The Monkeys Smile Upon Her

The thin glossy pages of those science books back 7th grade flash in my memory. I rub the tips of my fingers against my thumb, trying to recall the texture: smooth. I close my eyes and flip through the pages. It was a biology book for biology class. I picture the light shining through the classroom windows, trying to figure out what time of day I had class. The shadows are different in several scenarios. I recall now that classes rotated from day to day, except for lunch and PE, which wasn’t the easiest class in the middle of the day. I had Coach Minton.

Ms. Eckford was my biology teacher. That’s where I learned about phototropism and photosynthesis and the origins of word parts, such as phago and endo and derm and cyto and so forth. I figured out my first Punnett squares in that class. Once my English Teacher, Mrs. Martin, came into our class and bantered with Ms. Eckford and for some reason seeing teachers in completely different disciplines interact fascinated me. They were two of my favorite teachers, and I was glad they were friends.

In that biology book was a feature or blurb on Jane Goodall. My first true exposure to her. I read about her and her research and her efforts with the chimpanzees and I couldn’t get enough. I looked at photo footage of her among the chimps. I remember feeling the dedication she had toward helping endangered species and conserving resources and preserving habitats for the animals she dearly loved. Repeatedly I’d read that summary of Jane Goodall; I’d committed it to memory. I wanted to get to know her.

Ms. Eckford discussed Jane Goodall briefly. I clung to her every word, verifying her statements with what I read from the textbook. Jane Goodall did important work, and my biology teacher in a rural Florida town talked about her. She studied her and used those few smooth, glossy pages to add to and present a lesson plan. I liked my science book. I liked Ms. Eckford teaching from it. I liked Jane Goodall.

After 7th grade, I’d catch wind of Jane Goodall occasionally, on PBS or National Geographic or in an updated biography with an extra page in a heftier textbook. The content demanded my attention, and its importance certainly didn’t fade. If anything, Jane Goodall responded wholeheartedly to her work’s increasing urgency.

21 years later, I got to see her in person. I stood in the middle of a crowd, listening to her first-hand accounts. If I tippy-toed, I caught glimpses of her head positioned above the lectern behind which she stood. She spoke articulately, like a 75-year old woman who is a primatologist and ethologist and anthropologist. She was lovely, witty, comfortable. She recounted success stories with condors and frustrations with saving other species. She used the word nevertheless. She sported her famous ponytail.

She has a new book out, which I didn’t buy, and so she couldn’t autograph it. One of these days I will get my grubby paws on it, and use my opposable thumbs to flip through it, and read how the book is more about Jane Goodall’s causes, and not about Jane Goodall. Not really. At least that’s the way I imagine it. That’s the way it was in 7th grade, and that’s more revealing of her character than anything else could be. Maybe that’s why I’ve always admired her.

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