My Career as a Paleontologist

I’m going on a dinosaur dig in Inner Mongolia and I can only wear the clothes on my back. I’m leaving first thing tomorrow morning. My outfit is going to have to be durable, practical all-occasions wear. I’m thinking blue jeans, a white cotton T-shirt, and a denim jacket. And yes, my red bandana, for wiping the sweat off my forehead as I toil. This is the exact outfit I set out for myself the night before Career Day, 1984.

Dino Skull

I was nine years old and attending Lakewood K-12. I was in Ms. Dye’s third grade classroom, a late comer. My family had moved to St. Petersburg, FL shortly after the school year had started. The school was a confusing maze of hallways and a cacophony of bells and hall monitors. Florida school was so different from Vermont school—no story time for one thing. No recess, PE every day. There were no pencils or pads of paper. I was automatically enrolled in ESL without a language proficiency test. I was a bright kid, but not an exceptional or motivated student. The best parts of my day were lunch and racing home to turn on the TV.

Career Day excited me—it was a coming out of sorts. Here was my opportunity to show the world my heart’s true desire. This is the one time I’d been asked to reveal it. On Career Day I could be anything. There were no rules and no wrong answers. From the start I knew what career I’d choose, but I mulled over my outfit for days. I couldn’t ask my parents to purchase anything for me, so I had to be creative with the contents of my bureau. I laid out my outfit the night before the big day—something I never do.

“What are you,” asked one of the big kids on the bus, “The Fonz?”

“I’m a paleontologist,” I replied. I didn’t bother to explain what that meant. Honestly, I don’t remember any of the rest of that day. I was simply glad for the freedom to declare my intentions. I was given permission and I took it. Like the rest of the class, I probably was made to go to the front of the room and tell everyone which career I’d chosen. I had a secret hope that I would receive some special recognition (even if it was in private) from Ms. Dye. She was not only my homeroom teacher, but she also taught our math and science units. From her I’d learned about the entire water cycle from precipitation to evaporation. I learned about the Earth’s equator and its axis and the cycles of seasons. She spoke with authority on these subjects, and I thought she might be proud that I’d choose a career in science.

I didn’t receive the acknowledgment that I desired. I spent the rest of my day as one of the anonymous and ordinary and filed my dreams among everyone else’s ordinary ambitions. I knew Ms. Dye was frustrated that I couldn’t get beyond the 5s in my times tables, no matter how many gold stars she offered. I only did homework in the few frantic minutes before turning it in. I probably did not show much potential.

Paleontology for me combined the aspects of a life well-lived: travel, discovery, physical labor, scientific thought, and imagination. For me at nine, these were the romantic ideals of my future perfect life. A dream come true. The rest of my schooling did not offer opportunities to learn more about dinosaurs, but I never lost my interest in the subject. Reflecting back on it now, I see more clearly the mystery that lured me.

I was intrigued by what the fossil record implied: that we could know without direct observation. I was intrigued by the swell of time that separated dinosaurs and humans. I was intrigued that both could co-exist finally, not just through the reassembly of skeletal remains, but also as living beings in our imaginations. Each new discovery forces us to imagine and re-imagine everything about them, from mating and migration patterns to skin texture and vocalizations.

If physical evidence can force us to acknowledge the existence of creatures we’ve never observed (and will never be able to), then ALL creatures existed within the realm of potential discovery, including those that science has deemed unreal. Unicorns, griffons, and dragons simply hadn’t been evidenced yet, though they had been imagined. It meant that there was nothing that was “not real.”

My interest in dinosaur work was more an interest in manifesting the “not real”. I was intrigued by the volume of questions that arose with each new examination of evidence. The more we uncover, the less it seems we know. Existences are so vastly unknowable. If all science could produce by way of monsters was a stegosaurus or a triceratops, I settled for it.

I am often reminded of my Career Day aspirations. Dinosaurs are everywhere these days—in the news, in the popular culture. It is in honor of my nine-year-old self that I make a visit to museums with dinosaur exhibits. I like to think she would have loved to have felt a real fossil, to have measured herself against their size. The Natural History Museum in Los Angeles that I visited in December would have satisfied her immensely—with the positioning of fossil skeletons in fully imagined scenarios accompanied by an artistic rendering and multimedia educational stations.

My inner nine-year-old compels me to still take interest in the dinosaur news of the day. The paleontologist ambition has died, but the dream of the future perfect life still lingers. It’s a dream I like to air out on occasion.

Diorama

Toward the end of my third grade year at Lakewood, I created my best work yet. Mr. Clarke, our art teacher, gave our last two sessions as open studio time, to pursue any project we wanted. I chose to draw a copy of an illustration in one of our classroom texts. It was a triceratops in its environment.

I want to say I used colored pencils, in the style of the original image, but I can’t be sure. It doesn’t matter. The nod of approval I wanted to receive from Ms. Dye on Career Day was given to me from Mr. Clarke. He told me my copy was very good. I knew it to be. I’d loaded it with color and detail.

After it was done, he offered to laminate it for me. We went to the towering machine in the hall. He inserted my drawing, turned the key, and out it emerged in its shiny protective seal. I was very proud and Mr. Clarke indicated there was no shame in feeling so.

My family was going to move back to Vermont at the end of the school year. During that last week, I brought my laminated drawing back to Lakewood in the hopes of gifting it to Mr. Clarke. I knew full well that my parents might not allow me to take it with us. But I did not run into him, and my teachers did not offer to make the connection for me. He didn’t have an office in the building. The drawing returned home with me.

It was the only evidence of my schooling that I did not want to throw away. I rolled it up and stuffed it into the paper bag of belongings I was allowed to pack for the road trip home. We were comfortably zipping along I-95 before I remembered my bag, realizing that I’d left it behind. It was likely sitting in the front room by the door. I felt a moment of regret. That bag was entirely my responsibility, and I’d left it behind. I took comfort in the thought that the new family living there would enjoy using my markers, reading my poetry books, and admiring my three-horned lizard. I hoped the new family had a kid who liked dinosaurs.

What I loved about being a kid paleontologist was that I could hope that my imagination could be a large part of my adult life. I was comforted that there was a place in the greater world for my sort of person—an explorer of the imagination.

Dino Tail

* All photos are mine, taken from a recent visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

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