Listen: Coming up through the Milwaukee Public School system, I got into an array of academic competitions — writing, art, science, math, history, pretty much any scholastic endeavor you could imagine. And while many of them left a lasting imprint, when I think of the visual arts, a single competition immediately comes to mind — the Scholastic, Inc. Arts Competition. (Funny enough, while I was driving past the Milwaukee Art Museum, I saw this year's regional art exhibition up, which reminded me to check that show out soon!)
A juried competition for teenage artists and writers, my most vivid memory of the Scholastic is the name for their top prize — the 'Gold Key.' There's something about this phrase that's so graceful and accomplished. Say that out loud right now, "I won a gold key." Makes you feel pretty decent, right?
While the art competition has been in Wisconsin for over 30 years, the writing portion is still young — partnering with the Still Waters Collective, the competition is in its second year. A new batch of winners will be announced soon, and I was lucky enough to have one of last year's Gold Key recipients come into the studio to share some writing.
Sam Schlesinger, in the 8th grade at the University School of Milwaukee, submitted a short story entitled A Night at the Zoo to last year's competition. The entire story can be found below (NB: the story's rights belong to Scholastic, Inc.) and for our short-form radio format, he read an excerpt that can be heard in this audio piece:
A Night at the Zoo
by Sam Schlesinger
I take my work seriously. I don’t mess around with any of the animals, I just do my job, and that is working the night shift at the zoo. My employment isn't exactly a high paying job, so I'm also the cashier at a store that sells lawn ornaments, called Gnome Sweet Gnome. Due to budget cuts, I am the only night guard at the zoo.
It is usually a pretty easy job. Some nights I even get some sleep.
Last night, this didn’t work out so well for me. I had dozed off, as I often do, and when I woke up around 6:00 am, I noticed that the animals were not in their cages. The gorilla cage was ajar. The hippo pond was, unfortunately, lacking hippos. And the tigers were missing. My shift ends at 8:00 am when the zoo opens. A zoo without animals does not attract customers or please your boss. I can't imagine being fired from this place; I've worked at the zoo for 3 years now. This meant if I wanted to keep working here I had two hours to find 4 hippos, 4 alligators, 7 gorillas, 3 tigers, 2 elephants, 1 zebra, 2 giraffes, 8 penguins, 6 flamingos and a panda. That’s 38 animals in two hours. It would be an interesting morning. I broke into a run towards the public swimming pool to search for hippos and gators.
When I hopped the pool's outer gate, I looked at the pool, surprised by how quickly the animals had taken over the place. Two hippos were hogging the hot tub. An alligator was on the diving board. Another two gators were swimming in the deep end. The other two hippos were tanning poolside and the last gator was playing with a volleyball.
"Okay, this is ridiculous. Everyone out of the pool."
The hippos stared blankly at me. The gators pretended that they hadn't heard.
"If you don't get out, the sharks will eat you! Look, there's one now!" I lied, pointing to a corner of the pool.
As if I had said the magic words, the hippos and alligators sped out of the pool. I had to follow them back to the zoo. Hippos can be very speedy if they want to.
I rounded them up, shooing them back into their cages. Eight down, 30 to go. I sprinted to the market. I suspected the gorillas would be hanging out there, pigging out on the fruit. Sure enough, they were. The banana aisle was a disaster waiting to happen, with empty peels littering the ground. And sitting on a large pile of peels were the seven gorillas, chewing the few remaining fruits. I stole their bananas and ran to the zoo. The gorillas chased me the whole way, and I threw the bananas into the gorilla cage. Gorillas make for quick captures. Only 23 animals to go.
Next I would look for the tigers. Hopefully they haven't eaten anyone… although they always are hungry. Maybe they went for a bite at the local Pizza Hut. I ran over to the Pizza Hut. Not only had the tigers eaten all the pizza, they had robbed the Pizza Hut of its pepperoni and sausages. One of the tigers had discovered how to open the refrigerator, and they were all snacking. I tried to convince the tigers to go back to the zoo. They growled. I tried to look menacing and intimidating. They made themselves more menacing and intimidating. I picked up a pizza carving knife and tried to talk to the tigers.
"Okay tigers, normally I don't like bringing violence into the situation but-"
The largest tiger growled.
"Get back to the zoo or I'll be forced to-"
The tiger batted the knife away. He looked angry.
It was dire circumstances. I grabbed the tiger's pepperoni stick and ran, like I had done with the gorillas. I thought it would be a good idea at the time, but tigers are fast. The next thing I knew I was on the sidewalk pavement trying to fend off the vicious animals with a tree branch and a half-eaten stick of meat. I tried to push away one of the more daring tigers with a pepperoni stick. It bit off part of it. Note: Fighting tigers with meat is a bad idea. I got up again and ran to the zoo. Tossing the pepperoni at the cage, I ran in a different direction. Apparently the tigers liked the pepperoni better than me. With a well-aimed toss of the tree branch, the door slammed shut and auto-locked.
