Dominique Gonyer--Metzger Felowship Essay

Growing Closer


“Look at that fat squirrel!” shouted Ethan.  Whatever I had been teaching was now irrelevant.  Two dozen freshmen were hooting and pointing at a squirrel in a tree directly outside the window.  The squirrel’s round belly swayed as she moved down the branch, closer to the window.  With each step the squirrel took, the end of the branch made a scratching sound on the glass.  The squirrel looked back at us.  She was so close that I could see her ears twitch.  Her gray fur looked soft and inviting.

It was October, and this class was going well.  The students were eager to learn more Spanish, and were working hard.  One of my goals at this point in the year was to establish supportive relationships amongst the students.  They had come from several different elementary schools and were still a little hesitant to open up to new peers.  Students learn better when they make personal connections with each other; common interests and shared experiences help create a tight-knit community.  I had a solid curriculum, plenty of engaging ideas for classroom learning, and clear expectations for behavior.  We were beyond name games, but they were essentially still strangers.  What I needed were more ways for them to grow closer.

They were all facing the squirrel.  “Es una ardilla,” I said in Spanish; “it’s a squirrel”.  No one offered any response in Spanish, so I tried to get them to choose a word; “Es gorda o delgada?”, “is it fat or thin?”  Still no reply.  No one was going to play along with me when there was a fat squirrel staring at us.  I considered climbing over backpacks and kneeling on a shelf to reach the window shade, but instead I decided to get back to the lesson.  I mistakenly thought the interest in the squirrel would die down.  These students were hard workers, and they wanted to learn.  I felt confident that my Spanish version of the classic “Find Someone Who..” activity would get them practicing the new verb tense and getting to know each other beyond first names.

At this point, Ethan and his buddy Ty were posing in squirrel-like positions on their chairs.  I made eye contact and asked them to get out their notebooks - “saquen los cuadernos, por favor” - a redirection attempt to snuff out the squirrel mimicry.  A few of the girls told Ethan and Ty that they were being immature, but being immature was the whole point.  Ethan and Ty made squirrelly clicking noises.  Then the squirrel situation got a lot worse. 

            A second squirrel scurried up the tree.  This was a faster-moving squirrel, also gray, and also fat.  It made sense, I thought, that the local wildlife would be eating well.  Our teenage students ate constantly, and our outdoor garbage cans overflowed with delicious scraps.  Below my classroom, the school restaurant teased us with appetizing smells.  I imagined the county fair scenes in Charlotte’s Web, replacing the overfed Templeton the rat with our squirrel visitors.  The giggling had died down earlier, but now it resurfaced.  “TWO fat squirrels!” Ethan yelped, delighted with the class’ renewed interest.  I felt my own annoyance giving way a little bit to curiosity; would they chase each other?  Could we get back to irregular preterite tense verbs?

The first squirrel heaved her bloated body around, wobbled on the branch, and regained her balance.  She was now facing us.  The students leaned around each other to see what the squirrels might do next.  We had lost enough learning time to this distraction, and I took a few steps towards the window, with my hand raised towards the string that would close the shade.  “No, no, please!!” everyone shouted.  A veritable zoo exhibit had materialized in front of us.  They are still children, I told myself.

Our presence did not bother the squirrels.  The second squirrel stepped onto the branch.  The first squirrel clasped her squirrelly hands in front of her, and sat up.  Her eyes darted around the classroom, and she turned her head to watch the second squirrel.  He was no lightweight either; the branch had scratched the window when one squirrel walked along it, but now it tapped the window.  He moved in a pattern: scurry, wait, scurry, wait.  With each scurry, the branch dipped and hit the window, and he waited for the movement to slow down before he advanced again.  The class was mesmerized.  I looked at the clock and saw that even if this event ended now, it would be too late to regain the lesson.  “Clase, por favor,” I said.  Maybe we could prep for my planned activity and then actually do it tomorrow.  “¿Qué hacen las ardillas?” I asked, “what are the squirrels doing?”  Maybe we could use the verbs in a real-life context.  I was a good teacher, darn it, and no squirrels were going to hijack my class.

Here’s where it went off the rails, where this class went down in history with the funniest incident that has ever happened in a classroom since the beginning of formal education.  The second squirrel approached the first squirrel from behind.  She put her little hands down on the branch and held on.  The second squirrel mounted her and began copulating.  The students’ eyes were wide, and for a brief moment, their mouths were open, but noiseless. 

The branch moved with each squirrely pelvic thrust, and it was no longer scratching the window, or tapping the window; it was smacking the glass emphatically.  The rutting sped up and the branch matched the rhythm on the glass.  The students, oh!, the students!  They howled with laughter.  They screamed.  They choked, coughed, spat, and shed tears laughing, the lively and the solemn people alike.  Ethan stomped both of his feet on the floor, hit the table with his hands, and threw his head back, tears streaming into his ears as he shrieked.  I leaped around tables and over backpacks to reach the window shade, seized the string and yanked it down.  It seemed like the entire class ran towards me and lifted the bottom, or bent the sides of the shade to see the action.  This is where I surrendered my lesson plan to the unexpected event.  No lesson plan can be forced despite all odds.

I had been a teacher for at least a decade at this point, and I knew the students needed to find commonality.  What I hadn’t expected was that two rodents’ biological impulses would be the icebreaker that would start to build our sense of community.  Indeed, this was just the first of many shared experiences that year that would bring us closer to each other.  Two years later, I chaperoned a school trip to Italy with some of them.  One student babysat my children.  Several of them are still in touch with me on Facebook. 

How did it end, you ask?  I’ll tell you.  When the students grabbed at the window shade and appeared suddenly in the window, they startled the squirrels, who separated.  The squirrels hustled along the branch towards the trunk of the tree just as students from the next period’s class started to enter the room.  Ethan needed to inform the newcomers:  “TWO FAT SQUIRRELS HAVING SEX!!” he hollered.  Class dismissed.