Posted by: krusty505 | October 6, 2011

The Calls of Distant Whales

The stories the guys can select from the web-based program we use to teach them reading are many and varied. They range in topic from NASCAR to Frida Kahlo, from the rise and fall of the Aztecs to the emergence of the hotdog as a popular food in American cuisine. One story in particular often catches their fancy. It’s about whales and the history of whaling in the US. Personally, I love whales, so I always supplement the whaling story with knowledge I’ve acquired about whales over the years: a blue whale’s heart weighs 4000 pounds, and it’s the largest animal that’s ever lived on our planet or any other planet that we know of; a female blue whale produces almost 100 gallons of milk a day, and it’s the consistency of yogurt; whales use their tails for defense from enemies, and they can crush every bone in a human’s body with one blow; a sperm whale can dive to depths that no large-scale submarine could even imagine diving to, over 10,000ft.

Usually the guys love these anecdotes, but one guy in particular seemed especially smitten with the whole concept of whales, so I decided to bring in Roger Payne’s book Among Whales and read a bit of it for them to see if I’d have as much success with it as I did reading Half Broke Horses. (For those of you who missed my blog The Dugout, it might shed some light on their reading tastes.) Anyway, I brought it in today and read a bit. Yeah, they were mesmerized! Again! Of course, Payne is an incredible writer. His blend of science and art is nothing short of poetry, and his descriptions of the ocean and life in it are so eloquently and beautifully constructed that you are absolutely transported into every scene he creates, so I guess it was an easy sell.

After I was done, the guy who was enamored with the whales in the first place came up to me and said, “I think my granddaughter would love that book. I wish I could read it to her.” This guy is in his 50’s, he has barely reached the 2nd grade level in his reading, and he has a tumor in his chest the size of a softball. We have been trying to get him into medical for weeks. He finally got taken to UNM’s cancer center where they did some tests. That was 2 weeks ago, and he has yet to hear any results back from them. Meanwhile this “lump” is growing, and he is vomiting and defecating blood, so the chances that he will ever get to read this or any other book to his granddaughter are slim to none.

It really pulled on my heartstrings, so I looked up from my computer and asked him if he’d ever heard a humpback whale sing. “No. What does it sound like?” I Googled humpback whale song, plugged in my external speakers, cranked the volume and hit “play.” When the plaintive sound of that whale singing hit my jail classroom in the middle of this desert, I kid you not, you could have heard a pin drop.

This dying inmate looked at me and said, “Mr. Pauls, that sounds just like a baby crying!”

Singing whales, crying babies, dying grandfathers, half broke horses. The jail’s got a little something for everyone.



  1. Great story, Chris! As always, you get to the core of the underlying issue by sharing your experience.
    I must ask, however, on a slightly lighter note, about your statement:

    and it’s the largest animal that’s ever lived on our planet or any other planet that we know of

    which other planet are you referring to? I didn’t realize we had discovered other planets with life, let alone animal life, on them. Ya learn something new every day.

    also, today, iSad.

    • Ah, Phil, your sarcasm always brings a twinkle to my eye… Jerk!

  2. You are a truly AMAZING teacher. I so appreciate the work you do.

  3. As always, very well written 🙂
    I’m inspired to check out Roger Payne!

    • Thanks Natalie. I was supposed to be in DC a few weeks ago, but the hurricane put kibosh on our travel plans to New England. I was hoping to see you while I was there:(

  4. What a beautiful story…

  5. I heard the “live” version of this story over drinks last night and it was great then. But I love language and words so this post stimulated my imagination even more. Another book to add to the queue…

    • The whale book or my impending book. LOL.

  6. Chris: Great to meet you and glad i got to hear it first hand as well. Looking forward to seeing you guys next trip to ABQ.

  7. knowing the guys in your classes (and you) made me cry from half way around the world. Thanks.

  8. Denise, I’m so glad and touched that you read this from so far away.

  9. I was especially moved by the whale stories and your students desire to read it to his grand daughter. You are opening life up to your students through these tales and books…what a calling!

    • Loved your pun! I think I’ve got another reading story coming soon. Stay tuned…

  10. Thanks for this review. Because of it, I read this book. I quite enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book (about the author and about whales and other animals) and the appendix (about ocean acoustics). Very good writing.

    And I got the added bonus of imagining which parts of the book your students would have enjoyed most (elephant seal burping noises, whale sex, maybe some of the tactics at the conventions).

    • I agree about the first 2/3 thing. I’m glad my post inspired you to read the book! Have you read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything? Also a well-written book full of wonder.

      • Nope. I’ll add it to my list!

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