Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ode to a Dung Beetle

There's been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Ho-Venkat household lately, and that should explain the relative silence that's befallen this little corner of the internet quite tidily. Don't worry, the wailing isn't coming from Suresh, who described his delightfully planned, well-tempered days at the Simons Institute in his post here, and who just today enjoyed a "Vendor Fair" at Google in which snack vendors thrust free samples into the hands of Google employees in an attempt to win bids for Google's (free-food-for-employees) business.  No gnashing of teeth is being conducted by the boys, who are quite happy to go hopping on their pogo sticks in the backyard in lieu of doing schoolwork.  No, I am the sole wailer and gnasher, but I've been doing enough of it lately to make up for the others' slack.

The reason for all this sturm und drang is simply this:  I am not an elementary school teacher and I am not fitting very well into that role. It's been almost four decades since I've been an elementary school kid myself, and I've forgotten basically everything that I learned back then. Lack of materials or thoughtful, well-crafted teaching ideas from our coach -- the school district's elementary independent study teacher -- aren't the issue. In fact, the numerous blogs and websites with clever teaching ideas, free printables and downloads, and curricula galore only make matters worse ... I am deluged with others' ideas, overwhelmed by their cleverness, humbled by the fact that so many brilliant teachers of elementary school materials exist, and then I am downright discouraged that I am not one of them.

In the midst of this worry that my children will not be able to graduate from elementary school because of me, I was reminded recently of an NPR piece I heard almost a year ago on dung beetles. Dung beetles make their lives living off of other animals' excretions, and while fascinated by this I am also a bit repulsed by them, too. Dung beetles eat poop, they live off of poop, they feed their babies poop. When they find some fresh dung and fashion it into a nice round ball, they appear to get so happy that they climb up on top of it and dance, shimmying this way and that on its smelly surface. I know, because I've seen the nature specials.  Apparently, some researchers discovered last January that what they are actually doing is not a dance of happiness, but rather are checking the Milky Way to get a sense of their bearing.  Yes, the lowly dung beetle stares up at the skies and can navigate their dung ball back to their nests using the Milky Way. To show this, the researchers placed little cardboard hats atop the dung beetles to block out their view of the skies.  When they wore the hats, the beetles rolled their balls around in hopeless circles.  The team then confirmed the observation using a planetarium's stars to show how the beetles used the stars to orient themselves.

I never thought I'd say this, but I'd like to be a bit more like the dung beetle, and take off my cardboard dunce cap and look up at the stars and gain some grounding, some direction, some sense of bearing. Instead of floundering around in the dark, at a loss for direction, I could climb up to the highest point, raise my arms to the skies, do a little jig of happiness.  If I can be more like a creature wholly unconcerned about what the world thinks of him or her, and just focus on getting the right stuff back home to my kids and family, then I can see the world as all right again. Of course, I would like to be a little more like the dung beetle minus the dung.  But, I am also the mother of two boys, and I know that might be too much to ask.

1 comment:

  1. I like this post. After reading it, I realize that I too often feel like a dung beetle, in the dark, wearing a cardboard dunce cap! I guess I should look at the stars more often.