10:00am - 5:00pm There’s always more to discover!
My first full time job in the museum profession was as a traveling science teacher. In the vernacular of the industry, and to be more specific with my title, I was an Outreach Educator. What that meant was that I was tasked with taking the entire experience we had in a 300,000 sq. ft. museum supported by a $25 million budget and 500 people and cram it all into the back of a 1982 Ford Econoline van and drive around our state and region to take the museum experience to students and families that for a variety of reasons could not or did not come to the museum. From the standpoint of having a fulfilling job that was high on impact and mission you couldn’t ask for anything better. From and economic perspective it left a lot to be desired. There are no upper middle class Outreach Educators anywhere in the world. That’s ok though, economic success was not my motivation for getting into the education profession.
Like so many other states, the large science center I was working at was in a major metropolitan city. The largest in the state in fact. That meant that most of the rest of the very large western state is what we would call rural. This was my home state and I believed prior to taking the job that I was well acquainted with the geography and communities that made up my home. As an active Boy Scout growing up, I had hiked its mountains, swam in its ocean, slept in the high desert, and fished its mighty rivers. Like others who grow up in western states, I would obnoxiously ridicule anyone who dared to mispronounce the name of our home and I would let them know that they were welcome to enjoy our state, but don’t plan on putting down roots. There was no room at the inn. I’m not proud of this approach, just honest.
As mentioned earlier, the job of an Outreach Educator was to travel around the region to take the museum experience on the road to communities near and far. By far, I really mean far. I had the privilege or working for one of the largest and most established (meaning old) outreach programs in the country. Not only did we hit every county and school district in our state, but multiple times a year we would also travel to five other western states including our friends in Alaska. By van, by plane, by boat, and by dog sled (and snow machine) we would go anywhere to see anyone that wanted a little of our special “ah-ha” science moments. Again, this was a really special and rewarding work even at the peasant wages we were earning.
This is what a typical work life of an Outreach Educator would look like. A trip is organized where multiple rural schools and communities could sign up and share the cost of bringing us to the far side of their particular moon. For example, we would have a two-week trip scheduled in the fall for the southeast part of the state (that’s a geographic area that is still twice the size of some of the original colonies in New England). Our registrar’s task was to book as many schools, libraries, county fairs, etc. as possible to keep one or two of us busy for the entire time on the road.
Prior to leaving on your trip, you spent a few days at the museum packing up and preparing everything you needed to teach all the classes and activities that have been selected. If you run out of popsicle sticks in a rural community you can probably find more at the local drug store, but if you run out of poly vinyl alcohol, a must have ingredient when making slime, that’s a little harder to come by. So, preparation is the key.
Now…that registrar we mentioned, their job is to book as many programs as possible to ensure our trip is both impactful and profitable. So, if that means booking 12 different classroom programs and 3 different assemblies then so be it. The problem is that the registrar never had to pack a van for a two-week trip delivering 20 different programs. That means that in addition to preparing all your supplies, you now had to embark on the most challenging game of Tetris that you’ve ever played in your life. Your game board is the cargo space in the back of a Ford Econoline van. I’m not talking these big, beautiful step vans you see today delivering your Amazon packages. No, these are the vans that if you saw them parked on the corner with a guy just eating his lunch that he packed from home because he can’t afford to eat out, that you would call the cops to report a “creepy dude in a van on the corner.” Did that happen to me? Yes.
The fun part of playing this game of Tetris is that when you arrive at your first school you get to play Jenga as you carefully unpack the van to get the supplies that inevitably are packed into the geometric center of the van. There’s planning and then there’s planning! To this day my family hates to take any kind of road trip with me because I have a plan for everything. And if it’s not in the plan, it does not go. Sorry teddy bear, you should have voiced your desire to go with us much sooner!
At the risk of sounding like that old guy who says something stupid like “back when I started out…” I want to say that back when I started out GPS was the domain of the US Air Force and not yet readily available to the rest of the population. Today’s traveling science teachers have it easy what with their big, beautiful step vans and dashboard mounted GPS. When I left for a trip, I was handed a printed itinerary and a Thomas Guide. For those unfamiliar with a Thomas Guide, this was a bound book of maps for your state or region. They were a bit complicated because when your current position had you leave the page you had been traveling it didn’t automatically mean you were on the next page. You had to find the next grid square in the book and navigate from there…while driving. The only thing hands free at that juncture was the steering wheel that was under the firm control of my knee.
