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.

The Anguish of Learning English

The Anguish of Learning English

Lately my husband and I have been sorting through our bins of stuff in an effort to reduce the amount in our storage unit.  This is a COVID-inspired activity that actually produces a positive result. 

While digging around in a bin of my old teaching materials and my kids’ artwork, I found the little book More Anguished English by Richard Lederer.  The book’s subtitle reads: An expose of embarrassing, excruciating, and egregious errors in English.  I bought this book second hand at least twenty-five years ago.  Finding it again brought back a vivid memory of the time I first read it.

It was spring break and I’d rented a house on Chincoteague Island.  I had my two kids and two of their friends with me.  The kids were finishing dinner and I picked up the book.  Soon I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t read it aloud to them. 

Some examples from students’ essays*:

            Rambo was a French poet.

            A great Jewish leader in Scotland was Rabbi Burn.s

            A harp is a nude piano. (This image delights me every time.)

As I reread pages a quarter of a century later, I wasn’t as amused. In fact, I found myself feeling compassion for the beleaguered writers, and slightly irritated that the author and my former self made fun at their expense.  My change of attitude was rooted in the eight years I taught English as a new language (ENL) to children from kindergarten through fifth grade.

English is a difficult, often nonsensical language.  A famous example of its challenges is the variation on /ough/: rough, through, slough(two meanings, two pronunciations), though.  Sometimes English seems to have more exceptions than reliable patterns. 

My experience as an ENL teacher changed the way I read the “bloopers” in More Anguished English.  Some errors were caused by mishearing, such as The big artery on your neck is called the jocular vein.  Other mistakes were misspellings: At night we stayed in a youth hostile. 

Instead of finding humor in the errors, I found that my heart hurt a bit for the authors struggling to communicate in a challenging language.  Whether English is a first language or a new language, learning it isn’t easy.  How many native speakers are confused by there, they’re, and theirWere and where?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Sure, the errors writers make are often amusing. Even today, some make me laugh.  But my years of teaching second grade and ENL changed me. 

Here are some student definitions to lighten your COVID days:

Migration: A headache that birds get when they fly south for the winter.

Syntax: Is all the money collected at church from sinners.

Foliage: A mother horse having a baby.

And particularly relevant to our pre-election anguish:

Absentee ballot: When you count the ballots and some of them aren’t there.

*All citations from More Anguished English, by Richard Lederer.  Delacorte Press, New York, 1993.

Photo by Julia M Cameron on



car side mirror

Photo by Shukhrat Umarov on


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.


He doesn’t like eggs.

She hates tomatoes.

Nobody wants pasta.



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?



Now I hold a photograph.

Two young children,

long grown.

Wishing I could step inside.