The School Snake

Her name was Kali.  She joined my second grade classroom when she was only about as long as my forearm, a gift from a student.  His father raised Colombian rosy boas in their basement.  The dad must have done it well, since a full-grown pair had been happy enough to mate and start a family.

Unlike some, I don’t have problems with (non-venomous) snakes.  I’ve always enjoyed the feel of them.  Their bodies are so smooth and cool.  The patterns on snake’s skins are often beautiful. I like the pressure of the constrictor’s body as it glides along my arm.  So I was delighted to have Kali.

Kali ate mice.  Live mice.  In order to feed her, I kept a cage of mice in the classroom.  Be assured, I never dropped a mouse in her tank when the students were in school.  Even so, it was with a combination of horror and fascination that I watched Kali zero in on her meal, snatch it, and squeeze. Then began the slow process of swallowing the mouse headfirst. 

All of us in my class enjoyed the snake.  Those at home–not so much.  My family tolerated Kali when I had to bring her home during vacations.  The mouse cage stayed in the downstairs half-bath, on top of the toilet tank.  They smelled. 

Once, when I had stayed home sick, my substitute teacher, Mrs. D., called me.  Mrs. D. was one of the most competent substitutes in the district.  She was tough, and no student behavior was known to faze her.  However, the day she called, Mrs. D. was freaking out—and not because of the snake. The mother mouse had eaten her babies.   I was stuck at home with a cold–there wasn’t much I could do.  Either the mother mouse had felt her family was threatened, or the babies weren’t healthy.  Poor Mrs. D.! I imagine she thought twice about accepting a sub day in my classroom after that.

Kali got one mouse a week.  And Kali grew.  She’d reached about three feet in length when our relationship came to an abrupt end.  One morning before the kids arrived, I fed her a mouse.  Then I refreshed the water in her dish.  As I returned the dish to her tank, Kali struck at my hand.  Rosy boas don’t have fangs, but they do have rows of needle-sharp backward-pointing teeth.  Both snake and I recoiled with surprise. 

When I spoke about this with a knowledgeable snake person, I learned that Kali was now a two-mouse snake.  I had been feeding her too often. She was bigger and hungrier.  My hand must have smelled like the mouse I had held, so she went after it.  The bite wasn’t big or serious, but I had to reconsider:  How important was it to have a rather large snake in the classroom? It was time to part ways.

Kali’s robust health and size brought a good price when I traded her in at the pet shop.  In her place, I got some fish, colorful gravel, and a filter for the tank.  The fish were soothing to watch.  The gurgle of the filter was also a pleasant noise.  Best of all, I didn’t need to keep a cage of smelly mice.

That was my last pet snake.

Here’s an interesting article about why animals sometimes kill their babies.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/3/140328-sloth-bear-zoo-infanticide-chimps-bonobos-animals/

Rearview

 

car side mirror

Photo by Shukhrat Umarov on Pexels.com

 

Hurry them out of the car,

one grumpy, the other sleepy,

both smelling of toothpaste.

Try to ignore the wistful eyes

of the little one.

She hates being stuck

at the sitter’s house

with three boys.

 

The prickling guilt

lasts until the ignition turns.

Already other children

sweep onstage.

Twenty-four shoving,

claiming the spotlight.

Who needs more phonics?

Whose parent called?

How to fit in fire safety

when we’re behind in math?

Mark workbooks at lunch.

A meeting takes up prep time.

 

Rush to collect the kids.

Dinner.

He doesn’t like eggs.

She hates tomatoes.

Nobody wants pasta.

Yelling.

 

Wait for the neighbor girl.

Should have left ten minutes ago.

The grad class prof takes attendance.

In the rearview mirror

see the three standing on the lawn.

He looks mournful.

She flips the finger.

 

Parenting at the speed of light.

Did we ever just rest in each other?

Listen?

 

Now I hold a photograph.

Two young children,

long grown.

Wishing I could step inside.

