Elk or Bison?



In “The Summer Day,” one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver, the poet asks us to pay attention, to kneel down in the grass and stroll through the fields to appreciate the beauty of the natural world of which we are an integral part.

As you know I recently returned from a vacation which took me, Jim, Jenna, and Kelsy to Montana to visit James. We have not been away on a family trip (minus girlfriends and boyfriends) in many years. It was a very special time enjoying each other’s company and exploring the natural world. We visited the breathtaking Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park where we saw a black bear, elk, and bison. We fly fished on the Yellowstone River. We made it to the snow-covered summit of Beartooth Mountain in Cody, Wyoming at an elevation of 11,000 feet. We took a llama hike at the Sage Lodge, and we hiked to a waterfall on Mill Creek in the Absaroka Mountains in the Gallatin National Forest. The majestic views and untouched beauty surrounding us was inspiring. (Jim is back on a plane to Montana as we speak for a boys’ weekend of fly fishing, but that is another story.)

Prior to our trip, I read a blog on Outside online, a publication featuring everything about the outdoors. It covers many topics including “travel, sports, health, and fitness, as well as the personalities, the environment, and the style and culture of the outdoors.” Katie Arnold’s piece, “Are You an Elk Parent or a Bison Parent? – the Fine Line Between Holding On and Letting Go,” caught my eye as I hoped to see both elk and bison in Yellowstone.

She wrote: “When predators approach, [elk mothers] run away, leaving their babies, who aren’t strong enough to walk. Most of the time, the mothers come back for their calves but only after the danger has passed. Bison mothers do the opposite. After their babies are born, they’ll stand their ground, snort, and charge to keep them safe.”

During my trip, I kept thinking about my parenting style, many years into the flight plan. What kind of a mother was I, and what am I now. I think a gradual melding of bison into elk over time is the answer.  When my children were young I was a fierce protector. It is a good thing I did not work at my children’s’ school because several times over the years I needed to be my child’s advocate, and I would not have wanted my colleagues to tangle with my bison instincts.

Now, as my children are “adulting” on their own, I have stepped back, unless asked. And, while I cannot see myself ever fleeing from danger and leaving my child behind, I do think now, I can retreat as they navigate careers, healthcare, insurance, housing, and relationships. Thankfully, for me and Jim, our children still seek our advice and counsel. I hope that never changes. I am proud of being a bison mother at the outset and setting my children on a course to elk-like independence. I am proud, even as difficult as it is sometimes, to be the elk mother now and let them triumph, even if their path is sometimes winding.

Back at Kent School following our trip, I thought a lot about our teachers and our students. Are teachers elk or bison? I believe they are a powerful combination of both. Good teachers know when to be strong advocates for their students, like the bison. Yet, they also know that at any grade level, elk independence is necessary. Letting students fail is just as important as having them succeed. Deep learning happens through the navigation of a failed attempt and the subsequent turning around.

We can learn a lot from both the bison and the elk approach to raising or teaching children.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown, a member of the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools, a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s, a member of the Board of Chesapeake Charities, and a member of the Education Committee of Sultana Education Foundation.

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