It’s been 22 years since eight-year-old R.J. Vail asked his teacher Susan Weaver, “What does a million look like?”
Now, the Grade 4 teacher at Chipman Elementary School in Chipman, N.B., is finally ready to show him the answer — but he’s not around to see it.
R.J. was killed in a car accident in 2006 at the age of 16.
“It’s a horrible tragedy … that he was killed,” Weaver told As It Happens host Carol Off. “But when I see a bread tag, it also makes me smile because I remember the funny little boy that he was. And it brings him back to life.”
Keeping her promise
Weaver still remembers when R.J. first asked the question. He’d written it down because he was shy, she said. She realized right away that she didn’t know the answer.
So she suggested they collect one million of something — anything at all — to find out for themselves what a million looks like.
The next day, he came to school with a jar full of colourful bread tags from his grandparents’ house.
“And that’s how the collection started,” she said.
It turns out a million bread tags is a lot of bread tags. They didn’t make their goal by the school’s year end. But they kept the project going over the years. R.J. would regularly send her little bags of tags while he was growing up.
Then came the horrible news.
“And I realized how much more important the promise was to keep. And so each year I started talking to my students about R.J. and about my promise to him,” she said.
“It was also a way to connect with them. I wanted them to know that if I promise them something, I would be good to my word.”
From coast to coast to coast
Over the decades, the tags came from all over.
Her students collected them at home. People mailed in donations. Her brother worked as a clown for Shriners and would collect them as he travelled the country marching in parades.
Eventually, she started a Facebook group to keep track of the project. And then late last year, she started getting some media attention, including a story on CTV News.
That’s when it really blew up, she said, and she found herself on the receiving end of a “tsunami of bread tags” from all over the country.
“Our beautiful mail lady will come to the school every day, and she’s got her arms full of packages. There’s friends that travel, and they pick them up for us,” Weaver said. “I find them sitting on the roof of my car when I go grocery shopping. They’re just everywhere.”
On Friday, the class received a particularly big delivery, and when students sorted through them on Monday morning, the kids noticed a single black tag in the pile. They’d never seen one that colour before and saw that as a sign that they were close to finishing.
They started shouting excitedly: “That’s the one! That has to be the one!” Weaver said.
The kids calculated that they needed exactly 6,115 tags to get to a million. They divided the work among themselves and started counting them out, saving the black tag for last.
“They got to work, and there wasn’t a sound in the room. It was like the building of a crescendo. And they knew that when they put those in this last bottle, that last black tag was going to make a million,” Weaver said.
“But it was when that millionth one came, they were just stunned by it. And I knew R.J. would just be giggling out loud. It would be so marvellous.”
So what does a million look like?
“A million looks like 44 ½ 20-litre blue water cooler bottles filled to the gunnels,” Weaver said. “It looks like people all over Canada smiling about little bits of plastic. And it looks like his mom and sister crying that we made it this far.”
R.J.’s sister Kendra Vail told CTV News that her family has been “overwhelmed” by all the people who have pitched in to honour his memory.
“You don’t know what tomorrow promises, and I wish that my brother was here to meet my kids. I really do, but he’ll always live on in everybody, and every time someone sees a bread tag, they’ll think of him,” she said.
To celebrate with her students, Weaver invited a fellow teacher to come shoot off a confetti cannon in her class.
“If you can picture all these colourful stars and rectangles of bits of paper flying through the air, and 22 little faces lit up, laughing and trying to catch them,” she said.
“And I can see R.J. catching them from somewhere else. And he would have been right there with them giggling and laughing and bending on the floor and trying to pick them up and blowing them at their friends. And it was quite a moment.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Samantha Lui.