Wednesday, June 13, 2012
A Teacher's Bestiary
It's no big secret that children love animals, animal butts, people butts, farts, rude sounds made with all sorts of body parts, monsters, deformities, skeletons, sex jokes, dirty words no adult has ever heard of, toilet jokes, mean old people getting jabbed with red-hot pokers in the ass, great white sharks in smack-downs with orcas, T-rexes rending gobs of gory flesh from carrion piles, and watching people of all ages fall down (as long as they're not really hurt)—and it's also no secret that certain cultural scolds wish that all of the above were secret and expend considerable ugly and wasteful energy trying to make it so.
Well, it ain't gonna happen, baby. If we had to pick one of the above to focus on, animals would win out, for a number of obvious reasons. First, we are animals, African primates to be specific, as much as folks from Texas and Louisiana wish it wasn't so. The natural tendency to anthropomorphize and imagine—even if a child can't have a pet—conjures up friends from the wild world who live in the tree outside the window, swing down from telephone lines, or erupt from sewers, blowing manhole covers up like spinning coins from a giant's purse. Mine was a T-Rex about 6 feet tall that I could sic on bullies, much to their confusion, hilarity, and occasional fear. Sometimes when I'm stuck for a retort in an argument, I shout "Get him, T-Rex!
As a teacher of young children I've groped my way to an understanding over the years that animals and their clawing, stalking, growling, anus-exposing, grotty, and slobbery behavior provides for kids a way to deal with all the lower-intestinal, cloacal, foaming and fuming rage of nature—right there, always present, always sensed and feared and respected. Death is closer than your own breath. Animals, stuffed cuties or realistic creepy crawlies from the hobby store, keep it all at bay. Down below, in the Chthonic realm. Keep the swirling, creative horror deeply buried and find intuitive ways of channeling it into the Kid's Korner. Animals have that power.
Of course, for my own reasons, my ever-present and entirely self-motivated reasons, I've developed an elaborate phantasmagoria of animal friends, their dramas and not always coherent narrative adventures. It's retarded but it's mine. Here goes.
First, I never go to any classroom --Kindergarten to hardened 12th graders on their way to college—without my shark. My shark is a 25 foot Great White who lives in a specially constructed salt water pool in my backyard. I always feed him walrus meat and Kindergarteners because they don't swim very fast.
“Isn't that against the law?” someone always asks.
“Most certainly yes.”
Children aged 4 to 17 are always greeted by a grotesque version of the famous Jaws from 1975—the monster shark, maw agape, rising like a nuclear missile toward the helpless girl swimmer that I sketch on the white board. I explain with calm, maniacal firmness that any misbehavior will result in the child's name being swallowed by the shark. It goes into his body, it doesn't come out. Further violations result in a bloody circle around the name, and so on.
“How do I get out?”
“You can't. That was clearly explained.” At all levels, K-12, varying degrees of ontological confusion emerge in the form of questions like “How can the shark be at home in his pool but also on the board?”
“The universe is full of mysteries.”
I also have a white rat named Mortimer, very stealthy and fast, who has a small digital camera strapped to his back with which he transmits records of misbehavior to my cell phone when my back is turned. He also loves to untie shoe laces. Evidence abundant. Case closed.
After the flag salute I always announce that Animal Control has issued a warning that a Giant Six-foot tall Chicken is on the loose and has been pecking kids painfully on the head if they take too long returning from the restroom.
I also keep a specially trained troupe of dogs in an air-conditioned van parked near the school who are keyed to the students' scent and will drag back any sluggards to the classroom by the collar, slobbery but safe.
There is the talking Chihuahua, Mr. Chi Chi Cha Cha, skilled in cooking Thai food and who plays a mean game of Poker.
Things get confusing for me and the children when I conflate my orphan childhood spent in the Congo with wild apes and my formative years (Jane Goodall was my sister) on the planet Yorg (aliens eat only raw parsnips and chalk) in the constellation of Orion where I learned to speak Ape and Alien, respectively.
Other beasties make their entries stage left, right, and deus ex machina, prompting questions from kids like, “Doesn't the city get after you or don't you need a lot of food?”
“I did the mayor and the zookeeper a favor once. Something involving stolen rare otters, a lime jello-filled jacuzzi, and a fake sapphire engagement ring.”
Improvisation is the key. And 99.9% of all animals who've ever lived are gone now. Think this world was planned for you? Observe yon kitty cat curled up by the fireplace. You share a common ancestor with that creature millions of years ago, not just on the species level, but an actual couple who managed to mate and get you here along with your bad knees and love of butter pecan ice cream. If things had gone another way, if a mudslide or carnivorous kangaroo put an end to your line, neither you nor kitty kat would be here to line the vet's pockets.
In our efforts to hold ourselves together in the face of certain disintegration, our fall back into the Chthonic, most children seem to need the nutty, even cutsie animal fantasies, and as Loren Eiseley once wrote in a review of Lord of the Rings, “The adult mind has, if anything, an even greater need of fantasy than the child's.” All of the above goofing is often just about making kids like me. But if you like me you've also got to like the 8 pounds of bacteria that make up my body and the additional 8 percent by body mass of viral particles that make up your best gal.