No Rat Left Behind

It felt so good to finally laugh. After these too-busy and too-stressful months at school, I had forgotten how refreshing it could be to enjoy life — in the present or via a memory from the past.

Of course I frequently smile, sometimes even grin, at the antics of my students, but today was different. I laughed hard, and I was still laughing as I drove home from work. I needed that — to remind me of the fun I have had during my long career in the schools. These last few weeks almost extinguished the spark; but today lifted my spirits — blue skies; daffodils blooming; spring smells in the air, and …laughter.

The laugh was even more fun, arriving so unexpectedly, as it did.

A co-worker and I were discussing poor clothing choices made by both teachers and students, and I mentioned that I keep the smock hanging on the back of my chair — to cover myself should I ever, sleepy at 5:15 AM and in a rush to get to school, dress in something inappropriate.

That admission surprised me for I don’t think I even own such clothing. As I thought about it, I could remember using the smock — to interpret for a deaf student; to warm me on chilly days, but …to cover clothing? For thirty-one years I have kept a smock at my side, but why? And then the memory returned.

It was about 1975 and I was a young teacher, maybe in my third year. I was teaching at a state school for the deaf and among my pupils were the honors students, who were also taking a psychology class from a friend of mine.

In the psychology class, the students were working with rats; watching them run mazes; studying their behavior. Over the course of the class, the students, living in that residential setting, away from families and household pets, had grown very attached to their individual rats.

In fact, the students had grown to love the rats, and were loved so much in return, that they — rats and students — became inseparable. Soon the students had trained the rats to ride in their clothing as the kids went about their school days. Normally, the rats slept under the students’ armpits, cradled by the cloth of the shirt or blouse, but occasionally could be seen poking their heads out of a neckline to snoop around and see what was happening.

I had grown accustomed to having the rats in the room and was no longer shocked to see whiskers waving around a student’s throat as I taught literature classes. I had set limits, though — the rats were to stay on the children and were never to be out of their clothing.

One day, however, I walked back to my desk and there was one of the rats walking around on it. The rat had wet on some homework papers. I started signing, “Whose rat? Come get the rat. You know it isn’t supposed to be loose and on my desk!” Patty claimed the rat, but since it had already relieved itself, I told her to leave the rat and go get paper towels to clean up the mess.

I was wearing a beautiful, silky, aqua blue blouse. It covered me well, but was loose fitting. As I waited for Patty to return, I decided to pick up papers that had not been soiled. I leaned over to reach for them and….whish! The rat leaped into my blouse!

I was not alarmed, since I knew (or hoped) that the rat did not bite, but I definitely wanted it out of there. I reached in to grab it — just as it realized that I was not Patty. The fun began! The rat started running around and around, using my undergarment as a roadway, as it sought to evade my hand. I had to hold my arms high to avoid squeezing the rat and making it panic further. So, with elbows in the air, I began signing to any child who was looking, “Go get Patty! Go get Patty!” Some ran to find the girl while others came to help me and…only succeeded in frightening the rat even more.

At last Patty appeared and reached into my blouse for the rat, but it only increased the speed of its wild run. Finally, there was nothing to be done but to shoo the boys out of the room so I could undress enough so Patty could retrieve the rat.

I do not think that I ever wore that, or any, blousy-blouse to school again, yet I have kept a rat-proofing smock close at hand through all these years. I had not thought of that day for quite awhile now, the memory of that adventure has certainly lightened my heart. That has to have been the most unique and memorable experience of my entire teaching career!

Oh…to have rats only in my clothing, rather than in administration…and on school boards…and in departments of educations…and in Congress…and…

Too bad that smock has failed to protect me from two-legged rats…