 

Prodigal Summer and Prothalamium

bloom blooming blossom blur

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The poet Aaron Kramer first passed across my radar in the lyrics to a song, Prothalamium, sung by Judy Collins on her Whales and Nightingales album. I played  the record over and over while lying by the forced air register in a house on Balboa Island. It was 1971.

Decades later, the poem showed up as the epigraph in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer.

prodigal summer cover

Prothalamium by Aaron Kramer

Come, all you who are not satisfied
as ruler in a lone, wallpapered room
full of mute birds, and flowers that falsely bloom,
and closets choked with dreams that long ago died!

Come, let us sweep out the old streets – like a bride:
sweep out dead leaves with a relentless broom;
prepare for Spring, as though he were our groom
for whose light footstep eagerly we bide.

We’ll sweep out shadows, where the rats long fed;
sweep out our shame – and in its place we’ll make
a bower for love, a splendid marriage-bed
fragrant with flowers aquiver for the Spring.
And when he comes, our murdered dreams shall wake;
and when he comes, all the mute birds shall sing.

 

Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer is a favorite of mine. I used to reread it every spring. I picked it up again just a day ago, and when I read the epigraph, I heard again the song in my head. This reading prompted me to investigate the poem.

 

My curiosity led me first to the poet Aaron Kramer, about whom I knew nothing. Kramer (1921-1997) was a busy guy. Besides producing several books of poetry, he translated works by Rilke and others, and he pioneered the use of poetry as therapy. For more information, check out his page at www.aaronkramer.com.

 

A “prothalamium” or “prothalamion” is a poem or song written to celebrate a betrothal. One of the oldest ,or possibly the oldest, example is the poem by Edmund Spenser, written in 1596 to celebrate the betrothals of two sisters. Spenser invented the name for the form, based on the “epithalamium,” a wedding song or poem.

Here are the first lines of Spenser’s poem:

Prothalamion

CALM was the day, and through the trembling air 

Sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play, 

A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay 

Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair; 

When I whose sullen care, 

Through discontent of my long fruitless stay 

In prince’s court, and expectation vain 

Of idle hopes, which still do fly away 

Like empty shadows, did afflict my brain, 

Walked forth to ease my pain 

Along the shore of silver streaming Thames, 

Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems, 

Was painted all with variable flowers, 

And all the meads adorned with dainty gems, 

Fit to deck maidens’ bowers, 

And crown their paramours, 

Against the bridal day, which is not long: 

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

Returning to Kramer’s poem, I find its words relevant for our current times. We in the U.S. and much of the world, seem to be experiencing a reordering and growth. The pandemic forces us to acknowledge our interdependency and connectedness. The upheaval over systemic racism pushes forth a truth that demands recognition and change.

Here is the Judy Collins version of Kramer’s Prothalamium, music by Michael Sahl.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dBaMCGsKWg

 

 

My Father’s Wisdom

selective focus photography of child hand

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My father had a few pithy sayings that he liked to repeat. Some of these merely justified his personal preferences, such as, “Fruit juice is for sick people and babies.” But other aphorisms made sense. One of these came to me the other day.

“Address the behavior, not the child.”

My father was a child psychologist. He may not have applied all of his theories to raising me, but this idea, at least, I remember, and still find valid. Not only in relation to children, but to adults as well.

For parents, it’s tough raising children in today’s culture. They have a lot to contend with. So many labels in social media are out there, waiting to stick to a child: bad, fat, stupid, ugly, or smart, talented, etc. We even have a president who throws labels around, calling people “bad” or “nasty.”

Bad behavior or choices, okay, but just “bad people?” We can do better.

To say, “That’s good,” or “You’re a good _______” doesn’t help a child much. It’s more useful to be specific. “I like the way you _______ .” Arranged the pillows on your bed. Cleaned up all the Legos. Helped your friend who fell down. Used the yellow paint in your picture.

We let the child know specifically what was done well.

Adults also respond positively to hearing what they do well.

In my writing group, structured according to the Amherst Writers and Artists method, we give positive feedback to first drafts. We point out what was strong or memorable, what “stays with us.” Writers use that information to improve.

It works the same way with kids.