Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Being inexhaustible, life and nature are a constant stimulus for a creative mind. (Hans Hofmann)

I had graduated from university, and I was an art teacher in the most beautiful junior/senior high school I'd ever seen! Right through my classroom's back door and through the "kiln room" was another art teacher who was exceptional! Zita Madden was her name, and she answered my endless questions and helped me through those first years of my career... She was a saint!

One day she came through our "kiln room" corridor and said, "Terry, you've got to see this!" Zita had a smallish class of all boys that period. She had admired the huge floor-to-ceiling still life that I'd amassed in my art room, especially the old, sun-bleached steer skull that I had picked up in the pasture of my brother-in-law's farm in central Nebraska. It was an interesting thing for the kids to draw, so she'd asked her classes if anyone happened to have one for her art room. Well, one of the boys did! He was thrilled, and early the next morning he came into her art room and plunked a cow's skull on her desk. And THAT's what she wanted me to see...

I walked in, only to see a cow's skull, alright... but it was FRESH! It had bits of skin and flesh and blood clinging to it! It seemed that her student's brother worked in the slaughter house lugging beef, and one of the slaughterers told him he could have the head after they'd taken all the meat off it for the hot dogs they were mixing in the next room!

Teachers: Be very, very careful what you ask for from a class!!!

That summer when school was out, I became the children's art teacher for the Henry Doorley Zoo in Omaha. The zoo was fairly new and had attracted lots of attention nation-wide because of its brilliant new ideas about housing the animals in moated enclosures, instead of the usual penal colony cement "houses." It was a beautiful facility, and the powers-that-be told me that I could have my class meet in the morning hours before the zoo opened to the public, and that we could roam freely everywhere and draw to our hearts' content. Wow! Me, the kids, the animals... and it would all be ours, ALL OURS from 8:30AM to 10AM!

The invisible staff, the folks who no one sees during visiting hours, opened doors into a world that I had only seen in movies and books. I'd read about Africa, especially Kenya, since I was 10 years old, and here was a very safe form of it, all open to me!

I would arrive at 8AM and ramble around the zoo for that half-hour before the kids arrived. My favorite of all the animals was Casey, the large silverback gorilla. I'd studied gorilla life carefully, and I knew the proper way to behave around this huge male. I HATED that he was stared at by people everyday of his life, because I knew he must have been so frustrated by the lack of manners of those oglers! I quietly approached the fence in front of his moated island.

They had given him lots of food, huge braches of leaves, hay-like grass, and bananas, before the crowds would arrive. He was sitting across the wide moat with his back to the fence, calmly having breakfast. Suddenly, he turned and saw me, and he jumped up and pounded his chest and made a face at me. I, so very wisely, dropped my head so as not to look him in the eye, and turned my shoulder to him, too, in obesience to this king. I'd studied my books well, I thought smugly. I ought to be a teacher of zoology!

...and then I was hit by a flying piece of branch! He was angry... no, he was ANGRY! He roared at me, and grabbed everything he had, and threw it ALL at me! ME, his devoted servant! I KNEW I had read that book correctly... don't look him in the eye, act subserviant and he will accept you. All I can say is that he must have really hated the perfume I wore, or maybe it was my green eyes... Whatever it was, he looked for me every day at 8AM, and waited until I reached "my place" at the fence, and went through the same routine. Casey hated me, and that was that! Luckily, he didn't have that good an aim!

Well, onward... The keepers would grab huge firehoses early in the morning and wash out the enclosures of the animals. I'd watch. One day, I asked the oldest keeper there, "If one of these animals got out of its enclosure, which one would you most fear? The lion, right? No, no, I know... the tiger! That's the one!" 

He looked at me with a crooked grin, and said, "There's no contest, lady... the polar bear!"

"Polar bear???"

"Lady, as long as I have this firehose in my hand, I could hold off any animal EXCEPT the polar bear... He'd run right straight for me, right into this water that can knock down anything, staring at me all the way, and he'd kill me, just like that!"

I'd never read about polar bears... WOW! POLAR BEARS!!!

Then it was time for the little artists to arrive. I'd meet the kids at the front gate, and in they'd come with drawing tablets in hand, pencils behind most of their ears, (I kept extras in my purse), and off we'd go to draw. I'd pick a different location everytime, and we'd have adventures, and they'd do amazing drawings of these wild, live models.

Once when we were at the giraffe enclosure, petting their noses as they bent down to us (there is no velvet on the market as soft as a giraffe's nose), the huge door swung open and a smallish 10-foot giraffe broke loose and ran toward us! I yelled at the kids to hug the wall. I'd read that a giraffe can kill a lion with one kick of its front foot. The kids were scared and so was I! 

The keeper yelled at me, "STOP HER!!! STOP HER!!!"  ????????????????????????????? Did he want ME to throw myself in front of a galloping giraffe?????????  ME???????? Was he NUTS???????? The keeper ran by us, chasing that giraffe, yelling, "WHY DIDN'T YOU STOP HER?"

We never went back to the giraffe compound for the rest of the summer, no matter how much the kids begged me!

The orangutans led the entire zoo on a not-so-merry chase for a couple of weeks that summer, too. Every morning when the keepers arrived, they woud find the door to the orangutans' sleeping quarters wide open! The orangs would be happily snoring in leafy nests they had constructed overnight in nearby trees. The keepers couldn't open the zoo until these "kids" came back "home," though. No one could figure out how it was happening until, after days of careful searching, they found the answer. The oldest orang had worked the key out of the lock one day and had kept it hidden it in the deep pocket of his left cheek!

The last day of "Art Class at the Zoo with Mrs. Waldron" came, and I herded the kids to the area closest to the parking lot so the parents could pick them up one last time that summer. In this area there were some large, circular, roofed enclosures with sturdy trees cemented into each floor. In about fifteen minutes our class would be officially over for the summer. The kids and I were looking at some sort of baboons. There was a male strutting around the floor of the pen, showing off a bit... HUGE teeth... knowing eyes, bright red behind, and all. At the very top of the cemented tree was a female, sunning herself. The kids were interested, and so was I.

All at once the male looked up at the top of the tree and grunted very loudly. Nothing... He did it again, more insistantly... still nothing. The third time he was angry as he looked up at the female. I will never, ever forget her response! She stood up on that treetop, looked down at him, and heaved the biggest sigh I'd ever heard! She shrugged her shoulders, and grudgingly slid down the tree. At the bottom she looked at her "lord and master" and sighed again, loudly. Then she turned around and stuck her bottom in the air... He seemed pleased... and walked over to her... and need I say more?!?!! Suffice it to say, ALL the kids turned to me and said, "What's he doin', Mrs. Waldron? What are THEY doin' now, Mrs. Waldron? Tell us!!!"

I never had kids of my own! And I don't know what you parents would have told them! All I could think to say was, "There's a rare white monkey in the next enclosure, class... C'mon... Let's go see it... The baboons are just playing..."


At that EXACT moment, one of the fathers came walking over to pick up his daughter... "What have we here, Mrs. Waldron?" he said, as he watched the proceedings.

Though my face was frozen, I could feel it burning! "I don't know! I really don't know! But I think YOU'll have a lot of teaching to do, yourself, on the ride home today when your daughter asks you all about what she just saw..."

"I sure will...!"

How do you parents do that, anyway? What exactly do you say... I've always thought that he must have lied just a little bit when he talked to his daughter on the ride home... "Oh honey, they were just playing monkey games..." 

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