A couple of months ago, one of my students came in with a peculiar look on his face.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him.
“There’s a kitten out in front of the school.”
I was taken aback for a moment. This student wasn’t the kitten type, but I could tell he was disturbed by what he saw. Winter was still in the air, and the temperature was hovering right above freezing. “Is it still out there?” I asked. He nodded sadly. “Is it alive?”
“Barely,” he replied in a wavering voice.
“Go get it.”
He looked at me with hope in his eyes. “Can I?”
“Yes. Go get it right now. We can’t let it die out there.” He scurried down the hallway quickly. A few moments later he returned with a tiny black waif of a creature tucked inside his jacket. His face beamed with a happiness I hadn’t seen in him before.
“It’s so little,” he said, holding it out for me to examine.
Its eyes were glued shut with the slime of sickness. He was having trouble breathing due to the crusty film that had solidified over his nose. I quickly removed the bright yellow scarf from around my neck and wrapped the pitiful creature in it. I handed the kitten to the nearest student and sent another to the environmental science teacher to get an eyedropper and some cat food. Another student ran for a warm, wet paper towel. They carefully cleaned the gunk from its eyes, and it greeted us with a tiny howl of distress.
The students took turns passing him around, the warmth of their hands bringing this poor creature back to life. It mewed pitifully, and drank dropper after dropper of water, its tiny paws clawing at the hands that held him so sweetly. The students gathered around, quickly forgetting their own troubles as they tended to the tiny black cat. Refill the eyedropper. Wipe the eyes. Sighs of “awwwww” when it would sneeze and shake its tiny head clear. Let me hold it. My turn. Be careful, it’s so little.
I know these students. I know the lives they endure and the pain that they experience. For a single moment, they were in charge of their destiny. In helping something helpless, they were empowered. You could see it in their faces: empathy. They took turns feeding and stroking the kitten. One would wipe the yellow goop from his eyes while another would refill the eye dropper and hold out a morsel of cat food for it to devour. Finally content, the tiny kitten fell asleep in their arms, a faint but distinct purr coming from the bundle of yellow fabric. There was something in the eyes of some of these kids I haven’t seen before. Happiness. Hope.
“What should we name it?” asked the student who found it.
“Kitters!” came the immediate reply. And that’s how Kitters got his name.
As the day progressed, the tiny kitten gathered strength. I had no idea what to do with him; it was obvious it had a cold of some sort. I couldn’t bring it home; if I brought one more black cat into the house, I was sure D would divorce me. To test the waters, I sent a picture.
“Look what showed up in my class today:”
Response: “Uh huh.”
Hmmm….. I knew this would be a tough sell. The day wore on, and the kitten gained strength. By the time my conference period rolled around, it was walking around my classroom, meowing happily. Every time I moved around the room, it followed me, and when I would stop, it would look up at me expectantly.
The MEW was always punctuated with a tiny sneeze and a shake of its head. Kitters had spirit.
I did not want to love this kitten, but I couldn’t help it. I sat back in my chair and giggled as it climbed up my pant leg, settling into my lap before the purring commenced again. I absent-mindedly stroked its tiny ears as I read my email, until it settled into sleep, its rusty motor settling into a comforting rhythm. How quickly his life had changed from utter misery to this.
My in-laws are active in a local cat rescue shelter, so I’d called them in hopes of finding some help for Kitters. The kitten had been thrown from a moving car in front of the school on a freezing cold day; several students had seen it. It was a miracle the thing was alive, much less unbroken. My father-in-law came to pick it up halfway through the conference period; I gave Kitters a kiss on top of his sweet head and passed the bright yellow bundle of cloth to him. He was taking him straight to a local vet to get him checked out. Several of the students stopped by my classroom to check on him; three had already called home and were willing to adopt him. It was a good day in the world of teaching.
About a half an hour later, I got the text from my mother-in-law.
“The kitten needed to be put down. Vet said very contagious eye infection secondly to respiratory virus.”
And just like that, he was gone.
I was devestated… not just for the tiny life that was quickly taken away, but for the hope that he had brought into the lives of my students. I was upset that they didn’t even give him a chance to fight. I knew he was sick, but like my kids, he was a fighter, and God knows I’ve seen what the power of love can do. In the span of a single day, I saw emotions in kids that I didn’t think they were capable of feeling… and I couldn’t bear to tell them that it was gone. We had a moment together, something wonderful and special, and like most things in life, it ended. I wasn’t ready for it.
For the first time since my father died, I cried in my classroom. I knew that they would all be waiting for a diagnosis when the bell rang. I took a deep breath and pulled myself together, and for the first time in my life, I did something to my students I swore I would never do.
I lied to them.
It took two weeks of telling them Kitters was at the vet, no, he wasn’t okay, no he probably won’t make it… until the day passed that I just couldn’t lie to them anymore. They, like me, were devestated. Some cried. The boy who had found him took it especially hard; he had already set up a place for Kitters to sleep when he brought him home. I told him there were plenty of kittens out there who needed a home that would love to belong to him.
“Yeah, but Kitters was a fighter.” I knew exactly what he meant. And we never even gave him the chance to fight.
It was a bad day for teaching.
These are the things that you don’t hear about at school. These are the moments that you can’t put into words, that can’t be measured or evaluated. These are the moments that you can’t share with parents, administrators, legislators…. these moments can’t be bought with funding, or standardized with testing. These are those teachable moments that no one can understand unless you experience them. Because it’s not always about the data, or the assessment or the curriculum or the standards…
…sometimes it’s just about being human.