The year was 2002, and I was green. It was my first year as a real teacher, in my own classroom, and I was in charge of 90 hormonally-charged eighth grade students. Teaching grammar and reading and sentence fluency was often difficult when I had to combat students who couldn’t stop touching each other or putting on makeup in the middle of a lesson. I had three two-period block classes each day, and I often struggled to keep them entertained for 90 minutes at a stretch.
Now, I will make it very clear: Those who teach the middle grades are a special breed. Those who do it for a sustained length of time, say more than one year, deserve hazard pay. Many of my friends teach middle school, and they are normal, well-functioning, social human beings who have only been slightly scarred by the ‘tweens in their charge. I lasted two years at this particular junior high before I took a job at a high school, and while I learned a whole lot and grew immeasurably as a teacher, the students and I came to a mutual decision that we were not a good match. After all, I wanted them to write really good paragraphs, and they wanted to write swear words in snot on their desks. Bless those who can conquer this great divide!
One of my students that year was a particularly interesting kid I’ll call “Sam.” Sam was especially difficult for me (not the confident teacher I am today) to handle some of his more creative antics. He was often sent to our detention room for things like falling out of his desk — intentionally — and mooing like a cow. Needless to say, I kept his mother’s phone number on speed dial.
To this day, I am still haunted by Sam’s most “original” prank. He was especially quiet and well-behaved this one particular day in late April. I was looking forward to wrapping up my unit and covering the last few important details about theme in our novel, The Devil’s Arithmetic. For those of you not in the know, this novel is an especially serious depiction of a young girl’s experience in a Polish concentration camp during the Holocaust. For the first time all year, my students were totally engaged in the unit. I felt great, like a superteacher!
As I walked between the cooperative groups in my classroom, using my proximity to manage behavior, I happened to glance down at Sam’s feet. There, sitting next to his desk, was a canteen — the kind you would take camping. The kind a boy scout would carry. Sam was no boy scout, however.
Further inspection of Sam’s canteen revealed a passenger: a large black spider with a large white spot on its back.
Now, I’m not going to lie: spiders creep me out. But something was familiar about this spider, and I could not put my finger on it (figuratively) just at the moment.
“Sam,” I said in my best trying-to-be-calm-because-I-am-the-adult voice, “You have a spider on your canteen. I expected him to panic, to freak out, to jumped out of his desk, to stomped on it with his shoes — basically all of the things I WOLUD have done, in his place.
Sam simply looked up at me, not an ounce of surprise on his face, and said, “It’s a black widow. I found it outside.”
According to National Geographic, a black widow’s venom is up to 15 times as powerful as a rattlesnake’s (here’s my source). Thankfully, though, they do not release as much venom in their bites. Still, the thought of a student willingly and purposefully bringing a black widow into my classroom left me flummoxed. Then Sam added,” Don’t worry; it’s dead.”
Perhaps the teacher in the room next to me heard me screaming, or perhaps I ran into her room at full-tilt; I do not recall the specifics. What I do remember is, that after much discussion, she calmly picked up the canteen with said black widow on top of it and escorted it to the science teacher’s classroom down the hall. Where he determined that the black widow was not dead after all. And the big white pulsating sack on its back was was actually hundreds of baby black widows.
I don’t think I need to tell you how I spent the rest of that school year: Living in fear, worried that my classroom was filled with tiny baby black widow spiders, crawling up my pants leg, secreting away in my work bag, making plans to surprise me in my sleep.
I don’t know what happened to Sam. I lost contact with him, and his mother, many years ago. But I suspect he might be a rattlesnake handler. Somewhere. Maybe near you.
Do you have any great stories? What is the most interesting event that has happened to you while teaching? Share in the comments!