Danaus plexippus: The Monarch King

by Cora Gray
Consider the monarch.  The monarch, the king of all butterflies, “rules a vast domain,” according to the nineteenth century entomologist Samuel Scudder.  Yet this butterfly king’s brief reign begins as a 0.1-inch voracious caterpillar, flexing its minute 0.55-gram frame along the three to eight inch milkweed leaf dwarfing it. Then, after retreating into an opaque chrysalis for ten days, a self-imposed isolation, the once insignificant insect emerges as a delicate yet tenacious king – a king that migrates 2,500 miles to return to the warm grounds of its forefathers, ruling its kingdom for less than eight months before another generation replaces it.  

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My first grade teacher Mrs. Jedlika approached science untraditionally.  Rather than merely reading from the A Beka textbook, she reenacted experiments to demonstrate the principles behind the foreign scientific words – words like chrysalis, metamorphosis, and migrate.  One morning, she brandished a glass jar at the front of the classroom, elaborating upon the significance of the striped caterpillar inside, sketching chalk pictures of life stages connected by arrows to demonstrate its future fate.  Like many of the other seven-year-olds, I was captivated by her experiment, eagerly peering through the glass each morning to see if there was any change during the night, if a monarch was flying around in the jar yet.  

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Metamorphosis.  A complete change of substance, of character; a profound transformation from one into the other.  Like a tadpole turning into a frog.  Or more like an insignificant caterpillar becoming a regal butterfly king.

It would be easiest to say I didn’t like Mrs. Harley, the ancient fifty-some-year-old librarian who ruled the small elementary and middle school library, like a strict captain over her ship.  She always wore her dark grey hair meticulously coiled into a bun on the top of her head, reflecting her intolerance for library troublemakers.  I didn’t start out not liking her, but after my first few weeks in library class with her, I decided that Mrs. Harley and I would never be friends.

Like the first hatching of a monarch’s teardrop egg into a caterpillar, my first memories of Mrs. Harley begin with the library’s card catalogue.   Like a drill sergeant, Mrs. Harley trained her first grade students in the art of navigating the card catalogue’s Dewey Decimal System.  We followed her blue marker as it matched numbers to pictures of subjects, filled in the blanks of call number worksheets, listened to the particulars of proper book care, and watched her demonstrate the check-out procedure.  A butterfly book is shelved under the numerical series 595.789 followed by the additional four to five Cutter numbers and letters indicating the author’s name.

To a seven-year-old, the seemingly random combination of numbers and letters was too complicated to memorize.  And since the little note card showing the book’s title and call number was only attached to the catalogue’s drawer by a barely noticeable thin metal rod at the bottom, I ripped it out.  I heard a loud squawk echo from the other side of the room, like an angry hen whose nest was just disturbed.  The tiny library seemed to freeze in place, except for Mrs. Harley.  She marched between the scattered round tables to the card catalogue drawers, her eyebrows drawn in a deep scowl, her breath coming out in angry puffs.  I wished the faded 70’s orange carpet would swallow me whole.  Tears glistened on my flushed cheeks, as she waved the torn card in the air.  “Class,” she screeched.  “Class, this is not how we treat the card catalogue.”  

Like the caterpillar, I withdrew, constructing my own hardened chrysalis, isolating myself.  It was in that moment I decided Mrs. Harley and I would never be friends.  

For a while, I did not recognize the change slowly developing within me.  I attempted to sit at the back of the table section, as far from her as I could.  I failed because the front of the section fluctuated depending upon wherever Mrs. Harley decided to teach library class from that day.  I attempted to assume a disinterested stance while she read picture books, but failed as her animated voices drew me into each story, with each tiny squeak of the mouse and deep hoot of the owl. I attempted to ignore her welcoming half-smiles each time I walked by her narrow desk into the library, but failed as each smile warmed my outer shell a little more than the last smile.  Then suddenly, like the monarch breaking free from its chrysalis, I abandoned my hard exterior.

Over the years, she shared with me her passion for literature, recommending classics that have become my favorites, like Eliot’s Silas Marner or Tolkien’s The Hobbit. She introduced me to the never-ending search to follow a book’s call number to find its original home, sliding it with satisfaction between the others on the shelf, knowing that the search will resume once the book is checked out again.  Under Mrs. Harley’s influence, my interest in the library intensified as I learned the secret intricacies behind the library’s organization, spending many recesses restoring returned books to their homes on the shelf, exploring the card catalogue to find another book to open an imaginative world at my fingertips.

