Lessons learned in Squirrel School

5 Follow along pattern

The neighbor dogs had barked since 9 a.m. when I stepped into the back yard to investigate. I had to squint across slabs of afternoon sun to scan the creaky elm tree that grows on the other side of the fence. Squirrel school, it appeared, was in session.

A determined-looking parent squirrel coaxed two kits along a slender branch that reached toward the roof. As they shrank into cute but uncooperative clumps, the parent crouched, launched, and landed decisively on the shingled slope. The mother — of course I imagined it was the mother — stood at attention, prairie-dog style, and chattered at her offspring. Just try it! I imagined her saying. It’s the shortest, safest route to the even bigger elm tree in the front yard!

Winter is coming! It’s time to stockpile food! This is the most efficient way! (Though I have no evidence, I am pretty sure squirrels end every sentence with an exclamation mark.)

The babies would have none of it. With a visible sigh, the mother dashed out of view, only to reappear in the tree moments later. The demonstration began again. The dog continued his alarm-bark. Saturday class continued until dusk.

With one college instructor and two future school teachers in the family, I hear plenty of human chatter about curriculum planning. Then, too, there’s my own work environment, surrounded by math and science instructors’ offices, students cramming for class outside my workspace, and the many meetings that punctuate academic life, meetings where we tackle tough questions like, “Why won’t our squirrels jump?” and “How many nuts are needed?” and “Have you seen the weather forecast for December?” I couldn’t help but imagine how this squirrel parent developed her own lesson outline.

Demonstration: How to leap from branch to shingle!

Assignment: Do as I do. And as I say … “be fearless, little ones!”

Objective: Master this skill before winter, in order to stockpile the most possible food in the highest possible location inaccessible to other creatures!

Outcome: Defy death at the jaws of the slavering dog below!

Assessment: If there’s no blood, we pass! If there are nuts in the nest, we earn As! Bonus points for any ounces gained by spring!

It’s no exaggeration to point out that the tiny, non-leaping squirrel kits resembled Saints students in more than one way. They were young and skinny and kind of adorable — all energy at the beginning, quick to wilt for nap time when the stress of leaping began to accrue. I’m sure they gobble nuts and seeds like nobody’s business, and have become accustomed to the bounty of summer and a parent’s provisions. Do these squirrels know how to cook or do laundry? They do not.

They were also easily distractible. During what must have been the parent’s 457th attempt to get them to try the leap, they engaged in a game of tag across the non-dog-guarded regions of the tree. I watched incredulously as they sprinted vertically up a desiccated branch that looked far less sturdy than the launch branch their mother had selected for the actual assignment. The 90-degree angle and brittle appearance of the branch bark and bone-white wood beneath seemed to me to represent a far greater possibility of tumbling to an untimely death by dog-jaw. Yet the baby squirrels wanted to play, and play to their strengths. They were stubborn, just like many of our students. They were were a bit cocky, betting on their squirrel tag skills instead of putting in the practice time for a challenging leap. They had no concept of winter, just as many of our students have no concept of the long marathon of debt repayment, or the likelihood of illness or injury and the need for a backup plan. They had no concept of age, because they were still babies, nor did they understand that their carefree days would not last forever. Sound familiar?

I take the parent squirrel’s teaching method to heart. It requires so much patience, time, sweat and determination. The mother did not need to jump on repeat for five hours, but she did. The students did not focus on the lesson, but she did. The need to get those winter preparations complete would drive me to despair, but she just kept at it.

Those darn squirrel kids. They don’t appreciate what they’ve got. Thank goodness someone’s looking out for them while the leaves fall and the dogs gather.

rachel colemanRachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusiveness & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.  

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