It was the mockingbird perched high upon the dead mesquite trilling out his spring melody that gave rise to these thoughts piling up in my head. When I saw the title Everyone has a dead bird story I knew one day I would tell you about it. Then I read in the Sunday morning paper
QUESTION OF THE WEEK:
What's the most embarassing thing you ever did?
I threw up onstage at my school play.
While eating at a dinner party, I farted.
Stevie,10 Holwell Elementary
The most embrassingt thing I ever did is too embarassing to tell the newspaper.
My most embarrassing moment was when I needed to use the bathroom.
I was jumping up and down, then I went poop on the floor.
This all reminded me of how much I miss teaching these honest to goodness and funny little souls; and led me to thinking about my most embarrassing moments teaching and birds and more to the point teaching and about dead birds.
I spent my first few semesters teaching High School biology in Wellington, Kansas. One genetics class, but for the most part it was sophomore biology while still working at Mossman Hall for the college science department to pay off loans. In the evenings it was running glassware through the autoclave
, setting up for the professors labs classes the next day, feeding various sundries of animals, as well as, helping with construction on the new green house.
Dr. Maxwell Thompson,or Dirty Max as some of us called him behind his back then later to his face when he demonstrated the elasticity of the female vagina with the chalkboard pointer; a lecture that just went too far. He didn't seem to care, as a matter of fact I think he liked it more than he really should have. Dirty Max was the head ornithologist and he kept several exotic birds that flew freely around the labs or in large flight cages. I took as many ornithology classes as I could because every other year Max selected four students to go with him to Africa. My heroes Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall lived in Africa and I entertained hopes of going. It was for some reason that Max decided to keep a pair of Peached Faced African love birds he had brought back, in the same cage as Alvin the Alligator. By the time Alvin and I met,he was at least five feet long and weighed close to a hundred pounds. A group of students had brought him back from Florida during Spring Break twenty years earlier and he had become the mascot of Mossman Hall of sorts, he and I just never got along. Along with trying to feed the Thirteen Lined ground squirrels while they happily hibernated surrounded by an ever increasing pile of seed sitting ignored in their cage, Alvin lounged around in his cage in a blue plastic baby pool nearby and hissed whenever I dared walk by. He had to be prodded away from the door with a mop handle, then fed while Max's love birds watched from their perch over head. One morning a love bird came up missing and not long afterwards Dr. Wimmer took me aside and explained that I should thaw the chicken first before feeding it to Alvin. Max never knew, but was heart broken over the loss of his bird and Alvin was excommunicated to the new green house. That didn't last long because people who were coming in to buy plants soon stopped. He could be downright formidable hissing and lunging out from under the shadows of a table of impatiens. Jane and Dian probably would have been nonplussed about the whole thing; I have to say he was never happier than when he was out there in a warm patch of sunlight as the sprinklers thatched thatched thatched around him. He died last year, Winfield ran his obituary, one of the professors did a necropsy and after 40 some odd years of thinking Alvin was a he it turned out after all that time, he was a she.
During the day when I was mild mannered Miss Godwin and not torturing lab animals at night I was working up a unit on the circulatory system and juggling experiments with Drosophila at the high school. The morning had gotten off to a bad start, anesthetizing the fruit flies with ether had triggered a headache and every time I placed them under the microscope their small diaphanous wings assumed, what was becoming the dreaded 90º angle in my head, meaning they were deader than door nails and I couldn't figure out if I using too much ether or what? Mr. Z the chemistry teacher shared connecting a storage closet between the labs so I popped over to ask him what he thought might be causing what was fast becoming a genetic holocaust of embarrassing and horrifying proportions. He was quick to deduce that the heat emitting from the light under the slide of the microscope was frying the little critters as he so aptly put it. The bell rang and disaster struck as I rushed to put what was left of the blue banana goo filled bottles back into the lab closet. The whole tray of twenty some odd glass vials crashed to the floor releasing their captives. Criminy! scooping what I could into the trash can I shut the door. Mindlessly I began the lesson for the first class on the structure of the frog's three chambered heart. With red chalk I sketched an outline of the two atris chambers colored them in, lines of blue indicated a bedwork of capillaries and veins. To further add interest the ventricle was a mixture blue and red depicting the mixing of oxygenated with un oxygenated blood.
Blood leaves the heart from the ventricle through a single truncus arteriosus which is short and soon branches into two aortic arches which loop left and right and dorsal to the heart to rejoin as a single aorta in the mid dorsal region of the body cavity. Each aortic arch has a branch leading to the lungs and skin where oxygenation occurs. Carotid arteries also branch off the aortic arches and supply the head region. Veins bring blood to the left and right atria. Both atria then empty into the single ventricle. Blood from the ventricle thus enters either the pulmonary or body circulation.
Silence hung brittle in the air, no paper shuffling fidgety spring fevered movement came from behind as my drawing took shape. Nothing
, dreadful nothing. Even the fruitflies had stopped their annoying buzzing.
