Something small and fluffy has happened on the playground. When I arrived there this week, after a few days away, I found an incubator full of eggs had been installed. I’m not great with animals, it must be said (even with the small, fluffy, too cute kind), but I found myself looking in on the pile of unhatched eggs, gently basking in the tropical conditions of the small glass box plugged into the wall, looking in more and more from — what I now see to be — a child’s perspective. Here were all these marker pen numbered eggs and they needed the watching, looking out for, looking after even, for them to hatch into full-blown chickness.
One of the chicks was already out so it seemed natural to me to name him Jeff (everything — be it animal, inanimate object needing a name, unborn niece, and so on — is good with the name Jeff for me! I don’t know why: it just is). I named him Jeff (he turned out to be a ‘he’ after all: the children told me so later because they’d read the glossy notes on gender identification pinned on the wall), and so I unconsciously bought into ‘ownership’, albeit loosely so, by way of anthropomorphising something. Jeff found his feet and soon enough there were cracks forming in a sibling egg.
We watched on before the children arrived (and now I realise how I, for one, was beginning to see the contents of the incubator through a child’s eyes), and urged Jeff’s brother/sister on. It seems to be a monumental struggle to get yourself out from inside an egg. When the newly hatched one finally flopped out, all dark brown stringy fur and little stubby wings and half closed black eyes, it was just sort of — well — disgusting really! Jeff’s brother/sister/half formed thing-mate with no name yet took its time to adjust to being part of the world. It kept getting its beak stuck in the grill and its legs stuck down the side between the grill and the glass. Welcome to the world, chick, mate, I thought. It’s amazing how quickly these little bundles of goo transform into fluff though. They dry out within an hour or two. Then they sleep.
When the children came in for the after school session that afternoon there was plenty of excitement. Small clusters of them (the children) came in from time to time to check in, to watch, to will the eggs on. One of the girls kept vigil in the art room that was the incubator’s home for the whole session. She took a sheet of paper and a pen and started drawing and leaving spaces for names-to-be. I’d had random conversations with some of the children in there about how Jeff had been first out. It wasn’t so much a way of saying ‘Jeff’s mine’; rather just talking about Jeff. The children, to my great amusement it must be said, started calling Jeff by name, asking which one Jeff was, and so on! They began naming chicks-to-be, staking claims on eggs: soon we had Jeff and Clara and Max out, and number four egg, who would be next out — judging by the cracks and beak showing through — was to be called ‘KFC’, apparently.
KFC took a long time eating himself/herself out. By the end of the session we had five chicks out. The next morning, when I came in to work, overnight another five had popped out. Jeff and a couple of others had been moved into the larger container overnight, but the incubator was full of nervous fluff again. Number one egg, sadly, still sat on his/her own, refusing to crack. When the children came in again for the session that day, they were just as excited (if not more so) than the day before. They wanted to touch and stroke and pick up the chicks. One of the children asked ‘When can we play with them?’
A couple of times I reminded the children that the chicks weren’t toys: that they were living things, just a day or so old. Jeff and Clara and Max and KFC could no longer be differentiated (though one of the children had noted that Jeff did have rather large toes): the chicks all huddled underneath the glow of the single bare light bulb, an inch or so above their heads — a single living mass of fidgety, nervous fluff gluing itself together under the gaze of several huge but equally fidgety Godzilla-like children-things, all desperate to get their hands on them and squeeze them senseless (in a loving way, no doubt).
How do you work with baby chicks? I have no idea. I mean, the closest I’ve come to this sort of thing is the occasional visit to a touch farm, or the zoo, or when some strange man or woman with an unhealthily odd deficit in squeamishness brings a snake to a nursery school to freak the living daylights out of small children and/or staff members. In close proximity to animals of any kind, I usually stand back a good distance whilst the children poke and prod because, frankly, to me animals have always been somewhat useless things capable only of being smelly or creepy or anything but cute or loveable! The best tactic, I found out with the baby chicks, was to make it up as I went along and not to let the children know what I was doing.
The children came and went and so did we, and sometimes we just shut the door on the art room because the chicks probably deserved a bit of a breather. Whenever I was in there with the children, there was a clamour to get their hands on the fluffy things in the container. I reckoned they ought to do it one at a time. Sometimes the children listened to this advice and sometimes they just went ahead and dug right in because chicks are more interesting than listening to an adult. With the exception of one of the younger girls, when I was in the room, the children didn’t really know how to approach the chicks (they weren’t alone in this!): there was some tentative touching and stroking as the chicks darted back to the safety in numbers of mass fluff under the bare light bulb; there was some outright poking, which was just the kinder side of the full-on equivalent of a dig in the ribs to you or me, but still, a dark sort of teasing nonetheless. I reminded the children in question that these were living things.
One of the girls wasn’t tentative at all. She put her hand right in and scooped up a chick and held it firmly, though without squeezing till it was agitated. She seemed to have got it just about right because the chick just calmed down. If she squeezed too hard or held it too high or too lightly it started chirping and wriggling (and so she dropped it the few inches back to the sawdust, which was still probably a little traumatic in its own way). I told her how I’d seen her handle them for them to be calm, and she started telling everyone how she was the expert.
All the chicks looked the same now (except that some were lemony yellow and some were more brown): that is, a day before we could just about figure out which one Jeff was and which one was Clara or KFC. We nearly lost one, whoever it was, over the edge though. Our expert held out a chick to another child and I asked the children to hold it over the table top because it was a long drop to the floor. There was a momentary lapse though and the chick wriggled and flapped and flopped out, bounced off the table top, and headed downwards. Reflex kicked in and I caught him or her and managed to scramble the chick back up onto the table, whereupon I said to my expert chick-handler ‘I think you better put this one back in the box for me’. (I didn’t want to touch it any more than I needed to). Chick hitting the floor would have been messy. The chicks all huddled together — in a mass of little heart-beating agitation, no doubt — and I thought it best I shuffle the huddle of children out of the room for a short while.
I said a very odd thing. I didn’t think about it: it just came out. As the children were quietly pleading for more handling time (to which I promised more time later, but the chicks needed a bit of a breather), I said to one of the girls looking up at me with big eyes: ‘I usually think of you children first, but now I have to think of the chicks.’ I don’t know where that came from. What good are chicks anyway? Horrible, smelly, creepy, useless things. What are chicks for? What can they do?
The children affected their sadnesses at leaving for the time being (though they chirped up to show their parents when they came). I went to wash my hands after The Incident with the Unknown Chick and the Very Near Calamity from a Significant Height. Later, I noticed that the biggest chick did seem to have big toes and that meant he was probably Jeff. Number one egg was still very still, all alone now in the incubator. I don’t know if he’s made it yet . . .