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He’s Dead, He’s Not Dead, He’s Dead – Part Two

My desk was at the right front of the room, by the chalkboard, so Spencer lived on his own desk in the back left, next to the coat closet.

I did this because when the novelty of taking care of a hamster wore off (as I knew it would) and the kids stopped cleaning his cage regularly, it started to smell back there.  I didn’t care, though, since I couldn’t smell it.  For a while, I sat the kids who annoyed me the most next to Spencer’s desk – my teacher’s revenge on the ones who asked obnoxious questions to amuse the class (and me sometimes, too – I admit it) or constantly left in the middle of lessons to go to the bathroom or threw spitballs at the next table over and thought I didn’t see it.

That year, my last year as a teacher, I loved my middle school students.  They were quirky and fun, many of them were super-smart, and my 7th graders were a big, heartwarming surprise: they were so nice to each other.

“Roland”’s social interactions were marked by the animal noises he made with accompanying gestures.  When he decided to be a dolphin and honk at everyone with his arms extended in front and flapping (the mouth), I saw he was trying the patience of even the kindest kids.  I pulled him aside and asked if he could find a quieter animal to be.

“Like what?”  He responded, looking just past the side of my face at the wall.  I knew him for years and I estimate he looked me in the eye maybe two times.

“What do you think?”  Six years earlier, I had been 21 with no prior experience when I first stepped into the classroom as a teacher.  I learned first that I am not their friend (“There’s a reason they tell new teachers, ‘Don’t smile until Christmas,’” my wise principal had warned me that year) and second that I should lead them to the answer, whenever I could.

“A dog?” He suggested.

I tilted my head to the side and furrowed my brow to show Roland that I was fully considering this.  “Hmmm.  Maybe.  But let’s think of other options.  What are some other animals you know?”

“How about a giraffe?”

I wondered what Roland would do to capture the physicality of a giraffe, but before I could respond, he said, “I really like being in the water, though.”

“Well, how about a fish?”  Now it was his turn to consider.  “Can you show me a fish?”

Lips puckered, he turned in a circle making quiet kissy noises with his mouth; his arms stayed at his sides.

“I think that’s great, Roland.  What do you think?”

He made some kissy noises in my direction and shuffled off.  A few minutes later, I heard him say, “Look, guys, I’m a fish!”  Some of the girls nearby looked up at me in obvious relief.

What amazed me about this class was that Roland was about as accepted as any oddball like him could have been.  I would have expected kids rungs above him on the social ladder to be shunned.  Instead, he annoyed everyone, but they talked to him, included him in group projects, invited him to parties.  In that 7th grade, the most popular, best-looking, biggest troublemaker boy was good friends with the smartest, snootiest, most teacher’s pet girl.  While her peers talked about doing things with boys even I didn’t understand, another girl who still played with My Little Pony found a partner to walk hand-in-hand with around the playground.  Someone even volunteered to sit next to the troubled, abused girl who wrote impressively creative stories with physically inaccurate sexual episodes (a mini Sylvia Plath, I thought of her) and left mid-year for a mental institution.  And the nicest boy was also the most well-liked: “Malcolm,” big and burly, a boy who I imagined would grow up and give his children bear bugs as they squealed with delight, the one who bought Spencer for us and made sure he had a place to stay during school breaks.

The kids seemed to have a lot of affection for me, too.  “Jerry,” who tried to leave every single class to go to the bathroom, once raised his hand in the middle of a lesson.  “You really don’t like sports, Miss?”

“No, I really don’t, Jerry.”

“But what do you … do … all weekend?”  Jerry was not being smart alec-y, though he was a smart alec-y kid and actually one of my favorites.  He really could not comprehend the absence of sports in one’s life.

“I read books.”

“You read books all weekend?”

“All weekend.”

“Do you read books about sports?”  Poor, baffled Jerry.

“Shut up, Jerry!  We all know she only likes to read!  She assigned us, like, 3,000 pages last week!  Are you gonna give us a quiz on that or what, Miss?”

Though I never tried to appear cool or trendy or to feign interest in their weird teen stuff, I had never felt such a kinship with other classes.  All of us in the 7th grade classroom accepted and liked each other as we were that year.  For a teacher, that’s a kind of magic.  And that’s why I let them have Spencer.

When the idea of a pet hamster was introduced, probably during homeroom one morning, I told them immediately that I would have nothing whatever to do with his care – and that I would under no circumstances ever, ever, ever touch him.  (For sports I hold a minor disinterest; for animals it’s closer to revulsion.)  When they sensed that I didn’t outright say no, they pleaded and persuaded and assured me that they would do everything for him, take full responsibility.