I hadn't been teaching long enough to have grown the proverbial eyes in the back of my head yet. Most of the students were sitting mouth agape. These sweet things born and bred in the Bible Belt were too polite; girls looked away, boys shuffled their feet. Eternity became an everlasting. An orange Chevelle drove by outside the classroom window, containing kids with Jack and Diane plans swirling up dusty motes that skimmed into the room. Sketched on the backboard red and ble bled into purple, was an image that could pass for male genitals! Hurriedly erasing my all too disagreeable artwork, Get out your books and read the chapter on circulation.
It was too much for Marsha who sat in the back row with the most beautiful hazeled eyes and red hair. She slumped forward head on her desk, fainted. Embarrassment became panic, white faced she slid to the floor eyes wide open, the the black pin points of her pupils contrasted against bright gray eyes. Everyone pretended not to see her lying there on the floor in her sunny yellow dress. Propping her knees up, she came around. No one saw. I lied politely. I rarely lie but I lied to save face for her. Forty five minutes had finally inched by and the bell rang with all the relief it could muster. How could this get any worse?
Second hour was a lab, we were studying antigens, blood typing. Alcohol and the sweet iron smell of blood coursed along with the fruit flies in the breeze of the fans. Girls had heard in the hall that Marsha had fainted during first period, fainting spreads the same way hysteria does. Dawn was sitting straight up on the lab stool, perfectly balanced, in a dead faint. Marsha's twin sister Valerie, was deja vu all over again, and fell to the floor with a thud. Gads!
I couldn't wait till lunch and the sanctuary of the teacher's lounge where I shared my travails and attempted to study for an ornithology test. Sparrows, juncos and larkspurs, there are over forty five species of these small bodied brown brown birds with short conical beaks and streaked chests. It was a pointless endeavor after the miserable morning. Dirty pictures on the chalkboard, fainting, lying and more fainting. It was all I could muster to eat the apple out of the bottom of the brown lunch bag. Mr Z said he had to run to the hardware store during lunch.
Teachers talked over coffee while the soda machine hummed peacefully, I could study some more during my fifth hour planning period. I was grateful the fourth hour class was past the blood typing lab and onto studying ABO and Rh Blood Typing. We were going over worksheets assigned as homework. Gale said she wasn't sure if she had done her blood test right. She had asked Mom and Dad what their blood type was and for some reason hers didn't match up. My hands clutched and released the paper in disbelief. This was a small town. The tic tac toe -like boxes she had drawn to match up the blood types leered lurid and swam before my eyes. I lied again and wondered where Jane and Dian or for that matter where were Jack and Diane by now,
Oh don't worry, these aren't the same tests they do at the doctor's office.
Maybe they all were somewhere out there running through the rye or postulating;
Question:What's the difference between a high school biology teacher and a chimpanzee?
Answer: It's scientifically proven that chimpanzees are able to communicate with humans.
Fifth hour planning period (cringe) would now be spent writing up a report for Principal Black explaining that it might be possible that Gale's parents would be in to see him; her parentage was in question.
I didn't dare teach sixth hour. Mr. Z's class was listening to Orson Well's War of the Worlds. It was a balm in Gilead to spend the rest of the afternoon listening to the deep soothing resonating voice and imagine what it was like to hear it all those years ago and for a moment believe it was true. Flypaper thick with fruit flies from the hardware store turned like crepe paper from Mr Z's ceiling, the smells of citronella and banana wavered in the air. Memory can be funny that way sometimes, recalling how the good stands out against the bad......
Dirty Max had said he didn't need me to set up the lab for the ornithology test. I was hoping to ace it. I knew all the scientific names, all about how the immature of some were duller in coloration, especially the ones with black or rufous on their head. How the ones with yellow lares with a short notched tails were good field marks for identifying the Savannah Sparrow, but the Ipswich Sparrow was lighter in color. Sometimes it was only a simple wing bar that differentiated one from the other. Pencil and paper in hand the lab tables were set up with trays and row upon row of sparrows. Max was well known taxidermist, some of his work had even been requested by the Smithsonian. We perched on our stools, birds in front of us draped with white sheets. How odd that the only thing visible were the feet. This was unexpected, even more so were Max's instructions. The test consisted of identifying the dead birds by their talons. Who would have studied for that?! Who would have known? And I was mad for the first time that day. Patience spent I stood up and said how could anyone hope to pass this test! I turned the test in blank, I said I would be talking to the Dean.
Max asked me who I was. He didn't even know my name! Dumb struck, incredulous at how invisible I was to him, there would be no going on African Safaris for me. Hopes forever dashed of meeting Jane and Dian....
What is you name? he asked a second time, I took off my socks and shoes and pointed to my feet, You tell me!
Dirty Max sent an e mail last November saying how fondly he remembered me and would like to know that for $4000.00 could I go with him and a group of people on a bird watching expedition to Africa?
He was met with stony silence.