The janitor, spray can in hand, looked around my fourth grade classroom. “Did a snake escape and die in some corner?”
“No, I don’t think so.” I breathed through my mouth to avoid the smell. A girl had recently brought in a grass snake in an uncovered container. As the reptile slithered its way up the side of the bowl, I told her she’d have to take it out to the school garden. I was called to the office, and I’m pretty sure the snake made it outside. Ninety percent sure, anyway.
The janitor left to see if he had more deodorizer. I checked the fish tank, the guinea pig cage, the terrarium, and the worms we were collecting for Froglegs, the aquatic frog. Nothing smelly here.
Two teachers, one pinching her nose shut, stood outside my door shaking their heads. I heard, “It’s coming from her room again.”
“I’m probably known as Mrs. Yuck,” I muttered, still trying to find the offensive smell. Speaking of yuck, where is that present the art teacher gave me? I searched a cupboard for the bright red box. She’d brought it in one morning and said, “Now, don’t take this wrong, but you’re the only person I know who will appreciate this.” I’d opened the cover and gently pulled back red tissue paper to find the complete skeleton of a mouse that had been caught in a trap. It showed the skull, the vertebrae, and most fascinating of all, the delicate tail bone. I was delighted and used it as a reward after students finished their assignment.
Still sniffing, I opened another cupboard and found the nest a student had brought in. It contained the skeletons of four baby birds. After discussing vertebrate systems, the class and I made predictions as to what had happened. Then I’d told a few stories about the classroom finches I’d had years ago. They’d hatched only one egg, but I’ll always remember that tiny, perfectly formed baby. I took a whiff. Nope, not coming from the bird’s nest.
Students had begun filing in and now the Pee-yoo’s and Ooo-eee’s started in chorus. “What’s that smell?” several students asked.
“I’m not sure,” I began, “but would everyone please check their desks?”
I noticed a girl in the last row open and then quickly close hers shut. I walked closer. The smell was getting stronger. “It’s okay, Sweety, tell me.”
“Remember Thursday when I asked you if we could have show-and-tell on Friday and you said yes but then we never had it?”
I did vaguely remember an unexpected visitor during show-and-tell time. “Go ahead and open your desk.” I drew in a deep breath and held it. Lying on top of her science book was a Ziploc bag filled with mush. “What is that?”
A flush creeping across her cheeks, she whispered, “A blue gill. At least it was a blue gill.”
Fourth graders chuckled.
The girl tilted her head back and turned accusatory eyes at me. “Remember how you said if someone brought one in we’d dissect it and find its swim bladder?”
“Yes, do you think you might have told me you’d brought in a fish so I could have made sure you got to show it?”
The little girl gave a small nod then quickly brightened. “Don’t worry. I’ll catch you another one.”
Yes, I think, it’s definitely time to clean up my act. Later that day I’d just begun the science lesson when I overheard a teacher’s voice in the hall. “Ewww, you must be looking for Mrs. L., room 149.”
A minute later a boy appeared at my desk to present me with a bag of owl pellets. I tried to control my excitement. “Thank you.” I pulled one out. “Wow! Gather around class. This is awesome!” I broke one apart. “A mouse skull! How cool is that? This was probably spit up by a great horned owl. Owls’ digestive systems can’t handle fur and bones, so they regurgitate these pellets. Let’s break open another. We might find snake skin or even a bit of skunk fur.”
Ah, I decided, rolling up my sleeves, cleaning up my reputation can wait until next year.