By J.D. Hager
First thing Monday morning, Sierra discovered our class gecko stiff and unmoving. She sounded the alarm and students crowded around the tank with questions. Is Sal sleeping? Can we poke him and see if he moves?
These were third graders, the best age. Most had already learned to read and write well enough to share ideas. Their minds were little flowers about to be pollinated by knowledge. They appreciated concepts openly and considered things on merit alone, without presupposition. By fifth grade, they would know so much more but their worlds became smaller and more impossible. Magic and monsters and unbridled optimism fall away, replaced by pretense and already knowing it all.
Grasping the gravity of the situation, I sought to distract their attention by motioning students to their desks.
Unmoving, Colin made an announcement, with the gravity and know-it-all tone of a fifth-grader. “Sal is totally dead.”
This started their little minds spinning. Some grew teary eyed and quivery lipped.
“We must have a funeral,” declared Circe, with the dramatic flair of a B-list celebrity.
“We should bury him,” said Trevor. That boy loved digging.
I sensed a lesson unfolding.
“We shall take Sal out to the playground to pay our last respects.”
I scooped Sal’s stiff corpse from his sandy habitat and led twenty-three third graders on an impromptu field trip. Trevor carried the class hand trowel like a trophy. We marched single file past the playground and kickball diamond, onto the dewy grass. I pointed to a spot and Trevor started digging. We formed a circle and held hands. Sal sat aside the hole, folded in scratch paper.
“Would anyone like to say anything?”
Students looked down at their shoes or toward each other or stared vacantly at the hole.
I broke the silence. “We are here today to celebrate the life of Salmonella, leopard gecko and beloved class pet of…”
“I thought his name was Sal,” said Clara.
“What’s a Salmonella?” asked Colin. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that Sal was named after a bacteria that made people sick. Salmonella was the reason anyone who handled Sal had to wash their hands afterwards while singing the alphabet song. I didn’t think they would appreciate the irony, so I kept it to myself.
“We called him Sal, but in the end his name doesn’t matter so much. It was how he lived that was important. What are some of the things you liked about Sal?”
“I liked the way he licked his own eyeballs.”
“I liked how he wriggled his tail when he ate crickets.”
The compliments poured forth. His spots, his stripes, his soft belly. The funny way he drank water. Eventually the circle fell back into silence.
I approached the hole in the center, sensing the time had arrived. I lowered Sal and his scrap paper coffin into the hole, and Trevor scraped dirt on top.
“What happens to us when we die?” asked Colin, king of the hardest questions. He looked concerned, as did the other students. Sal’s mortality reminded them of their own. The class teetered on the precipice of an existential crisis.
“We change but don’t really go away. The pieces that make us spread out and become parts of other things.”
Looking down I noticed a dandelion, fluffy and gone to seed. I plucked it and blew the fuzz of seeds wayward.
“Pieces of Sal will flow off in every direction, kind of like these seeds. Sal will spread out further and further but never go away completely.”
Students watched bug-eyed as the pappus and seeds danced on the slow breeze.
“There will be little pieces of Sal growing all over this field. He will be in the grass and the worms and all the dandelions growing.”
Students grabbed dandelions and began blowing seeds in all directions. I grabbed a few myself. It felt like Sal was in the seeds already and we were helping him on his journey.
Things were going well, but it wasn’t a lesson yet. The final step of the classic five-step lesson plan is called closure, which is an opportunity for student reflection and summation. I didn’t know how to tease that out of them, and the experience had ended on such a positive note. I decided to just leave it. We marched back, single file, and started on, as the curriculum decreed, some multiplication and word problems. Life continued despite the dead.
Months later, on our way to lunch, Sierra noticed the field. “Look at all the flowers.”
It doesn’t take long for dandelions to sprout up from nothing. The green field was rinsed in a tide of yellow.
“Look, Salmonella Dandelions,” Colin said, joining Sierra’s pointing.
The class gave a collective “aww” as we marveled at Sal’s legacy.