The text from my wife arrived shortly after 9 a.m.: “How do you feel about rats?”
It was Friday, March 13. I had just dropped off our 10-year-old son, Ben, at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, his Denver school, for what would turn out to be the last time this year.
Back then, we knew he wouldn’t return to Room 153 for at least three weeks. The school district, like countless others across the country, had reached the painful decision to temporarily close school buildings and put learning on pause because of the coronavirus health crisis.
But before the 92,000-student Denver district went on what it called “extended spring break,” there was this one last day. At Sandoval, a dual-language Spanish/English Montessori school in the Highland neighborhood of northwest Denver, that meant self-directed learning time, watching part of the film “Life of Pi,” lunch, and recess.
It also included a call for volunteers: Would anyone be willing to provide safe harbor to the classroom rats, Spock and Panda, while schools were closed?
That’s what the text was about.
My son Ben is no amateur. He’s put in shifts as classroom rat-keeper, cleaning their cages and checking their food and water. But it’s one thing to look after animals at school and another to take responsibility for them 24/7. This request for at-home rodent care also came at a time when I already had been working long hours on a story that was only just beginning.
About two minutes after getting that text, I responded: “No (expletive) way.”
Ben’s teacher offered use of the school landline for students who were interested in contacting their parents about the adoption opportunity. I’m pretty soft. It didn’t take me long to flip.
Later that afternoon, I drove the few blocks to school to pick up Ben, Spock, and Panda.
They’re all living together in Ben’s room now, the rats in their three-story rat apartment near Ben’s bed.
We’ve learned a few things in our four weeks together. We learned that the rats are girls (only because Danette, the teacher, told us). We contacted her because Spock was breathing heavily and we were worried, but we learned Spock is older and always breathes like that. We’ve learned that Panda likes to run on her wheel in the middle of the night, and that it’s really loud.
We experimented with making rat food from dried fruit, Rice Krispies, and oatmeal, and we bought Kaytee Clean & Cozy Extreme Odor Control bedding (four-and-a-half stars on Amazon).
Taking in a classroom pet is an incredibly small gesture in the scheme of things. Health care workers and first responders are putting in heroic work to save lives and ease suffering. Teachers, principals, and administrators are hustling to reinvent school on a dime. Students and families are adjusting to a new reality with no idea of what lies ahead.
Last week, with spring break over and in-person school canceled for the rest of the year, Ben and his classmates began remote learning. Just after 9 a.m., when the kids normally would be sitting next to each other on the carpet to start the day, Ben was staring at a prompt on a computer screen asking him how he felt on a scale of 1 to 5.
We know we’re in it for the long haul with these rats. We don’t know when we’ll be able to return them to Room 153, or what school will look like across the country when that happens.
I’m sure we’ll miss having them around. We’ll miss Panda scurrying to say hello and sticking her pink nose through the cage when someone walks into the room.
But we’ll be happy to return them to their corner of the classroom because it will mean everyone is back where they belong.
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