Truth be told, it didn’t look like an insect so much as a walking piece of fuzz. Bending down for a closer look, I thought maybe it was two pieces of fuzz, moving in furry tandem, or perhaps one fuzz dragging another.
I thought it might be a caterpillar, but it was perched on spindly legs more like a fly or a spider. Caution got the better of curiosity as I considered reaching out a finger to touch it or pick it up. I snapped a photo instead. Another hiker came down the trail with a small dog on a leash, which she steered away to keep it from popping the little morsel of an insect into its mouth.
When I got home that evening I looked at my photo of the white insect and sent it to a lepidopterist friend (a.k.a. butterfly specialist). Steve Cary, known around town as the Butterfly Guy, is the author of the book Butterfly Landscapes of New Mexico (and my husband’s longtime poker buddy).
“I’m not positive,” Steve wrote back the next morning, “but I think it is a kind of velvet ant, which is actually a wingless wasp. Very cute!”
I went right to the Internet, typing “white velvet ant” in the search bar. Moments later I saw photos resembling the little guy (or as it turns out, gal) I’d seen on the trail. It’s known as a velvet ant (or Dasymutilla sackenii, if you’re into such things), just as Steve diagnosed, though it’s not an ant at all but a wasp. The female is wingless and hairy; the male has wings and looks more like a typical wasp.
“I might have gone with ‘funky’ rather than ‘cute,’” I wrote back to Steve, staring at the close-up of its fuzzy white head, fuzzy white body and hairy black legs, “but definitely cool!”
There’s something so satisfying about learning a new name, whether it’s for a bird, a flower, an insect or a person, particularly when the name packs so much juicy information. This creature is called an ant, but she’s really a wasp. A wingless wasp (I didn’t know there was such a thing), a solitary, parasitic animal who lays eggs in the nests of other bees and wasps: a badass.
And here’s the kicker. “White Velvet Ant” may sound like the name of a Beanie Baby, or a doe-eyed Disney character, but its sting is actually so painful that it’s referred to it as The Cow Killer, which seems more befitting a professional wrestler than a half-inch long insect. Things aren’t always what they seem.
But then, what parent doesn’t know that?
Parenting means realizing that whoever a child is today, whatever their interests or vulnerabilities or temperament, the child is likely to be different a year from now, maybe even later in the day. A child’s path to adulthood doesn’t go on a flat, smooth trail but over switchbacks, peaks and troughs.
Articles in this issue reflect some of the many ways children show the unexpected, and also find it in themselves.
In May, I went to the graduation for the MASTERS Program, a charter high school based at Santa Fe Community College. This was a beautiful ceremony, conducted almost entirely by the graduates, about 10 of whom gave short speeches thanking teachers and family, and sharing their plans for the future.
One young man, Javier Baros, riveted me with a story of getting right to the edge of dropping out before a teacher spoke two words that broke through his mask of defiance: I care. I’ll stop there — he crafts the story far more eloquently than I can paraphrase, and you’ll find it in both English and Spanish in this issue — but I’ll note that in cap and gown he looked every bit a graduate, belying any sense that his path almost didn’t take him there.
Sometimes a child’s learning and developmental differences can deceive even the most attentive parents and teachers. Michelle Garcia, a new contributor, helps us understand speech and language difficulties and learn to identify signs that a child may need extra help (“Speech Vs. Language: Learning the Difference.”) Amy Miller, director of the May Center, describes services available to children with learning differences and adults who work with them (“May Center Expands to Serve Greater Community”).
Sometimes the journey of parenting itself surprises us, sending us on detours from a familiar path to one totally unexpected. Learning specialist Janine Johnston describes how her daughter’s progress with reading inspired her to become certified to help other children with similar challenges. See her article, “Training the Dyslexic Brain.”
Sometimes an entire subject can fool us — like math, which maybe you find boring, or scary, or irrelevant, but which Gordon McDonough, a self-proclaimed Science and Math Evangelist, may just persuade you is fascinating, engaging, intriguing, fun and even funny. Read his “Mathemusings” and grab a pencil.
Even our names may mean more than we think, as wise and wonderful Benigna Sanchez-Duty shows in “What’s in a Name?” where she transforms the taunts of a foreign classmate’s name into a powerful teachable moment.
Which brings me back, of course, to my charmingly misnamed velvet ant. A wasp without wings, a critter people call an ant but isn’t — she’s out of place and misunderstood, just like a near-dropout, or a dyslexic kid, or a child with a hard-to-pronounce name.
Maybe it’s a stretch to find an “Ugly Duckling” story in a wasp that people think is an ant, but I’m seeing a fairy tale in there: Wanda the White Velvet Ant ....
Maybe the other insects pick on her because she looks funny. Or is she proud of her distinctive white fur?
Does she resent being called something she isn’t? Is she jealous of the “cool” wasps, the ones with sleek bodies and long wings?
Does she struggle to fit in, or does she find strength in her differentness, like a girl who learns her name says she’s strong like a river, or a teacher who sees beauty in a subject others find dull?
Does she long to be cute as a ladybug? Or is she proud of being a badass?
It’s a story ripe for the telling….
Wanda was a very special ant, because she wasn’t an ant at all. She was fascinating, cute, scary and strong all at once — just like you.