Swimming with dolphins, Mayan Riviera, Mexico
Annie's Micro-Museum

My bucket list started in the fourth grade studying this

It was called the “Talented and Gifted Program.” The lady that ran it had the tiniest of offices in my elementary school, Frank Allis. It was really more of a closet, just big enough for a desk, and a bookshelf, and an extra chair for me to sit on. My feet could just barely touch the ground when I sat next to her. I don’t even remember her name, which is weird because I can still name every other teacher I had from Kindergarten until all the way through high school. Strange.

I really disliked the name of the program, of which I was in for two years during the fourth and fifth grade. It was between 1990 and 1992 I believe. It made me feel embarrassed to talk about it at the time, kind of like I didn’t want people to think I was any better than them or something for doing it. But for some reason I was chosen, or selected, or encouraged to participate. I believe it was meant to challenge me more in another way.

Basically, I was pulled out of regular class time, not sure during which subject, to meet one-on-one with the teacher. Again, I just can’t remember her name.

She had short, golden blonde hair and wore very exotic patterned clothing, like leopard prints and animal shaped earrings to match, open toed sandals, and copper lipstick. She was, well… different from my other teachers. Thinking back on it, she seemed like someone that had maybe traveled a lot, read a ton of books on various cultures and just had a love for learning odd things. She asked a lot of questions too, but seemed to want me to find the answers instead of her tell me what to think. I guess that was the point of our time learning together. I was supposed to think and explore beyond what was being taught in class.

I was encouraged to be, curious.

What I picked to study in fourth grade.

I was asked to pick something that interested me greatly to learn about both years I was in “The Program.” I’ll briefly go into what I studied in fifth grade at some point here, but fourth grade was really the year I remember the most out of the two times I did it.

I always found dolphins really cool, and we decided to learn more about them together. But it was more than just reading a few books, I was encouraged to delve deeper into a specific thing I wanted to really investigate about dolphins. I decided I’d study how intelligent dolphins are. We came up with a name for our studies called: “Dolphin Intelligence.” I think it sounded pretty official.

Now, I’m not entirely sure how long I took to do this with her or how often we met. Maybe once a week for a month or two I’m thinking, each year. But both years I studied each subject in a lot of depth.

What I studied in fifth grade.

In fifth grade I studied astronauts and space travel. I learned all about what they did in space to survive, like eating freeze dried foods and strapping themselves in to sleep so they wouldn’t float around. I remember buying freeze dried strawberries and ice cream to try, that was fun.

It wasn’t as clear of a focus as the dolphin intelligence topic was though, but I became very into the idea of becoming an astronaut at one point and even looked into going to space camp. My parents probably would have sent me, but my excitement didn’t last super long, so I never did.

I just remember being out in the hallway of my fifth grade classroom a lot during this time at a small table learning about it. I remember flipping though pages of a book on space and reading as much as I could, loving the pictures the most. I don’t recall working as close with “The Program” teacher that time. It was the same lady I believe. But I think I was more distracted by friend troubles that year. The same table I’d work at doing my space discoveries was the same table my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Gibson would have me sit at to do conflict resolution with two girls I was “best friends” with. The three of us girls spent far too many minutes and hours out in the hall trying to talk things out to no avail. It was a tricky time for me.

What studying outer space in fifth grade really reminds me of

One recess one of the girls threw their half of the heart-shaped friendship necklace we shared on the ground. Like I said, I had two really good friends. The problem came that a group of three girls makes trouble when it comes to sharing and spending time together evenly. There were always hurt feelings and jealously. Three girls couldn’t share a necklace meant for just two people to have. I think this was the conflict.

The necklace was gold, not real gold of course, but something we would have got at a store like Claire’s Boutique at the East Town Mall in Madison, Wisconsin. The heart had an edge that looked like it was broken and if you put the two halves together they’d form one heart. There were two chains with a half of a heart on each. I can’t remember if together they said “Best-Friends” or “Friends-Forever,” but something like that. Either way, something happened and I remember the bell ringing outside on the playground and looking down to see one of the necklaces on the ground. It stuck in my mind. It is what I think of when I think about sitting at that table out in the hall that doubled for space exploration studies and school girl bickering.

