TAMPA — Just before first period Wednesday at Benito Middle School, Chuck Echenique stepped out of his pickup truck, traces of mud still fresh on his boots. The 38-year-old walked down the hall in camouflage, carrying what hunters call a bang stick.
He stepped into a room full of sleepy-eyed seventh-graders, planning to tell them exactly what he uses it for: to put a bullet in an alligator.
It's all part of the Great American Teach-In, that one day a year when kids across the Tampa Bay area are exposed to things they would never otherwise experience, by the people who live the lessons every day.
In Hillsborough, students climbed into a fire engine, held pieces of a space shuttle and talked to soldiers and sailors and a major league umpire.
Echenique told them professional hunters balance out the food chain. He showed them his duck call and his turkey call. And halfway through first period, he woke them up with a video of a nighttime gator hunt.
Not so sleepy anymore, they watched a hunter take a chisel to an alligator's spine, because as Echenique said, "even shooting them doesn't kill them."
Two girls covered their eyes.
One boy screamed, "Awesome!"
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The students weren't the only ones learning on Wednesday. For the speakers, the teach-in provided a window into the collective minds of Hillsborough's youths, with some surprises.
Who knew kids at Brandon's Kingswood Elementary School were so well versed on the war in Iraq? But for all their sophistication, a couple of them were amazed that there were civilians in the war zone, said Army Staff Sgt. Mark Steffener. "They asked, 'Where do these kids go (during) the fighting?' "
At Symmes Elementary School in Riverview, X-ray technician Ben O'Connor was taken by the way kids became especially attentive when he talked about injured animals.
When it came time for questions, some speakers were impressed with how sharp some of the students were.
"Kids are pretty savvy," said Cheryl Dafeldecker, principal of the MOSI Partnership school. They feel important because they know the speakers are taking time out from their jobs to talk to them.
Steven Smitten of Lutz, vice president of the Axa Advisors financial planning firm, said his session at Martinez Middle School confirmed his belief that children today are increasingly responsible with money.
"I think with what has been happening, this generation will be better prepared than the existing generation," he said.
Of course, it didn't hurt that he travels with a giant stuffed gorilla.
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Back at Benito, as Echenique moved onto footage of a hog hunt — "watch the black and white one," he told them — a representative of NASA addressed students a few classrooms over about all the modern technology in some way enhanced by the space program:
Ingestible toothpaste. Memory foam mattresses. Vacuum cleaners. Artificial limbs. Smoke detectors. Golf balls.
"Does anyone know the quote, 'One small step for man? …' " Lisa Arnold asked. "What do you think he used when he said that?"
The wireless headsets they use to play Xbox.
One 13-year-old wondered what would happen if you jumped off the space station. Would you land on Earth?
No, Arnold answered:
"You would burn up and die."
And across the county at Brandon's Nativity Catholic School, kindergarteners tried on gear used by major league umpire Mark Wegner. One girl took a whiff of the chest plate.
"Eew," she said. "Stinky."
Wegner gave the kids a run-down of his career, minor league first and then on to the majors. He taught them to yell "Safe!" and "Out!" and fielded questions about Raymond, the mascot for the Tampa Bay Rays.
He told them it's important to stay in school. Even for umpires.
Then, he saw a little hand shoot up. He called on the girl.
"I forgot," she said, "what a vampire does."
Times staff writer Kevin Smetana contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.