The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"If you aren't fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm."...  ...Vince Lombardi.

Commentary of the Day - March 12, 2010:  Enthusiasm.   Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

When we told our relatives we were moving to Arizona, they balked at our decision and told us that our children would be subjected to Arizona's inferior schools with lower standards.  They said that by moving away from New York, the full potential of our two sons never would be realized.  Much to their dismay, our sons' schools produced two very bright adults who can match wits with anyone from the big city.

This piece is about the son we fondly referred to as Nature Boy when he was younger.  The name still fits.  Nature Boy was the son who refused to kill arachnids that tried to escape the summer heat by moving into our home, where it was a more comfortable temperature.  Nature Boy took the arachnids back into the desert and lectured his mother (who was up on the couch screaming, "scorpion!!!") about how beneficial these creatures are.  This is the son who found bloody footprints in our backyard, identified the tracks, and followed them through the neighborhood to find the rotting carcass of a raccoon in a someone else's backyard.  This is the son who brought home tiny toads from his elementary school playground and raised them until it became obvious that they were safer in the wild than they were contending with our cats.  He was the child who set up tanks of murky water from a drainage ditch to observe life in pond scum (until the rotting smell became even too much for his over-indulgent, nurturing parents.)  There is a graveyard beneath our cactus garden on the north side of our house that contains the remains of our son's attempts to save the planet, one desert creature at a time.

Teachers long for students with this type of enthusiasm.  I know I would have loved to have a student with one tenth of the enthusiasm my son has toward things that slither, snarl, scavenge, and screech in the Sonoran Desert.  However, I taught English grammar and composition.  Students never entered my classroom with that, "I can't wait to learn diagramming!" look on their faces.

Nature Boy also always loved roughing it in the wild.  Camping isn't my thing.  I prefer to stay in the luxury hotel down the road -- the one with air conditioning, hot running water, a refrigerator, and a vibrating bed.  My husband was the one who helped our son pursue that passion.  They went camping and came back with wilderness tales about Gila monsters, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions that got away.

From as far back as I can remember, I knew what direction Nature Boy would take.  It is no surprise to anyone that his current roommates are two rescued cats, a Russian tortoise who should live for about sixty to eighty years, Charlie - a giant poisonous Vietnamese centipede, and a possibly-female tarantula named Moses.

Presently, Nature Boy is completing his undergraduate studies at a university that has an excellent conservation biology and ecological sustainability program.  Though sustainability and conservation are 21st century catch words; this school has been on the cutting edge of these fields long before they showed up in political headlines.

On his list of courses in his major, there is an optional course offered to graduating seniors who are biology majors.  This is a field course where the students go into the wild every weekend to study animals in their natural habitat.  There is a long waiting list for the course each semester, and though the class is scheduled for ten students, the professor tends to double this because the course attracts so many enthusiastic students.  My son was among the first to sign up for the course.  The professor sent an email to those enrolled in the class about a week before classes began.  He told the students that if they were squeamish about handling Arizona's various reptiles, amphibians, mammals, insects, and fish, they should yield their seat to someone else who better fit the course.  No one gave up the treasured spot.

There was a long list of supplies the students should purchase (or borrow) in order to complete the course successfully.  This included four field guides, a field notebook, binoculars, camera, flashlight, a sleeping bag capable of keeping someone warm to zero degrees, a tent, a "camelbak", and other hiking gear.

The field guides weren't available at the college's bookstore.  Instead, they were shipped to my house from Amazon since there is generally no one home at my son's apartment to accept deliveries.  I didn't mind.  It gave me a chance to go through each book before Nature Boy took them.  Upon seeing them, I knew I needed them in my home library.  Little did I know that Nature Boy's "nature gene" would rub off on me.  My first personal purchase was The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.

Since the book's arrival, I have been sitting outside a lot, observing the birds that fly near my property.  I'm keeping a notebook of what I have found; and, my identifications are improving.  Where I thought I had found an unusual interest, I recently learned that Arizona collects more tourist dollars from people who visit the state to watch birds than it did for the recent Super Bowl or any other sport.  My new hobby hasn't made me such a rare bird after all.

So I was in my backyard the other day watching and counting birds for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  I sat outside for several hours, observing birds and trying to identify them, while simultaneously working on my sun tan.  For Valentine's day this year, my husband bought me a giant bird seed block -- an appropriate and appreciated gift for someone whose newest hobby is birding, who will not eat carbohydrates, and has asthma.  He put it up on the wall that separates our house from the desert arroyo behind us.  Within the first hour of observation, I saw 14 black birds that I identified as American Crows, two red birds that I identified as baby Northern Cardinals, two Gila Woodpeckers, and one lone Gambel's Quail.  These birds were taking turns at the seed block.

At that point, Nature Boy called.  "How's the birding going? See anything cool?"

"I just saw 14 American Crows," I told him.  "They have such long tails."

"They're probably not crows," he said.  At this point I thought he was mocking me, but he said, "Look at page 443 in Sibley's.  Is that what you're looking at?"

Son of a gun!  He was right.  The birds were Great-tailed Grackles, not American Crows.  "It is a Great-tailed Gackle.  You're right!"  I said.

"Not Gackle, Mom.  Grackle With an r," he corrected.  "They're one of my favorite birds.  Besides their very long keel-shaped tail, Grackles have pale eyes.  Crows don't.  The blackish-blue one is the male and the brownish ones are females.  Sometimes one male travels with a harem of females.  They're smart.  I've seen them drop birdseed into the fountain on campus and hang around until the seeds soften enough to eat them.  The other birds just try to break them with their beaks.  Grackles figured out how to do it without needing a dentist."

Then I told him about the little red birds I saw.  I said, "I think they might be baby Northern Cardinals."  I was guessing.  "I know the adults have their distinctive heads and red beaks.  This didn't have either, but it was red on its head and on its throat, like someone dipped it into a can of bright red paint."

"Probably a House Finch," he said.

"But it had a red head," I added.

"Page 450, Mom.  Male House Finches have red heads and necks.  Mom, lots of birds have red markings, not just Cardinals."

"Son of a gun. It is a House Finch.  So that's 14 Gackles and 2 House Finch," I said.

"Grackle," he said. "Grackle."

"I also saw a Gambel's Quail -- a male -- all by itself and a pair of Gila Woodpeckers.  I'm sure about both of those.  I know those birds."

"Quail are easy," he said.  "Wonder why he's alone and not with other quail.  Strange.  It's spring.  How about the Gila Woodpecker?  Tell me how you knew."

I felt like the son was becoming the teacher, and I didn't mind switching roles.  "Giant red patch on the head of the male," I said.  "Black and white zebra wings, tan body, and a long beak that is known for making holes in the stucco on your mother's house.  Page 265 in Sibley's."

"A+," said my son.  "You're benefiting from my college education, too."

"No," I said. "I am benefiting from your enthusiasm."

2010, Felice Prager.
Felice Prager is a freelance writer and former school teacher, who has accumulated hundreds of local, national, and international credits in print and on the Internet.  Many of her essays have been included in popular anthology series. She is also the author of Quiz It: Arizona.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP will resist the temptation to say that this essay is for the birds.


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