Education Opinion

Eggs, Chicks, and Matters of Life and Death

By David Downing — March 01, 1993 6 min read

The eggs and the incubator arrived. They were an extension of the seeds unit and brought me as close to a discussion of sexuality as the parent body of my kindergarten class wanted. Fortunately for my job security, I was able to dance through a vague description of how eggs are fertilized without getting many specific questions. In my more daring teaching days, and in a more liberal school, I was so clear about how mammals mate that a 1st-grade boy exclaimed in horror: “Gross! When I grow up, I’m going to be a priest.”

I wanted nothing to do with hatching eggs. I had visions of spending my weekends on the road to and from school to turn them and being kept awake all night by peeping baby chicks everyone else thought were so cute but no one wanted to take home and care for. I put my student teacher in charge of the egg project. She had done it last year and so was more of a professional at it than I.

The eggs arrived when the student teacher was out of the room, and I was eager to show the children that there was indeed one subject that I knew more about than they. This class had a reputation for correcting me out loud whenever I was wrong, especially in front of the rest of the school at assemblies. I slowly unpacked the box of eggs from the farm and carefully picked up each one. I told the attentive class that I was going to mark each egg on one side with a number.

“Do you know why?” I asked mysteriously. I was so pleased when many of the tiny heads slowly shook back and forth, the big eyes never leaving the egg I held up in my hand.

“It’s because we have to turn them a couple of times a day, and if we mark them, we’ll know how far to turn them. And we can keep track of which ones hatch.” At this point, the student teacher came back, and I let her take over. She produced a pair of rubber gloves and in a clipped, professional tone said: “Boys and girls, I am wearing gloves because you must never, ever, ever pick up the eggs with your bare hands. The chicks could catch the germs on your hands and,” she paused dramatically, “they could die.”

All those eyes, which had so shortly before been filled with awe, now turned on me with accusatory glances. All credibility flowed out of me, the chick-killer.

The children soon lost interest in the eggs. It wasn’t fun to watch something that just sat in the incubator. Even when we opened it to turn the eggs, we stopped drawing a crowd.

But we talked about the eggs often. We wanted to prepare the children for the inevitability of at least some of the eggs not hatching. Although we had talked about why many of our plants did not sprout from seed, raising chicks was carrying this lesson to a higher level. Life-and-death issues carry a lot of weight with kindergarten children.

This was an especially interesting issue for this class because etched into their memories was the fact that last year’s kindergarten eggs yielded no chicks at all. Endless hypothesizing as to what could happen to the embryos was helping them deal with the mysterious force of death. This was part of the reason for the chick project in the first place.

Still, I was nervous. What if, once again, none of the chicks hatched? Wasn’t that a severe way for a 6-year-old to learn about life? Even when we candled the eggs and thought we saw something in a few of them, I was apprehensive. As the children drew pictures of what they thought the chicks looked like inside the eggs, a voice in my head asked if I was sure there was anything at all alive in there. It turned out there was.

When I got to school on the morning of the day before the eggs were supposed to hatch, one chick already was running around inside the incubator, and two more were on their way out. You would have thought I had laid the eggs myself. Excited, I found anyone coming down the hall and brought him or her in to see the chicks. My enjoyment was nothing compared with the excitement of the children when they arrived. Even the 6th-graders, those professionals of compassion-less cool, came in that day to take a look.

In the midst of the excitement, however, there was trouble. One of the chicks had been born bleeding heavily from its hind legs. The children had celebrated its birth, unaware of how hurt it was. I was a little afraid of the prospect of its dying, but I was even more afraid of what might happen if it did not die soon in its wounded condition. Was it suffering? If it survived much longer, should I kill it? Could I kill it? Although I was not eager to bring up the issue of death with my class, neither was I willing to let a creature suffer. How was I to do it? The children already had seen the chick. I couldn’t just remove it and hope they wouldn’t notice. In an effort to introduce my students to a controlled experience in birth, I was going to have to involve them, and myself as well, in a part of life not many kindergarten children see. Fortunately, part of the decision was taken out of my hands a few days later. The wounded chick died. I removed it from the incubator, somewhat grateful.

The children came in as usual that morning, bouncing around like so many noisy superballs. A few checked in on the chicks, poking a finger at the two now in the brooder, asking once again why they could not take them home. Eventually, an observant child looked into the incubator and asked where the sick one was. “We’ll talk about that at the meeting,” I said quietly. Although there were many activities going on, the room quickly became totally silent and still. After a bit, a child asked, “Did he die?”

I didn’t expect to deal with it right away, but we had our meeting then and there. They accepted the chick’s death in a matter-of-fact manner. They were concerned with where I had put the body but not so much to want to have a funeral. Even more, they wanted to try to sort out why it had died. Maybe the chick was injured coming out of the shell or we forgot to turn the eggs once. Maybe the incubator was too hot or too cold. The children even proposed that the chick got sick because germs got through the shell, but they were nice enough not to accuse me personally.

They talked it out in a surprisingly short time, and then they were back playing, though in a more subdued manner. It proved to me again that young children are capable of so much. They can accept mysteries and inequities because their lives are filled with the inexplicable and the unknown. I had spent months teaching facts about plants and animals, the living things all around them. They had proved that they had learned their lessons well. The death of a chick to them was sobering, but it was another part of something that was all around them.

They named the surviving chicks PeepPeep and Quack-Quack. (I guess we should have spent more time on the differences between ducks and chickens.) Before the chicks went back to the farm, they were old enough to fly short distances and be picked up by the braver of the children. The children were not happy the day the chicks left, but they did not dwell on it for long after a parent took the box away. They were excited about other events, such as the end of the school year and the prospect of 1st grade.

I was the one who missed the chicks.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1984 edition of Education Week as Eggs, Chicks, and Matters of Life and Death