I can’t even remember ever giving a presentation on the space information I gathered, but maybe because I associate “The Program” that year with my bad memories of mean-girl friend troubles in that hallway. I think I also might just have blocked some of it out.

Back to my dolphin program year.

Part of the fun of this blog is hopping around. So rather than try to dig up any more memories about fifth grade, fourth grade just has more to recall. So back to that…

We went to not only our small school library, but the downtown library on the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus I believe too. It was so much bigger! I remember using the card catalog to find articles and books and having to look to find them with the teacher’s help. We’d grab a little scrap piece of paper and short little yellow pencil, like the kind you’d get when you played miniature golf, and write down the call numbers. Then we’d search the long rows of bookshelves for the exact book that matched the number on our paper. Sometimes it took a while. Next, we’d sit down at big tables and skim through information to learn more about how smart dolphins were. Sometimes we’d photocopy stuff on extra big paper! That was cool.

What I found was that dolphins are incredibly smart.

One of the neatest things was when we found cassette tapes with dolphin noises. Apparently they have their own language they communicate with under the water. It’s called echolocation. We listened to the sounds together. I wondered what they were saying.

This was all before just “Googling” everything. So I had to dig for information and gather bits and pieces, really a lot like a research assignment much older kids would do in high school. Looking back on it, it was pretty involved. Remember microfiche? We looked at those too.

A dolphin mobile.

At the end of my time researching, I had to come up with a way to give a presentation about what I learned and stand in front of my class. I chose to make a mobile, like the one’s that hang over baby cribs.

I wish I had a picture of it, but basically it was one big dolphin I had cut out with paper and various smaller dolphins below it that hung down balancing each other out. I used clear fishing line to attach all the parts. Each dolphin had a different fact or piece of information I’d learned on it. As I gave the presentation they acted like note cards to remind me of what to say. I think I played the dolphin sounds for the class too.

Ever since doing that program, I’ve continued to love dolphins.

My dream to swim with dolphins.

I had always thought it would be fun to swim with dolphins. 15-16 years after doing “The Program,” when I went on my honeymoon in the Mayan Riviera in Mexico, I signed up. It wasn’t at all like I thought it would be though.

My eyes stung so bad from the salt water I could hardly see anything or enjoy myself. They gave us goggles, but that didn’t seem to help. We did this trick called the “foot-push” where the dolphin would come up behind you and push its nose against the back of your feet. I was slightly propelled through the water by one, but didn’t get very far, and I got a face full of more salt water. It was kinda horrible actually.

They did however feel incredible to touch. The dolphin skin was so smooth and they all looked so happy! There’s no way a book could ever describe that.

I was happy to get a couple pictures with a dolphin I swam with. When I was packing up framed photos recently, I came across these. It brought up these memories and inspired this story. I guess for at least a couple moments there, I was smiling about it too.

Swimming with dolphins, Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Here they are individually, up close:

Swimming with dolphins, Mayan Riviera, Mexico
Swimming with dolphins, Mayan Riviera, Mexico

I swam with dolphins in October of 2006.

Swimming with dolphins, Mayan Riviera, Mexico
Swimming with dolphins, Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Swimming with dolphins was definitely something I had put on my bucket list. I’m very glad I did it. But I learned that some things you dream about end up not being all you’d hoped for or thought they’d be. It was an interesting realization I had. I hung these pictures in my office for years to remind me about the weird combination of feelings I had about the experience. There was sheer joy to be doing something I always wanted to do, and the absolute “oh my gosh, never again” feeling I had after I was done.

It’s fun though to have had an interest from when I was a little girl inspire something I did years later. I’m not so sure if I hadn’t taken that “Talented and Gifted Program” if I would have been so into dolphins later on. And even if I’d never swim with them again, I’m so glad I had the opportunity to try it and say I have.

I didn’t become an astronaut either. But that interest sorta came and went all within a school year’s time, so I guess it doesn’t surprise me a bit. No regrets there. But if I hadn’t explored it like I did, maybe I would never had known it wasn’t for me. On the other hand, if I had stayed interested, maybe I’d be the first gal on the moon. Who knows.


What’s something on your bucket list? Have you tried it yet, or do you hope to soon? I’d love to hear your story. Leave a comment below.

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