In sixth grade I killed our class pet. He was a brown field mouse with a cute name like Albert or Nibbles and his favorite thing to do was eat millet from the palm of our hands. I was not a sadistic child. I loved blue skies and the crisp fall air, for instance. The first day of spring, too—its warm hand on my neck—and listening to the night rain drum over the roof after my father slid me under my covers and whispered sleep now . . . rest your head and sleep . I was a sensitive boy and had never killed anything up to that point, excluding a few redwood squirrels and a mule deer doe. But I lived in Montana and to kill with a gun was to step toward manhood—the sole purpose of spending one full month of summer vacation in hunter safety. So until the mouse, my kills were all well within regulation and carefully metered with precision and the appropriate caliber.
It was an unusual day, a Friday—I remember it clearly. Our teacher, Mr. Bees, was ill and substituted by a fairly large woman with dark eyebrows and wild, silvery hair. She reminded me of a picture I'd once seen in an Encyclopedia Britannica of an eccentric pianist, perhaps Schubert or Beethoven. When she spoke, her eyebrows contorted, her head jerked with emphasis, and the tip of her tongue rolled around her mouth bumping into her teeth and producing soft th sounds. She would have made a great act as a deflating balloon.
“Hello . . . My name'th Huthon,” the pianist said spitting all over the room. She picked up a piece of chalk and wrote HUDSON in all capitals on the blackboard.
“You mean, like the river?” someone asked. It was good and we all laughed.
Damien, a pale, freckle-faced boy with red curly hair and a devilish grin, poked around and found out it was Ms. and not Mrs. Hudson, though she had been married once. One of her two boys attended our school. The other was in high school where she told us grades begin to matter.
“Be prepared,” she said perfectly.
We had her talking, and she seemed quite comfortable dealing out the details of her life. One of the students, a girl, told us her parents were also divorced, and the class held to that discussion for a good while. Then we broke into groups to work on fractions.
While the pianist moved slowly around the room comparing our answers with those in the back of her textbook, my friends and I huddled around our books rating each girl from 1 to 10. During the previous summer, we boys squandered our freedom with campouts and games of touch football while the girls raced ahead of us, blossoming into figures that our parents described with their ancient vocabulary as physiques . It would be at least two more years before the curves of these physiques would fully assert themselves, but they'd made a good start. While Lacy and Jill coyly raised their hands to exhibit just how bright and considerate they were, Sarah and Lindsay passed notes scribbled in pink and purple ink. It was unbearable.
When one of the girls took the empty seat in front of me on the first day of class, I choked on the eraser end of my newly sharpened # 2 pencil. This prompted her to turn around and check me out.
“Jamie Bell,” she announced. “From Mrs. Rou's class, remember?”
I did, though it took a while. In one year she had become the kind of girl boys book-marked in their yearbooks.
“Ye—ah,” I said and cowered when my voice broke into its higher register. She pretended not to notice, and attempting to recover, I tried to use my best Barry White impersonation, which sounded more like my friend Tim's grandmother, a sixty-year-old chain smoker. “Yeah, baby,” I said. “I remember you.”
Looking back, it would have been better to play it cool. I could have given her a small nod—a gesture to signal, yeah, I see you looking at me, but I'm not sure if I'm interested . Unfortunately, I was interested.
“Why don't you ask her out for a Coke?” my father asked after picking me up from school.
“Christ, listen to you,” I said, borrowing one of my mother's tag lines. “A Coke . . . she'd love that one.”
“Well,” my father said. “That's what we did in my day.” I could see his mind working back a hundred years or so.
Honestly, I think I would have liked simpler times where corny pickup lines could get a girl sipping through a milk shake at the local drug store. But my father didn't realize our world had changed—what with the invention of MTV and all. Perhaps Coke could teach the world to sing, but it was no match for the '80s youth, plugged in and amplified: longer hair, harder drugs, rap. I would have told my father in a few years I'd be pimpin' ho's while sippin' on Seagram's gin if he hadn't already pushed in one of his cassette tapes. We veered into the driveway and sat for a long time with the car running, not saying a word. I visualized my bleak future, while he pounded out Bo Diddley on the steering wheel, ba bada ba bada ba —swept in a tide of roller skates and tail fins, eyes bolted to the radio.