Next up – two elephants. Where could you find two elephants… a peanut store? Yes, that sounded good. Elephants like peanuts, after all. Exhausted, I decided I would go to Starbucks after this. But about my elephant situation, where could you find peanuts? The only place I had ever had bought peanuts was as a topping for ice cream at Baskin Robbins. Maybe the elephants would be there. I decided to grab a bike from the side of the street. If I survived this animal crisis, I would return it. If I didn't then it would be the least of my problems. I biked to the ice cream store and when I walked in, I discovered there were no elephants, but there were nine penguins, stuffing themselves with ice cream. Penguin 1 had a banana split, Penguin 2 had a mint chocolate chip shake, and Penguin 3 was sharing a big bowl of triple chocolate with Penguin 4. Penguins 5, 6, and 7 were filling a huge bucket with mixed vanilla-chocolate swirl. Penguin 8 was running around in circles, squawking and chirping. I was wondering what had happened to him, but then I realized it was just brain freeze.
"Okay guys, time to go home. You've had enough ice cream for one night." I told the penguins. The penguins didn't sound happy with my command.
"You guys shouldn't even be having this. Don't you care about your health? And you-" I pointed to penguin 4. "Aren't you lactose intolerant?"
Penguin 4 shrugged and kept on scooping his ice cream.
"Okay, if I let you guys bring your ice cream, will you come back to the zoo? If the others find you they'll send you away and you'll never get ice cream again."
After consideration, the penguins agreed to waddle back to the zoo, leaving me with only another 12 animals to find. I think I'll start with the panda. I wonder how he is doing…
I yawned. In all of my life as a panda, I had never slept so comfortably. I blinked my eyes open and froze. What’s happening? Then it came back to me. I had woken up and found my cage open. All the other animals had left, and this was a once in a lifetime chance for me. I had decided to check out the building across the street that had so often captivated me – Sleeping Bear Mattress Store. The name sounded perfect for me, so I went in. Inside, the store was piled high with mattresses. Climbing a low pile, I then jumped to a higher pile. I repeated this until I was on top of the largest pile. Stretching and yawning, I immediately started sleeping, but due to my restless sleeping I was tossing and turning. Then one fateful move and the mattress pile collapsed. After recovering from the avalanche I got up, and saw the entrance was covered in a mountain of mattresses. There was no way I could make it through that mess. I was perplexed. However, I did notice those mattresses led a path up to a high window. It was my only chance. I gripped onto the first mattress with my sharp claws, and pulled myself up. It would be a long climb.
After being unable to find the panda by searching three bamboo stores, I decided to save the panda for last. I was running out of time and still had 2 elephants, 2 giraffes, 1 zebra, and 6 flamingos to find. I decided to think of all things related to flamingos in order to find them. Pink flamingos, flock of flamingos, lawn flamingos, flying flamingos, flamingos eating shrimp…that seemed possible. I think I read once that flamingos are pink because they eat shrimp. And the only place in town that has shrimp is the Seafood Diner. I pedaled my bike as fast as I could to the diner, trying to remember where it was. I had never really been there for anything but sushi, and that was a while ago. I searched the streets until I saw the sign – SEAFOOD DINER. The flamingos had to be here. When I went in, the store didn't look like anything had happened. All the shrimp were still in their box in the refrigerator, but maybe the flamingos couldn't open the refrigerator with their wings. I checked for them behind the counter. They weren't there. Maybe they were near the lobster aquarium. I ran over to the tank. Nothing. After searching all the tables, I realized there were no flamingos here. I ran through my list of flamingo ideas again… Pink flamingos, flock of flamingos… lawn flamingos… that's it!They would be at Gnome Sweet Gnome with the lawn flamingos! I got on my bike and going full speed made it to Gnome Sweet Gnome faster than I could have by bus. I opened the door and ran past the lawn gnome aisle, skipped the flower pot aisle, and there they were. Standing with the flocks of lawn flamingos on display were the real flamingos.
"Okay, fun’s over. Back to the zoo."
The flamingos didn't budge. I waited. They waited. Finally after enough waiting, I grabbed a few lawn flamingos and brought them with me as I left. The real flamingos followed their new plastic friends as I walked them back to the zoo.
Now I only have to find the zebra, the elephants, the giraffes, and the panda. I think I'll save the panda for last; I have a sense he's going to be a challenge to find.
