18 January 2011

Professor Wiggleworts

An article I wrote more than a year ago for a senior reporting class at CU -- one of the most difficult interviews ever, in a fantastic setting of rainbows and the smells of fresh dirt and cookies. Enjoy.

Professor Wiggleworts is pretty quiet today. It’s not that the sound of 126 chattering children drowns his voice out, or that the mid-sized, wide-open theater he is standing in makes voices bounce in weird directions. No, he’s quiet because he doesn’t have his beard on yet.


Peter Jacobsen grins at the crowd and claps his hands together. The rules are simple. You can dance like a rodeo clown or mosey like a cowboy, but you mayn’t run. You shouldn’t lose your grown-up, but if she disappears, look for someone in a blue shirt. And, finally, clean up your messes and please, please, please use your—

“Indoor voices!” Whisper a few of the kids. Peter can’t seem to help it—he laughs.

“Oh, so you’ve heard that one before?” About a hundred little heads bob up and down. Ok, well, now I’m going to go get your guest speaker,” Peter says.

“Is it a puppet?” A boy yells from the middle of the stands.

“No, it’s not a puppet,” Peter says. He disappears behind the curtain.

During Peter’s long absence, Professor Wiggleworts uses his silly voices to talk about Mexico, Kenya, and China. The kids and the teachers laugh and shout out answers on cue, and after two minutes practically every kid in the room is clamoring to join in the show. The professor catches his mic on his beard a couple of times, tangling it in the elastic strings and matted hair, but no one seems to notice. When everyone is back home from China, Professor Wiggleworts disappears and Peter comes back to dismiss them. While the theater empties into the rest of the museum, Peter stands quietly by the curtain.

“Hey, you!” a kid says. He appears out of the crowd and jabs Peter in the arm. His eyes come almost up to Peter’s elbow. “Hey, you’re a fake! I can see the beard on the floor!” Peter laughs and shrugs as he kicks the matted prop behind the curtain.

“It’s called acting,” Peter says. “Sort of. Didn’t you like it?”

“Well, yeah,” the boy says, grinning. “But you’re still a fake.”


After stepping out of character from the Wiggleworts program, Peter jogs up two flights of stairs to his desk and drops into his chair. “I’m not really a theater performer at all,” he says. “I’m kinda clumsy and dopey.” Erin, his cubicle-mate, laughs in agreement.

Without the scraggly gray beard, Peter has short dark hair, blue eyes, glasses, and can do wonders on a $40 budget. He presses the elevator button to see if it’s close; when it’s not he takes the stairs. Luckily there are only three floors in the Children’s Museum of Denver, where Peter spends 40 hours of every week. Peter skips single steps, sometimes two, quietly going about his business of opening up program sites and teaching kids by getting them involved in activities.

Peter and Erin’s cubicle is covered with tie-dyed cloths, papier maché animal heads, and funny hats. A desk is probably supporting Peter’s computer and keyboard, but there is almost too much paper and small toys covering everything to really tell.

Erin says that Peter himself probably doesn’t know what’s on his desk. About a year ago, one of the staffers was in the space talking to Erin. The person was playing with one of the toys off of Peter’s desk; which was apparently awesome.

“Go ahead and take it,” Erin told him.

“What? Really?”

“Sure. He’ll never notice.” He didn’t.


Peter uses his favorite clipart, a duck on a red scooter, in his PowerPoint presentations whenever something random is called for. He’s using it now for a program about bubbles. A slide that lists possible ingredients for a bubble solution has pictures of soap and measuring tools next to the duck, which is happily scooting and waving.

Making PowerPoints isn’t the best part of working at the Children’s Museum, but it’s not the worst, either. Of all the parts of his job that are the most stressful, the grown-ups who come through the museum can be Peter’s pet peeve. Some teachers yell out answers to simple questions, such as, “Do you guys know what this country is?”

“Seriously. Every time I hear an adult yell out ‘Mexico!’ or whatever, I wanna yell back, ‘I’m not asking you!’”

Grownups are definitely a hassle at the Museum. They come in late, order other people’s kids around, and take phone calls in the middle of programs. And then there are the interesting parents.

One Sunday a while ago, Peter was supervising the art area, an open room lined with easels and covered with acrylic paints. A father and son were set up in front of a clean sheet of paper, but the kid wasn’t drawing. Dad leaned over, picked up a paint brush, and oh-so-carefully began to paint. First an hourglass shape appeared. Then, two large circles near the top of the shape. Finally, a dot in the middle of each of the circles.

As Peter tried to hide his amusement, the dad suddenly seemed to remember where he was and, after glancing over his shoulder, hurriedly turned the risqué picture into a monster’s face. Later, Peter pulled the painting out of the trash and uncrumpled it. It’s now one of two things pinned to his cubicle wall. The other is pink bubble art, and looks like a cat. Or a dinosaur, if you squint.


What’s his life story? “Oh, it’s not very interesting.” A lot of questions dangle in the air for a while before coming close to being answered.

He has a girlfriend names Jessie. They live in Broomfield so she can go to school in Boulder. It takes him a while to think of any hobbies, but he does have two “poorly-written” novels hidden somewhere in his apartment.

Working at the Children’s Museum has pretty much taken over his life. Technically he’s a full-time student at the University of Phoenix, but he’s also a full-time educator at the Museum.

What about his childhood? “I was a bookworm. And a scientist.” He even began his college career at CSU’s civil Engineering program. And then…? “I became a college student. That’s a good way to put it.”

Anything else that’s important to know? “I have a cat named Ravin. Well, really it’s Jessie’s cat…”


Last night Luke, one of the educators, made a lot of soup. He told everyone not to bring lunch the next day, because he was bringing the soup. The break room table is set with paper bowls, silverware, mugs, glasses, and special sundae cups for drinking sparkling pear juice and apple-grape juice.

One of the Ashleys laughs at the juice, but Peter defends it. “It’s my new favorite,” he says as he pours someone a glass. “Besides, it was on sale.”

With everyone around the table talking about the programs they’d done that morning, and what they were getting ready for the afternoon, it feels more like a family get-together than a work meeting.

The sparkling pear juice isn’t actually that bad, and the soup in the Tupperware disappears almost instantly. Peter holds his glass up, getting ready to drink, and grins. “We’re playing grown-up,” he says.

Twenty minutes later the room is empty, and the voices are all back at their desks. Peter has to wash off some tarps from his Bubble program, and after he comes back inside he has to tell the rules to a group of wide-eyed kids from the Jeffco JumpStart program, who, drowning in oversized neon-yellow shirts, pay wide-eyed attention just long enough to be drawn into the fun of it all. Peter has them mimic his silly voices to help them remember the rules: don’t run, don’t lose your grownups, clean up your messes, and please, please, please, use your indoor voices! When he’s done, Peter puts his thumbs and forefingers together, flips his hands upside down, and puts the finger-circles over his eyes. A couple of the kids giggle and nudge each other, pointing. One of them tries to copy him. Peter walks away smiling.


Dan (the monster-man) Reeder said...

Just stumbled across your blog. It caught my eye. I read the story and found it endearing. I taught elementary school for many years (half a career's worth, the other half at the high school level) and I make paper mache. So the paper mache heads in the cubicle caught my attention as well. I enjoyed the story and anecdotes very much along with the description of yourself and the blog. Reminds me a lot of my younger me.
Thanks for sharing your writing. You have the knack. Just thought I'd say so.

peter said...

Hey that's me! I came across this post when I was googleing my name (I'm applying for teaching positions soon and I wanted to see what potential employers would see when they tried to look me up) anyway thanks for writing it. You did an excellent job.