Peter vs. the Penguins

For the past hour, Peter (who is not yet seven) has been giving the instructor a bit of a workout. He planted himself on his carpet square directly in front of her. His hand has been up almost constantly. Whether he has been called on or not, he offers answers and finishes her sentences with unflappable confidence — but spotty accuracy.

He correctly identifies a four-foot-tall picture as an emperor penguin, and knows the difference between a king penguin and a macaroni penguin. He knows the difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic, and knows where you won’t find penguins.

He has pondered the cold fate of emperor penguin chicks, hatched far inland, away from shoreline predators, huddling for two months in a warm pocket under their father’s belly, while their mothers make the long trip to the water and back, bringing a welcome meal for the little one. He has waited all week to tell someone his idea — the scientists who live in Antarctica could feed the penguin chicks, so they won’t starve during the winter.

The class is geared to the attention span and activity level of little kids, though they didn’t have Peter in mind when they designed the course. He is entertained by the “pretend you are a penguin carrying an egg on your feet” station, but he can’t wait for the lecture/demonstration to resume.

After the fourth or fifth time I hiss “Peter!” and make an intense “mouth closed” gesture, one of the other parents gives me a sympathetic smile.

“I wish I had a tenth of his energy,” she says.

“There are times,” I sigh, “when I wish he had a tenth of his energy!”

For several days, he has enjoyed informing us at the dinner table that there are seventeen penguins at the Pittsburgh Aquarium: two king penguins, one rock-hopper, and fourteen macaroni penguins. As the classroom portion of our excursion is ending, our instructor wants to know whether there are any final questions. Peter, who has noticed the instructor never actually told the class how many and what kind of penguins we are about to visit, sees his chance.

“Everybody! Everybody!” he shouts. “I have a quiz for you!”

“We don’t have time for a quiz,” says the instructor. “Let’s go see the penguins now.”

Peter, as usual, keeps up a constant stream of chatter.

In a service corridor at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, Sukey, a two-year-old macaroni penguin, waddles around inside a loose circle of wide-eyed kids.

An employee scratches and pats the pudgy little bird, who curls and shakes with delight. “Sukey, are you going to talk to me?”

Sukey throws back her head and squawks, sounding something like a turkey. Peter shrieks with delight.

“Talk, Sukey!” says Peter. “Are you going to talk?”

The bird waddles around, every bit as cute in real life as in any cartoon version.

The penguin squawks… and attacks!

Peter, white in the face, backs away. Sukey pursues.

“Alright, who’s next?” gobbles Sukey, lunging towards another kid. “You want a piece of me, too?”

Peter holds tight to my hand — very, very quiet.

As we file out, one of the parents gives me a sympathetic smile. “Now you know somthing that’ll leave him speechless!”

(I wrote this out a few weeks ago, but I only got the photos out of my camera today.)