IT’S amazing the trouble you can get into at toddler group. An innocent conversation ended up with me agreeing to do a dissection in front of a group of secondary school children.
It came up as I had, after years of being a school talk refusnik, eventually been persuaded to do a primary school talk. Our usual school talk team was unavailable and my daughter, who is in reception, was doing a “vet week” at school. The teacher persuaded me to step in and do the talk.
Now obviously a primary school vet-week does not involve vet-work as we know it – i.e. being about science, clients and staying solvent/sober; theirs is all about teddy bears and bandages. Which is a much better version of the world of veterinary science than ours. O
nce the emotional blackmail had worn me down and I agreed to do the talk, I made a plan. To prevent me having to do much talking to the tinies, I brought along a supporting cast of animals: our spaniel, the tortoise and Tulip the tame hen.
No sense of boundaries
Tulip seems to have lost all sense of being a chicken and is much more comfortable with people. She has also lost any sense of boundaries and will happily sit on your arm if you try and eat a sandwich outside.
She proved a big hit with the children who fed her from their hands and as she wandered around the classroom while I did the talking. The tortoise eventually ate some strawberries and managed not to bite any little fingers. And the spaniel was just a spaniel.
The vet talk went OK and the fact that “tortoises can drink through their bottoms” proved highly amusing. If in doubt, toilet humour works well with most audiences from reception class to BSAVA masterclass.
I must admit I was quite nervous before the event. I have spoken to adult groups quite a few times and in most cases you can approach them on the same level and rationally discuss issues raised.
As I have children, I know they can throw in some pretty difficult to answer questions, such as on this occasion: “What medicines do you use?” and “How do you make animals better?” To the second of which the answer is obviously: “Wait till you’re 18; then, if you’ve got five years spare, someone will tell you.”
So that was the first primary school talk. I then got collared at the school gates because they heard I had worked in India and another class was doing, you guessed it, “India week”.
A few weeks later I was at toddler group talking to a grandma of a pupil who had been subjected to my vet talk/animal handling session. The grandma was, it turned out, a biology teacher at the local comprehensive school and recruited me to do a talk at the school.
I remember doing French at school for five years. I never visited France (or even went abroad) and it seemed like a whole lot of facts to remember with no clear relation to anything useful or real. Then, a few years later when in second year at Liverpool, I was on a potholing expedition to France (near Grenoble) and remembered barely a word of the language.
I was shocked at how much I must have forgotten as there was no clear reason to remember it. I was quite keen to show young biology students that what they were learning was absolutely related to real life and that you can build a career on it (not necessarily veterinary-related).
Maybe I had watched too many episodes of Jamie’s Dream School where experts were recruited to try and inspire young people in their subjects (e.g. Alastair Campbell for politics, that annoying Starky for history).
Despite the celebrity aspect of the show (I only watched one episode but thought it was a great concept), I do think that if you can just bring something real to a subject and talk about it with some enthusiasm, then it might just spark an interest. The teachers were in agreement and arranged for me to do a dissection demonstration in front of a group of about 25 14-year-olds.
Now I was quite nervous speaking at BSAVA and I was a bit anxious about talking to primary school children, but sat in reception in a 2,000-pupil comprehensive watching “children” in hoodies a foot taller than me slouch past where I sat clutching a surgical kit, I was pretty close to running out I can tell you. The question my wife often asks me, “Why do you do these things?”, was seeming pretty hard to answer right then. The biology teacher (different from the toddler group one) arrived and took me up to the lecture theatre.
The school has recently been rebuilt (got the go-ahead just at the end of the Labour term) and has a science lecture theatre to rival what we had at vet school. Overhead “visualisers” to project the dissection, computer projection, etc.
I had asked for some specimens and the technician (a long-standing client it turned out) had acquired a pig’s visceral pluck from the butchers, a collection of eyes and one of the pupils had gone out and shot a few rabbits. We are a pretty rural area. In a nod to health and safety rebellion, I made sure I drank tea throughout the dissection.
It generally went well although as the period leading up to it had coincided with moving house, I had done no preparation for the dissection.
I had prepared some computer slides of relevant radiographs and a smidgen of PR material but the dissection was basically a cross between an ex-lap and a post mortem.
The pig viscera was useful, and when I modelled it up against myself I think that made an impression. Eyes proved quite difficult to demonstrate due their size and tendency to pop! However they were very popular.
So I may have done my bit to inspire the next generation of medics, vets, biologists, butchers – or maybe serial killers. And I was inspired by how much some of them knew and the fact that in a comprehensive with a bad reputation for poor discipline and achievements, there are classes of well-behaved, intelligent children being taught by enthusiastic teachers.
I encourage anyone reading this to go out and do the same. If anyone would like to hire Tulip the hen for events, she is available for school talks, weddings and bar mitsvahs at usual equity rates.