I grew up in a new suburb carved out of the woods near the Sandy Hook Bay. We spent most of our waking hours outdoors, not necessarily by choice. As soon as you got home from school, you changed out of your school clothes and went outside.
And we stayed out until dinner, ate, then stayed out again until dark.
Our division was new enough then that we still had woods. We had our myths--the "strippers" would make you undress if they ever caught you. The murderers would kill you. We were more worried about the strippers.
We had tree forts. We learned not to saw off the limb we were sitting on, logical enough, but not so logical that we did not test it empirically. We gained wisdom through concussions our folks never knew about, mutual silence.
Every child on Bayberry Lane could find their way through Turtle Woods and Grasshopper Hill. We were the wild things our parents, most of them city children, and many of them immigrants, were not. We knew the moon, we knew the tides. We caught turtles and frogs and snakes and toads.
And then one day we cornered a badger.
Badgers did not read the ecology journals, and neither did we. I do not know how we figured out it was a badger, but at least two of us had the Zim's Golden Guide to Mammals. What we lacked in cell phones, iPods, and GPS's we had in time. If Zim's said it was a badger, it was a badger.
We chased one into its hole, found its alternate route, and started digging. And digging. And digging some more.
Dinner time approached. We were busy. We sent a scout to tell Mom and Dad what we were doing.
Our parents, being adults, didn't believe us. "There are no badgers in New Jersey."
But we knew better. There was, it turns out, at least one.
We see what we're trained to see.
My CP Biology classes are studying ecology now. Today I had one of my favorite labs. Various critters, some alive, some pickled, are placed on the lab tables. A live cockroach next to a scorpion trapped in acrylic, a live snail next to a pickled pig. Potatoes and young pea plants failed miserably trying to seduce my children from the siren song of strange critters.
I ask the kids to describe features of two organisms. Sharks and horseshoe crabs and sea horses and scorpions compete for their attention.
"It's an eye."
Pretend I'm an alien--I have no idea what an eye is--describe what you see.
"Uh, a circle with a black dot in the middle."
Great!She walks away puzzled. This was too easy.
No questions, and I resist judging. These kids grew up surrounded by a human universe, I grew up in a larger one. I need to be kind.
I have a large, live cockroach in class. It's actually the second one I've gotten this year--the first one died from student exuberance and my clumsiness.
This one is very much alive.
It's long antennae search the borders of its universe under a stereoscope. A couple of girls watch it.
The antennae undulate, probing as delicately as snowflakes on a calm winter midnight. Then the cockroach does something unexpected. It cleans its antennae, like a cat licking its paws. The girls are mesmerized.
It took hours, but we finally caught it. One fierce, slashing badger, true to Zim's Golden Guide. We marched home, our prized mammal as badgery as a badger can be, and we were promptly told to return it to the woods.
I learned two big lessons:
Parents can be wrong, and badgers don't read books.
Last week my daughter and I continued our futile search for a legal striped bass. Saturday was a gorgeous late November day--we watched the sun settle over the ocean, snuggling far south of where it should be.
Just before the sun touched the horizon, when our shadows were longer than our imagination, the few minutes before sunset when a Jersey beach makes Alice look sane, my daughter screamed the triumphant cry of a child with a striper on the line.
But her line was slack.
A half foot creature writhed on the beach. It looked like a shrimp with an edge.
My daughter went to pick it up. I stopped her. And I'm glad I did.
On a late November Saturday, a very live and active mantis shrimp, as impossible as a badger in a Jersey suburban woods, tossed itself on the beach,creeping and clambering.
And I was again reminded of my badger.
My cockroach, our cockroach, sits in a Chinese take-out dish in Room B362. It will be released tomorrow, or maybe Monday if the promised snow arrives tomorrow.
My mantis shrimp, our mantis shrimp, may well be dead now--it's too far out of its range, and December has started acting like December, as it will.
The sun fades south. I am not sure it will return, and for some of us, it won't.
But today, a few children here in Bloomfield became attached to a creature that does not know they even exist.
It won't help their test scores. It won't even get them past the midterm. It might even be the only thing they remember three decades from now, long after they've wrestled with whatever homework comes home with their children from biology class.
But if they remember the casual cleaning of a cockroach's antennae years after I am dead, I will not have wasted my time here.