Pete Penguin had lived in the zoo all his life. It was a nice place to live. There were flat rocks warmed by the sun, a pool with a sloped back to slide on, and lots of people who came to see the penguins.
Pete liked the visitors. Every morning he groomed his black and white feathers so that he would look beautiful when the visitors came.
“Isn’t he pretty?” people said as Pete strutted by.
Pete never tired of their admiring words. He was very proud.
One day, as he was showing off for the visitors, Pete heard two children giggling. Why are they laughing? he wondered as he moved closer to the fence of his pen.
“Look at him,” a girl cried. “Doesn’t he look funny?” She pointed at Pete.
“He looks like a little old man in a suit,” a boy said, and they both broke into peals of laughter.
“All he needs is a tie,” the girl said, still giggling.
The children moved on toward the lion’s cage, and Pete watched them go. He looked at the other penguins and studied their white breast feathers and sleek black coats. No one had ever laughed before at the way he looked.
We do look silly, he decided. Walking away from the fence, Pete sat in the shadows where no one could see him. He watched the other penguins strut past the visitors. I’ll never act like that again, he thought.
Pete wanted to hide, but even in the shade, his white breast feathers glistened. Finally he waddled to the edge of a pool where there was lots of gooey brown mud. He sat in the mud and used his short wings to splash it all over his white feathers.
“What are you doing, Pete?”
Pete looked up at his friend Paul. “I’m covering myself with mud.”
“Because we look like silly little old men in suits.”
Paul shook his head. “You look awful,” he said and walked away.
But no one will laugh at me now, Pete thought.
Every day, while the other penguins groomed their feathers, Pete covered himself with a new layer of mud. No one laughed at him, but Pete didn’t feel better. In fact, he felt awful. When visitors came, he huddled in a corner.
“Come on, Pete,” Paul called. “Let’s play water tag.”
Pete just shook his head, and soon even Paul left him alone.
One morning, as Pete huddled behind a rock, he heard someone say, “Look at that bird over there. What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s all dirty.”
“He doesn’t even look like a penguin.”
“I guess he doesn’t like himself very much.”
The voices faded away, and Pete thought for a long time about what they’d said.
That afternoon Pete went to the pond and slid down the bank into the cool water. He splashed and swam and splashed some more until all the mud was gone. Then he climbed onto a rock and groomed himself.
“You look great,” Paul said as he passed the rock. “But aren’t you afraid you’ll look silly?”
Pete put one more feather in place, then looked at his friend and said, “I discovered that it’s not what other people think of me that makes me feel good. It’s what I think of myself.”