When Mama Goat arrived at the Dreamkeeper Garden at Langston Hughes Academy in 2013, she was gentle, already a mother to grown goats, and pregnant again.
There were chickens in the school garden, and the school director at the time acquired Mama Goat from friends who raised goats. With school administrators’ support, the garden team prepped a shaded area for the goats, built fences and gates, brought in straw, made sure there were no poisonous plants in the pen, ensured a clean water source, and asked a lot of questions. They didn’t know exactly what they were getting into, but they were game to learn.
Mama Goat went into labor a few weeks into her stay at the school. They brought in the daddy goat to make her feel comfortable as she gave birth. The team of garden educators watched from a distance to make sure everything went okay, and it did. The black baby goat was born and licked clean by his mama. Nearly immediately, he started hopping like Donkey from the movie Shrek and so was given the name Donkey. Matt Durham was in his first few weeks as a garden teacher when he watched Mama Goat give birth, ready to support if needed.
“It was my first year with ESYNOLA. I was learning how to teach outside, learning how to teach in general. Having these other living things to take care of was a good distraction. The goats formed bonds with kids, and kids formed bonds with them so fast it helped me feel connected to our work and our space.”
Mama Goat, her baby Donkey, and another pygmy goat named Oliver from a breeder in Folsom became part of the school and garden classes. To let the students and animals adjust to each other, the garden teachers brought students close to their pen but did not let them enter yet. Students watched the goats ramble about and pushed leaves through the fence for the goats to nibble. Weeks passed, and the animals and children eased into a sweet comfort with each other.
The goats became part of garden class. On garden workdays, when students pulled up plants that were ending their time of production in the garden, they fed them to the goats. When students learned about life cycles, they’d visit the chickens to collect eggs, walk to the spot in the garden where you can see a caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly, and finally they’d go pet Mama Goat and her baby Donkey. She liked it when students scratched her between her horns.
Gradually, students in Discovery classrooms, students working with social workers and counselors and paraprofessionals, students who simply were having a tough day—they all came out to visit the goats. Students could talk about what was happening in their lives while feeding the animals. The goats attracted school staff, teachers at the end of a long day, volunteers on the weekends. Ms. Arlease from the cafeteria fed Mama Goat leftovers nearly every day. On a cold afternoon a few years ago, a student even thought to take his Christmas card photo with Mama Goat. He put a scarf around her neck and hugged her close, grinning.
For students, having time with the goats in a school garden has the same therapeutic benefits as having a pet, with a fraction of the responsibility. If you’ve fed a goat or petted a cat or taken a dog for a walk you probably understand; time with another animal creates space from your worried brain and roots you to the present moment. Take this leaf, feed it to this creature. Let yourself be curious, and see yourself as the object of this animal’s curiosity. You give, and you love, without expecting anything in return. It teaches you to care for something on its own terms.
In her time at Langston Hughes Academy, Mama Goat saw upwards of 6,000 garden classes and hosted tens of thousands of visits from individuals and small groups. Thousands of students watched her through the cafeteria windows at lunch; hundreds of teachers at five schools knew her by name. She listened to eight Jazz & Heritage Festivals. She participated in (and also slept through) five Edible Evenings with upwards of 1,000 attendees each. At one Edible Evening, she donned a hand-crocheted bow tie. Mama Goat saw the building of an outdoor classroom, a cistern, water gardens, a butterfly meadow. She saw the garden shift from raised to in-ground beds, watched the chicken pen renovation, and might’ve felt amused when women veteran volunteers from The Mission Continues constructed wooden structures for her to climb on. She witnessed hurricanes, cold snaps, and heatwaves. She saw the transition of staff, the growth of a program over nearly a decade. She watched small children grow into adolescents; they came to say goodbye to her when they left for high school.
In many ways, Mama Goat was just an ordinary goat. She loved oak leaves, grape leaves, and corn chips. She could be fickle in her attention. She enjoyed the sun on her fur when she lay in the boat in her pen. She liked rubbing her horns on the painted wooden fence so much that sometimes the paint would get on her horns, turning them bluish.
But her life at LHA, and the thousands of children who were witness to, calmed by, and taught to care for her made Mama Goat extraordinary. Her gift to us—and the gift of each of our school animals-—is what children receive simply by giving care: the pleasure of nourishing her with her favorite foods, the responsibility of putting her back in her pen when she got out, the joy of laughing at her silly expressions and sounds, the gift of scratching her between the horns, and the perspective of getting to watch her bring up her own baby goat as they learned and grew up themselves.
Mama Goat passed away of natural causes in late November of 2020.
Rest in Peace, Mama Goat.