New York Family, September 2007
by Christina Frank
It wasn't enough that my daughter, Olivia, finally landed the much-coveted classroom job of “Hamster Helper” that week. The stakes were suddenly higher. Chorizo the hamster's food had been attracting mice to the classroom, which (ironically) meant he had to go. And time was running out. He would soon find himself homeless--unless some kind parent stepped up to the habitrail.
This time, I had the sinking feeling that that parent was going to be me. For one, Olivia began her plea with “I know you're going to say no,” which usually guarantees that I will, but in this case actually tweaked my guilt. The bigger predictor, though, was one of sheer karma. In the six years that I've had kids in school, I have never once been a class parent, volunteered for the book fair, the candy sale, arts day, a bake sale or even the international dinner. I have attended exactly one PTA meeting, during which I fell asleep.
Clearly my free ride had to end sometime. I realized I could more convincingly drum up concern for the well-being of a small rodent than try to talk my relatives into buying magazine subscriptions or low-quality Christmas chocolates-both annual school fundraising events.
Yet, excited as I was about finally becoming a candidate for the Best Mommy Ever award, something in me still resisted taking that final, irreversible step by sharing the news with Olivia.
The truth is, I love animals. Despite being allergic to cats and dogs, I crumble at the sight of a kitten or puppy and have at times compromised my respiratory wellness for the joy of one unbridled furry snuggle. Anyone who knows me fairly well will tell you that my devotion to our cockatiel, George, is unnatural (call it the love that dare not tweet its name). And my husband has had to escort me out of pet stores, weeping uncontrollably at the sight of a motherless pug puppy.
So why do I automatically shun the assorted classroom creatures that have graced my daughters' school lives? Is it the sorry sight of defeated parents trying to cram the science-room guinea pig's cage into their trunk or balancing a murky aquarium full of newts on the day before Christmas vacation? Watching them stirs in me nothing but a feeling of pure relief that another parent's weak will made it possible for me to be spared once again.
At the end of last year, I blatantly ignored the numerous fliers posted around my younger daughter's preschool, pleading for someone to take FishyFish home for summer vacation. And why? Why would no one, including me, come forward and provide asylum to FishyFish--one of those beautiful but droopy bettas-- in this case hanging onto life by a mere scale or two? After all, he lived (if you could call it that) in a bowl the size of a golf ball and can't have required much quality time.
The classroom pet is a different kind of animal, somehow. A little…icky. Poignant and pathetic also come to mind. Unloved by a devoted single owner or family like most pets, they are welcomed with great fanfare at the beginning of the school year, then subjected to who-knows-what kind of strange combination of overzealous attention and horrifying neglect as the year goes on. Even more so than animals in a home setting, they seem put on this earth to traumatize or be traumatized--by escaping, like my own third-grade class's turtle did, ultimately meeting an untimely end under the shoe of Benjamin Finkel. Or by flat-out dying, which devastates not just one or two kids, but a whole classroom full of them. When Sweetie the gerbil kicked the bucket during Olivia's year in pre-K, it necessitated a week of grief counseling following the elaborate burial in the school's sideyard.
It's never clear who is ultimately responsible for these tainted creatures, who, if they don't end up sparking a discussion about mortality, will have to go home with someone at the end of the year.
It took me a while to resolve all my issues, but I finally summoned the courage to don my martyr mommy hat and announced proudly to Olivia that yes, we could provide a home for Chorizo the hamster. I felt like a hero.
But it's as if poor little Chorizo knew my love for him could never be pure. He was found in his cage the next morning, expired.
I guess I'll be selling those chocolates door-to-door after all.