* * *
The pianist continued to walk around the room. My friends and I kept an eye out, jabbing one another in the ribs whenever she came near. Sean pretended to concentrate on his textbook, while Ryan kept watch, jabbing us in the ribs every so often to spotlight the girth of her derriere. “Swing batta batta swing,” he cheered under his breath. Our stomachs ached with suppressed titters.
When our classmates finished their homework, the room erupted in the usual chat and laughter. We shared stories from recent hunting trips, imitating the manly speech of our fathers and grandfathers, surpassing one another with cleaner kills, bigger trophies, until the subject was exhausted and we sat in silence. I don't have to tell you that children and monotony are a bad combination. It does not take much to conjure a few demons and send the room buzzing with a pure, grade-A vibe, enlivening colors and shapes (this was pre-Ritalin times) and urges: the girls with their new, mysterious figures and us boys with our uncontrollable voices. So after watching the sluggish second hand grind through the clock, we drew a line, tiptoed to the edge of reason, and after looking down into a canyon of sparks and flames and potential calamity, my friend Sean raised his hand and asked if he and the boys on our side of the room could take the mouse out of his cage, and the pianist, eyeing the cage, said yes.
* * *
I think it is a universal truth that substitutes have an unfair disadvantage, partly because students think of them less as teachers and more as glorified babysitters.
I remember one substitute who completely fell apart during the week of frog dissection in high school biology, fourth period. We asked questions: Is this the liver or the kidney? Where are the Eustachian tubes? I don't think my frog has Eustachian tubes. The substitute strained to find the answer in one of our textbooks. He pointed at pictures and stammered, “Yeah—well—uh, here is obviously—the mouth cav-i-ty.”
Todd, a student who never studied and made frequent use of the bathroom pass to sneak out and have a smoke, stood up and issued the first challenge.
“Great, Mr. S. We have a test on Friday and you don't know anything!”
“All right . . . quiet. Take your seat.”
“I can't, sir,” he countered. “I need to use the bathroom.”
While the substitute fought to remain poised, Todd kept him in his sights, firing insults and circular logic while holding his crotch.
“Please, Mr. S. I really gotta go!”
This distracted the substitute long enough for Kelly to make a bet with Fred, for Fred to accept his bet, and for everyone around their table to cry eeew when Fred put the heart of a frog inside his mouth and swallowed it whole.
Perhaps somewhere in America, in better neighborhoods where students learned to speak well and minded their Ps and Qs, substitutes glided through class like cruise ships sailing over the tranquil waters of the Caribbean: May I please sharpen my pencil . . . Thank you so kindly, Mrs. Smith . . . And I apologize for the disruption . . . I must have been writing too quickly. This was not my experience—grade school, middle school, high school.
We thrived on misery and wit, insulting not just substitutes and the occasional first-year teacher, but ourselves. Hallways and locker rooms transformed into boxing rings where we provoked whimpers and tears with verbal warfare. When a fistfight ensued onlookers cheered vehemently, a sight that would have made European soccer fans proud. Our training carried into the classroom where we prepared to battle “the adult,” or hoped to. While Catholics prayed for forgiveness, we prayed for sick days: Please, Lord . . . any illness . . . it doesn't have to be deadly . . . I'll tell you what . . . you make it up this time . Sometimes the Lord answered, delivering instead of our experienced, veteran teachers, retired principals and gym teachers, mothers, secretaries, PhDs and MAs—all kinds of unprepared adults. If the substitute lacked the capacity to establish authority, we figured it was God's way of patting us on the rear and saying: “Go get-em, champs.”
* * *
Still, it is an astonishing quandary, one that continues to puzzle me. How could Ms. Hudson—however unprepared or ill-equipped as our substitute—allow children to take a mouse out of its cage, a scenario with such a dangerous and predictable outcome? Without intending to diminish my own guilt, I must ask: was she simply foolish? Or was it more complicated than that? Perhaps by loosening the reins of authority, she was seeking our respect. I'll never know. To be fair, I have to assume we coaxed her with the genius found only in young boys and top-notch criminals. All I truly remember, however, is the nervousness in her voice when she clasped her hands together and added, “Pleath, be gentle.”
Once she said it, we all knew what would happen. It was one of those prophetic statements that send an electrical pulse into the brain, allowing for one millisecond a vision of the future. The problem with this mechanism, however, is that young boys rarely figure out how to harness and fully utilize its power. We visualize the broken window and then we shrug it off. We kick the rock, which hits a curb, skips up, and just as we squint and duck, we hear the sound of shattered glass followed by the howl of a large dog, something like a Doberman-Rottweiler crossbreed. And at that we turn and run—fear being quite an effective motivator.
