Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

At the end-of-year, parent-teacher conference, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Sherman, told my mother that I was bright but bossy. According to Mom, Mrs. Sherman was taken aback by my mom’s response: “Good.”

I like to think my “bossiness” was merely assertiveness expressed early, modeled after one of my favorite Dr. Seuss characters, Young Gerald McGrew.

I was reading Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo to my daughter, and I rediscovered one of my favorite books. It was written in 1950, and although parts lack some of our modern cultural sensitivity, the book stands out in my mind as one of the best treatises on visionary leadership that I have ever read, and Young Gerald McGrew is a leader to be admired.

“If I ran the zoo”, said Young Gerald McGrew, “I’d make a few changes. That’s just what I’d do.”

First of all, Young Gerald McGrew dares to dream. He has a vision for his new zoo, the McGrew zoo. And, importantly, he is brave enough to articulate that vision:

“Wow!” They’ll all cheer. “What this zoo must be worth!
It’s the gol-darndest zoo on the face of the earth.”

Second, he is not afraid of chaos in the creative process. Can you imagine the confusion and the mess as McGrew cleans the slate and starts anew by “unlocking each cage and opening each pen”? All art, be it the creation of a visual masterpiece, the formulation of an elegant scientific hypothesis, or the building of a novel and successful business involves at least one mess and a little chaos somewhere along the way.

Third, McGrew isn’t afraid to work really hard. He’s willing to travel to far away places, to get cold and wet, from deserts to mountains and even to the north-eastern part of South Carolina to get creatures for the McGrew Zoo.

Fourth, McGrew doesn’t overlook the little things. He isn’t so focused on tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurkas that he doesn’t realize the importance of “one tiny, one cute” and “keen shooter, mean shooter, bean shooter bugs.”

Fifth, he isn’t afraid to ask for help. To catch the Natch, a “beast no other hunter’s been able to catch”, he enlists the help of not one, but three, cooks. He has helpers who help him catch and carry the beasts and the birds of his new zoo.

Sixth, he sets milestones along the way to creating his zoo, envisioning what people will say when he brings each creature, from a ten-footed lion to a Mulligatawny down the street and into the zoo’s front gate.

Seventh, he realizes that some of the things he needs to do, and creatures he needs to catch, will involve risk and danger. But he isn’t reckless. He is inventive, creating the “bad-animal-catching-machine”, noting that it is well worth the expense to keep from being bit.

Eighth, he’s well read and smart. He knows about all the places in the geography books and goes elsewhere to find his amazing beasts. He even catches beasts in countries “that no one can spell. Like the country of Motta-fa-Potta-fa-Pell.”

So Young Gerald McGrew is to be admired, he challenges the status quo, but does it with a vision of something better—not just a vision of an outcome, but a vision of the hard work and the challenges that will lie between him and the McGrew Zoo he dreams of. He’s bright, but a little bossy. And that’s okay, I like him that way.

My daughter’s preschool teachers have avoided the word “bossy” and instead have said things like “she’s my echo” or “she tells other children what to do”. And, they may also be taken aback by my response, which is: “Good”. When she goes too far bossing the other children, they’ll let her know, and she’ll refine her bossiness so that it is less annoying. Eventually that “bossiness” will become “assertiveness”, and it will serve her well in the future, especially if she decides to become a zookeeper.

Quotes from Seuss, Dr. [pseud.] If I Ran the Zoo. 1950. New York: Random House. (Copyright held by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.)

© 2009 Michele Arduengo (original text only). All rights reserved.

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