Heading back to school can be tough, but with a visit from world-famous chimp expert Jane Goodall on Tuesday, the students at the Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont did not want to miss their fourth day of class.
To a rapt middle-school audience, Goodall told stories from her pioneering work observing chimpanzees in the African wilds of Tanzania in the 1960s. She described how her best teacher was actually her childhood dog, Rusty. He gave her the courage to buck scientific convention and give her subjects names instead of identifying numbers, she said, and to attribute to them qualities thought at the time to be unique to humans.
“You can’t have an animal in your life and not know that they have personalities; not know that they have emotions; not know that they can solve simple problems,” she said. “And so I was able to stick to my guns.”
Goodall is most famous for her observation — made 55 years ago — that chimpanzees can use tools. Although she still makes it to back twice a year to the Gombe forests where she made her discoveries, in the last several decades the 81-year-old’s focus has been on conservation and inspiring kids across the globe to give back to their communities and be good environmental stewards.
That was the main message she wanted to impart to the girls at Agnes Irwin.
“Isn’t it peculiar that the most intellectual creature that’s ever walked on this planet is destroying its only home?” she said. “Every single one of us, everybody in this room, every day you live, you make an impact on the world. And you can choose: What kind of difference are you going to make today?”
Last spring, Agnes Irwin joined Goodall’s youth community action program, Root & Shoots, with a project to clean up a local stream.
Head of school Wendy Hill said in anticipation of the primatologist’s visit, the entire school had been busy with relevant summer reading assignments. Goodall also influenced course material, she said, not only in the sciences, but with two upcoming plays and a student-made topiary chimpanzee garden as well.
The idea to bring Goodall to Agnes Irwin came after Hill met her several years ago. Particularly compelling, she said, was the interaction the scientist had with her then 8-year-old daughter.
“They had a great conversation about dogs. Then, as Dr. Goodall was leaving, she leaned over to my daughter and whispered in her ear, ‘Follow your dreams.’ I’ll never forget it,” said Hill. “As a mother, as an educator, just that kind of message for a little one was really powerful.”