Some people trudge through their days, truly not happy to do what it is they get paid to do. Me? I am one of the lucky ones. I love what I do and do what I love. It doesn’t mean, however, that days go by without strife and concern.
Today is a perfect example. When I walked into my fifth grade classroom, the immediate smell of fish put me in a tailspin. I opened the door, I waved into the air, I simply had to get rid of the smell before my 28 students would march in for the cool crisp Autumn day expecting to learn all the nuggets I had to offer. (generally, for the record, they offer me many more nuggets)
But it was still there. That stench. So I looked into the garbage cans to make sure something hadn’t been thrown away the day before that wasn’t supposed to be tossed inside the classroom garbage cans.
And then they came. My students filed in and also complained of the odor. I called “Fred,” our amazing janitor and he agreed to come spray his magic while the kids would soon flee to P.E.
In the meantime – and we had at least 30 minutes before their departure – we mulled over the previous night’s homework and began to embark on the new lesson when an overwhelming thought surged into my brain. The hamster. Oh geez, the hamster.
In the middle of explaining why to place the decimal point directly above when dividing whole numbers into decimals, I wandered over and looked into Tibble’s cage. I tried to be sly but I bumped the desk with my hip, which would normally warrant our dwarf hamster into some kind of movement or clear display of annoyance as he may have been napping.
He stayed coiled in a little butterball, looking as content as ever. But the smell? Stronger than ever. I knew, in an instant, the hamster was dead.
Hmmm… do I inadvertently continue with my lesson, awaiting the students to leave and then get rid of him hoping that a mass of 10 and 11-year olds wouldn’t notice?
I thought about my mother, of all things, who died almost three years ago and it wasn’t the similarity of “state” that made me think of her but that voice inside my head – that was hers – telling me to be direct and to use this opportunity as one of life’s greatest lessons… shit happens. (And no, I wouldn’t dare say that, just in case you had a slight inkling that I might) but there I was… I looked out into the vast pairings of eyes and there was a wave of suspect that came first from one of my most intuitive students.
“Is Tibbles okay?”
“Actually,” I say, “I think Tibbles is dead.”
Horror crossed some faces, suspicion crossed others, and a wave of disbelief circulated the room, you could feel it like a quiet rush of air.
“Tibbles was very lucky to have so many of you love him but it was his time.” I explained that Syrian hamsters have an average life expectancy of two years, which meant Tibbles lived a full life.
“That explains the smell,” one said.
“He really wasn’t moving that much yesterday,” said another.
And the girl that had him for the most recent weekend stay? “He was moving around just fine when he was at my house,” fearful that somehow his current situation would somehow be blamed on her.
Do I just make an “Okay, boys and girls, let’s move on” speech or how much time and attention do I give this class pet’s demise?
So it began. A few kids began to cry. Others weren’t sure what to do. And so I simply said, “let’s have each table group, if they want, walk by the cage to see Tibbles and pay their respect.”
I knew their curiosity was piqued and I wanted to simplify the process of simply viewing the body. I remember being terrified of my own grandmother’s funeral, when I was nine, because everyone kept warning me and trying to prepare me that my grandmother would look like she was asleep in her coffin. I remember, upon seeing her, that she did look asleep. She did look peaceful but mainly thinking that this was, in fact, what it looked like to be dead. Which minus the permanence of no more conversation and no more interaction on earth, the mere sight of her lying there was not as scary as the build up. Perhaps seeing a dead hamster would help future, more significant sightings of dead people and pets?
Then the hands went up. And the discussion began. And some more tears flowed. Reminders of grandparents or other previous pets that have passed were discussed. I allowed the sharing to go on for a short time – but time enough to model that the discussion itself is worthwhile and the lesson to be learned is that there is no right or wrong way to feel when faced with sadness or uncertainty. A lesson many of my adult counterparts still struggle with!
In the moment of despair, it really is about allowing yourself to feel. And to support each other along the way. And then, to breathe and do what you can to continue in this thing we call “life.”
May seem simple. Trivial. Or overdone.
But today in my classroom, for a little while, decimals took a backseat to a life lesson we all face.
And then, with a few deep breaths and room to continue to know that life has changed in that moment, we began to focus on the simpler things in life, (and not so simple, for some) like dividing whole numbers into decimals.