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Students don't duck problem set

Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, uack, Pack, and Quack dropped by 100 Memorial Drive last week. And in a picturebook-perfect scene, two MIT graduate students, the state police and, of course, Mrs. Mallard herself guided her brood of ducklings across Memorial Drive and into the Charles River.

The early-morning adventure in life imitating art was "straight out of Make Way for Ducklings--one of my favorites," said Kelly Poort, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, referring happily to the 1941 children's classic by Robert McCloskey.

According to Ms. Poort, a mother duck started the action by "pacing back and forth along the curb outside 100 Memorial Drive. Whenever there was a gap between parked cars, she would lean out toward the traffic. As cars whizzed by, she'd retreat, then lean out again between the next two parked cars."

Ms. Poort was certain that the mother was trying to lead her ducklings to the river. She was certain, too, the family of eight plus mother would never make it without help.

"The ducklings were tiny, with yellow heads, yellow stripes and gray down. They were so small, they didn't even bend the grass when they walked on it. And they had to swim through puddles that barely covered their mother's feet," Ms. Poort said.

She decided to stick by the ducks. "I would have been babysitting all day" had not Kim Walsh, a fellow Eastgate resident, stopped on the way home from crew practice, she said.

"I saw Kelly looking all worried and pacing," Ms. Walsh said. "You don't usually see that so early in the morning. When she showed me the ducklings, I thought right away, `Just like the book!' We raced back to Eastgate, asked House Manager Teresa O'Connor to call Campus Police, and they referred her to the state police," said Ms. Walsh, who will receive her MBA from the Sloan School next week.

An unidentified state police officer--afterwards dubbed Trooper Mike by the women in honor of Officer Mike, the Boston cop in Make Way for Ducklings --was there "in five minutes," they agreed. However, the mother duck didn't immediately appreciate the help--she kept hiding in the bushes. "When we backed off, she'd make a break for the cars," said Ms. Walsh.

The state trooper got discouraged, but the MIT students persevered. "He got in his car to pull away when the mother duck made a last break for Memorial Drive. What could we do? We raced into the traffic, waving our arms. The trooper turned around, parked perpendicular to the traffic and waited while the whole line got to the median strip," said Ms. Walsh.

"The really cute part started when they got to the median strip. The mother walked along the top, making low reassuring quacking sounds, while the babies went `peep peep peep' from the gutter," she said. "The curb was too high for the ducklings, so I put down my book bag like a ramp and they climbed up the curb that way."

The state trooper, meanwhile, stopped traffic on the river side of busy Memorial Drive so the family of nine could begin what the women presumed was the ducklings' very first swim. But not before one last hurdle: they still had to get up the curb to the embankment along the river, and from there into the water.

Again, the backpack and the gentle herding from the two MIT women helped things along. "We stomped our feet so they'd be more afraid of that noise than of the water," Ms. Walsh said. "There was a big drop into the river. The mother went right in, followed by one brave duckling. The others followed and they all swam off." The state trooper swam off as well, into a sea of cars and morning rush hour traffic.

Both Ms. Poort and Ms. Walsh looked back on the day with a sense of wonder. After all, how many people got to see ducklings take their first swim? And how many people get to help them do it?

"Ever since then, when I'm out rowing, I keep an eye out for those ducklings and their mother, said Ms. Walsh. "I haven't seen them yet. It's amazing how quickly you can start to care."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 21, 1997.

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