I've spent a lot of this month droning on about education. I've talked about messaging, and what we should be messaging, and how best to convey that messaging. One thing I haven't talked about is who should be doing the teaching. I've talked a lot about how zoos and aquariums can share educational messages. I've talked about teachers. But in many cases, the most important teachers are the ones that have no formal role, either at the zoo or in the school system.
In my case, that teacher was my dad.
Both of my parents worked growing up, my mom in a soulless, evil corporation, my dad self-employed. They were both extremely busy (still are, as it happens), but still managed to make plenty of time for my brother and me growing up. They helped with homework. They came to sports events (until I was mercifully allowed to quit), and music performances (where I played abominably), and the only slightly-less cringe-worthy theatrical productions. And, when I was good (and sometimes when I wasn't), they indulged me in my favorite treat ever. We'd go to the zoo.
Of all the members of my family, nuclear and extended, he was the one who most shared my excitement about animals and nurtured it in me. I have memories of a him showing me salamanders he found while out on the job, or learning to identify local birds for a merit badge in Boy Scouts, or explaining to me firmly but gently why buying the baby caiman in the pet store wasn't the great idea that I was sure it was. Mostly, I remember the zoo.
Growing up, I'd probably go to the local zoo (about a half hour drive away) once a month, taken by my dad. He'd herd me patiently down the paths, taking the same route through the exhibits each time. Going down the paths, he'd encourage me to read the signs and learn to recognize the animals. He'd push me to make connections and think a little harder about concepts. He made me slow down instead of racing wildly from one animal to the next. He asked me questions about the animals (which I now suspect that he already knew the answers to), not only to make me think, but to help me build some pride in the store of knowledge I was building up. He also taught me to stand up for animals. I remember one visit to the National Zoo, seeing my normally mild-mannered dad bellowing at some teenagers who were throwing sticks at an alligator, scattering them like birds, then searching for a keeper so he could give a description of them, so staff could be on the look-out if they tried anything like that again.
As I entered high school, I began volunteering at our local zoo, first three times a week, then almost every day. It wasn't until I became an adult, with the worries of time and mileage adding up on an old car, and the exhaustion of having worked all day and just wanting to rest, that I came to realize what an effort that was for him. He never complained. As high school wound down and I began to look at colleges, he went with me on the road-trips. Each usually happened to be by a near zoo or two. And when I did graduate from college and got my first zoo job across the country, he drove with me to help me settle into a new zoo... and it was with him that I walked around my new zoo for the first time.
My parents both still work, a lot more than they really should, to be honest, and I don't see them as often as I really should. I still call home a few times a week, mostly to rant and rave about whatever is going on/wrong at the zoo this week. A year or two ago, my dad suggested that we go on another zoo trip, just like the good old days, and we drove out to Toledo and Cleveland. I had a friend working at each and was able to get us in for free and get him a behind-the-scenes tour at each zoo. It made me happy, like I was treating him for a change.
There were plenty of people who helped me along to where I am now in my career in the zoo profession. My mom, lacking in animal enthusiasm as she was (the last time I took her through my zoo on a tour, I think she had her eyes covered half the time, convinced I was about to get myself killed as I showed her a few favorite animals), supported me, pushing me to do better in my schooling, editing and proof-reading resumes and cover letters, and counseling me on how to navigate my first workplace dramas. My older brother gamely pitched in with ferrying me to and from the zoo once he was old enough to drive. Some teachers in school and professors in college helped me learn how to learn, and at each zoo and aquarium I've been at, there's been at least one person more senior than I who was willing to take the time to teach me.
But with all of the help I've gotten along the way, I feel pretty sure - wouldn't have become a zookeeper without my father. Thanks, Dad.