The next glorious part of being an Outreach Educator was something called a per diem. Not familiar with your Latin, no worries. Per diem translates to “per day” and is shorthand for the food allowance you were given. That’s right, you’re traveling on company time away from your home which means the company is going to pay for your meals. I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier, but this gig did not pay a lot, so not having to pay for my food while traveling sounded like a sweet deal. There is of course a catch. Per diem has a cap which is to say that the company has decided ahead of time how much you get to spend each day on meals. And they will check because you have to turn in your receipts when you get back from your trip. Anything over or unaccounted for came out of your own pocket or paycheck.
Certainly, the company was generous I hear you saying. No…no they were not. Somewhere, someone in the finance department consulted both the FDA nutritional guidelines and the department of corrections prisoner rule books and settled on the lump sum of $20 per day. Sure, but back then it was enough right, I mean adjusting for inflation and what not? No…no it was not. $20 per day when your dining options are fast food, cheap dinners or gas station sushi (note: never ever buy sushi at the gas station) is not sufficient to sustain a growing boy or a reasonably sized adult.
Ok, we have an overloaded and outdated van, a navigation system that is only a half-step up from what Magellan used to navigate the seas, and starvation level per diem, but the accommodations were decent right? Let me ask you a question. Have you ever taken a road trip where you said “oh, we’ll just find a room when we get to town?” Then you arrive to said destination and cruise the main street looking at the quaint little bed and breakfast places, maybe a national chain motel where they have left several lights on for you? You make your selection, walk right in and presto they have a nice little room ready for you. None of that ever happened.
You see our registrar was also our travel agent. In addition to never loading the van full of programs that they oversold, they also never ate on $20 per day on the road or slept one night in the Hooverville shanties they put us up in in rural America. Go back to that main street with the quaint bed and breakfast places. At the stop light, turn left and keep driving until the town stops feeling like a town. You’ll know it because there’s a set of railroad tracks. Next to the tracks there’s a “motel.” The vacancy light is burned out because it’s always on because there’s always a vacancy. It’s the place where the stray cats look at you as if to say “dude, I don’t even sleep there” and they have puss on their face. The roofline is bowing inward to give fair warning that the motel has not been inspected in the past 35 years. That is the place you’ll be sleeping while bringing the majesty of science to this community. And no, there’s no continental breakfast.
Let’s take a moment to talk about what an Outreach educator does once they arrive in this remote part of the state. I cut my teeth in a very large outreach program so our inventory of offerings was substantial. At the end of one year on the job you were expected to know how to deliver more than 20 different one-hour classroom programs covering all different areas of the sciences. My favorite was a class called “Skulls, Fangs and Claws.” This was a class where we taught students about different animal adaptations by examining their various skeletal remains and pelts.
It sounds a tad morbid, but all of our very real specimens came via legitimate means. Hunters had donated some items, while others came from the US Customs office where items were seized at the borders because they were illegal to have. For example, we had a full Bangel Tiger pelt with a taxidermed head complete with jaws spread wide open. I always had mixed feelings about this one, but we were making lemonade out of some terrible lemons. In our efforts to ensure that the animal’s life was not wasted in vain, we accepted the pelt and turned it into a teaching tool and gave students the opportunity to see and experience something they otherwise never would. This is the “ah-ha” business we are in and why we slept in that motel last night. Of course, we also worked into the lesson plan the horrors of poaching and why conservation is so important.
In addition to the 20 plus classroom programs you had to know, you also had to be fluent in three 50-minute assemblies. You all remember assembly day at school, right? We cram into the gymnasium, cafeteria, multi-purpose room, wherever your school dedicated for special events like this. The monotony of the school day was suddenly broken up with a special event. You didn’t care what the assembly was about.
It could be a scare them straight say no to drugs thing, or maybe the local fire department was teaching you how to stop, drop and roll. Again, didn’t matter, you knew you had 45-60 minutes free from the warden. Add in lining up, transit time to the gym, coming back to the classroom, a bathroom and/or water fountain break and you just burned an hour and a half of the day. Bring on the assembly!
