Sometimes teaching is one hundred percent salesmanship. How else would students ever be induced to extract square roots and sample blue cheese?
Or dissect owl pellets.
Several years ago, I was exploring my brother’s farm and was delighted to discover owl pellets scattered in his commodity barn.
I’ve been interested in the small clumps since I was very young. A pair of barn owls nested in our abandoned silo. My grandma was a photographer. So she sent Grandpa up the chute for some pictures of the fuzzy little owlets. He got some remarkable shots. Father Barn Owl sat above the chute and the pictures I remember most are of Grandpa when his feet had regained the ground.
Now, as a teacher, these owl pellets are more gold than gray. Amazon sells them for better than two dollars apiece. My hand had been hovering over the “add to cart” for a few months already. I wanted so badly to dissect one of these regurgitated morsels with my student. It would be a learning experience. And inside, all those little bonesies! It’s like Christmas to me. You never know what lives or stories hide within the wrapper.
I scooped up five pellets and dug through my car for a suitable container. I found an empty truffle box.
That’s when the scheming began. Boys usually don’t mind owl pellets too much, but there were two girls in my sixth-grade class. And sixth grade is just that age where a girl is growing into a lady; the age when she becomes especially sensitive to all things unladylike, but has not yet developed an adult ability to look beyond the wrapper.
I took the pellets to school and buried them in a drawer at the back of my room. I needed time to plan.
Ruthie cut the time short a few days later when she was digging for colored pencils in the same drawer.
“What are these?” she asked, holding the box at arm’s length.
“What does it say on the box?” I returned.
It wasn’t my best day. The cat was out of the bag before its time. My lines were not prepared. I explained that they were owl pellets and that inside each lay a mystery. Perhaps a mouse skull. Perhaps sparrow feathers. They rate among the most interesting things on earth. By pulling these clumps apart and reassembling the pieces we could discover what the owl had for night lunch.
Ruthie turned up her nose.
I promised that I would make latex gloves available on the day of the dissecting.
Ruthie put the box back and shut the drawer.
Several weeks later we cut open the pellets and both those girls entered right in. It was one of the boys whose stomach was weak.
The owl had fed on mice.
We took a large poster and clustered the different bones into beautiful arrangements: our own manifesto of an owl supper reconstructed.
With money left over for truffles.