So we brushed off fate, knowing perfectly well the mouse would die, and OF COURSE! not wanting it to die, but still whispering things like: Let's feed him to the snake. Put him on the substitute's desk. Come here, Nibbles. We won't hurt you, Nibbles. Taunts and giggles that would make the death of the mouse even less excusable.
Sean picked the mouse up by the tail and then cupped him loosely in the upturned palms of his hands where Nibbles, I'm sure now that was his name, began sniffing for food. We were used to handling animals because Mr. Bees was a real zoology buff and kept an array of cages in the classroom, each filled with a different specimen including a pair of lizards, a boa constrictor, a hamster, and of course, a mouse. It was a characteristic that separated Mr. Bees from other middle school teachers and one that immediately earned our respect. He was our Discovery Channel, our National Geographic, our very own Steve Irwin. And though he worked us diligently through the typical sixth-grade curriculum—math, language arts, social studies—he would often stop class mid-sentence and dance with excitement when the boa constrictor began to shed or one of the lizards hungrily eyed a cricket. And each Friday afternoon, we were allowed to take the animals out to feed them and pet them while Mr. Bees articulated the art of their natural beauty in lengthy poetic terms.
For this reason—his love for animals—I know we would have handled the mouse with caution if Mr. Bees had been present. But in his absence we had simply become reckless, and when Sean put the mouse on a pair of desks that we slid together, Ryan shook them, prompting a reenactment of the San Francisco earthquake we'd seen disrupt Game 3 of the '89 World Series. Watching the continuous news coverage, my friends and I would have given anything to experience the danger of fault lines and shattered window panes, but because we lived in a relatively disaster free environment (aside from blizzards and lightning storms—both boring), we were forced to use our imaginations. Of course, victims are the most important aspect of any catastrophic event, and the mouse, being small and fragile, seemed to accept the role almost willingly. With the desks in motion, I ran an emergency, two-tone siren singing, EARTH-quake, EARTH-quake , and before long we were out of control, laughing and singing, shaking the desks up and down and side to side until they began to separate, leaving a chasm toward which the mouse, having grown skittish, scampered.
Because we had entered into a state of unconscious traveling where time simply moves forward, and because the space between the mouse's life and the mouse's death had grown so slight, we did not have time to retrace our steps or figure how we had come to that point. Had there been time, we would have seen the pianist moving toward us with her thick eyebrows arching over her wide eyes, or we would have witnessed the last few seconds tick toward the noon bell. Or perhaps we would have gazed one last time out the sacred school window into the sea of the uncertain world and paused to consider the irony of running in fear towards death.
I imagined Nibbles hitting the unsure space between the desks, feeling the breeze of the light classroom air (for a moment at his feet), then plummeting toward the floor. I had seen Wile E. Coyote make trips like this at least a thousand times and live, though death always seemed more plausible; certainly in this situation, it was a reasonable prediction. So I grabbed hold of the desks in desperation and with one swift movement, the way my mother whipped shut the dining room curtains in the evening, banged them back together—an act that would have saved the mouse and proved heroic among our group if he had not, at that exact moment, begun to fall.
* * *
I knew I'd made the wrong decision when Nibbles made a painful shriek, signaling I'd got him good. Because he'd always been fairly quiet, I had assumed he lacked a voice. If hungry or in need of attention, he'd scratch up and down the side of his cage or crawl under a pile of shavings, popping up every so often to see if we'd notice. This process was repeated until someone offered a handful of millet or a fresh bottle of water, which he accepted without offering a single squeak.
Now, here he was, clinched between the desks, sounding a queer, harsh cry. It was a shocking discovery, akin to hearing my devoutly religious grandmother curse one day after dropping a macaroni casserole on the kitchen floor. “Damn it to hell,” she muttered, while bending over to shovel the food right back into the pan. Our pet would not recover so easily: his hairless tail curled upward, waving like a white flag. I studied the doorway, expecting to see Mr. Bees suddenly appear and feeling optimistic when he didn't. Then Sean pulled the desks apart and Nibbles fell to the floor, convulsing. I eased the quivering mouse into my hands and was holding him when he died.
* * *
Listening to the children laughing at the other end of the room, not yet aware of the tragedy of the dead mouse, I like to imagine I had time to reach back into the illuminated rooms of memory, to the beginning of the semester where I met Jamie.
