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Homer's Odyssey : Fifth-Graders Learn a Lesson in International Goodwill as Their Stuffed Bear Travels Around the World


IRVINE — For many students, geography is an unbearable subject, filled with dry facts about remote places. But today, the geography lesson for a class of fifth-graders at Springbrook Elementary School will be transformed into an excursion around the world.

Perking up the instruction will be Homer, a two-foot-tall stuffed bear, who was adopted by the class in January, plunked on an airliner and sent on a worldwide tour. In his denim overalls and floppy brown felt hat, a small backpack on his back, Homer visited 20 nations in five months, passed hand to hand, relay-style, by caring flight attendants, cargo personnel and passengers.

Pinned to Homer's fur was a laminated note signed by his 33 Irvine classmates, expressing their hope that he would travel around the globe and return home by June 1 with lots of souvenirs and entries in his travel diary.

Did he ever.

Homer's diary is filled with immigration stamps (he carried no passport) and descriptions of his experiences abroad, penned by scores of schoolchildren and others who hosted him in their home countries.

"I was just thinking this is one of the best ways to learn about the real world and obtain experiences from different people in different countries," wrote a member of the ground staff of Qantas Airlines in Bangkok, Thailand on Jan. 18. "Every country has its good points and its bad points, and good people and bad people mixed together, so don't be negative if you hear someone talking about other countries, especially in the third world.

"Because if we're friends, it doesn't matter if we're black, white, Asian, American or European. We have only one planet to live in together."

So great was the international generosity heaped on the fluffy traveler that he returned to Los Angeles International Airport last weekend with six huge bags stuffed with gifts, newspaper clippings and photos.

Homer brought home a gilded bamboo basket from Thailand, a tiny pair of wooden shoes from Holland, Swiss chocolate, a pen with wood carvings on it from Bangladesh, a flask of sand from a Caribbean beach, a guidebook from Oman and a photo of a Sheraton hotel room where he had bunked in the United Arab Emirates.

Teacher Kathy Calkins will use Homer's odyssey as the ultimate in world geography lessons for her students, who jumped and screamed with excitement when they heard Homer had safely returned to the United States late last week. The greatest lesson Homer brought back for the students, Calkins said, was about humanity and goodwill.

"He obviously touched the hearts of a lot of different people," Calkins said. "It made people all over the world seem not so strange and foreign."

Homer's journey was the brainchild of Sally Pearl, a flight attendant whose daughter is a student in Calkins' class. She heard of a stuffed bear from Wisconsin on a similar journey and suggested that Calkins try the same trip as a geography lesson. Calkins had read about similar projects in teaching magazines.

Pearl's daughter, Stacy, donated one of her teddy bears and the class dubbed him Homer, hoping that the name itself would encourage his caretakers to send him back home again.

When Pearl went to work on a flight to Honolulu on Jan. 13, Homer was in her arms. She handed him over to a family on the plane, waved goodby and the bear was on his way.

From Honolulu, Homer flew to New Zealand, Australia, Thailand and Singapore. Then he made the rounds of Japan, Korea and Switzerland. In Austria, Homer visited with schoolchildren in Vienna and went home for a slumber party, posing for photos with a few of the children. Clippings and diary entries provided a detailed account of Homer's travels.

Homer got his picture in a Vienna newspaper. A newspaper and television show in Johannesburg, South Africa, a newspaper in London and a TV news show in the Netherlands featured Homer, too.

From South Africa, Homer jetted to London, Miami and then to the Caribbean island nation of Aruba. Next came Puerto Rico and Brazil (Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo). The bear got a treat few Americans have sampled: a trip from London to New York on the supersonic Concorde.

Homer traveled to Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates, where he attended a seminar at a Sheraton hotel with British Airways cargo attendants in Dubai. Then it was on to the Sultanate of Oman and Bahrain.

In Athens, someone writing in Homer's travel diary compared the bear to the ancient Greek poet and traveler Homer, noting that the poet, too, returned home again. In Amsterdam, a flight attendant who doubles as a part-time schoolteacher took him to class in a small town outside the Dutch capital. The children drew pictures and put them in his backpack. Then it was on to Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Calkins and her students received periodic word of Homer's travels as postcards and letters arrived from schoolchildren and well-wishers around the world, who copied down the school's address from the note the bear wore on his chest.

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