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RELUCTANT NOVICE

Giving the Spiders and Bugs Tour : Working at a natural history museum is one way to confront a fear of insects.

September 10, 1993|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to Valley Life. and

In third grade I spotted a job that looked fun, yet seemed to demand intelligence and poise: docent at the L.A. Museum of Science and Industry.

I remember thinking she dressed like a flight attendant, but I also remember her well-scripted descriptions of the great waterways of California. Information I would never have ordinarily wanted to learn sounded fascinating.

Serving as a docent usually represents a gift of precious time and a commitment to teaching and learning, so I thought I'd try being a docent at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Burbank. I did so with some trepidation. The current exhibit, "Backyard Monsters: The World of Insects," is not exactly my forte: I hate spiders and bugs. If I couldn't be a decent docent, at least I'd get a crack at tackling my long-held fear of insects.

Administrative director Mary Ann Dunn suggested I bone up on insects. "You know, learn that insects have six legs and spiders have eight," she offered. But the most important credentials, she said, are a genuine interest in the material, an ability to communicate and enthusiasm.

No one has ever accused me of not being able to get my point across, but I thought I could bone up on bugs. So I read a 24-page not-exactly-scintillating article in the World Book Encyclopedia.

Before my stint, I took a 30-minute walk through the 5,100 square feet of exhibit space, committing to memory many of the amazing facts the exhibit presented. Some tidbits:

* Four out of five animal species on Earth are arthropods, which range from tiny mites to 10 footers.

* Most insects can't learn, but cockroaches can.

* One-fifth of the living things on Earth are beetles.

I walked bravely by an animated black widow, blown up 54 times the size of the real red-stomached spider in my garage. The carpenter ants, 96 times their natural size, even managed to look cute as they fought over enlarged chunks of leafy material. Walking around, it was so quiet I could hear the machines clicking, which was strangely calming.

But the real action takes place in the Discovery Center on the second floor. Here the docents have the time to offer bits of trivia not just about bugs, but about bones, sharks, shells, snake skins, rocks and minerals. With me were two regular docents, North Hollywood resident Julius Korn, a retired owner of a hand laundry, and John Buntrock, a retiree who lives three blocks down the street and worked on Lockheed's Skunk Works.

The museum only opened May 1, but these docents were already seasoned pros who warned me about one question kids commonly ask. There's a large, stuffed bear poised as if walking out of a mock cave, and the children love to pet it and pull on its thick, black fur. When the little ones seem afraid, the docents reassure them that the bear is not alive. Often the children respond, "Oh, it's not real, then?" You try explaining the concept of dead but real to a 5-year-old.

When my semi-grueling weekday shift was over, my feet hurt and I longed for a tall iced tea and my desk job. In just three hours, I had come across at least 150 people from newborns to seniors. Sometimes I felt like a saleswoman peddling the exhibits, checking faces for any sign of interest. At times I felt grossly inadequate at coaching museum-goers, sensing that what I found fascinating was actually not information they were after.

But there were victories. The 12-year-olds can seem cool even in the face of the live scorpion and pieces of 225-million-year-old petrified wood. But when one preteen was musing over the pollination exhibit, I asked him if he had a favorite color. "Sure," he said, "green." "Well, insects have favorite colors too," I said, "and that attracts them to flowers." His face lit up. He had never thought of that. He made my day.

The Premise

There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character-building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. If you would like to make suggestions for the Reluctant Novice, please write to us: Valley Life, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. If we use your idea, we'll send you a present.

WHERE AND WHEN

* What: Information on serving as a docent at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County/Burbank, 555 N. Third St., Burbank.

* Hours: Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, closed Mondays, but open on Monday holidays.

* Call: Jill Comsky, Discovery Center manager, (818) 557-3557.

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