Looking back, I can’t identify the moment when my attitude changed from bitterness to deep respect.  The best I can explain it is as a caterpillar experiencing metamorphosis, hidden from curious eyes until it emerges distinctly different than before – once a caterpillar encased within a shell, in a blink of an eye, now a monarch king.

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I remember peering disappointedly into Mrs. Jedlika’s jar one morning.  The still emerald green chrysalis was a downgrade from the active caterpillar, who ate all the fuzzy milkweed leaves we dropped in and inched along the three twigs leaning against the glass walls.  Every morning after roll-call and the Pledge of Allegiance, she uncovered the jar, letting us stare at the still chrysalis that dangled off one of the twigs.  Mrs. Jedlika told us to remember what we were studying in life science class.  She told us that “patience is a virtue.”  

One afternoon, one of the boys near Mrs. Jedlika’s desk raised his hand and pointed at the jar.  “Why’s it wiggling?”  Math class suddenly ended, as the classroom swarmed around the teacher’s desk, addition problems now forgotten as hairline cracks appeared at the bottom of the chrysalis, marring the clear surface.  Mrs. Jedlika did her best to explain the scientific process of metamorphosis, raising her voice over the excited chatter of students, holding the jar up high for those in the back to see.  She explained that the monarch could push itself out of the chrysalis once it was ready.  She explained that it couldn’t fly just yet because its wings were damp, that it dried them by opening and shutting them, that it took fifteen minutes for the wings to dry properly.  I remember the strong protests when she explained that the monarch could not stay in the classroom, that we had to let it go free so it could migrate, that we had to say goodbye.

Mrs. Jedlika may have found the contrast ironic between her formerly excited students, enthusing over the new butterfly, and the now solemn line trudging behind her to the field, not quite ready to say goodbye.  I remember straining over the heads of the others to see her unscrew the lid, setting the monarch free to fly amongst the purple clover flowers in the tall grass, saying my last goodbye to the caterpillar now monarch that had become a part of my life for a brief moment in time.

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Migrate. To move forward; to leave behind; to transfer or relocate from one place to another. Like the monarch flying great distances to spend its winter in warmer climates.  Few monarchs survive the return migration.

During my last year of middle school, Mrs. Harley discovered that she had cancer.  I tried to shrug off my fears, hoping that the doctors knew enough to treat her, ignoring the signs as her illness progressed – her wig’s bob-cut, her increasing sick days.  I graduated from middle school in the spring and transferred, migrated, to jr. high.  I didn’t think much would change before I would return for a visit.  Graduation night, I light-heartedly bid my teachers goodbye.  I shook Mrs. Harley’s hand.  I planned on returning for a visit, to reminisce with her about our old times together, to tell her that she was one of my closest friends.  I planned to do it the following fall.

Mrs. Harley died that winter.  Years passed.  I finally returned for the visit.  A new wing of classrooms was added onto one side of the building.  A gym replaced the field where I had said goodbye to the monarch.  A few of the teachers were the same; many, like Mrs. Jedlika, had moved on.  I poked my head into the library for memory’s sake.  I felt as if I could turn around and see Mrs. Harley, standing next to the bookshelves, peering over her glasses with her traditional half-smile as if she were glad to see me again.  I knew I wouldn’t see her.  I spent six years attending the elementary and middle school library.  I had five years of numerous opportunities to tell Mrs. Harley that she was one of my closest friends.  I never did.
  
Looking back, I wish I had remembered Mrs. Jedlika’s life science experiment sooner.  That one day I may find myself again on the edge of another clover field, sorrowfully setting free a caterpillar turned monarch friend, saying goodbye to what had become a special part in my life for a brief moment in time. Maybe I will remember before I have to say goodbye again, before I look back and wish I had said more. Maybe I will.
  
Maybe I will look back and wish I had.  
Cora Gray attends university in central Ohio.    In her free time, she enjoys catching the occasional touchdown frisbee in an Ultimate Frisbee game or listening to radio dramas.   Although she has not mastered the whole cooking deal, she can bake some delicious homemade brownies.

© 2011, Cora Gray