Learning Curves

You may recall me mentioning the wonders of London’s Natural History Museum on this blog before – many times, in fact, because I go there a lot. After all, it looks like this:

Which makes it, in my book, the prettiest building in London. And then you go inside and find this:

Which tells you that it’s not just pretty, it’s COOL. You turn left and there are dinosaurs coming out of your ears – including a T-rex that roars at you and has a motion sensor, so he’ll turn and look you right in the eye – and then you round a corner and there are hundreds of animals to stare at, plus an entire hall filled with whales and elephants and antelope*, and then you cross the hall and you’re looking at thousands of birds and then taking an escalator through the planet Earth and experiencing an earthquake in Japan via the museum’s earthquake room and…

Well, you get the gist. The Natural History Museum is pretty bloody good.

Yesterday I had the chance to take a child to the museum for the first time ever, as my friend Roger and his nine-year-old son were in London with his girlfriend. I was looking forward to it for weeks: at last, an opportunity to walk around this magnificent place and impart my substantial knowledge of the natural world to a youngster! I could dazzle Jay with my trivia, tell him about the endangered kakapo and the difference between an Asiatic and African elephant, how an angler fish catches its prey and how the first platypus that arrived on our shores was thought to be a hoax. It was going to be me and Jay having fun, with me as the woman he could look up to and say to his dad afterwards, “Jayne knew everything!”

Yeah, right. We walked into the dinosaur exhibit. I pointed at an iguanodon and said, “Ooh, I wouldn’t like to find him nibbling on my leg!”

Jay replied disdainfully, “Actually, iguanodons were plant-eaters.”

“Oh,” I said. And the wind left my sails, never to return.

I swear, that kid knew everything. I don’t think I got a chance to show off once. When I was nine years old I’m sure I knew a lot about the natural world (if you read Willard Price’s wildlife adventure series as many times as I did, you picked up a few things), but Jay could recite facts like a miniature Google-monster. It was amazing. I managed to tell him about the kakapo, true, but it was a drop in the ocean compared to the stuff he already knew.

What a cool kid.

They’re not all like Jay, though, as I was to discover. We were staring at the blue whale and he told me cheerfully, “Their heart is the size of a car, you know! And look – they have some baleen plates hanging up there. Whales use those to strain their food!”

“Great,” I said, feeling put-out that I hadn’t explained that to him first. Jay moved on and another boy, who looked at least a year older, came and stood in his place.

“What’s that thing?” he asked his mum, pointing at the bones of a whale hanging from the ceiling.

“It’s a skeleton,” said his mum, sounding bored.

“What’s a skeleton?” asked the kid… who, may I remind you, was older than the child who’d just been telling me the function of baleen plates.

His mum told him that skeletons are the bones inside your body and the boy looked bored and walked on, leaving me pondering the disparity between children who spend their early lives soaking up information like little sponges and kids who just don’t give a rat’s ass and will, no doubt, be too dumb to achieve anything once they’ve grown up.

It’s sad, but I guess that’s life.

Honestly, though: when you were ten, you knew what skeletons were, didn’t you? How the HELL did that boy miss out on information like that?

There are no words to describe the immensity of my bafflement.

_ _ _

* In a totally unrelated incident, which I may have recounted elsewhere on this blog but is worth repeating, a few years ago I was standing in front of a case of antelope which had been stuffed with impressive attention to detail. Struck by a sudden observation, I said rather loudly to my companion, “Hey, look at the massive ballsac on this gazelle!”

And turned round to find a man staring at me in horror as his small child followed my pointing finger with his eyes and stared at the testes in question.

I have never apologised so much for anything in my entire life.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Learning Curves

  1. SimonB

    I’m sure at the age of 10 I not only knew what a skeleton was, I wanted to be a walking one. Mind you, I was a big fan of Jason and his Argonauts as well as the NHM. Took the wife there for the first time in years back in April and we had a smashing time.

    Lovely pics too.