As it turned out, Mr. Bees had assigned our seats, which eliminated the option of hiding in shame at the opposite end of the room. One day, after working my way out of paralysis, I told Jamie a joke and she smiled. In cartoons, this kind of smile flashes a tiny harmless star and makes you laugh, but in real life it turns you upside down and shakes out your stomach. I liked it. A few days later, when she smiled again, I was doomed. Determined to make her fall in love with me by the end of the year, I stayed up late thinking of ways to make her laugh. Seeking inspiration, I dug out our fifth-grade yearbook and felt the pages brush across my nose until my eyes rested on Jamie's snapshot. Because my picture happened to line up with hers, I could bend the pages just right and bring our glossy lips together and imagine, over and over, our first kiss.
A year earlier I could have won the Nobel prize for humor, in my mind, but I'd become speechless and trite. Icebreakers faltered: So you like mechanical pencils, too? . . . Jamie Bell. It has a ring to it . . . Are you by chance related to Alexander Graham Bell?
I found myself reaching for inspiration, knowing it would take something incredibly clever to cross Mr. Bees, a man who combined his passion for science with a carefree, laid back attitude. Wad up a piece of paper and miss a trash can jump shot from fifteen feet away, he'd simply pick it up and hand it back to you.
“Try again . . . higher arc, more wrist.”
The whole situation confused me. At home, I wrote love poems. At school, I jumped up and down on chairs and ran around in circles. Instead of hanging back to enjoy the race for delinquent stardom, I became the frontrunner, resolved to win Jamie's affection.
The mouse had been doomed from the very beginning.
* * *
I cupped the small weight in my hands as if holding water, hoping the body would make another movement, signaling breath. But the stillness made everything I'd done real. The mouse felt heavy. He felt heavy because there was nowhere to put him. With death, he was no longer our pet, but something unpleasant, something that needed to be taken care of, quick.
“You killed it,” the pianist said. She was standing between Sean and Ryan and speaking directly to me.
The class, having heard the substitute's assertion, looked up from their desks to where I was standing. I looked at Sean and Ryan appealing to them for help.
“No way, man,” Ryan said throwing his hands in the air. “I didn't do it.”
Sean denied responsibility, too, looking stunned to find the mouse dead in my hands.
I gazed around the room, searching for someone who understood, but it was one of those moments as a child where you find yourself standing in front of the unfair world, already charged as you plead your case. My throat began to swell, which exhausted my speech, and I began to sob. Still, unwilling to accept my role in the incident, I cursed Mr. Bees for abandoning me. And then, as the pianist lifted the dead mouse from my hands, I saw Jamie standing at a table surrounded by three of her friends. Her eyes were squinting, her nose scrunched up. She looked sickened, as if to say, Oh my God!! . . . get away from us . . . you murderer . . . you freak! I wish I could say her revulsion made her look ugly, but her golden hair fell perfectly over her ears to her shoulders and I ached knowing I'd lost my chance.
The pianist dumped the mouse in the garbage and hauled herself over to where I stood. You killed it, the words echoed in my head. I could have accepted a gloating speech or a merciful sentiment, something in the vein of I knew this kind of thing would happen . . . I told you to be careful , but to look a child in the eye and accuse him of murder seemed callous, especially considering that this was an accident—perhaps avoidable and somewhat premeditated—but clearly an accident.
The pianist, waiting for a response, stood with her plump fingers twitching at her side, perhaps rehearsing the keys of a dark sonata. Her expression remained tense and brooding—witchlike—and I despised her from her raggedy hair all the way down to the bristles of her broomstick.
“Well,” she said. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
I shrugged, though I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I wanted to lean close and whisper, “You're next.”
* * *
I walked home wondering exactly how long it would take for a school to forget something like killing a mouse: weeks, months, a year? It depended greatly on other students, I realized, and the sooner someone else faltered in class the sooner I'd be forgotten.
Fortunately, my pardon came that Sunday evening, just two days after the incident. If you've ever run into a teacher outside of school, say a laundry mat or a department store, you already know the overwhelming feeling, like passing through a bend in time. Your senses are dulled. You feel light on your feet. Nothing can prepare you for the truth that teachers are sometimes human, and they sometimes do human things. If you've ever experienced this awkward discovery, the world twisting you out like water from a wet rag, it's nothing to the way I felt when I found Mr. Bees standing in the doorway of my home.
