COLUMBIA — Claire Opie, 5, had to give up her new blue balloon on Friday. But she gained a friend, high school senior Abbi Cleavinger.
Claire and Cleavinger were among the 315 students at Columbia Independent School who participated in an annual, back-to-school tradition — a balloon launch. During the first week of classes, students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade release balloons in the school's colors of blue and gold.
On Friday morning, hundreds of balloons floated and bobbed skyward over the school's campus on North Stadium Boulevard.
Doug Sept, one of the school directors, asked the seniors to find a preschooler to guide in the tradition. He used a megaphone to direct students once they were out on the lawn, his voice carrying above the excited din.
Some of the children didn't want to release their balloons. Others didn't want to be paired up with a senior.
But Claire knew she couldn’t keep her balloon, and she seemed happy, if shy, to meet Cleavinger. At 17, Cleavinger has attended CIS since fourth grade, and this is her ninth balloon launch. The pair talked amiably, and Claire confided that her favorite movie is "Sleeping Beauty."
Of course, when you mix that many balloons and that many children, things do not always go on schedule. Five minutes before the launch was supposed to start, several balloons escaped — a vanguard for the others, perhaps.
Claire's was not one of them. When the official release time came, she held her breath and opened her hand. The blue balloon rose swiftly and straight. Some 15 others didn't get very far.
“Look! Look! They’re getting into the tree,” Claire said. “They like the tree.”
In years past, notes were attached to the balloons and were sometimes returned. Cleavinger said she heard of one being spotted in Texas. The school stopped this practice after environmental concerns were raised.
On the way back to class, Cleavinger asked her young charge if she wanted to shake hands with Leo the Lion, the school mascot. Claire peered at the person in costume, thought for a moment, smiled and shook her head.
After she had seen Claire off, Cleavinger described participating in her final fall launch. Her plans after graduation are fluid, but she found the balloon metaphor apt: a release into the world followed by an uncertain journey.
"I have no idea," she mused.
At graduation in June, Cleavinger will have one last chance to release a balloon at her school. "It'll come to a full circle," she said.