  2. Lerxst

    You’re right, it’s a stunning building. Though I have to make a confession – last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition was the first time I’d ever stepped inside. I guess I have some excuse – growing up ‘oop north’, I only visited London a couple of times in my first 18 years, and though I did venture down more often when at university, it tended to be to see my brother, or for things like gigs & football matches. However, that still leaves 12 years unaccounted for…. (hangs head in shame).

    I was stunned though when I ventured inside last year. I was rushing a bit, so the stuffed animals didn’t get my full attention (though I did think a few of the penguins were, erm, looking the worse for wear – and they should have one sat atop a TV 🙂 ). However, the building itself is as glorious as any of the exhibits. While my mate was in the shop buying elephant poo for his niece, I was stood marvelling at the main hall and wishing I’d brought my camera.

    Sad thing is, though promising myself a trip back, I haven’t done so yet. Once home and out of London at the weekends, the idea of dragging myself back in really, really doesn’t appeal (I moved out for a reason…). I do it occasionally, but it tends to have to be something pre-booked & paid for as it takes an effort of will… (I was actually at the Folk Prom at the Albert Hall the other week. I was really there to see Bellowhead in the evening but had I realised how awful the afternoon session was going to be, I’d have spent it down the road in the NHM). As it is, what I ought to do is book a half day off work and spend a midweek afternoon there – any idea when it’s relatively tourist and child-free?

    As for the kid, the ignorance of some of our youth has long since ceased to amaze me (I just re-read that and I sound like a 90 year-old…). Of course, part of it may come down to the parents. If every question a child asks is greeted by a grunt or the general impression that the parent can’t be bothered, then eventually the kid will stop asking. Ideally they’ll have the drive to pursue information through other means, other people, books, etc. But inevitably not all will do so. And yes, I knew what a skeleton was before I was 10… if nothing else, surely Halloween should sort that one out at a pretty young age?

    And the gazelle…. I burst out laughing at that, so thanks for cheering me up while sat at my desk on a miserable Friday. I’d love to be around in the unlikely event of you being right next to a party of young schoolchildren at the zoo just as a couple of elephants ‘get it on’… “Oooo look at the size of that……” 😉

    As for apologizing, I hope the apology was, in a very proper voice, “Oh I’m so sorry, I should have said scrotum”.

    At least it’s Friday….

  3. Museum of Natural History = some very London time, whenever we manage to go there, of course! 😉

    As a former almost teacher, I can say one thing for sure: the interest of the parents is almost everything in their children’s learning curve. Almost, because, of course, there are still those “aberrations” who don’t want to learn anything – or exactly the opposite, want to know more and more, in spite of their parents.

    And about your comment on some anatomical parts of animals, as a proud Brazilian woman, I’d stare the parent very amused by his reaction. And would innocently ask: “Haven’t you learned biology in school?” Ah, well, we Brazilians are definetely NOT prudish. 😉
    Lília Visser

  4. Lizwc

    Growing up in London, as I did, the Natural History Museum was one of my favourite places to go… WAY more interesting than the Tower of London, the NHM has dinosaurs for goodness’ sake. And as a proud owner of a Blue Peter Badge, I got to go in for free. It wasn’t a school holiday without a trip to the NHM… and I also went there once with school when I was about 8, as part of our “Dinosaurs”. Following that trip I distinctly remember adding a beautiful picture of some fossilised dinosaur excrement to my folder. My teacher was somewhat perplexed by this. (is this the right place to share this with the world?)

    As for skeletons, of course I knew what one was, along with lots of other interesting facts some of which I can still remember and most of which were more interesting than my day job.

    All of which reminds me that the real reason I love Primeval is it’s like someone’s been in my head, extracted my most exciting daydreams (“I defeat the dinosaur! I save the day!) and put them on telly…

  5. jaynenelson

    SimonB: any fan of Jason and the Argonauts is a friend of mine! 🙂

    Lexrst: “What’s that on top of the television set?” “Looks like a penguin.” “What’s it doing?” “It’s sitting!” Ah, Monty Python. How we love thee.

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