Of course, in this case I was the assembly clown tasked with wrangling and maintaining an audience of 30-300 students. Those aren’t great odds and don’t be looking to the school’s teachers for help. They too know that they now have the next hour off. Sure, they’re in the room, but they are off the clock. Fortunately for me I have a secret weapon. The assembly I am about to unleash…and I’m not making this up…is called “Reacto Blast.” Yeah baby, stuff is going to both react and blast over the next 50 minutes. As an assembly performer you are one part comedian, one part professor, and one-part con man. This is a very different role than the one you play in the classroom. There are three different assemblies you are expected to master but once you have them in your head you just hit play.
It’s a bit like the jungle cruise at Disneyland. When I took the cruise as a child I remember all the funny and crazy jokes our pith helmeted guide made. He spoke directly to me when delivering one of his clever one liners and man did I feel special. 25 years later I took my kids on the exact same cruise and would you believe that even though it was a different tour guide the jokes were almost the same. Only this time they were directed at some random kid in the front instead of me. Assemblies are the same way. Each one has a script, a set of jokes, the big reveals and during the question-and-answer section you can count on being asked the same 10 questions no matter the audience.
Ok, so we have 20 classroom programs, three assemblies, and now we’re going to toss in a portable planetarium. If you’ve not had the experience to remove your shoes and crawl through a tunnel with 25 stinky footed kids excited about astronomy you have not yet lived. Imagine a giant black balloon that you get to slide inside of while the Outreach Educator flips on a projector and magically put’s a stary night sky above your head. It’s like a bounce house but without the bouncing, or the house, or the fun. I mean there’s still fun, but not bounce house fun. For the next 45 minutes everyone is transplanted into the cosmos. The Outreach Educator must now transform again into another persona. Instead of the performer or the teacher, you now have to channel your inner Carl Sagan. You speak in a soft voice, slowly and calmly. Somehow just doing that makes you sound wicked smart. Next you begin to tell some legends or origin stories of the universe. Then comes the tricky part, with a laser pointer you have to start pointing out various celestial objects and talk about them.
Ture confession time: I was horrible in the planetarium. I literally could not find Polaris if my life depended on it, which is ironic because so many lives have depended on people’s ability to navigate by the stars. Fortunately, I have never been dependent on the stars because I had a Thomas Guide. Unfortunately for many of my students, this also meant that I bluffed my way through far too many planetarium shows. I know, I feel really bad about this and I am desperately working on tracking down all those poor misguided children so I can fix my past educational sins. Also, there’s a risk in using this approach. While you can usually bluff most third graders, occasionally you will encounter a statistical anomaly and the kid will know more than you, like a lot more than you. And they will take great delight in your public undoing as they single handedly disembowel you in front of their peers. It’s not a pretty sight and as a result I was very motivated to learn the orientation of the stars.
The only thing left in the portfolio you need master is ironically the easiest, the tabletops. These are a series of miniaturized exhibits from the museum that launched you out into the world. We had a set of about 40 miniature exhibits that we would set up on tabletops at fair grounds and libraries. In addition, every hour we would do a science demo which was just a small excerpt from one of the three assemblies. These demos lasted no more than five minutes, and once completed you go back to facilitating your mini museum.
For us, these were most often set up at state and county fairs. Have you been to the fair? Seems to me that every fair that has ever existed lasted about 5 days longer than it should have. After 30 minutes working at the fair you have seen and experienced all you need….ever. Only problem is that you still have eight days left. And you’re no longer the teacher, the showman or Carl Sagan. No, now you are the carny. “Step right up folks, try your hand at science” as if it’s a game to be won. If you’re lucky you get set up next to the 4H tent where you get to smell and listen to little pigs, cows, sheep, etc. that want to be at the fair no more than you do. If you’re unlucky you’re within the splash zone of the rides, only there’s no water so the splash is provided by the riders. You get what I’m saying right? Don’t make me explain this to you, it’s just not good.
