Don't Shoot the Visitors (1964-1993)
"Dear Mr. Hickson," the letter began, "Thank you for showing us all the
old things in the museum, including you."
That scrawled note was the first of a collection of correspondence and
anecdotes of little people. Their observations are priceless.
In three decades at the Nevada State Museum, Carson City, and the Northeastern
Nevada Museum, Elko, I gave tours and talks more than five hundred times,
mostly to students. Usually, a few days after a presentation, a large envelope
arrived with thank you notes from the children. All were a delight, many
were kept. Following are a few of the stories and letters.
In Wells one day I was giving my talk ending commercial and told the kids
to get their mom and dad to bring them to the museum in Elko.
A youngster immediately replied, "I don't think I could get my dad and
his new wife and my mom and her new husband together to make a trip like
Earlier that day, I went to my first classroom where the teacher grabbed
my arm, led me to a tiny kindergarten chair, and told me to sit. Saying
they would return shortly, the teacher led the kids out, leaving me sitting
there alone on a tiny chair that didn't comfortably fit my ample adult
body. Although I was uncomfortable, there are people I still fear - God
and teachers - I stayed put. Fifteen minutes later they came back.
The teacher explained that it had rained the night before and earthworms
had crawled onto the sidewalks from the saturated ground and died in the
sun. She had taken the students out and explained what happened. Great
beginning to the day - upstaged by dead worms.
In another class a little girl frantically waved her hand and then told
me, "My mother died this morning."
Dumbstruck doesn't often happen to me. This was an exception. After a few
moments of silence, I looked at the teacher who negatively shook her head.
Rattled, I continued my talk. Later, the teacher told me the child
says that to all visitors to the classroom. Wish she had told me, beforehand.
My talk was a hands on basket demonstration showing how Shoshone people
in northeast Nevada lived a couple of hundred years ago. It was a great
way to show how intelligence, work, and a few simple wooden baskets and
stone tools solved just about any survival problem.
At one time, I showed an ancient skull with short, flat teeth. This condition
comes from eating food, like roasted pine nuts and dried berries, ground
between two stones. The grinding leaves rock particles in the food that
work just like sandpaper.
A week or so after the talk, one student wrote: "Dear Mr. Hickson, Thanks
for showing us the bald headed Indian."
The skull is no longer used in the presentation. Federal law is the reason.
It had to be given to local Native American representatives for proper
burial. The issue are understandable but what a wonderful visual example
with which to teach more than 15,000 students over the years.
My three sons made the files. We visited an archeological excavation late
one summer on the east side of Pyramid Lake. A burial had been unearthed
and the archeologist pointed out various parts of interest which were identified
with numbered white cards. On the way home the boys were discussing the
body but not using body part names. An argument developed over which was
most interesting, Number Four or Number Twelve.
This illustrates that kids do listen. I had already forgotten what body
parts went with what numbers, but they hadn't.
My first kindergarten talk was almost a disaster. In the middle of my talk
a little girl raised her hand. I ignored her and the waving became more
frantic. I thought that she might have a question, a comment or, perhaps,
had to go to the bathroom. In which case, I had better find out.
Pointing to her, I said, "Yes?"
She held one foot in the air and happily stated, "I got new shoes today."
I lost the class. Each child was compelled to do better: "I got new shoes
yesterday...My grandmother is taking me to get new shoes tomorrow...I'm
getting new cowboy boots"...and on and on and on.
After that day I arranged the baskets and stone tools in a specific order.
If interrupted, what I had in my hand was where I was in the talk and the
next artifact was on the right of the empty space. From then on, I told
students that I got to talk first, then I would ask them a few questions,
after that, they could talk. It worked, most of the time.
Opening a note with an eagle drawn on the front, I read: "Dear Mr. Hickson,
My teacher wouldn't let me send the first card I did."
I could hardly wait to call the teacher after school. She said the youngster
had discovered a talent for drawing a certain international obscene gesture
utilizing the middle finger and had drawn it in his first note. Proud of
his art work he had even included drawings of it in papers he handed in
to the teacher. I asked for the original but she had already thrown it
A copy of a school newsletter was sent to me. An article about my talk
was featured. It began: "Another unimportant event yesterday was the talk
by Mr. Hickson." I hope it was a typographical error, but who knows?
It wasn't always the little people who made my files. Big people are also
there and for good reason.
Several years ago, I was a consultant for an art gallery in Las Vegas.
Pointing out one of the reasons why attendance was low, I commented that
the facility was in a dimly lit park in a questionable neighborhood.
An elderly lady sitting next to me rummaged around in her purse and pulled
out an automatic pistol. Startled and on the verge of panic, I looked at
the other people sitting around the table and they were smiling calmly.
Our gun-toting grandmother declared, "That's why I bring my gun when I
come here. No one, and I mean no one, is going to mess with me." I knew
she was serious.
I suggested that she not shoot any visitors since they were already a scarce
commodity at the gallery.
Finally, quoting another treasured note I received from a youngster, "Dear
Mr. Hickson, the part of your talk I liked best was the end."
©Copyright 2001 by Howard Hickson. Anyone is welcome
to quote or use any portion or all of this article but proper credit must
be given to the author.
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