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As a volunteer at a zoological facility, I hear a great deal of things from visitors. Things that excite me, things that bring me joy, things that make me laugh. I hear from adults that I am passionate, that I really explained things in an interactive and interesting way. I hear from kids my age that what I told them is fascinating, that they never imagined some of the facts I shared. I hear from kids far younger than I that I have the greatest job ever, that they want to be like me when they grow up.


And it’s always that last bit that throws me. That people want to be me. Its déjà vu, viewed from the angle of another. How many times was I that child? How many times did I awkwardly stumble over my praise and exaltation of a trainer at SeaWorld? How many times did I stand, wide-eyed and engaged, while listening to a keeper at the zoo? How many times did I utter those very same words, “I want to be like you when I grow up”?


People want to be like me, but I don’t feel particularly special. I’m the same old me, it feels. I’m not a trainer, not a keeper, not a vet, not even a staff member. None of the dreams I’ve striven for have come true yet. But the sound of those children proclaiming that my position is their new dream draws me short. So focused on the horizon I have been, that the accomplishments already made have lost their meaning. So focused on the ultimate goal I was, that I stopped seeing all the milestones that still loom sharply over the paths of those younger than I.


I am in high school. I am a junior. I have gone to Maine to study the nesting habits of seabirds. I have gone, by personal invitation, to stay and work with Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman. I have done population studies on endangered Black-capped Vireos and Golden-winged Warblers. I have gone to Canada to study whales in their natural environment. I have participated in an internship studying the bioacoustics of fish- how they hear and process different sounds. I volunteer at an Aquarium. I have designed my own classes to study things I am passionate about. I have achieved so much it stuns me. How could I have done all this and not noticed? How could I have looked back and taken it for granted? I have swum with sharks; I have galloped horses up and down mountain trails. But all of those accomplishments seem small in comparison to this realization- I am someone’s inspiration.


And I suddenly find myself as a role model, a goal for others. I see myself suddenly in the shoes of every trainer, every keeper, every educator I ever admired. And unbelievably enough, I can suddenly imagine a volunteer approaching me in the future, stuttering in awe at talking to someone in the profession they so covet, and they will say “I want to be like you when I grow up.”


And I will say then, as I say now to each child who bravely proclaims their intentions, that they can do it. And I will say to them, “I was you once. Someday, you will surpass me.”




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