I'm almost done climbing the mattress mountain. It wasn't easy either. My panda feet weren't built for such weird terrain. Sometimes I would try to tunnel through a steep part and it would cave in. Sometimes when I got close there would be an avalanche. Sometimes I just slipped. But now I was ready to climb out the window. I poked my head out the window. It was a dizzying drop. So dizzying that I lost my footing on the mattress and fell backwards. I guess part of the mountain was hollow or something; because I fell and the next thing I knew I was at the door, completely covered in mattresses. There was probably a pit that I fell into or something. I braced myself and opened the door. Suddenly I was being pushed out the door by a wave of mattresses. I lumbered away from the mattress flood and made it to the other side of the street. Phew! I thought. I'm exhausted. Maybe I should get some coffee. Coffee did sound good right now…
After a failed attempt at finding the giraffes, I decided to look for the zebra. I didn't have much time left either, only half an hour. I would need to find one animal every five minutes, but they could be anywhere by now. It was time to think. If I was a zebra and I wandered out of a zoo, I would go to… a place that I camouflaged in so they wouldn't be able to find me. But where? What is black and white? A prisoner. But you can't get into a prison without a visitors pass. A referee? The zebra wouldn't play favorites to anyone, because it lives alone. It was worth a try. I jumped on my bike, nervous that somebody might have found one of the animals. Or worse, kidnapped them. I shuddered to imagine the idea. I decided to go to the park, because they have a basketball court and a soccer field. If the zebra wasn’t there, then I would check the baseball field. If it wasn’t there, then I would be out of time. I still have to find a panda, two elephants, and two giraffes.When I was biking by, I noticed all the mattresses were on the street from the Sleeping Bear Mattress Store. I wonder how that happened, but I didn't have time to investigate. I parked my bike at the corner of the soccer field. I didn't see anything. I looked off at the basketball court. There were the poles that held the backboard and hoop, but there were two extras. What were those? They were moving. The giraffes! The giraffes were at the basketball court! I hopped onto my bike and rode the fastest I ever had to the basketball court. The giraffes were playing one-on-one without dribbling. They just held the basketball in their mouth and brought it to the basket. And just like I predicted, the zebra was there, as the referee.
"Time to go home," I said to the animals.
They stopped and stared at me, incredulous that I would dare to stop their game. I didn't know much about basketball, but I knew enough that if I stole the ball they would try to get it back. And they would chase me for it.
"Fine. Keep playing." I told them. And they did. One of them made a shot. Quickly I darted forward and grabbed the ball. I barreled back to my bike and started pedaling. The giraffes were enraged. They started to run after me, and the zebra shot forward. My legs felt like they were on fire, because I was pedaling so fast. Only a little bit more. Just a little more.I said to myself. Finally we neared the cages. I passed the giraffe cage and threw the ball in. The giraffes followed it in, and I made a circle around the cage, closing it as I went by. It locked automatically. The zebra was more interested in getting me back for stealing the ball from them. Noting I had only one chance for this, I drove straight into the zebra cage. The zebra charged in after me, and I circled the cage. I hurried out, and closed the cage door right as it was coming for me. My bike skidded to a halt and I was panting like crazy. I only had to find three more animals, and I had approximately 24 minutes to find them. Easy.
You would think that it would be easy to find elephants because they're so large. It’s a lot harder than it looks. When you compare the size of an elephant to the size of a city, an elephant doesn't seem as large. Where would the elephants be? They weren't at the ice cream store. What else do they like… water! The elephants like water. And if I know my elephants, they were at the fountain in the center of the city. I hopped on my bike again, this time in search of the elephants. I could see the elephants from a mile away.
"Get out of the fountain. I need to bring you guys back to the zoo," I said.
No response from the elephants.
"The city will send you to Africa."
"You'll have to-"
The elephants sprayed water all over me. I was soaked. Great. There's my morning shower.
Furious, I climbed the fountain and jumped onto one of the elephant’s backs. I slapped its back, and as if it was trained to do this, it jumped out of the fountain. The other elephant followed. Keeping a steady pace, I lead the elephants to the crosswalk. There's a little bit of traffic, so I have to wait for the light to change. The elephant presses its trunk to the button; the "walk" symbol turns on. The elephants trot to the other side of the road. Everyone is confused. I can see one guy whipping out his camera.
"Quickly, spray his windshield," I whisper to my elephant. He aims his trunk and shoots full blast. I have a feeling his picture won't come out the way he wants. After a few minutes, we're at the zoo. I slide off my elephant. They walk into their cage, and I lock it. I thank the elephants for their cooperation, and leave.
Unfortunately, I knew I was out of time. The panda was lost in the city.
I returned the bike and walked to Starbucks; too exhausted to consider how much trouble I'd be in if the panda was missing. I wandered over to the coffee shop, pushing the door open. And, that's when I saw the panda reading the newspaper and sipping an espresso. I ordered my coffee and sat next to the panda. When we had finished, he got up and wandered back to the zoo. I followed behind him. He even waited for the cross signal. When we got to the zoo, he locked his own cage.
The news the next day was that the market had been robbed in the night. Nobody knew it was gorillas. As for Pizza Hut and Baskin Robbins, they didn't have cameras so they would probably assume it had been their employees that had left a mess. I would make it out of this. The only thing I was concerned about was the mattress store. Well, it wasn't me. And besides, it was time for my shift at Gnome Sweet Gnome. I had a feeling it would seem pretty boring compared to my night at the zoo.