Flipper the Frog goes on summer vacation 

By Bill Dwyer For Chronicle Media

Twelve years ago, Flipper the frog became something of a celebrity at Lincoln School in Oak Park, such that, on her 20th birthday, the entire 650-student school body came by Flipper’s tank outside Lynn Zillman’s classroom throughout the day to sing “Happy Birthday.”

If it’s the first week of June, that can mean only one thing around Lynn Zillman’s second-grade classroom: it’s time for Flipper the Frog to go on vacation again.

Perhaps some background is called for here.

Flipper, an African aquatic frog, and her classroom colleague Tweedle Dee, a toad, spend the school year in Zillman’s classroom in Oak Park’s Lincoln School. Each summer they go home with a student. This year it will be Harry and Sophia taking home Flipper and Tweedle Dee, respectively.

Zillman sat down with her students last week and reviewed the history of how Flipper the Frog came to live in her classroom.

Once upon a time (about a quarter century ago) Zillman’s daughter Claire returned home from kindergarten with a shallow pan filled with water and a bunch of little frogs, “barely an inch long,” newly transformed from tadpoles. They had been part of a science project, during which Claire’s class watched the frogs develop from eggs through tadpoles to frogs, and Claire’s teacher was happy to let her take them home.

Zillman said she allowed her daughter to keep three of them. Claire gave away the other little froggies away, one to her cousin, whose cat ate it, and, “another frog was eaten by our cat,” Zillman told her students. The two frogs that remained were Flipper and it’s much larger sibling, Frankenfrog.

When Zillman moved from teaching at St. Paul Lutheran school in Melrose Park to Lincoln School in the early 1990s, she brought Frankenfrog with her.

“I just thought it would be fun to watch and observe,” she said. That, and she wanted a “low-maintenance” classroom pet. For a quarter century now, Zillman’s students have taken turns caring for, first Frankenfrog then Flipper during the school year. When Frankenfrog died around 12 years ago, Flipper replaced him and became something of a celebrity at Lincoln, such that, on her 20th birthday, the entire 650-student school body came by Flipper’s tank outside Zillman’s classroom throughout the day to sing “Happy Birthday.”

Zillman noted that cats aren’t a frog’s only enemy. Twice Flipper managed to jump out of her tank, once at school and once at a student’s home, an adventurous streak that nearly proved fatal.

“They found her in the basement flopping around on the floor,” Zillman recalled.

Amphibians like African aquatic frogs cannot survive long out of water, and Zillman considered it sheer luck that Flipper survived the experiences. Yet while it may or may not be easy being green, Flipper has not just survived but thrived for nearly twice her 13-year life expectancy.

Zillman said she can’t say exactly why the little amphibian has been so long-lived, but assumes it has something to do with the loving, protective care Flipper has received.

“She’s never touched (which can harm a frog’s skin) and she has no predators,” Zillman told her students. Which led one observant little girl to ask, “What about cats?”

Hungry felines aside, Zillman makes it a point to emphasize to Harry that Flipper has lived a long life, and to not be upset if the years finally catch up with her during her summer idyll, and she finally goes to that great marshland in the sky.

“Can I come to his funeral,” one boy asks. to which Zillman immediately replies, “There won’t be a funeral.”

Asked what they like about having Flipper in the classroom, Zillman’s students offer a variety of answers, most of which can be summed up as “It’s pretty cool.”

Liam says seeing a frog every day “brightens up your day.”

Leo tells the class that she “inspires me when we talk about science.”

He wrote a poem about Flipper, noting that she is shy when people come up to look at her and “stands still and nobody sees (her) behind the leaves, and (she) looks like a toy frog.”

Harry said he preferred caring for Flipper over Tweedle Dee because he has a problem with the toad’s dietary preferences.

“I didn’t want Tweedle because he eats crickets,” Harry sniffed.

Sophia, who will be caring for Tweedle Dee, said she welcomed the opportunity to practice being responsible caring for a living thing. Also that, “I wanted a puppy. But my mom said I had to start smaller than that.”

There’s a bit of a process to go through to get Flipper safely transported to her summer home, Zillman said. “I take three quarters of the water out of the tank, and the parents come over. Some have pulled the water tank home in a wagon, others load it into a car.”

Harry is responsible for keeping Flipper’s water clean, checking the filter and feeding her once a day. Toward the end of August, when he returns as a third-grader, he’ll bring Flipper back to Zillman’s classroom, and the process will begin again for the 26th school year.

Unlike Harry, who will likely have tales to tell in September about what he did on his summer vacation, Flipper, even if she could talk, would probably have little to say because she’ll do exactly what she’s always done during the past 13 school years, which is, 1) float around in his tank, 2) swim up and down a bit and 3) eat her daily meal.

Zillman doesn’t keep in touch with past frog care (frog sitting? frog au pairs?) students. But she said she is approached on occasion by the parents of children who have brought Flipper home for the summer.

“I have parents who ask me if Flipper is still around,” Zillman said. “(Flipper) became part of their family.”

Zillman said that if Flipper passes away before her retirement, she’ll get a replacement frog. And if not?

“Then I’ll have her at my retirement dinner with me.”


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— Flipper the Frog goes on summer vacation  —