Also, there is funnel cake. What is funnel cake? No one actually knows. But you can get one that is about the size of your head for $3. Remember, you’re living on $20 a day so you’re going for quantity over quality. I have consumed more funnel cake than any human should and I’m certain that I have lost 5-10 years off my life as a result. Occasionally you supplement your diet with some protein and get yourself a corn dog. There’s usually more corn than dog and if you’re in the tent next to the 4H animals I would not recommend eating said corn dog while maintaining prolonged eye contact with a juvenile pig. We both know what’s going on here and neither of us wants to discuss it so just stop staring.
That’s it, that’s the day in the life of an Outreach Educator. Sounds like a sweet gig, right? It was a really rewarding time in my career and the memories formed and lessons learned have informed my entire career. In the outreach program I worked we had one more item on our menu of program offerings. Live animals are always a big hit with school kids and so we had a live animal assembly that we offered. In this case we worked with an outside contractor. It’s one thing to keep a bearded dragon or a turtle alive, but an hour’s worth of exotic creatures is a different story all together.
Animal lovers are special people. I have had several dogs and cats in my life, and I cherish them deeply. As a little kid I learned to ride my God Mother’s giant Appaloosa horse, and later in life wrangled horses at scout camp at the ripe old age of 14. I even got into a bar fight once with a very mean goose, at least that’s what it felt like, and the goose won. So, I’m no stranger to animals of the warm-blooded variety and when I joined the ranks of the museum, I was excited to learn we would be doing programs with real live animals. Imagine then my disappointment when I learned that a.) my roll would be relegated to a glorified stagehand merely assisting the contractor we worked with and b.) these were not warm-blooded creatures, these were cold. I mean that in the zoological sense, not the emotional. But also, they had no souls and scared the hell out of me.
My fear originated from some childhood trauma. My family describes it as hijinks, but this was straight up traumatic event level stuff. I grew up very close to my cousins. We were all boys and all within a few years of each other. Basically, we were a pack of wild animals. Behind my grandparents’ house in the west hills of Portland, Oregon was a deep ravine and a densely forested hill side that are common in the Pacific Northwest. It was the perfect place for boys to be boys and each of us should have died several times over the years given some of the incredibly stupid things we did and tried in those woods. One day, a senior cousin found a garden variety snake. It was no more than a half inch in diameter and maybe 18 inches long. He grabbed it perfectly behind its jaws and lifted it above his head declaring for all of his juniors “SNAKE!”
Immediately a series of war cries came from my blood relatives. I chose not to partake as I felt little need to draw any attention to myself and this snake being in the same general vicinity. This of course had the opposite effect and I was immediately singled out as being the weak one and thus the appropriate target. With the speed and efficiency of the Yakuza my cousins had me pinned to the ground and the chieftain arrived with his sacrifice. The council that had gathered decided the appropriate course of action would be to lift my shirt and let the venomous creature drain my life. The squirming black rope was released on my bare hairless chest and at that point I met St. Peter who told me it was not yet time and sent me back to my earthly vessel.
According to the Yakuza, the snake did not spend more than three seconds on my thrashing body and quickly secured its own freedom and vanished back into the underbrush. I had ruined everything. Yeah you read that right, I had ruined the experience. Not the psychopaths I was related to, but me. By thrashing around I had scared off the snake and ruined their afternoon. Things have been a bit strained with those guys ever since.
So you can see why I wasn’t thrilled to take the back seat on stage for the live animal shows only to be left with the task of carting out the next cold, soulless, and scaly specimen. But alas that was my fate when doing live animal programs and eventually I mastered my trauma to at least a point where I could do my bit without breaking into a cold sweat.
We need to talk about our contractor because that’s another important part of this story. Dog lovers, great. Cat people are nice. Got a bird, ok, a little weird but fine. Do you have an entire farm where you breed and sell exotic reptiles? I really hate to paint with broad brush strokes here, but chances are that you fall somewhere on the further ends of a spectrum. Such was the case with our animal contractor. We need to give him a name so we’ll call him Bryce. That’s absolutely not what his mother named him but the guy kind of scares me so Bryce is his name.
Bryce’s entire wardrobe was comprised of kaki cargo shorts, black V-neck t-shirts, various animal skin vests, and a bush hat with claws and teeth adorning the hat band. He was straight out of central casting. Bryce was liberal in every conceivable way and could give Cheech and Chong and run for their money when using the word “man” in his dialog with others. He absolutely knew his zoology and had the academic credentials to back it all up. Perhaps because or in spite of his over-the-top presence the man could command an audience.
