Working Alongside Teddy Bats…

Here in Pendleton County, jobs are very scarce – unless you’re a forester or a wildlife expert or know about fighting wildfires.  I wouldn’t mind learning how to do the first two but the last one is definitely not for me.  I’ve always wondered what prompts firefighters to charge into a burning building or forest fire.  I don’t have the courage it takes to routinely place myself in that sort of danger.  Fortunately, 56 year-old women aren’t drafted to join the ranks of firefighters.  If they were, I might have to claim conscientious objector status and offer to help reclaim burned areas instead of fighting the flames.

I’ve been searching for a job for a while now.  I’m on a state-wide list of qualified breastfeeding counselors, something I would love to do.  Goodness knows, I have the experience.  But I haven’t been called yet.

I was hired at a local cavern as a seasonal tour guide and began training last week.  This job combines two things I love – teaching and science.  I’m still a bit rusty with the tour – I have trouble remembering where all the light switches are, for one, (really important in a cave!) and recalling all the information I need to impart on the 3/4 mile tour, for another.  But I feel right at home with the visitors to the cave, especially the children.  I’m a mom to three grown kids and spent my career teaching elementary school.  So when I was asked to lead my first tour yesterday, the kids in the group were the ones who made me feel more at ease.

There is a HUGE difference, I discovered, between teaching a class and leading a cave tour.  As a teacher, I liked to have my students discover concepts with minimal guidance, make their own connections, have those “ah-ha” moments.  On my very first tour, I learned why I cannot do that as a tour guide – tours are 45 minutes long.  I’ve got one shot at it – there’s no review or homework to help our visitors learn about the cave.  And tours are scheduled one right after the other – I can’t linger, even though I’d love to.  There’s a LOT to share with our visitors – history, geology, cave formation, cave life…  I can’t rely on constructivist learning to teach the visitors everything I’m supposed to share with them.  But on that first tour, I fell back on what I know – teaching!  I need to learn tour guiding now – how to lead my visitors through the cave effortlessly, weaving a seamless narrative that explains how the cave was made 460 million years ago, how the different formations were created, and even giving the most squeamish guest an appreciation for our Little Brown Bat population (of six or so).  [For those of you who shuddered when you read about the bats, try this:  put your thumbs together, slightly overlapping side by side.  Our little bats are shorter than your thumbs but about as wide.  Hanging upside down, they look a bit like medium-brown teddy bears with tiny, little, round ears.  Teddy bats.]

Sorry.  Got off-track.  Love bats.

Several things have been a little confusing for me this initial week.  First, the packet that we were given to learn about the cave brought out the red pen-wielding English teacher in me.  I wanted to make a lot of corrections, rewrite the narrative so it flowed and made more sense, and get rid of irrelevant phrases.  I didn’t – at least not right away.  I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.  The author could still work there!

Second, the various veteran tour guides who’ve taken us through the cave on model tours have all had very different ways of talking about the cave.  Some are very scientific, others very humorous, and most are somewhere in between.  On tours, different formations are sometimes called different names and sometimes formations are overlooked entirely.  We’ve been told by several veteran guides that we’ll soon develop our own particular style of tour – yet I was told after my first tour that I need to stick right to the packet.  I was even told that one formation was called by a name that is not in the write-up.  My critic’s name for the flowstone formation truly is better – Frozen Niagara Falls really describes it well.  I added that adjective to my notes.

Third, I want verifiable documentation that what I’m stating in the tour is, in fact, accurate.  For the most part, I’ve been able to answer my own questions online.  Some things, I haven’t had much success finding.  I think sometimes my questions must be frustrating to the veterans there.  But I understand that they just don’t know that I like to find out the information for my own sake.  Eventually, I can incorporate it into my own tour or simply store it to answer a visitor’s question in the future.

Fourth, I learned after I was hired that tour guides pick up sticks, rake leaves, sweep the parking lot, and lift 40-pound boxes.  I’m not about to cave in (pun intended) when a task needs doing, so I helped out with everything but lifting heavy boxes.  And that was not a good idea.  You see, my back is not the picture of chiropractic health.  Just the opposite.  I have a stainless steel rod in my thoracic spine, placed there eons ago to correct scoliosis.  I also have arthritis and bone spurs in my vertebrae.  To top it all off, three years ago, I was involved in a fender-bender en route to work.  Although it didn’t cause much damage to my car, the collision really messed up my back.  My vertebrae looked like twisted stair steps.  Ugh!  I haven’t been able to work full-time since that day, couldn’t work at all for seven months.  I can’t resume teaching because I have to be able to lift at least 20 pounds.  And I can’t do that.  What I can do is talk with people and move around – so being a tour guide sounded ideal for me.  Until I was asked to pick up sticks.

I learned today that I may only be given part-time work because of my physical limitations.  I can totally understand that.  If I’d known that the position included all that physical labor, I never would’ve applied for the job.  But I’m really glad that I didn’t know that, I’m pleased that I applied for the position.  Even if my employment there has to be cut short.

I’ve learned a bit more about myself in just the short time I’ve been working at the cave.  While I’ve been nervous about beginning something so new, I did it.  When I felt attacked when my first tour was critiqued, I thanked my critic sincerely and decided to show him just how awesome I can be.  In the past, such criticism from a colleague probably would have been completely demoralizing.  Not this time!  This afternoon, when my supervisor told me about the possibility of getting only part-time hours, I thanked her for not booting me out the door immediately, for giving me a chance.  She seemed more open to some of the things I can bring to the caverns.  So between now and Wednesday, I’ll create some documents that would benefit the schools and teachers scheduling tours.  I don’t want to overwhelm my supervisor with all my ideas.  But it’s my hope that she’ll see some advantages in using the suggestions for the caverns that I will share with her.  She’s willing to consider that I could be an asset to the caverns despite my physical limitations, so I’ll give her my very best.  I love working there.  My colleagues are delightful.  (Even my critic!)  And I couldn’t ask for a nicer place to spend each day.

Besides, I get to visit our teddy bats.



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