For some reason, ducks are a popular topic in the classroom. There are many stories that feature ducks. Ducks as heroes, ducks as workers, ducks driving trucks, ducks using typewriters to get diving boards. You know... the usual duck fare. Ducks are exploited for rhyming sense and the attractiveness of their bills and webbed feet.
In the children's classic, The Chick and the Duckling, a young chick follows and copies the antics of his friend, the duckling. The climax of this tale is when the duck goes swimming and the hapless chick follows suit. Our duckling heroically saves the drowning chick's life, setting up a lifetime of gratitude and guilt, I am sure. The kids always ask about the chick and why she couldn't swim. I always tell them that ducks swim because they have protective oil on their feathers that prevents them from getting wet.
Later stories touch on this issue as well. In The Surprise Family, Mother Chicken, unable to produce her own offspring, adopts some orphaned ducklings. It takes her awhile to realize that her babies are DUCKS, not chicks, so she freaks out when the ducklings wander into the pond to swim. She has to flap helplessly along the side of the pond, squawking her "danger squawk" and pleading with the errant youngsters to return to the comforting folds of her feathers. Again, the kids wonder why the hen cannot swim but many kids remember why and a good discussion ensues.
So the other day, while reading a PELICAN story, of all things, I pointed out that the shore birds have very long legs - to enable deeper wading and to keep their feathers dry. The question came up again: "Why can't the birds get their feathers wet?" The old "oil on the feathers" explanation met with blank stares so I had to come up with an analogy.
"Have you ever used Vaseline on your skin or lips?" I asked. They affirmed that they had, indeed. I explained that it protects skin from moisture, so you don't get chapped lips. Several eyebrows shot up.
"How about lip balm?" I continued. "Those protect your lips from moisture. Has anybody ever used lip balm?"
Several nodded that yes, they had. I prepared to explain why lip balm is similar to the protective coating on duck feathers.
But young kids hook onto tangents and the lip balm subject did not get dropped. So, I asked them if they preferred lip balm or Vaseline, in an effort to steer the explanation back on course.
Rowan, who was trying to stand on his head, slowly replied, "Yeah... lip balm is okay. But I prefer lipstick."