The grand finale of Bryce’s assembly involved bringing out onto the stage the real star of the show, a four-foot-long American alligator who was named Al E. Gator. Al was the most docile alligator to have ever walked the earth. Bryce had been handling him since he was a hatchling for this exact reason. Well fed, accustomed to being handled, Al presented little to no risk if handled properly. This part is important and Bryce takes training very seriously. I too take training seriously, especially when it comes to HANDLING AN ALIGATOR! Sorry, didn’t mean to yell but it felt important to emphasize this point.
We were at a school not too far from the museum doing our show. The neat thing about outreach is that sometimes it means taking the museum experience just down the road. So there we were reaching the climax of the show and I took the current cold blooded killer from Bryce and headed back stage to exchange it for Al. When handling an alligator it’s important to give them proper support. A four-foot-long alligator is heavier than you might assume so support is an important feature of the handling process. I assumed the position, slide my hand and forearm under Al’s belly and lower jaw and headed out onto the stage.
When you step onto a stage in an elementary school cafeteria in front of 300 children holding an alligator, there are going to be a series of reactions. First there are the ohs and ahs. Those are children with good parents. Then there’s the giggles and excited pointing. Those kids have good parents too, but maybe a little more discipline is needed. And then there’s the screamers. They have terrible parents who are just phoning it in at this point. The screamers are the ones you have to be careful with, as not everything reacts well to a scream. But Al’s a pro and done this hundreds of times.
My job for the next five minutes is to simply stand there cradling Al while Bryce goes on to lecture about all the cool things associated with the alligator. Standing holding Al for five minutes is a feat of strength and stamina and on this day, I forgot to eat my Wheaties and was not in my best form. I was shifting my arm trying to get into a more comfortable position when Al decided to remind me that it was his comfort that mattered at that moment and not mine.
In a motion so quick not even the high-speed cameras caught it, Al jerked his head to the right, opened his mouth a few inches, secured a portion of my wrist in his grin and proceeded to reposition my arm. Almost as if to say “here, let me help you with that, this is where your arm should be.” Only now my arm was being held in place by Al’s teeth. I would learn later that the technical term for this action is called BEING BIT BY AN ALIGATOR! The good news is that exactly three living organisms understood what had just happened. First, myself for obvious reasons. Second, Al who was in the know because I was currently bleeding into his mouth. Third, Bryce who shot me a look that said “the show must go on.”
And that’s what happened. Bryce did not pause for even a second. As I stood there bleeding out in front of 300 elementary school kids I could feel the warm flow of my own life giving blood run down my arm. So as not to alarm our audience I simply tucked my elbow into my super absorbent polyester polo and treated it like a surgical sponge. The next 4 minutes lasted 4 hours in my mind, but eventually the applause and screaming, more screaming, from the kids signaled the end of the show and Al and I made a graceful exit to stage left.
Behind the stage Al casually released his grip and gave me a look that said, “nice set today kid, see ya at the next one.” When Bryce joined me backstage I literally asked him “how long do I have?” “Until what man?” was his response. My assumption was that I was either going to bleed to death or succumb to some exotic fever that lurked in Al’s mouth. As it turns out neither of those things happened. I was informed that my blood loss was not as significant as I had reported and Al’s mouth harbored less bacteria than mine, so if anything, Al was in danger of me rather than the other way around. My wound required a few butterfly closures and a very stern lecture from the lady in the Human Resource office.
I learned a pretty important lesson that day with my colleagues Bryce and Al. Even with the best training sometimes you can still get bit. What matters is how you react when you’ve been bitten. Poise and perseverance matters. In my case I chose to stand and deliver, despite the clear panic lurking right under the surface. The teacher in me assessed the situation and followed some basic first aid. The comedian began preparing some funny retort should the audience catch on to what was happening. The con man got to work thinking about how to make a hasty exit. The Carl Sagan began an inner dialog slowly calming me down and reminding me of the very big picture. And the carny…just kind of found a spot on the wall of the far side of the cafeteria and stared blankly until someone, in this case Bryce, chose to interact with me. All of those different Outreach Educator personas came together in that crisis to respond to that moment when we’re all bound to get bit.