March 2005

Nothing up my sleeve

By David Feela

Immediately after Valentine’s Day strikes at the heart, thoughts turn toward Easter, those sweet memories of hunting marshmallow chicks lurking in the cellophane grass. For a time we believed that rabbits laid eggs, or that the big chocolate bunny would be just fine with ears and feet nibbled down to stumps, didn’t we. When one of my students asked if she could present a speech on domesticating rabbits for food, I guardedly approved the topic.

I was afraid she’d put everyone to sleep by reading a Warren report. I reminded her that even rabbits get bored; she smiled and told me not to worry.

On the day of her speech she pulled from her deep jacket pockets — by the scruff of their soft necks — two baby bunnies. The audience was suddenly all ears; the air filled with oohs and aahs. But then the moment passed. “Let me hold one,” a voice shouted. “No, I called it first,” a contrary student replied. I turned off my stopwatch. I set my grading sheet aside. The rabbits slid from desktop to desktop, and I waited, by now the only person in the room remotely interested in hearing what this teenager wanted to say.

While the rabbits made the rounds, my young speech student explained how piercingly these cuddly animals could bite and scream. She talked bashfully about the rate at which rabbits reproduce, but her confidence returned when she offered a few vivid details concerning the extra whack bunnies require at the back of the head, just in case they start squirming while the cook removes their skin. The class paid no heed; they could only hear with their eyes.

Her tour de force was a piece of advice, that children would eat rabbit if their parents could convince them it was chicken. A few faces in the class glanced up with an odd expression that bordered on realization. They looked at the bunnies, they looked at the speaker, and they partially understood what had until now still been fuzzy.

Once, a national news story reported on a teacher who wanted to supplement her students’ book learning by showing them how a calf the class had raised became a side of beef. The school district required parent permission slips before the students could accompany their teacher to the packing plant. Some parents balked at the thought of sending innocence into such a dark corner of reality. I can sympathize.

There are times when we desperately hope nobody is paying attention. My speaker finished, and everyone seemed comfortably readjusted to the notion that words in a school setting have very little to do with life. I scanned the desktops to see if the bunnies had left any jellybeans — they hadn’t. And to my relief, nobody got bit. We politely applauded and the two fluffy visual aids made their way back to the speaker’s pockets, where I asked that they stay for the remainder of class. The class exhaled a collective sigh of disappointment.

I called for the next speaker. Except for whispers and a few furtive glances in my direction, I noticed that nobody could keep their eyes from wandering over to the rabbit speaker’s mysterious pockets. A new student took center stage and spoke on a topic none of us can now remember, probably doing his or her best to keep from twitching and blushing a deep shade of pink. Three more lifeless speeches followed, and then the opportunity to work as a professional entertainer came back to me.

My fear is that the public wants teachers to pull a rabbit out of a hat every day, for every child, in every public school across America. That would be nice, but sadly, the lessons that strengthen our bones are not as sweet as candy.

It’s difficult to compare reading, writing, and math to any of the basic food groups. The challenge of educating today’s youth continues to make me feel inadequate. And I would probably be a better teacher if I could just believe the one piece of advice my speaker took to heart on the day the rabbits invaded my classroom, that so much of life would go down much better if it tasted more like chicken.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.