A different kind of school project
Sometime during the evening of 19th February 2013, Karin and I sat watching television. On the local station, TV2 Lorry, they had a peculiar story about some yellow plastic bath ducks.
Five girls from grade 8 and 9 at the independent school in Vester Skerninge on South Funen had inaugurated a campaign against prejudice. As part of a three-week project, the girls had to hand in a report and make a presentation on the theme “Oddball”. The purpose of the project was to come up with an idea that would benefit others. While brainstorming one day, the girls concluded that individuals regarded as oddballs stand out in relation to other people in society and easily become subject to prejudice. Their subsequent interviews provided knowledge, confirmation and surprises. The girls discovered that prejudice is not entirely disadvantageous to people, but on the contrary can lead to something constructive in the right doses. They also discovered that prejudice can, to a large extent, be attributable to ignorance. They set about trying to get people to stop and think about their own prejudices and thereby become aware that things are not always as they immediately assume them to be.
The girls had heard of the Russian happening, which involved writing controversial and illegal messages on labels and then tying these around the neck of small teddy bears which were then “released” into the public space. This became the inspiration for “Ducks against prejudice”.
On 6th February, the girls released 200 plastic bath ducks in Svendborg, Odense, Aarhus and Copenhagen. The ducks were unique in that they were all numbered from 1 to 200 and around their necks they had a laminated message in both Danish and English. The idea was that the ducks would move to other destinations based on the desire for as many people as possible being encouraged to ponder any prejudices they might have.
The girls also created a Facebook group, which urged anyone, who had found or received a duck to share a picture of it with text, so that everyone would be able to follow the ducks’ travels around the world.
These bright schoolgirls had given their project the blanket name “Them and us”, and the subject was prejudice, why we have prejudices, what consequences they can have and how we can mitigate. No one can entirely banish their prejudices, but together we can help to broaden the norms and make space for diversity and multiplicity. The messages of the little ducks were to act as a catalyst to make people stop and think one extra time.
The TV feature focused on duck no. 77, which for a time had been driving round on a Copenhagen bus number 1A before the driver gave it to a florist on Store Kongensgade in the city centre. Now the florist was rather excited to find out where it would be going next.
I found the initiative amusing, but not just that. I also saw the real purpose of the law. I know that people’s convictions, thoughts, actions and behaviour can be changed in a more desirable direction, if they really want them to. There are many ways of achieving this, and a little yellow plastic bath duck with a good message can quite easily be precisely what is necessary to give the mind and the thoughts new terms of the way we act.
I immediately had the bright idea of the duck coming with me to Chile three days later. And that was not all. It was going to spread its admirable message to the rest of the world. I took on the mission of introducing duck no. 77 to all the world’s seven continents. This mission was later extended to include the North Pole as well. This would give no. 77 the Grand Slam status, which is given to marathon runners who run on all seven continents plus the Earth’s northernmost point. I contacted the florist, who was immediately in on the idea, and the following day I went to pick up duck no. 77.
So there were actually three of us, who set course for South America on 22nd February. No. 77 was with us throughout the trip and also took part in all the excursions. Most of all, no. 77 was witness to the dramatic events in Antarctica.
Before we travelled to Chile, I was convinced that almost all South Americans were robbers and bandits. Exaggeration promotes understanding, but I believed it was almost certain that we would be attacked and taken away as hostages to the jungle for the next four years. The truth was that the Chileans, I met, were agreeable, upstanding and helpful people. I have, for instance, never before experienced every single car stopping at a zebra crossing to let pedestrians cross the street. One mustn’t generalise, of course, not even when it comes to South Americans. And here I fortunately got rid of one of my prejudices.
What prejudices no. 77’s subsequent travelling companions may have banished, I don’t know. But I firmly believe that the little yellow plastic duck has continued to make a difference, if not only at the subconscious level.
Memorial run for terror victims
From Chile, no. 77 flew with another runner, Kerm Trout to Texas and then on to San Diego to Kathy Loper, who took it with her on a Memorial run for the victims of the Boston Marathon. The Massachusetts capital had distinguished itself in 1972 by being the first place in the world to allow women to run the marathon. Now this great run was on everybody’s lips once more, when an atrocious terror attack had struck the event several weeks previously.
In May, Kathy took the duck with her to China, where it ran The Great Wall Marathon with me. From there it went to Australia via Singapore with Fran and Dave, where it, among other things, visited a national park before being returned to Denmark by post.
90 degrees North
The little ducks never got the chance to relax, because now it was to head for the North Pole together with Elisabeth. After stopovers in Helsinki and Murmansk, it continued its journey on a Russian icebreaker until it reached its final destination of 90 degrees north.
On the last leg of its world tour, the duck accompanied an Albatros guide on the way to Africa, where no. 77 visited Karen Blixen’s farm, just as I had done before. Within less than six months, duck no. 77 had completed its world tour and secured its Grand Slam.
After the mission was accomplished, the travel-hungry duck went on yet another tour with Albatros. This time it went on a round trip to Thailand, Bali, Komodo, Qatar, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Duck no. 77 has had a great many experiences. It has flown in a hot air balloon across the savannah, has almost got eaten by a giraffe, and has ridden on the back of a crocodile. In Papua New Guinea, it attended the world’s most awesome festival, the “Singh Sing”, where it participated with great pleasure in the song and dance of the Dani tribe with their characteristic Koteka, or penis gourd. Well, the list is endless.
Why of all the 200 bath ducks should it be precisely no. 77 that had all these fantastic experiences? One can only guess. It ended up visiting the seven continents and crossing the seven oceans. Was that just a coincidence?
What happened to the other 199 ducks? Again, one can only guess. Pictures of no. 77 certainly dominated the Facebook group pages. Only very seldom was there heard a faint quack from one of the other ducks. A good number of them may well have perished and be gone forever.
My intention was for destiny to carry no. 77 forward after my mission had been accomplished. It would then have grown up, and I would have to let it go. It was a beautiful thought, but also quite a scary one. Perhaps at the end of the next week, it would find itself in “small inseparable objects” at the local recycling station.
However, the bus driver, who had dropped the duck off at the florist’s, came up with a great idea for no. 77’s future. Having travelled the world, it had to be time for the little duck to enjoy some peace and quiet in retirement. No. 77 is now back at the florist’s shop in central Copenhagen, where it has gone into retirement and is floating about in a tub just like when I first caught sight of it on television that evening in February 2013.
Another TV show
I came full circle on 25th September 2013, when I appeared on TV2 Lorry/Lounge with no. 77 to talk about its wonderful journey to the corners of the earth. TV2 was the very station on which I had first seen my little yellow friend.
The four bright girls from South Funen, who launched this original project were rightly awarded top marks for their assignment.
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