I'm a what...?

Every morning, I roll out of bed and go for a walk. Early. Sometimes it’s 5 am. Sometimes a little later.

I walk for 2.6 miles (yes, I Google Mapped it), and I always take the same route. It includes one killer hill, a gentle downslope past the high school, and then flat terrain through the “downtown” of my small town. I pass historical houses (this is New England, after all), my grocery store, the town library, and my children’s elementary school.

My kids no longer attend Hillside Elementary; my youngest is off to college this year. But I still think of Hillside as my kids’ school. They went to that school (and so did I, as a parent) for a total of twelve consecutive years, so, yes, it is ours.

I notice something new as I take my morning walk, now that the school year has begun. Lawn signs have sprouted up throughout the neighborhood, signs announcing that Hillside has a mascot—the Hornet. The signs cheerfully proclaim: “Welcome to Hillside!!! You’re a hornet now!”

Yikes! Am I the only one who’s really scared of hornets? Am I the only one who avoids hornets whenever possible? Am I the only one who runs screaming if I see a hornet coming at me?

In fact, I’m not sure I can think of one positive association I have with a hornet. Now, I’m sure hornets do a lot of good in the world. (Full disclosure: I’m not a huge insect lover, but my guess is if I asked my smart, scientist/writer friends Loree Griffin Burns and Sarah Albee about the kinder, gentler side of hornets, they would probably have a lot to tell me.)

Still, school mascots are more of a gut reaction thing. A first impression thing. And my gut reaction to hornets is: OUCH. PAIN. RUN AWAY!

This got me thinking about the naming of mascots at other elementary schools, and so I did a quick survey. I visited 52 elementary schools last year. This morning, I surfed through the websites of all 52 to find their school mascots. Some had them prominently displayed; others didn’t seem to have any at all. Here’s the list I came up with:

  • The Vikings (2 schools)
  • The Phoenix
  • The Cougars
  • The Owls (2 schools)
  • The Eagles (3 schools)
  • The Tigers (2 schools)
  • The Mustangs (2 schools)
  • The Patriots
  • The Wolves
  • The Ponies
  • The Bears (2 schools)
  • The Packers
  • The Bruins
  • The Buffalos
  • The Bulldogs
  • The Panthers
  • The Lions

So clearly, the Eagle wins (!) in my totally unscientific survey, with the Vikings (who would have thought?), the Owls, the Tigers, the Mustangs, and the Bears tying for second place.

But, wait—this isn’t a competition!

Or is it?

As I look at the list, the word “ferocious” springs to mind. “Fierce.” “Attack.” I see bared teeth and sharp claws. The Cougar is shown hissing. The Bulldog is growling. The Wolf is howling at the moon. And the Hillside Hornet is wearing boxing gloves and clearly spoiling for a fight!

There are a few kinder and gentler animals mixed in with the predators. I don’t think the Phoenix does anyone any harm, although it’s got a rather gruesome tale of its own to tell.  The Mustangs and the Ponies would certainly get invited to my birthday party, but I have mixed feelings about the Buffalo. I want it to thrive somewhere, but not necessarily too close to me. Those animals are huge. And shaggy. (Hey, I’m scared of elk.)

Even the Owl is potentially dangerous. At one school, the image is of a wide-eyed fluff-ball hopping on one foot and flapping its wings, but at the other school, the Owl mascot looks like it would rip my head off in a nanosecond.

(“Hold on,” you’re saying, “what about the Packers?” To which I respond: you don’t find the idea of canned meat SCARY?)

What are we saying to our kids? Be tough. Fight hard. Prepare to attack. Show your teeth. Extend your claws. Make sure your beak is sharp.

In a time when we work so hard in the classroom to foster community and teamwork, it’s hard not to notice that many of these mascots are lone hunters. One gets more a sense of “eat or be eaten” from looking at this list than one does of “everyone is welcome and safe here.” I wonder what the kids think. I wonder what the grownups who chose the mascot think. I wonder if we implant in our children, too early, the idea that life is a question of survival of the fittest. That if someone else wins, that means you lose.

And so we choose to honor the strong, ferocious meat eater over the gentler, less toothy herbivore. (As an aside: I stumbled across the Kinkeade Early Childhood School in Irving, Texas, that has a really cute kangaroo named Joey as its mascot. Wouldn’t you rather eat lunch with Joey than with a hornet?)

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Another school year begins. We send our children off to be educated, to be social, to be challenged, to be out in the real world—but hopefully not to be stung. Be careful where you sit, Hornets!