“Fine.  It’s ok with me if it’s ok with the principal.”  I hoped the principal would nix the idea – a better principal probably would have – but if she thought this would make them love her, she would not say no.  She didn’t make a grand announcement on the PA about it, which surprises me to this day.

So, one morning, Malcolm entered with a newly purchased hamster and, with the class’s concurrence, named him Spencer.  My contribution was the ball.  The kids inserted Spencer, and he rolled around the classroom while I lectured on the subjunctive mood or we discussed “Young Goodman Brown.”  Someone was always on Pee Watch, and the second – the very second, I emphasized – any pee dribbled onto the floor, the Pee Watcher sounded the alarm:  Spencer went back in the cage, one kid retrieved towels to wipe the few drops of pee, and another rushed to the bathroom to clean the ball.  One time, I heard one student whisper fight with another: “Go back to the sink!  If you don’t clean that right she’s going to freak out!”  They paid as much attention to what I said about grammar and literature as they did to what I said about order and cleanliness – thank God.  Otherwise, there’s no way they would have learned anything that year with every other lesson being interrupted by some student screeching, “Pee!!  He peed!”

Before Spencer died for real, I thought he was a goner several times.

On the second day, “Andrew”-the-Troublemaker, overly confident but unused to hamsters, picked him up to hold him.  Cute little Spencer bit him, and startled An flung the hamster into the wall five feet away.  I briefly wondered if that was the shortest lifespan of a classroom pet ever, but in the ensuing panic, someone found Spencer skittering around the floor, scooped him up, and put him back in his cage.

One time, someone noticed that the ball was rolling along with the top off and without Spencer in it.  “Where’s Spencer?” The kid stood and held up the empty ball.  I pictured opening my purse or a desk drawer to see that rat peeking out.  “Find him.  Now.  Everyone.  Go!”  Thirty-five preteens jumped from their seats.  Again he was found, and again put back into his cage.

Another time, everyone was posing for a class picture and Spencer was up front in the hands of one of the animal lovers.  The girl next to her could not hide her disgust (Spencer was not universally loved) and kept leaning away as far as she could until they decided to reposition themselves.  In the jostling that followed, I was sure Spencer would be dropped, but again he made it safely through.  Spencer was resilient.

He probably thought we were all trying to kill him, and I wouldn’t blame him one bit.

This is how Spencer actually died.

Aftercare used my classroom after school, so every day at dismissal, one student would get Spencer’s cage and, standing on a chair, transport him to the top of the coat closets, out of the reach of the little kids who played in the room in the afternoons.

One morning, in the dark, I walked from the back door of the classroom, where I had let myself in, to the front.  I flipped on the lights.  Spencer was on the floor by my feet.  I had almost stepped on him.

I must have yelped, because the vice-principal, next door in her 5th grade classroom, came running in.

Spencer lay there, not moving.  We both glanced up to his cage, above our heads.  Whoever had placed him the afternoon before hadn’t ensured the cage’s doors were shut tight.

She picked him up from the floor and put him on a desk.

That’s when we saw that he wasn’t actually dead.

Poor Spencer was dragging around his broken body on his two front paws, and we stood in shock for a few moments watching this.  The vice-principal, an animal lover, started tearing up.  But I could only think of what to do next.

“Kill him!”

She looked at me in astonishment.  “I’m not going to kill him!  Dumbass!”  She later told me that her husband asked her why she didn’t just wring his neck to put him out of his misery.  I had no scruples about being the one to end it for him, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch him, even if I had had a clue about how to go about wringing some living creature’s neck.

We decided she would take him to the local veterinarian that morning.

I would be the one to tell the class.

We pulled aside Malcolm, Spencer’s main caregiver, coming into the building, and as I waited in my classroom for morning prayer to end, I knew that big, sweet, sensitive boy was crying in the principal’s office.

Announcements over, I turned to the quiet class.  “Ok, before we begin … Some of you may have noticed that Spencer isn’t in the back of the room this morning …”  I faltered.  I had figured I would be fine: Spencer’s demise meant little to me.  But thirty-five young faces, “little souls” another wise principal called them, looked up at me.  Several turned to the empty cage at the back, and some of the quicker kids gasped as they realized what was coming.  I could feel the tears forming.

I remember that I said a few more things, but not much.  I told them that one of their classmates was “very sad today,” but the tears were rolling down my face by then. Another teacher, who I liked and respected, reached out to me and I stepped back.  The principal, about whom I felt the opposite, stepped forward, happy to take on the role of rescuer and center of attention.

The news delivered, school went on.

Later that day, Andrew-the-Troublemaker came up to me with another friend.  “Don’t worry about Malcolm, Miss.”  The boys smiled at me with sincerity, their mischievousness temporarily vanished.  “We’re going to hang out with him at band practice after school.  We’ll cheer him up.”

Photo: from my classroom, August 2008
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