“The unending paradox is that we do learn through pain.”
― Madeleine L'Engle
― Madeleine L'Engle
When I was a kid, the rules for Show-And-Tell in public schools were, to say the least, lenient. It was the highlight of the week, something kids looked forward to for a long time. In Ms. Braden’s second-grade class at my now-defunct elementary school, it was an opportunity to really show off. One particular week, fate brought me an opportunity to show off like no other elementary school kid has had before or since.
One night, my brother and I were out riding the 4-wheeler in a pasture near my parents’ house. In the glint of the headlight, we saw a small, furry creature trundling along across the pasture. It was a baby possum. The opportunity to try to catch it for a closer look was too great to resist. My brother and I hatched a plan: he would stay near the area where we last saw it while I rode off to get a plastic bucket to snag it in. I drove back to the house as fast as I could. I quickly returned, bucket in hand. We scooped the little guy up and carried him back to the house. I was proud to show him off to my folks, but I had larger audience in mind.
I have to pause in the story to talk a little bit about possums. The name “Opossum” is from an American Indian word that means something like “White Beast” if I remember right. Seems appropriate. They deserve the name “beast” when cornered.
Have you ever cornered a possum? They hiss and open their mouth to show you all 50 of their teeth. I know 50 teeth seems like an exaggeration, but that’s what the reference literature cites (after my experience with this particular possum, I think it’s closer to 200). If you’d like to see their teeth, just irritate one. It will be happy to show them to you.
Angry possums have the attitude of a rattlesnake with a migraine. [Speaking of rattlesnakes, did you know that possums have partial (and in some cases, complete) immunity to rattlesnake and other pit viper bites? How tough do you have to be to have that ability?] While possums may appear like cute woodland creatures, they are vicious animals anxious to gnaw any limb they can reach. At least, that’s my experience…
Anyway, back to the story:
The day after I took the possum home just happened to be show-and-tell. I begged my parents to let me take the beast to school, and they figured that it would be something different- perhaps even educational- so they agreed. The next morning found me standing at the end of my driveway in the fog with a shoe box under my arm, waiting to board the bus. There is no prouder person than an eight-year-old boy with a possum in a box for show-and-tell.
The anticipation that morning was nearly too much for me to bear. The occasional scratching sounds from the box inside my old metal desk faintly echoed through the morning, heightening the tension. Finally, after lunch, the big moment came.
I stood before my class and opened the lid of the box. I basked in the adulation of my peers. The possum was the hit of the class, cute in an ugly way, peacefully staring back at the throng of children with small, black, beady eyes. I don’t believe that any of my classmates had ever seen one before, and certainly not this close.
Word got around the school about what I had brought, and requests started coming in from other teachers (who, I will assume, were looking for something interesting for their science classes) that they wanted the possum to make appearances in their classes as well. Instead of being in my class that afternoon, I was making rounds of the lower-grade classrooms, showing off the Marsupial Marvel.
I was going through the hall from one class to another when I ran into one of my buddies. He quickly cornered me with an eye on the box.
“Is the possum in there? I want to see it!” he said.
Unable to resist the pull of elementary school stardom, I opened the box and looked at my friend’s face to see his reaction.
“Is it dead?” he asked, with a befuddled look.
I looked into the box and saw the unthinkable: the baby possum was twisted in an odd position, motionless, in the box.
‘He was fine a minute ago!” I said, as I poked him with my finger.
You can guess where this is headed, can’t you?
The tiny beast sprang to life and clamped down on my right index finger with lightning speed. Three of its needle-like teeth went right through the fingernail. It was stuck on my hand.
I started trying to shake it off my hand, gripped with terror. No luck. My buddy was backing away from me, as if he didn’t know who the next intended victim was. I panicked and did the only thing I could think of.
In the hallway, there was an old steel water fountain that had been in the school since it was built in the 50’s. I swung my hand, with the woodland creature attached, as hard as I could. If you’ve ever seen a bad kung-fu movie, you know what that sounded like. A giant GONG rang down the hallway.
The possum fell straight to the ground and immediately scuttled behind the fountain, unharmed but highly agitated. With some coaxing and careful maneuvering, my buddy and I got the possum back in the box. But by this time all the commotion in the hall had caused a lot of classroom doors to open. Suddenly, I had more than my share of unwanted attention as we recovered the White Beast and I wrapped my throbbing hand.
And so it goes. Sometimes, the brighter a star is, the faster it burns out.
From that point forward, there were no live animals allowed at show and tell. I guess that the powers that be decided it wasn’t the kind of educational experience they wanted kids to have. It was certainly educational for me.