The Wonder Pets
I met Justin in a park where he was walking his big, yellow lab. The dog sat patiently while we talked about Justin’s seventh-grade reading teacher, Mrs. Downey. He remembered her classroom as a safe and engaging place because of her compassion and a couple of class pets.
I remember middle school as a challenging time. I was small and struggled academically, which made me feel insecure. I avoided anything that would potentially draw attention or cause me embarrassment. Mrs. Downey’s reading class was comprised of mostly boys. I had known many of them since elementary school when we were all diagnosed with learning disabilities. After years of teasing, we learned to hide behind protective armor. We ascribed to the “attack them before they attack you” philosophy.
So, when we arrived in Mrs. Downey’s classroom that first day, we were surprised to find two guinea pigs. There was eye rolling and groaning; we were clearly too cool for class pets. Little did we know that George and Lennie had the power to break through the armor of middle school boys. Most of us were reluctant to read out loud, but we were willing to read to George or Lennie. Mrs. Downey’s typical response to an angry outburst was to send us over by the guinea pigs to cool down. In other classes, teachers would likely have withheld Lennie and George, seeing it as a reward when we should be punished. But this particular teacher was wise enough to find the fastest way to get us back on track.
Looking back, I see the brilliance of Mrs. Downey’s plan. When I felt unworthy, she gave me responsibility for the guinea pig’s care. When I felt unlovable, Lennie and George loved me unconditionally. When I armored up, these small creatures softened my heart. I took risks as a learner that I would not have taken in any other class.
Justin’s story reminded me that vulnerability is essential for learning. Students will not take the risks necessary to learn something new if they hide behind a hard exterior. Animals have a way of disarming even the toughest middle school boy, and they can do wonders for a student’s confidence and competence. Do you remember a teacher who created a safe place to learn and grow? Share in the comments below.
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