Third Grade Memories: Jeff Van de Berg and the Red Balloon

by Alan Reinstein, English teacher

In 1972, I was in third grade, and there are two things (among others, for sure) that have stayed with me since then. One is not a thing, but a kid, and the other is a movie that our teacher, Ms. Friedenberg showed us. The kid’s name was Jeff Van de Berg: he had polio (a central nervous system disease that causes weak muscles) and walked unevenly with metal crutches that he would now and again swing at kids who were mean to him. The movie, shown from a reel-to-reel projector while we sat cross-legged on the hard carpeted floor, was called “The Red Balloon,” about a tormented but ultimately victorious boy named Pascal. 

Jeff Van de Berg was teased by lots of classmates, ostensibly because he was always irritable and unfriendly (he brandished those metal crutches like they were sabers), but mostly because he was different and also had a peculiar odor around him that kids said was pee. Times haven’t changed much: smelling like pee is about the worst reputation you can have. As for me, I don’t remember interacting very much with Jeff Van de Berg. I was neither kind nor unkind to him, although I’m sure that to him, I was just as nasty as the other kids who excluded him. I contributed to the status quo of his alienation simply by not making any effort to improve things. I left him alone, stayed out of the way. 

I would have ignored Pascal, too, I’m sure, if I had been in “The Red Balloon.” It was a French movie, with old-fashioned cobblestone streets and tall stucco apartment houses with shutters. Pascal, the protagonist, wore brown sandals, which was the giveaway that this was Europe. 

In the movie, Pascal has a perfectly round red helium balloon that other kids in his school are apparently jealous of. The balloon is magical and intelligent and stays near Pascal even when he is not holding it. In an early scene, it waits for him while he buys a baguette and then follows him to school. Near the end of the movie, after school lets out, mean kids chase him down through narrow city streets and up to the top of a hill somewhere, where they cruelly puncture the red balloon with a stone from a slingshot. Then you see a mean kid’s foot stomp on the dying balloon like an evil exclamation point. 

Pascal is disconsolate until little by little, others of this race of magical and smart balloons, all different colors, come from everywhere in Paris to comfort the pitiable young boy. He grabs on to each of the balloon strings, and eventually, there are so many balloons that they lift him up into the air. This is how the movie ends, with the indelible image of this jubilant six-year-old boy carried high above the city by a hundred loving balloons. 

When Jeff Van de Berg saw this movie, sitting on the same carpet as the rest of us, I’m sure that he saw himself as Pascal. I can see myself there in the movie as well, as some extra on a playground on that hill, playing kickball with some chums, while from the corner of my eye, I see the red balloon pop and don’t think twice about it. Am I still capable of such indifference?