The Magic School Bus where they turn into salmon
A genre-defining moment in K12 science shows, flower of the week, and more
Conor: So, here we are, travelling back to 1996 in a school bus that is both magic and scientific. I'm peering out the window as bright colors and historical events stream past in bewildering variety, a creeping sense of terror rising in my stomach. Here to my right is someone who finds this all extremely normal and is not perturbed in any way—it's my sister Marisa! Any thoughts as we begin this journey, facing the prospect of watching our fellow passengers turn into salmon?
Marisa: Can't wait! The image of those child-fish hybrids is burned into my mind. The idea of going to school each day not knowing what you might be metamorphosed into is awesome. And I think it's a good metaphor for how learning any new fact can rewrite a child's whole understanding of themselves and reality. Information is so potent when you're a kid.
Conor: Your ability to make sense of this strange reality we're entering is exactly why you're here. Now, one thing that jumps out right away is that we begin with the kids unsupervised aboard a sizable fishing boat, and they're complaining they haven't hooked a single salmon all day for their class fish fry. Then Ralphie hooks something humongous, and the audience knows it has to be Ms. Frizzle—yet the students are surprised to find her here once he hauls her aboard! Is this just how things work around here, unsupervised children launching a 50-foot fishing vessel?
For some reason this sticks out to me more than fish transformation or leaps in time in the salmon life cycle.
Marisa: I noticed that as well. The children were quite surprised to see Miss Frizzle appear considering they were already on her school bus (in boat form.) It leads me to assume that they must have commandeered the bus.
After the bus becomes a salmon, the eye, nose, and mouth computers onboard remind me of the frog and deer heads that you can put your own human head inside at Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, in order to see the world through their eyes.
Conor: Glad we worked in at least one niche St. Louis reference. I too am a big fan of the sense computers, and I like the metaphor for how a salmon finds its way upriver: a computer "scent" monitor showing a puzzle that's slowly filling in with pieces of a freshwater stream. This show has layers!
There's a moment I want to highlight here. Frizzle sends four of the students out of the bus to scuba-dive. Ralphie instantly wants back because he's very concerned about this fish fry. So they start riding real salmon around like steeds. Ralphie shouts "Let's corral that bus!" He gets a lot of the good lines this episode. I think this moment, with the four kids riding on top of salmon, is where we start to enter a world where children could conceivably morph into salmon.
Marisa: You would think that, after having her as their teacher for this long, the students would get suspicious when Miss Frizzle gives them flippers and says they might come in handy later.
In addition to the child-fish hybrids, I know that episode is famous for another moment that occurs shortly before that. The shot where the salmon fertilizes the eggs is immortalized in untold numbers of clickbait articles and videos, describing it as "childhood-ruining" or "completely messed up." I wouldn't have guessed that people were so disturbed by the mating habits of salmon, but there you have it.
Conor: For some reason the fertilization has no place in my memory. I noticed this time that the fertilizing salmon makes a little fart noise. The ’90s were a different time.
So now here we are, the kid-eggs have been fertilized and they’re hatching into realistic salmon hatchlings. Eyes slightly bulbous, blood vessels pulsing. And then they get really into their role of eating as much as possible and getting bigger. “Eat and grow! Eat and grow!” chants Tim. The faces get round and flat. We’ve reached peak salmon status. These kids will never be more salmon than they are right now.
Marisa: The fishchildren are at their most haunting as alevins, while they have yolk sacs attached and, for some reason, huge bags under their eyes. My best guess is that this is to emphasize their gauntness, to make their subsequent rapid growth more dramatic. The children also lose their noses as they grow, smoothing out into a nostril-less salmon snout. I believe this loss of noses is in preparation for when the children are munching on what look like grubs or larvae—as a way to subtly discourage us from having to consider what this food would smell (or taste) like ourselves. Interestingly, none of the children, not even Arnold, comment on what they're eating in a negative way or even clearly identify it, but Wanda describes it as "yummy."
