My teachers are literally a bunch of sheep

By Pearl Benjamin | Feb 07, 2019

Lambing season – it’s a phrase that might evoke the first dewdrops of spring, the green breath of life returning to the fields, or the small, insistent sounds of baby animals everywhere. Lambing season has been artfully glorified by poetic farmer–writers like E.B. White and James Herriot. Although I appreciate that kind of sentiment and floral language, lambing season is not all budding cherry blossoms and little bleats from cotton-ball babies. Lambing season is a time for sleepless nights and frostbitten fingers. It is a time for administering shots to ornery animals, snipping umbilical cords and washing blood and iodine off your hands. New life often arrives with a struggle, not only for the mother ewe, but also for the farmer and the lambs. The struggle doesn’t end after the birth.

This year, lambing season kept me out of school for a number of days while I cared for my animals, but I didn’t feel like I was shorting my education. That’s not because I don’t go to a great school with talented and experienced teachers – I do.  But the education I receive during lambing season as the owner of a small flock is often more substantive and indelible than what I learn in a classroom.

Like all American high school students, I study the core subjects of math, science, history and English. But the practical application of these skills is immediate and unforgettable at a farm during lambing season. I’m usually doing some form of math or science every minute I’m with my sheep. I calculate medication dosages based on each animal’s weight, measure grain, weigh lambs, assess their average daily gain and more. I’m constantly organizing and comparing numbers, trying to determine the health of my animals. I’m also always spending, spending, spending. Each month, I rack up bills for grain, hay, medication, farm supplies and vet visits. The economics of farming are tough, and have taught me that sheep-rearing as a teenager with a minimum wage job is NOT a financially stable existence. It’s like one of those long, complicated “real life word problems” you find on a math test, but this one is actually in real life.

As for science, I can’t even begin to recount everything I learned about ovine anatomy and biology. I could tell you about intestinal parasites, infections of the mammary glands, the width of teats, the importance of selenium and why straight, strong feet are genetically important. I could tell you about pregnancy toxemia, a metabolic disorder that I tackled last month. I could tell you how to castrate a ram and draw blood from the jugular. And when was the last time your average high school biology class offered an opportunity to conduct an internal exam on a pregnant sheep to gauge the dilation of her cervix? On top of that, I also got a little chemistry in there. Did you know that some kinds of kelp are great for aiding in the absorption of calcium? Or that molasses is a good source of iron?

In addition to applying science and math skills, I’m also gaining experience in history and English. Although I’m not directly studying events of the past, I’m learning how to research, which is a vital part of any history course. Every time one of my animals gets sick or has some kind of problem, I look up the symptoms in one of our many sheep care books and try to match them with a diagnosis. I weed through the internet and try to find reliable online sources that give other farmers’ experiences with that disease.

My sheep are my muses. Time and again they prove to be the most riveting writing subjects. Their unique personalities and interactions with each other  are meant for the pages of a book, and I can’t stop observing their social lives and copying them down in the form of prose. Last month I wrote two nonfiction pieces about my sheep during lambing season – one for ZEST Maine magazine and another for a writing contest. Both pieces are some of my best writing. The more I use my sheep as my subjects, the more my skill develops. Agriculture is an exceptional teacher. Working with livestock shows kids how the skills they learn in class really can be applied in the real world. It also teaches us something far more important – how to be an adult.

Owning sheep is the reason I’m responsible. I wouldn’t be working three jobs if I didn’t have to buy sheep grain. I might not even have my driver’s license yet if I didn’t need to get myself to and from the farm twice a day. Because of my flock, I’ve learned how to write checks, keep track of incoming and outgoing money, form a working relationship with a vet, plan ahead for events like weaning and vaccinations and of course, how to wake up early and dress for the weather. Being responsible for the life or death of a group of living beings forces you to stay on top of things. I figure if I can take care of 18 demanding children as a teenager, there’s no reason I can’t take care of myself as an adult.

Pearl Benjamin is an 11th-grade student at the Watershed School.

Comments (4)
Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Feb 12, 2019 11:21

Such a wonderful writer! Keep up your skilled lambing and literary talents.

-Phyllis Merriam

Posted by: Ananur Forma | Feb 07, 2019 22:46

Keep writing, you've got an amazing talent, Pearl.

Posted by: Alison S McKellar | Feb 07, 2019 22:20

I was expecting this to be a criticism of high school teachers and policies! Lol. Very clever title!

So enjoyable to read, as always. Horses, for me, played a very similar role in my education and free choice kelp was offered for the same reasons, too!

You have a gift. Actually, many!


Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Feb 07, 2019 13:04


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