Flat Stanley may be a paper doll, but he's no couch potato. He has gone dog sledding in Antarctica, sat behind the controls of a U-2 spy plane in Texas, visited Mount Everest, and marveled at the Taj Mahal. He has been to all seven continents and met world leaders like President Clinton. And he has the pictures to prove it.
"He has taken me to places I never imagined," Dale Hubert, creator of the Flat Stanley Project, said recently.
Since the Internet site flatstanley.com went online in 1995, the peripatetic Stanley has inspired thousands of grade-schoolers to pick up crayons and create their own version to send on vicarious adventures through the mail.
"It's a way of learning geography, but he can also be used to teach math and social studies as well as other subjects," said Hubert.
Flat Stanley is a storybook character created by the late Jeff Brown, an editor and writer. First published in 1964, "Flat Stanley" is a story about a boy who wakes up one morning to discover that he has been flattened by a bulletin board that hung above his bed. Stanley Lambchop soon finds that being flat has its advantages, and he embarks on a series of adventures, including traveling in an envelope to visit friends in California.
Hubert figured if Stanley could travel to California in an envelope, there were many other journeys he could take.
There is no charge for the service, other than the postage to mail Stanley on his way. Interested educators can log onto the website, where they will find a list of participating teachers to determine whether one is amenable to a visit. (A school in France had 120 Flat Stanleys visiting at one time and asked to be removed from the list.)
More that 6,000 classes in 47 countries are participating in the program.
One of those classes is Kathryn Hess's, a special-needs teacher who began using Stanley at the Lighthouse School in North Chelmsford this year. "The kids love it," she said. "They get all excited when an envelope arrives."
Hess said their Flat Stanley has visited California, South Carolina, and Indiana. It helps the children learn that there are kids like them all over the world. "They have no idea that children from California look just like they do."
Flat Stanley fans are not required to send the little guy to a participating class. They can pack him up with their teddy bear and take him to the Grand Canyon, or send him along with Aunt Edna and Uncle Harry when they go abroad.
Madalyn Persons-Cutting, a first-grader at Dr. H.O. Smith School in Hudson, N.H., recently read the book. "I like Flat Stanley because he can get sent through the mail, and he can get a lot of stuff done really easily. I sent him to my Papa's house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. They made pizzas at his work, and Flat Stanley was lying down on the floor because the couch was too curvy, and he was too flat, and my Papa didn't want him to get bended."
Bill Middleton, a former Bay Stater who now lives in Vienna, has been hosting a Flat Stanley from a fourth-grade class at St. Mary of the Hills School in Milton. He discussed the experience in an e-mail. "We took Flat Stanley to visit Sigmund Freud's office here, which is now a museum. We took some photos of Stanley there, but how do you explain who Sigmund Freud was to a fourth-grader? "
Here's what he wrote in Stanley's journal: "Sigmund Freud was a doctor who lived in Vienna about 100 years ago. He specialized in helping unhappy people. He tried to help these people become less unhappy by asking them to tell him about their childhoods and also about the dreams they had at night."
He also took Stanley to a spa and wrote: "A spa is a place where people go to relax. It's like a water park for adults. . . . Not everybody thought that taking Stanley to the spa was a good idea. Some people thought that maybe this was a special weekend for the adults only and that maybe Stanley didn't need to go along. But Stanley was very quiet the whole time, and he was happy to be there."
So how did Flat Stanley go from a book to a movement of sorts?
"In 1995 I went from teaching grade six to grade three for the first time, and I wanted to come up with something that would really motivate the kids," said Hubert. "There wasn't a lot of kid-friendly content on the Web at the time so I decided to develop my own."
His idea was to have students design their own Flat Stanleys - or their own flat images - out of paper and mail them off to other schoolchildren for a visit. Stanley would be treated like a guest for a period of time, and accompanying him would be a journal in which the host children would write about his daily adventures. When Stanley returned home, the journal would be full of information about what he did, where he went, and what he saw.
And the project took off. Last year 80,000 people visited the site.
Flat Stanley has orbited Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery, and appeared on television programs such as "The West Wing," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire," and "Jeopardy."
"Families get creative," said Marisa Retkevicz a first-grade teacher at the Hills Garrison School in Hudson, N.H., who is participating in the program.
Besides pictures and the journal, they send back other items, like Mardi Gras beads and containers of sand from the beach. "It's great when participants send back something the kids can touch. Children their age are very tactile," she said.
Retkevicz's classroom has a map with the places that Stanley has visited highlighted, as well as snapshots taken during his travels. He can be seen next to a cactus in the Arizona desert and leaning on an orange tree in Florida.
"He's been in a lot of warm places," Retkevicz said.
"Everybody knows the potential drawbacks to hosting houseguests," Middleton wrote. "These are all well documented. But the nice thing about houseguests, the thing we often overlook, is that they can give you an excuse to be a tourist in your own town.
"Guests encourage you to get out and do things that you might otherwise think are too obvious, too clichéd, too crowded, too 'done.' . . . But in the right spirit, with the right person, these places can be a blast.
"Flat Stanley is that person. He has no preferences. He doesn't get hungry, he doesn't get tired, he doesn't need to find a bathroom. He's happy to do whatever you want to do. So long as you do something."
And he makes you get out of the house. "You want Stanley to have some good stories when he gets back home," Middleton wrote. "Stanley travels light, but he does have baggage - in the shape of a hopeful fourth-grader in a school someplace far away. He's entrusted his Stanley to you. You don't want to disappoint that kid. You want your fourth-grader to have the best stories in the class. You want his classmates to be envious. You want them trudging home with slumped shoulders, scuffing their shoes."
Courtney Langlais, a fourth-grader at Hills Garrison, remembered Stanley from first and second grade. "Our teacher had copies of Flat Stanleys and we colored them and gave them to people who lived in other places. I gave mine to my mémère in Cape Cod and she wrote about what she did with Flat Stanley. They went to the beach and church."
Courtney recalled how Stanley got flat and how he helped his mother get her favorite ring out of a street grate. But did he make her want to travel? "Kind of," she said. "But sometimes it made me wish I could be flat so I could get into narrow places."
Tom Long, a freelance writer in Hudson, N.H., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.