In the animal kingdom, education is a priority just as it is with people. And, like their human counterparts, creature parents tearfully send their young off to forest school when they are ready. They trust other animals to assist them in providing the breadth of understanding, which they want their offspring to have. They call it "The Critter-iculum".
The parents of Plato, the prairie dog, reckoned that it was time for their eldest son to be taught and so they sent him into the Colorado foothills. With his sunflower seed lunch tucked in his cheek, he set forth, his proud parents beaming from the top of their mounded home.
Plato traveled for an hour before he realized he hadn't been told where to find the school. Puzzled, he sat upon a red rock and munched on a few seeds. He was startled by a voice behind him.
"Hi, prairie dog! What's new?" He whirled around and found himself nose to knee with a coyote. Standing back in order to make eye contact, he replied, "Hello, Mr. Coyote, I'm Plato and I'm trying to find school."
"That time, eh? Well, maybe I can help. Hop on."
Plato perched atop the Coyote's head and they were off. Their first stop was the foot of a tree.
"Look up there, Plato. There's a wise old owl. She knows lots of things. She can help you."
"Whoooooo are Yooooooooou?" responded the agitated bird upon being awakened.
"Oh, very, very good, very good. Your parents have named you after the great Greek philosopher. Your family must be very bright."
"Well, actually, Mrs. Owl," clarified the prairie dog, "they named me that because I liked to play with my toes when I was a baby."
The owl laughed so hard she almost fell from her perch.
"Well," she said, "That's very fine, very fine. Would you like to hear about the other Plato too, since we're on the subject and you share a name?"
Plato indicated that he would and she soon had him rapt in stories of long ago and far away. He listened at first from the base of the aspen, then he skittered to a branch to ask questions and then he carved a story in the bark. The owl called it a whole tree experience and he loved it.
He descended from the tree and waved at the owl. Then he spoke anxiously to the waiting coyote, "That was great, but we have to go. I still have to find the school."
Soon they came upon a bighorn sheep. The sheep was standing surefooted on what looked like a very dangerous rock. He beckoned Plato to follow and showed him how to test the rocks to be certain of their safety. He guided him as he practiced his new skill. Other animals joined them and they learned to cooperate and help each other identify safe paths. Before he knew it, Plato had found his way back to the coyote.
"I really liked the sheep, but it's almost noon. We had better keep lookin' for the school."
"I think it's time to explore some higher orders of thinking," said the coyote mysteriously. Suddenly, a falcon swooped down, picked up Plato in his talons, and carried him high above the mountains.
"Where do you think the water comes from for the crops?" asked the falcon.
From his vantage point, Plato was able to see and reason that the snow melted, turned into rivers and carried the water down the mountain to the plains. The falcon appeared pleased with Plato's explanation and subsequently deposited him on his fuzzy posterior right next to the coyote.
"Well, that was exciting, but it's almost time to go home. If I don't find school soon I'll really be in trouble."
Plato's worries were forgotten as he noticed a graceful deer frolicking in the meadow. "Come here, little prairie dog, and we'll prance together."
"How do I prance?" asked Plato.
"Well, there's really no formula. Just use your imagination and move." The whisper of the pines provided the music and soon Plato was lost in the joy of his own creativity. He was loving the air and the music and the sunset - the SUNSET?
"Oh, my gosh," squealed Plato, "I have to go home, Mr. Coyote, and I still haven't found school."
The coyote escorted his little friend home where his parents were eagerly waiting. "Mom, Dad, I discussed and I tested and I reasoned and I pranced, but I never did get to school."
"Of course, you've been to school. You've definitely been taught The Critter-iculum and very well, too. Your day was filled with important, well-planned lessons. Conant, the coyote, was just teasing you, son. He loves to do that with new students."
Then Plato, his mom, and his dad watched the last of the sunset, talked about his wonderful day and listened as Conant, in the distance, tilted back his head and howled his joy at a new student's learning.
Wherever the heart of a teacher is, there too is a school.
The Critter-iculum was written and narrated by Julie Reder Fairley. Character voices were provided by Evelyn O'Dwyer, Anthony Reece and Matthew Linden. This parable is dedicated to all teachers.
Did You Know?
Prairie Dogs are any of five species of stout, burrowing rodents of the squirrel family, named for their sharp, bark-like call.
They are social creatures, and generally live in colonies that consist of well-defined territories, or coteries, occupied and defended by a male, several females, and immature young.
Recognition "kissing" and grooming afford the frequent contact required to maintain social structure within coteries.