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UNLIKE GEORGE, I CAME OUT OF MY SHELL

Lonesome George, tortoise celebrity, was discovered dead Sunday on the Galapagos Islands. Before his death, Lonesome George had become famous across the globe because of his lonesomeness.

George was lonesome because he was the only known Pinta Island tortoise left alive in the world. George was lonesome because he would never find a mate that he truly belonged with. George was lonesome because, despite the efforts of biologists, conservationists and the finest female giant tortoises the islands had to offer, his death would mark the extinction of the Pinta Island tortoise.

I was lucky enough to meet the last living Pinta Island tortoise the summer before my senior year of high school. I was touring the Galapagos Islands with a bunch of other students and several teachers. I was 17 and, predictably, George was eclipsed in my eyes by another native of the islands. Her name was Karen.

I didn't speak any Spanish. She only spoke a little English. What could possibly go wrong? I was an American high school tourist. She was a beautiful Ecuadoran seductress working in a snorkel shop. It was like West Side Story, only with less singing and knife-fighting.

Admittedly, I was out of my element. Usually, when I tried to talk to a pretty girl, I was in America, my home turf. I wondered if on the Galapagos Islands, flirting was any different. The male Great Frigatebirds, indigenous to the islands, attract females by puffing out a red pouch on their neck, demonstrating their masculinity. I realized that if I were to woo Karen I would need to put my best traits on display. Like the Great Frigatebird, I would have to puff out my metaphorical red pouch thingy.

My friends tried to dissuade me. "She's too pretty for you." "Are you kidding me?" "You're pathetic." Doubt began to creep in. Staring at her from across the room, I started to second-guess myself. What if she didn't like me? What if I sounded like an idiot? What did I have to offer that the average Ecuadoran teenage male didn't? She probably had a boyfriend who looked like me but was exotic and good at soccer. I almost turned around and walked away. But I stopped.

Down the street, at the Charles Darwin Research Center, George was still waiting for a mate. I glanced at the girl, glanced at my friends and walked toward her.

This one's for you, Lonesome George.

Sam French is a 2010 graduate of the Pinellas County Center for the Performing Arts at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg and a junior at Carnegie Mellon University.

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