TOADTalk: Toads and Vampire Bats

According to Fisher Fellow Zoe Clute, the brains of high school students are much like the digestive systems of vampire bats.
Each week, an All-School Assembly launches with the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) sharing something of interest—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. Last week, our TOAD was Zoe Clute. As our new Fisher Fellow, Ms. Clute is currently shadowing teachers in the Science Department, advising junior girls, and serving on the dorm faculty in Middle School. Her afternoon activity offering is yoga, and she is a faculty advisor to the Indoor Committee. Ms. Clute’s TOADTalk is below.

Throughout this year, again and again, I have found myself overwhelmed and oversaturated with information. Like a labrador whose entire food bag has spilled on the floor, I have been gorging myself on a never-ending cycle of news, podcasts, TikToks, and articles until I feel physically ill. I am addicted to the ability to never miss anything and forget almost everything that I’ve heard as soon as the next media piece appears. It is truly an exhausting habit.

I know I am not alone in this, especially after the stress and constant refreshing that the delayed election results brought to many this week. However, the feeling of being filled to the brim with knowledge, slopping information out the sides of my head as I try to pour more facts into a bucket of understanding that is already far too full, is not new to me, nor I think, to many of us. I remember from my high school experience, where there was so much to learn so quickly, encountering this feeling nearly every day. I think this feeling still happens almost every day. However, I have recently found a new and valuable perspective on this issue which I hope to share with you today. 

Those of you who have suffered through my first attempts at teaching here know that I love animal facts and analogies. That is why, for my first TOADTalk at Thacher and my introduction to some of you, I would like to explain why your brain is a lot like a vampire bat’s digestive system. Hear me out. 

Vampire bats do drink blood, and this actually causes them a lot of problems. For one, blood is not very nutrient-dense and is really heavy on water. Heavy is an operative word here because vampire bats need to consume almost their entire body weight in blood in order to get the nutrients they need from one meal. As flying creatures, this creates a huge issue for the bats. They can’t take off weighing twice as much. 

However, vampire bats have evolved to do an incredible thing in response to this problem. Their digestive system and kidneys work double-time to process the food, almost immediately converting all that water into super-low-concentration urine. Some bats actually pee as they are still eating. That’s how fast their bodies can make this happen. 

This, I would like to argue, is much like our brains in the midst of an election, a pandemic, or a dizzying array of Spanish vocabulary words. It feels like what is going in is almost all coming out immediately. Our brains try desperately to hang on to some facts or whatever seems actually useful even as it all slips through our grasp and the next tidal wave of information looms toward us. In some ways, this can start to feel like a pointless exercise—why try to process so much and end up with so little?

But—and here is the important thing—the water lost by the vampire bats is not the whole story. After peeing all that water out, these bats are still far heavier than they were before eating, so they do a sort of flying push up to launch themselves back into the air, returning to their cave colonies. When they arrive, some bats participate in a strange altruistic phenomenon that to me represents the vital part of all that consumption in the first place. 

Not every bat finds a meal every night, which means, you would think, some bats go hungry. But it turns out that this is rarely true. Bats who have found a meal apparently will share their food with other bats—even those with no relation to them. The concentrated version of the bat’s food that they’ve brought back is sometimes called blood honey, and they will happily cough it up to share it with someone else. 

This, I believe, is the true purpose of reading all that news, or trying to memorize all those formulas in class. As someone right out of college, I can tell you that it’s not likely you’ll remember chemical formulas, historical schools of thought, or the right word in Mandarin each time you need to in the future. But someday, there may be a friend who needs your advice or a potential employer who wants to hear your unique perspective or a stranger who asks for help in the aisle of the grocery store. And you won’t be able to give them everything you once knew. But my hope, and I believe the hope of all educators in the information era, is that you will be able to give them blood honey. That you will, even without consciously trying, hold fast to the bits that are most useful to you and you will be able to regurgitate them in a moment of need, to help yourself and others continue to thrive. 

I know that this time in the term can be exhausting in a normal year and that we can all agree this year has been anything but normal. However, students, as you attempt to cram for tests and retain lectures, I hope you can take it from a twenty-two-year-old that you are both right and wrong about “remembering all this stuff.” It’s true that you won’t retain all the facts you’ve been told this year or any year. But the worst message you could take from that process is that none of it matters. You are receiving this information as wholesale, complete blood, and it is your job to condense it all into an education that sustains you and others. And as I have found in writing this talk, you never know when a moment will come where the random facts you learned in high school biology will prove useful.

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