He was wearing one of his usual suits with a black tie, which swung from his slender frame when he leaned over to shake my hand.
“Bryan , you have a very nice home,” he said. He looked over my head to appreciate the living room, then his eyes moved to the light green couch, where the sun shone through our bay window. “Do you have a moment to sit and talk with me?” he asked.
I inspected his auburn moustache and his full head of hair, trying to think of something to say, embarrassed because I couldn't look him in the eye. “I guess,” I said, shrugging.
I had a nagging suspicion my parents had arranged our meeting, that they already knew about the mouse. But in my memory they are not present. Perhaps it's narcissistic, or it's the mind's way of narrowing stories down to the essential facts. But what I do remember is being comforted and how smoothly we transitioned into the incident with the mouse.
“I know about the mouse,” he said. “I know it's not your fault.”
He was sincere. His hands moved gently up to his heart. He thought for a long time before saying anything else, as if he were given one chance and only one chance to ease my guilt. Then making sure he had my complete attention, he said, “I take full responsibility, and I don't want you to worry.”
For two days, I'd been sulking around the house, unable to eat or watch television. I'd found the yearbook with Jamie's picture and threw it into the closet. I hadn't realized the tension building inside me until I tried to say thank you and immediately started crying. The last thing I wanted to do was cry in front of my teacher, but the thought of him seeing me in tears made me cry even harder. I sobbed for a few minutes before wiping my eyes with the back of my knuckles. Then I took a deep breath and exhaled a few last whimpers.
“Feels good, doesn't it?” he asked.
Then he stood up and leaned over to shake my hand one more time. “You have a good home, Bryan ,” he said again. “Try to enjoy the rest of your weekend.”
My eyes were still burning when he pulled out of the driveway.
* * *
The next day I walked to school feeling queasy. I knew Mr. Bees had already addressed the class because he asked me to show up a few minutes late. As I approached the first row of lockers outside the room, I heard laughter which meant the class had broken between lessons. When Sean and Ryan saw me their eyes went wild, and they welcomed me with excited high fives. I knew it was a rehearsed gesture, but I didn't care. I looked toward the front of the classroom where Mr. Bees was busy with one of the other students, his dry erase marker swirling through the air. Then I took my seat next to Jamie, who was smiling.
“Look,” she said and pointed to the side of the classroom where we used to keep Nibbles. Immediately I noted the aquarium-style cage and inside, scratching against the glass, there was another field mouse, gray this time, with a white belly.
“You can think of a name and write it down on this piece of paper,” she said lending me one of her purple ballpoint pens. “We're going to vote on Friday.”
It would be easy to say that I'd learned my lesson right then and there. But the truth was we would have other substitutes, there were always others. And when the situation called for it, I'd draw a cautious line and test the waters, because children have short memories. With Jamie handing me her pen and paper, her hand brushing against mine, I came close to forgetting about the trouble altogether.
“Pretty cool, huh?” she asked glancing up at the cage.
“Yeah,” I said and smiled. “Pretty cool.”
* * *
Once, when I reminded my father about the sixth-grade incident, he said, “God, you know that-kind-of-thing could only happen to you.” I was trying to take that in when he paused to reconsider. “No,” he said finally. “It's a boy's job to kill mice in grade school, even if they are pets.” It made sense, if only to me, and it's one of the few things my father and I continue to agree upon. Somewhere in America , in better schools, students might rush through their textbooks on nuclear physics or scale replicas of the Taj Mahal, but I have to believe most children experience the same torment I did. And when I consider the Montana towns where I grew up, where time is stagnant and measured generally by the change in weather, I trust not much has changed at school, especially when it comes to substitutes.
It begins when you arrive, feeling free and a little dizzy because something in the classroom is missing, and then, witnessing the figure standing behind the familiar desk at the foot of the familiar blackboard, you are compelled (by curiosity and more importantly the right to defend your territory) to act.
Soon the entire class is seated and aware of the situation. Don't worry, they have your back. This one is slightly balding and dressed in an old brown suit, something, you tell yourself, you will never wear no matter how old you get. That one is dressed in pleated slacks and a turtleneck with a small broach of the holy cross—a real Sunday school type. All she can do is smile widely and attempt to remain proper. It is a natural rite of passage, and though this reasoning strays from the forefront of your knowledge because you are young and lack perspective, you know instinctively what you must do: test them—you are, of course, devilishly smart, and they are outnumbered.
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