After they reach their final salmon state and Miss Frizzle guides the class towards their big revelation—that salmon migrate twice—we are transported back to the fish fry. Here, I start to worry about the legality of fishing for salmon in a stream—I know bears do it, but I don't know if people can. I am relieved when Ralphie et al. hurry in, carrying trays of fish-shaped potato cakes instead of the promised salmon.
I then had to take a moment for research. I don't eat fish, but it occurred to me that salmon is not the sort of fish you would usually serve at a fish fry, so I googled to check. Indeed, most fish frys appear to serve the more commonly fried fish, such as cod and tilapia. Since I know Ralphie would never desecrate his wild-caught salmon with deep-frying, I have to assume he planned to take more of a pan-seared approach, and was using the term "fish fry" colloquially. But now we'll never know for sure.
Conor: As a frequent eater of salmon, I can agree that deep-frying a fresh, wild-caught salmon kind of feels like a waste. Just a quick pan-fry or baking might be better. But I'm going to stop thinking about that because we just encountered fishchildren.
Now that the bus has dropped us off back in town, back in the stable world where fish are fish and so on, do you have any general reflections?
I definitely remember a time where I thought the idea of temporarily turning into a salmon and breathing underwater was appealing. I think I watched this at a young enough age to think that was plausible. Another of life's little disappointments. Breathing underwater is usually my answer when people ask what superpower I'd want.
Marisa: I would definitely be up for trying out fishhood. As a kid I was definitely more interested in becoming a mammal or a bird, but they certainly make being a fish look pretty fun. And swimming would definitely be cooler if you weren’t restricted by breathing air.
I like that MSB always includes the Producer segment at the end for the more literal-minded viewers. In particular, they addressed the time skippage which you had pointed out earlier. I just think this is a smart structure; it gives them free rein for creative depictions during the main episode, and room for self-aware and funny factual notes afterwards. Balance in all things.
Conor: From the perspective of 2020, including a "fact-checking" segment at the end of every episode is pretty mind-blowing.
Another thing that impressed me: the way that Ms. Frizzle deftly introduces the concept of how fish sense pressure changes through their lateral lines early in the episode. Most kids in the audience will not know about this other-than-human way of sensing, and now they're leaving the show perhaps aware of it. I haven't seen the Netflix MSB reboot yet, but I'd love to see more new programming for young people that takes on the natural world in its gnarliness, that isn't afraid to be specific about how animals survive and interact with their ecosystem even if it's not cute. I mean, no need for gore, but don't shy away from the weird details, because those are the ones that, at least in my experience, stick in the mind of a developing student just as much as the centerpieces: salmon-metamorphosis, swimming in Ralphie's bloodstream, playing in a gym in space.
Last words on this episode as we prepare to board the bus and return to 2020?
Marisa: As my good friend Tim once said, "Eat and grow! Eat and grow!"
Conor: Words to live by. Thanks for taking this journey.
Flower of the Week: Purple loosestrife
Being chosen as flower of the week does not constitute an endorsement! Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is a reminder to look past appearances and think about broader ecological relationships. This species was introduced to North America, both intentionally for gardens and accidentally in the ballast of European ships. It now invades wetland habitats in many areas, competing with native plants and forming impenetrable thickets that are unsuitable as habitat for many wetland animals. State conservation agencies have active management programs that mitigate harm from purple loosestrife. Note that there are native loosestrife species and lookalikes such as vervain (verbena.)
Speaking of looking past appearances, I’m voting for Ed Markey, who’s running for the Senate as a co-author of the Green New Deal against Joe Kennedy III, who’s running as ... a Young Kennedy. If you’re a Massachusetts voter, I hope you will, too. We can’t wait to take effective action against climate change (and not just through voting, of course.)
Hello, Thick-billed Longspur
The bird formerly known as McCown’s Longspur is now known as the Thick-billed Longspur, as decreed by the American Ornithological Society’s North American Classification Committee (NACC). It’s great that they removed a Confederate’s name from a bird, but the renaming process was not transparent. What the NACC will do about nearly 150 other honorific names for North American birds remains to be seen, so we’ll keep the pressure on. For more, see this post from Bird Names for Birds.
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