Mr. Tuttle handed us our textbooks with an air of gravity. I took mine (trying too hard to not stare at the finger on his hand that had been left without fingernail by some ancient accident) and studied the cover—a sort of orange top that faded into red like a sunset with SCIENCE written across it in intimidating, yellow academic letters. We had risen that September no longer as first graders, whose lessons smeared together under the tutelage of one single teacher. We were second graders now, explorers of undiscovered countries, and to prove it we opened up the accordion divider that kept our two classrooms apart so we could trade desks for an hour while that other class learned about reading and we learned about…whatever one learned about in science class. I didn’t know, really. None of us knew. Everyone shifted and eyed each other cautiously.
This class was going to be hard; you could just tell. It felt like we had skipped accidentally to college.
I opened my book and read over the names scribbled on the inside cover—an act of time travel, of checking in with former second graders who were now third graders, or sixth graders, or possibly long dead. I wondered how many of them had been scared or worried or had flunked out from sheer panic.
“Science,” he told us, “is the study of how things in the world work.” We nodded our little heads, now certain that we had skipped accidentally to college. We read about the solar system first, but I had a difficult time accepting that there could be any force more attractive than whatever caused life to orbit my own small existence. I disbelieved it and got bored. Feeling the irresistible pull of my daydreams I paged ahead several chapters, skipping accidentally many millions of years.
I stopped when a flash of color caught my eye, staring down an illustration of a brontosaurus rising majestically out of a swamp. It wore a serene and thoughtful look as it considered a tyrannosaurus rex that emerged from the nearby jungle, focused singly on how soon it could begin eating. This was, frozen forever, the moment just before both creatures knew and accepted they were about to dance that old dance of necessity, of hunger, of knowing there were small mouths with small teeth—either flat or sharp—waiting for them to return to the nest and they hungered, too. In that moment, I understood what I loved, and for the first time I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I probably wanted to be a dinosaur.
But I also wanted to study them.
I had considered dinosaurs before—I owned a decent-sized collection of small plastic ones—but I had never considered them looming so enormously or pondering so calmly their place in the chain of Triassic meals. I returned to this page whenever I could steal a moment away from lessons on magnets or what chemicals are, hardly able to stand the geological age that it would take for us to reach this chapter. At the end of each lesson we stacked our textbooks on the counter near the windows, but I stacked that image away near the windows of my imagination, through which I gazed constantly.
The day we finally turned the page as a class to that portrait of survival was the high point of that entire school year. I volunteered to read aloud, to say with relish all the names I had pined over and had practiced in secret: triceratops, Apatosaurus, iguanodon. Their names were delicious and so was everything the book could teach me about them.
Every kid ever probably spent a goodly number of hours, months, or years staring up in wonder at the bones of these thunder lizards—bones so old and kept so perfectly secret by the earth that they turned to stone and became the bones of the earth itself. I mean, what’s not to love? They’re the closest we may ever come to having monsters.
And while we love monsters that are scary and could eat us, we also love smaller, more adorable monsters that talk and are kind of sweet and mostly animated. I am speaking, of course, about The Land Before Time. The film’s creators obviously spent years speaking to paleontologists in depth in order to get each species’ spunky, American voice just right. We can’t really know what dinosaurs sounded like, but science can make its best guess. The research paid off, because I think it’s safe to say the movie was a hit. I had the Land Before Time VHS. I had the best lines memorized in me forever, like fossils, for the rest of time. I had the plastic Land Before Time puppets from Pizza Hut that made your hands smell weird after you played with them. I had the most reliably awesome dinosaur viewing experience available—including the 30% really boring/70% super cool Exxon “Universe of Energy” ride at Epcot Center, with its forgettable lesson on modern oil (excuse me…EXCUSE ME are there any dinosaurs on this dinosaur tour) and unforgettable animatronic dinos. I had it all. There was nothing more to want. All the good dinosaur entertainment was hereby extinct.
Or so I thought. Because just when I thought my passion for them had cooled, the Jim Henson company whipped out a hilarious new TV show about dinosaurs: the aptly named Dinosaurs. By scientific comparison, it made The Land Before Time look like an episode of Nova, but verisimilitude be damned, that show was funny and just a lot of fun. And it even had a tiny, most adorable purple-eyed Baby.
Baby Sinclair (get it? Sinclair? Like the oil company? I didn’t get it, but I do now, because I took third grade science eventually.) was a cross between Elmo, Bart Simpson, and Barney the Purple Dinosaur and I loved every minute he was on the screen. He even got a hip hop music video, which I will include for your viewing pleasure. And mine, because of course I’m going to watch it again like right now.
Let’s skip ahead again another million years or so to my fifth grade year, during which I was ten, still kind of openly enamored with these things, and finally got my definitive dinosaur viewing experience. The only two hours traffic that could top Exxon and Little Foot and Baby Sinclair (although baby dinosaurs do play a critical role in the film’s plot) was obviously Jurassic Park.
As I sat in my movie theatre seat, my hands glistening with butter, my cup filled with Cherry Coke, my mouth agape, I knew I was seeing something very special. As Dr. Grant rose from his seat in the back of that jeep and peeled off his sunglasses to give his peepers take in all the glory, my spirits rose with him, and all the old enthusiasm came thundering back through my heart.
Stress and huge amounts of blood also thundered through my heart during pretty much any scene involving velociraptors, which was quite a few, believe me. If it had been me trapped in that kitchen, trying to stifle my castrati-level screams of terror as those things tapped their huge claw toes and learned how to operate doorknobs, I would have been 100% Dino Damage pretty much, like, immediately. If we learned anything from the scene in which Newman from Seinfeld crashes his jeep in the rain, it’s that chubby people will be naturally selected to not be in the movie much longer.
For the rest of that year, dinosaurs once again ruled the earth. I didn’t have the toys, with their aforementioned Dino Damage (it’s a real thing) bite-shaped pieces of removable side meat (an awesome real thing, obviously), but I had instead a dream of heading west to Montana to gently scrape away the dust of time and tenderly learn about that old, lost world. But my interest in them could not survive the comet collision of my introduction to performing during my sixth grade year, and it was all but eradicated on impact.
But maybe not entirely. What I gave up for dead just evolved. Like T-rex, it got smaller and friendlier and survived all these years until it basically became a chicken (their closest living relative, I am told by Jack Horner).
This week, I spent my time doing something I love by relearning some things about dinosaurs. I learned that my old love didn’t die at all; it remained. It found a way.
During my short but intensely unsuccessful stint on OK Cupid, my profile contained this teaser: if you ask me nicely, I will tell you what my favorite dinosaur is.
A few girls (an alarmingly high number of them single moms, incidentally) did ask, and this is that I would tell them. My favorite dinosaur was and will forever be parasaurolophus—a sturdy looking, duck-billed hadrosaur with an elegant, hollow crest extending off the back of its head. There is debate over what that crest was there for; some think it regulated temperature, and others (who I hope win) think it might have been used to make a sound like a single note of a trombone. They might have used it to communicate, or impress each other, or to make rock and roll. Even if they were silent, they are really kind of beautiful.
And I like them. There is even a children’s song about them. How many times I have listened to it, I will never confess. But you can listen to it to your heart’s content here.
To learn about why this toy parasaurolophus kind of sucks, check this video out (trust me, it’s legitimately educational and the guy is legitimately pretty funny.)
But then again, even the worst toy dinosaur isn’t really all that bad. Is it?