We make quite the family photo on Monday morning, standing outside the elementary school with one huge lacrosse bag, two lacrosse sticks, three backpacks-and a huge wooden box. One son scurries off, in search of dolly; the other two secure a lamp, a feeder and a waterer.
We are ready to set up the "chicken condo." The chicks should hatch on Tuesday morning.
But when we arrive in the third-grade classroom, we are greeted by insistent peeping. All three kids hurry to the incubator. "Mom! There are already two out! And there are two more coming out!"
Of course, I dropped everything to look.
This is the third time we’ve hatched chicks in third grade. It doesn’t necessarily fit with the curriculum. It’s also rather disruptive to what they must do this week, especially as they come to the end of their year. But, it’s also fun. There is nothing quite like watching a new birth come into the world.
We didn’t mean to get into chicken raising; we had no grandiose goals of instilling responsibility in the kids, eating food we helped bring into the world, teaching the kids about production costs and profit margins. All of that has happened, but no, that was not our plan. We lay the blame for our journey into chickens squarely on the shoulders of our neighbors.
They were the ones who wanted to raise their own food, teach responsibility. But as our kids go back and forth, our offspring played with their chicks. Hatcheries require a minimum order, usually 15-25 babies, to keep the chicks warm during shipping. As good businesses, the hatcheries also know that backyard poultry aficionados really only want the females for the egg production. They charge less if you buy a "straight run"-the non-sexed chicks.
When November rolled around, our neighbors knew which were males (they’d started crowing, always a sure sign) ... and the famous "chicken man" was scheduled to come. Our older son heard this dire announcement and made a plea: couldn’t he keep just one? The neighbors had no issues with this (why would they?). So, after discussion, we parents acquiesced.
Roosty the Rooster, quite literally, came home to roost. Our son showed great responsibility: he rose early to feed and water Roosty, he cleaned his pen, he cared for him well. I enjoyed watching Roosty roam, Roosty enjoyed looking in the windows to find me. My husband laughed as Roosty followed him when he fed the bird feeders. Roosty greeted the delivery men when they came up the driveway. Many days, Roosty and one of our dogs sunned themselves together on the front porch.
Then came our son’s eight birthday, in December. I was carrying the cupcakes into the school when my cell rang with panicked news from my office staff. The other dog-who had always seemed quite jealous of the chicken’s attention-had attacked Roosty. "Jill, it looks like a pillow has exploded out there."
It was the end of Roosty ... and the beginning of our foray down the chicken path. Our sons both wanted to honor Roosty-by getting chicks. In fact, the boys’ countdown that following spring marked the days until the chicks’ arrival-not the time until our family vacation to Disney.
Wanting to experience these chickens to the fullest, I bought an incubator for Christmas, planning on a spring hatch. We warned the kids that things might not go well, we had low expectations. But we did well-nearly 75 percent hatched out. It was amazing for all-teachers, students and our family.
The second time, when our now seventh-grader followed his brother into the same third grade classroom, our family had grown to include our daughter. Our youngest -- just shy of 3 years old -- had helped to gather the eggs ... bursting into tears when she accidentally dropped one, so excited about the hatch. We felt more experienced and less anxious about the specifics this time around. We were most excited about the new, calmer and sweeter roosters that should pass along their dispositions, as well as their feathered feet. Our percentage was very high-in spite of a power outage the final days of the hatch. I treasure the memories of the three children cuddling the baby chicks -- as well as their entire classroom snuggling up to these peeping little creatures.
Now, it is third grade for our youngest, and I want to give her the same experience. A friend gave us fertilized eggs, as our rooster is no longer too interested in that part of his duties. We bought a new incubator (the old one met its demise after falling to the garage floor when I was backing out). We candled the eggs. We watched videos about the development process. We waited.
And now, one day early, we see two chicks out, with two more pecking away at their shells. The kids pile into their classroom, not even thinking about chicks after their weekend. When they see the babies, the calls ring out: "Come in! Look! They are HATCHING!"
I leave Monday morning with a big smile. The miracle of life is playing out; these eggs are turning into chicks-and the kids are seeing it all unfold. These eggs are a day early, so we should have many more on Tuesday.
We drive to the school on Tuesday morning, and my kids place bets with each other about how many chicks will be out now. But, there’s no one new. We figure it will happen during the day. But, there’s no one else at the end of the day, either. Plus, two of the hatched chicks really don’t look right. I think I see one egg moving, but I hear no peeping from the incubator. I leave again, worried, but hopeful.
We return on Wednesday, my three still completely optimistic that we’ll have many hatched chicks. But alas, there is nothing more. One of the chicks that looked so bad on Tuesday has died overnight; the teacher has already removed it.
We’ll let the incubator go ... but it won’t matter: something has gone wrong. In spite of the two thermometers, the careful tending of the humidity and the successful admonitions of "don’t bump the incubator" for three full weeks, in a classroom full of 8- and 9-year-olds ... we won’t have that happy sound of a huge box full of chicks peeping their hearts out all day.
I am glad for the wisdom of this third grade teacher (who has chickens herself). She has already prepared her students for this possible outcome -- even the potential of a chick hatching and then dying. I am thankful for her cut and dry attitude as she balances her full teaching responsibilities with the hatching, and for her willingness to risk the project. She is very sensible about the whole process. I have no doubts that her classroom will learn from her example, and not be very upset.
I do not move on as well. I have been eagerly awaiting the results, even planning out the photos I might take to remember the third hatch in third grade with the third child. I long to come in, to see more eggs in the incubator cracking apart with the sharp eyeteeth of more baby chicks.
In spite of my disappointment, I rationalize there was learning this time, too. The kids loved the candling, and they eagerly watched the development, time-lapse video over and over again.
Was their most important lesson the same as mine, I wonder? I had done what I (supposedly) have learned not to do-I was "counting my chickens before they hatch." The third graders have seen a very clear example of why we can’t do that in life... and then they have bounded out for recess and onto the next thing.
Yes, yet again, the third graders are teaching me.
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools-now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.