Be a hero — Green Up Vermont

MIDDLEBURY — Captain Green Up flew in to Middlebury Union Middle School last Friday, with his signature supersonic boom, to lead the entire MUMS student body, staff and faculty in his never-ending battle for a cleaner, greener, litter-free Vermont.
For the past 33 years, Captain Green Up (together with his close friend and confidant, Peter Brakeley, a mild-mannered middle school social studies teacher) has spearheaded the MUMS Green Up Day effort.
In conjunction with Vermont Green Up Day, which this year falls on Saturday, May 7, the duo have organized the entire school to close shop early on a Friday afternoon and marshal all 300 or so students, staff and faculty on the school’s annual Green Up campaign.
“As a social studies teacher, I’m always looking for some way to practice what I preach, you know, ‘Let’s go out there and do a community service project.’ And I kind of like the concept of ‘Let’s pick up the mess,’” Brakeley said. “We made the mess, so let’s pick it up and make the place look nice.
“So we’re modeling community service, and it’s something everybody can do, and it’s something that the more numbers the better job we do,” he continued. “We like to encourage everybody pitching in to make it a better place.”
For more than four decades, Vermonters have gone out on the first Saturday of May and picked up trash along roadsides, in the woods and fields, and at clandestine garbage dumps under the auspices of Vermont Green Up Day (See story on local Green Up activities on page 28).
Brakeley begins with his Green Up planning with an “attack map,” which divides the area around MUMS into 30 zones to be assigned to the school’s 30 TAs (teacher advisory groups).
“We green up our whole neighborhood around the middle school,” Brakeley said. “So we go out to Route 7, we go over to Creek Road, and we go to Hannaford’s. Then we get even south of us as far as the Residence at Otter Creek. All those neighborhoods we do it all.”
The week before the school’s Green Up event, Brakeley usually walks the “attack map” himself, to see if his distribution of kid power (plus adults) is sufficient to the areas with the greatest concentrations of trash. After three decades of leading the MUMS trash patrol, he has a good idea of the likeliest hot spots.
The day before the event, as he did last Thursday, Brakeley announces over the school’s PA system that he’s been in contact with Captain Green Up and has some announcements to relay on the Captain’s behalf. Brakeley reminds students to wear old clothes and sensible shoes, to bring their own plastic grocery bag to help pick up the trash, to be respectful of property and helpful while Greening Up, and then — on Captain Green Up’s behalf — thanks them in advance for helping.
“The last thing I told them, I said, ‘Now, just a word of caution because when Captain comes flying in here tomorrow sometimes there’s a sonic boom when he throttles down to land.’ Some seventh-graders, it really piques their interest, so I say, ‘Don’t worry if you hear a loud noise at about two o’clock tomorrow because it’s just the Captain throttling down to land.’”
On the day of the event, each TA gets its own Green Up trash bag and each kid gets one cotton glove. Brakeley says the school collects, washes and then re-uses the gloves every year.
The school’s efforts usually pull in enough trash to just about fill a school dumpster, Brakeley said.
Then everybody gets a Popsicle, courtesy, Brakeley adds, of Hannaford Supermarket.
Brakeley’s favorite part of MUMS Green Up is his pride in the students’ accomplishments.
“It’s amazing how they really will own it and really want to do a good job. And sometimes the kids that you think would probably least be likely to do a good job, they do maybe the best job. It’s really remarkable like that,” he said. “If you could see the areas that we go into, it’s amazing what a job we do.”
Given that he’s taught anywhere from 70 to 90 students a year, Brakeley has likely engaged close to 3,000 young people in Vermont’s 46-year-old Green Up tradition.
An important moment for Brakeley is just before the MUMS Green Up begins when he is mysteriously called out — somehow every single year — to an important meeting. This year, Brakeley had to attend a meeting at Middlebury College that began shortly before two o’clock.
Shortly after Brakeley headed out of MUMS, Captain Green Up mysteriously arrived in his signature superhero regalia. Captain Green Up’s supersonic green cape and outer clothing are made from certified 1983 Green Up Vermont bags — which happens to be the first year Brakeley spearheaded the project and led MUMS on its first trash outing. His green mask, decorated with magic marker lightning bolts, appears to be cut out of heavy duty manila envelopes stapled to an elastic band — and perhaps laced with kryptonite.
The Captain’s towering Ninja-Turtle green hat sports a Captain Green Up name tag, a peace sign, both “Nixon Now” and “Bernie ’92” campaign buttons, a photo of one of Brakeley’s high school English teachers (he graduated from Middlebury Union High School in 1971 and began teaching middle school with some of his own former teachers as colleagues), and a miniature troll with long, pink hair.
Undoubtedly, each of these talismans holds some part of Captain Green Up’s enduring power to delight middle schoolers and get them happily engaged in picking up trash all over their community.
Brakeley attributes the genesis of Captain Green Up to “a bunch of teachers being knuckleheads … just monkeying around.” Anyone who has seen the gleam in Brakeley’s eyes knows that the true power behind the supersonic superhero is likely to be the love and respect for each kid and the joy in teaching that powers a truly gifted teacher and the generosity that goes with sharing this important community service task with each new generation.
For more on Green Up activities by town, see “Town by town Green Up coordinators named.” Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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