I recently enjoyed reading writer Janet Gogerty’s entertaining post entitled Llamas and Labradoodles on Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord Blog Magazine. https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/2019/07/08/smorgasbord-posts-from-your-archives-potluck-writerspets-llamas-and-labradoodles-2017-by-janet-gogerty/
Janet’s thoughts got me thinking about my own experiences with animals when I was an elementary teacher in California. Many years my students had the joy of caring for animals in our classroom. (I taught thirty-one years in grades 2-6.)
I was rummaging around in the garage the other day (anything to distract me from my current project of painting the interior of the house) and came across the twin-level cage that was the home for many of the rats we raised. It is now rusty and showing wear, but at the time I felt like our rats had it pretty good—as good as rats can have it.
Not only was it fun to have a class pet, but the kids learned about the responsibility of caring for animals. Each week I assigned one of my students to be in charge of providing our rats with food, water, and a clean cage. There were many classroom jobs, but this was one of the most popular tasks.
Having pets in a classroom involves some degree of risk. A teacher needs to consider the possibility of the animals getting loose, what to do with the animals on weekends and vacations, and the reality that someday one of the kids’ furry friends may pass. Since rats don’t live a particularly long life (2-3 years), it was inevitable that one or more of our animals would die while we were caring for it.
I typically got two rats (preferably of the same gender for obvious reasons). The first time our pair passed away was during the middle of summer at my house, so the students weren’t even aware.
The following school year I got my second pair of rats. I let the students name them. Hence, Snowball (all white) and Oreo (black and white) came to reside in my classroom for the better part of the next three years.
There were many adventures along the way for the animals and us. One morning I came in early to ready myself for the day and found the cage wide open. Unfortunately, one of my students hadn’t locked the door properly. Instead of preparing lessons, I spent the next half hour trying to round up the runaways.
I found Snowball under the book cabinet, and I was able to recapture him without too much difficulty. Oreo, on the other hand, had tasted freedom, and he was not going to be apprehended quickly. I chased him from location to location, closing in on him only to see the little bugger dash to a new hiding spot. Time was running out as the students would appear at any minute.
The first bell rang, and I realized that I had quite the situation on my hand. (Just another day in the life of a teacher.) I met my students outside the classroom door and explained the story to twenty eager second graders who were thrilled about the prospect of playing sheriff and trying to round up the escaped felon.
Realizing we could not spend an entire day trying to snare a loose animal, I told the kids that they only had five minutes to catch Oreo before we would have to start the business of school. During the next few minutes, twenty very excited second graders and their beleaguered teacher attempted to apprehend the scoundrel, but Oreo remained on the loose.
The kids were enjoying themselves, but I realized there was no guarantee that we would catch our furry friend quickly. I called a halt to the search party to the disgust of my posse. I pictured trying to explain to my principal why everyone was on their hands and knees crawling around the classroom instead of participating in my exciting math lesson.
As you can imagine, this was futile as the kids’ sole interest was on a black and white bundle of energy rather than paying attention to me talk about fractions. Can you blame them? Thank goodness I finally captured my little friend on top of a set of encyclopedias during recess.
Part of the job of having animals in the classroom was teaching my expectations to the students. Before school, I would bring out the cage and set it in the middle of the room where the kids could observe them. The animals often put on quite the show knowing they had a captivated audience. They wrestled, ran around the cage playing, and even jumped into the exercise wheel while running in synchronicity. The kids laughed and enjoyed the performers.
When the second bell rang, indicating the start of school, I brought the cage to the back of the room out of sight. Rats are nocturnal, so after their morning exercise, they slept for most of the day. We occasionally would hear them eating and drinking. On the rare day when we finished all of our work early, I would get the rats out of their cage for the last five minutes of the day. The children who were interested took turns holding them.
Finally, I faced that dreaded day I knew would happen. One of my students was near the cage in the back of the room and exclaimed at the top of his lungs, “Snowball is dead!” Immediately, a swarm of classmates scurried around the cage to verify the diagnosis.
My instinct was to protect my students from this scene, and I went into immediate cover-up mode. “Maybe he’s just sick,” I said. “I’ll take him to the vet after school to see if there is anything the doctor can do to help him.”
I doubt that they bought it, but it gave me time to think about what to do next. I threw a sheet over the cage and tried to get back to business. Perhaps that seems insensitive, but I was trying my best not to have the kids dwell on the scene of a dead animal.
After school, I confirmed that Snowball had indeed passed. What do I do now? I called the school counselor seeking some advice on how best to handle the circumstances. She let me borrow the perfect book regarding the death of a pet and suggested I try reading that to my class the next day.
As soon as my students arrived the following day, they wanted to know about Snowball. I told them that our pet had indeed passed and several kids started getting weepy. I talked to them about my favorite memories of Snowball (there were a couple of funny stories to tell), and then I read the book to them.
I knew it was important for them to have some closure, but this was delicate ground. From past experiences, I’ve had students ask me if they could tell the class about a pet passing, but this gets very tricky. All it takes is for one child to start crying, and you will end up with a classroom of upset children.
In this case, I went with my instincts (there is no teacher handbook for situations such as this) and asked the kids if they’d like to make cards. Many were keen on this idea. I put on some quiet music, and they had time to draw pictures and write messages.
One of the students suggested bringing the cage out and presenting their cards to Oreo. Many other children in the class showed interest in this idea also. As a teacher, I was often forced to rely on my best judgment when cases such as this happened.
I decided this was the best thing for them, and we went ahead and held a rat memorial. The kids shared their cards with the rest of the class and put their memories around the cage. Thank goodness I had made the right decision. Many of the children needed some way to express their sorrow, and this provided them that opportunity.
Quite unexpectedly, two of my students made cards for me. Talk about irony. I was worried about my students’ mental health and giving them a chance to grieve to some degree. What I had not considered was that some of my students were equally concerned about me.