Over the past year, I have given a slide show about penguins at more than 40 different venues—from kindergarten camps to retirement homes, service clubs to bird festivals, and Audubon clubs and university groups. It was partly to promote my book, “Among Penguins,” and partly to spread the awesomeness of penguins in particular and birds in general. It’s a cool gig: I get to do some fun road trips, meet some interesting people, and dish out some birdy entertainment.
Sometimes, things get interesting.
This week I showed up, laptop in hand, at a middle school in Junction City, Oregon. They’d called a special all-school assembly in the gymnasium to hear about penguins; I’d be entertaining 520 students for an hour between P.E. and school bus departures. Bring it on.
The principal met me at the front desk.
“The kids have been talking about it all morning,” he said. “Apparently a rumor is going around that you’re bringing in live penguins. Some kids asked me if they’d be able to pet them.”
I had to break the news that I hadn’t smuggled any penguins past customs.
“Well, that’s OK. Don’t worry, the teachers have things under control. They’ll be sitting on the bleachers among the students to keep order.”
He showed off his hand-held radio and a new security camera system. “Wasn’t like this in the old days, you know…”
I had to admire the military precision as hundreds of kids were seated, in perfect rows, in less than five minutes: fifth graders on the left, eighth graders on the right, sixth and seven in between. I’d never stared down that many middle schoolers before. One boy in a middle row took off his shoe, waved it over his head, and shouted, “We have the same shoes!” (He was right.)
No time for chitchat, the principal gave a short intro, explained that there would be no live penguin exhibits to a chorus of good-natured boos, and handed me the mike.
I dove right in. “Today,” I said, “for the next 45 minutes, all I’m going to do is entertain you.” The crowd whooped and cheered, and teachers had to restore order before I could continue with the show. I told the story of how a middle-school teacher sparked my interest in birds, and then ran through the highlights of my summer among penguins in Antarctica.
Penguin guano, baby penguin poop, human waste buckets—I don’t think I’ve ever had a more appreciative audience. I could barely make myself heard as I presented the slide of a Nalgene bottle with the letter P on it.
“This is a pee bottle.” [Titters.] “You don’t want to mix it up with your water bottle.” [Ughs and laughs.] “If you wake up in the middle of the night in your polar sleeping bag, and it’s 20 degrees below zero, and you’ve gotta go, well, you don’t even have to leave your sleeping bag. You just don’t want to miss. And, when you’re done, it becomes a hot water bottle that you can snuggle up to for the rest of the night.” [Complete chaos.]
And even the orneriest eighth graders oohed and aahed at the photos of baby penguins. The whole presentation went off without a hitch.
Afterwards, as I was putting away my equipment, I found myself surrounded by a gaggle of middle schoolers. It was a lot like being mobbed by juvenile penguins in Antarctica.
“Were you in the movie Happy Feet?” asked one girl.
She asked for my autograph anyway.
“In a few years, you’ll be famous,” she explained.
“Yeah, then it’ll be worth a lot,” I winked.
“No, I’d never sell it,” she said, seriously. “I’d frame it and hang it on the wall.”
When was the last time anyone asked for your autograph? Gosh, it feels good.
I’ve given this same penguin show to lots of different groups—and I am always struck with how honest, curious, and engaged kids are. My worst audience ever was a required university journalism class.
I always feel that I am making a difference when I am talking with kids. And maybe that’s because my own interest in birds began in the fifth grade, when my teacher suction-cupped a bird feeder to our classroom window. Who can say where I would be now without that spark?
To tell you the truth, I get as much out of these slide shows as I try to give my listeners. Like many birders, I am naturally kind of introverted. Public speaking was my most-feared class in college. So, going on a book tour after “Among Penguins” was released last year has helped me learn to talk about birds with all kinds of audiences, and I really enjoy it.
Each presentation is a new adventure. Last week, I gave my penguin presentation to a group of wealthy donors at Oregon State University and to a handful of bird lovers in the quirky, Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth, Washington. Next month I’ll be the kickoff speaker for the Ladd Marsh birdathon festival in northern Oregon. Maybe I’ll see you there!