Teachable weekend

Every October, I’m reminded that the four-day MEA weekend provides my most intellectually rewarding volunteer Thursday of the year. MEA is an outdated term that lots of us can’t stop using, even after the Minnesota Educators Association  merged with other groups to become Education Minnesota. Whatever the state teachers union calls itself, its annual conference still means the zoo is filled with families, liberated from school but still looking to learn. Unlike other busy days when summer crowds and school groups are rushing from Point A to Point B, and I’m mainly telling guests where the bathrooms and the IMAX theater are, the MEA crowd is especially receptive to bench talks — a chance for volunteers to sit down with furry pelts, “bone-clone” skulls and other artifacts and have spontaneous, sometimes lengthy conversations about animals and their place in the world.

%22Coral Reefs%22 by Gail Gibbons

Ever since I discovered the “coral box” in Discovery Bay’s  Cove Booth last month, coral is my new favorite bench talk.  I pull out “Coral Reefs,” a colorful children’s book by Gail Gibbons explaining all about hard and soft corals, how they eat and spawn and how reefs grow, along with some bleached coral skeletons and photos that show their colors while still alive. I’ve learned that this can be a hard sell for small children, with their short attention spans and their tendency to focus on animals that move and have faces. Just explaining that corals are in fact animals, and not rocks or plants, might be as far as I get. But stereotypes exist to be broken, and on MEA Thursday I got a girl who couldn’t have been past kindergarten — barely tall enough to see the book and corals on the cove booth’s little table — who was fascinated and full of questions.

brain coral, brain worm coral

I got questions whose answers gave me pause, though I’ve since looked them up: How do corals eat? (Either via photosynthesis, thanks to algae that live on corals, or by sucking up the tiny plants and animals known as phytoplankton). When I took the shark and stingray jaw clones over by the shark reef (where, again, they attracted more interest than usual this week), I got the unexpected but obvious follow-up to my sound bite “Of the 400-plus shark species, only about one in 10 species are dangerous to humans.” — “Which ones?” (The sand tigers in our shark tank and the obvious great white were all that leaped to mind at first. Rounding out the top five are hammerhead, tiger, bull and white-tip sharks.)

brain coral and clownfish

When the coral book reminded me that anemones are a similarly structured relative, minus the chalky external skeleton, I downscaled my bench talk and took it on the move: With an anemone-like, tentacled koosh ball in one hand and a brain coral skeleton in the other, I hung out by the gorgeous live-coral tank and pointed out the living brain coral to the guests already basking in its color. (That’s a purple and green “closed brain” coral, nestled within a button polyp coral, just beneath the clownfish.) Then I pointed out all the individual polyps that built themselves into the larger structure, and how their shape mimicked the anemone’s.  At the zoo, or any place that’s part of a weekly routine, it’s easy to fall into rigid habits: the same talking points for the same few animals on any given trail. But something about the four-day weekend encouraged new connections: between volunteer and child, between child and animal, between facts and ways to express them. I’m not a teacher (although most of my relatives are), but I’m glad to piggy-back on their weekend of self-improvement and renewal.