same name in a class. (It’s taken until 3rd grade for my common-named Sarah to get a second one in her class.)

  29. I get the concept of using a number, although I think it’s a bit extreme. It seems to me that the pen name idea would be way more fun. You could make up a name for yourself and accomplish the exact same thing. This sounds like a lot of fun, and something I think I’ll be doing with my girls when they’re a bit bigger.

  30. I am 27 and love H.P. Lovecraft. I started reading him 11 years ago, and I don’t know anyone younger than me who does, but he is the perfect writer to teach contextual reading comprehension (i.e, what do those 7 adjectives in a row he uses to describe the building sound like they mean?)

  31. @kherbert – no one is actually blaming the teacher. We are, however, saddened by the state of affairs in the world these days. It is unfortunate that teachers have some of the stupid rules they have to follow…Like not being able to give a kid a hug. If I send my daughter to school, and she falls and skins her knee one day, I sure hope there is a teacher that is willing to break that rule.

  32. You all find the strangest things to be insulted about and sound like helicopter parents. Class numbers are not an attempt to insult your children or mark them for the beast (yes I have had a parent say this).

    Teachers have class sets of things. By assigning class numbers then we know who used bag 4 of math manipulatives and didn’t return them. If the kids know they will always use writer pad, they tend to take better care of it.

    Putting the numbers on papers does 2 things. 1 – for younger kids it helps the remember their number at the beginning of the year. 2 – Since they are often assigned by the row in the grade book – numbers on the papers makes it easy to flip through the pages and put them in alpha order. This makes it easier to put the grades in the electronic grade book our district requires. With a paper grade book you can use the paper you just graded as a guide under the names to go across the page. Our electronic grade book is a pain, because you can’t freeze the column with names. So you are scrolling horizontally over several screens and trying to stay in the same line. Also going from paper to screen and while reading 1st or 2nd grade writing is a huge eye strain. So having them in order makes things much easier.

  33. @kherbert – Please be careful when you say things like “legally allowed”. My partner is an attorney and you have no idea how often he has to correct people who don’t understand the difference between a law and a policy or (more commonly) a local law and a state/federal one.

    In this case I have a hard time believing there is an actual law (or at least anything beyond a local law) stating that the teacher couldn’t use the students’ first names. If that’s the case then I know of at least one 4th grade teacher who broke the law 20-odd times last week!

  34. @kherbert: How do you know? What if the teacher uses a different system than you? I guarantee you someone does, and has, in the past decade.

    Frankly, keeping a list of names for 10 years sounds like an odd thing to do. At the same time, I wonder: if you’re going to do this kind of project, aren’t you inviting the possibility, however slim, that there will be a reason to reference that list 10 years later?

    Of course, 10 years ago this teacher couldn’t have known how easy it could be for her to track down that particular student, courtesy of Facebook.

    And it’s true that this isn’t some life-changing thing. No one is missing out on becoming the rightful heir to a throne. It’s just kind of cool. But this story sounds like there hasn’t been room for “just kind of cool” for quite some time, and that is a bit sad.

  35. The story reads like a script for SpongeBob, although Patrick might be more rational/reasonable … which speaks volumes.

  36. I’ve been having fun with the oldest child of frequent commenter Alison Fairfield (a friend and neighbor who turned me on to this) as she is a remarkably literate 9 year old. It has been a wonderful revisit to the books of my youth. Of course, I grew up in the pre-VCR era when the TV only had three channels and you had to change them by hand, but the reasons I fall asleep every night with a book in my hands are H. P. Lovecraft, Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars, Tom Swift (he said swiftly), Conan the Barbarian, and all those other great pulp fiction authors of the first half of the 20th century. Kids need to be sitting in the yard reading these books instead of watching bastardized Hollywood versions of the classics. Of course, there are modern equivilants – I’ve got a 9 year old with an intrest in the plight of the homeless reading (soon as her mom gets thru vetting it) John Grisham’s “The Street Lawyer” which is a great book about morals, values, and compassion with no sex and only one episode of violence, which is central to the story.

    For the grownups – I’m a big fan of the Dismas Hardy crime and courts novels by San Francisco writer John Lescroart, and in a couple of the books Diz’s middle-school daughter goes thru episodes of night terrors after “awareness sessions” at her very safe, very expensive private school where she learns that if a boy ever kisses her she will die of AIDS, terrorists are likely to shoot up her school at any moment, and all of her friends are going to die of teen suicide. A friend of Dismas’s who has gone thru the same thing recommends checking the statistics, and teaching the kid not to worry about anything less likely to happen than getting struck by lightning.

  37. Great story, we should all do this at least once with our children. How could we communicate though, pending a finding, without listing our contact information, like our name and home address?!

    I suppose a family could go rent a PO Box explicitly for this purpose and just describe themselves as:

    Please respond to:

    Anonymous Family
    PO Box 1234
    Anytown, USA

    This story makes me think of something funny that I’m sure most of us have experienced. While sitting in the doctor or dentist office you choose a magazine to read and low and behold the previous owner has blacked out or cut out their name and address but still donated it to the waiting room??? Is someone going to now go stalk that magazine owner had their left their information in tact?

    What gives?

  38. “Is someone going to now go stalk that magazine owner had their left their information in tact?”

    @Michele, that could be an identity theft issue as much as a stalking issue, I suspect.

  39. @MFA Grad – Oh my God, not The Crimson Permanent Assurance Company! Damn the Very Big Corporation of America for trying to take over the little guy! Ceiling fan blades for swords and filing cabinets for cannons! Who says senior citizens have no imagination, they sound like a bunch of kids (if only kids had this much imagination now a days).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crimson_Permanent_Assurance

    Leave it to Monty Python to point out the sillyness and sadness of real life.

    I live next to Long Beach and being a harbor town, it’s too bad they don’t have more teaching moments like this. Not the using of a number instead of a name, but the fact that there are real people in real places all over of the planet that can (and will) let you know they’re free-range enough to go outside and find your note on a beach, not “…while I was surfing on the computer.”

  40. I was reading Lovecraft when I was 14. The man was just brilliant. Very few kids, though, seem to know about him… and really, in this day, it seems we need to dumb it down for most kids to even grasp it. *sigh* What I loved most is that he was pretty much in the cult-following category… stumbling on Lovecraft was like opening the door to a most wonderful secret – sinister and dark. >:D

  41. My daughter’s third grade class did a “Flat Stanley” project where this little flat paper character got to travel all over the world via U.S. mail. My daughter had to send it to someone and ask them to send it on to someone else, etc. Each person was asked to write a personal letter to my daughter about what life was like where they live. The letter had my daughter’s first and last name, as well as the name and address of her school.

    It’s been two years, and no one has come to stalk her yet. But she did get a lot of neat letters.

    Signed,
    Commenter #40

  42. @Sandy – I like this approach much better! At least with this, there is no polution involved and there is more of a possibility that people will actually respond:-)

  43. And then there is the great tradition of stealing your neighbor’s garden gnome and sending it on an around-the-world cruise with various travelling friends, and for the next year or so your neighbors get pictures of the gnome in the great cities of Europe and Asia with letters saying “Having a great time in Lisbon, love, the gnome.” This is especially fun if your neighbors have kids.

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