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Presentations: Bill Kennedy
Bill Kennedy is retired from a career in which he traveled throughout the state of Georgia testing bodies of water for signs of pollution. Before that, he was a science teacher. In his story such a teacher, tired of routines, sets a challenge for his students and for himself as well. Readers will notice that gossip enjoys lively play in this story.
I never thought a student could talk me into something that might have gotten me fired. As it happened, all Steve did was ask me a question.
That was the year I taught a ninth-grade science class that, God bless’um, required all the encouragement I could give--and then some. Weak in reading comprehension, they needed to see first-hand the exploding gases of oxidation, the beating hearts of dissected earthworms and the changing colors of chemical reactions. Yet, this was only a magic show if they didn't hear me explain the science they were seeing. But wouldn’t you know it, there was somebody else there every single day who kept their attention better than I did.
Steve was a hyper kid and a fountain of comedic one-liners. Day after day, month after month, Steve supplied us with a steady stream of humor. He once interrupted a chemistry lesson to go to the restroom because he was “overwhelmed by all three states of matter.” He was not a lways so crude, and his sweeping gestures, smiling eyes and dead-on observations mostly charmed. Still, by mid-year he had raised his voice over mine a little too often and was getting on my nerves. On Valentine’s Day he made a quip about the reproduction of insects that sent my fist down on a pickled grasshopper. I sent him to a vacant room for the rest of the period. I felt I’d overreacted and in the week that followed, Steve was quiet and I was careful with him.
But during the month that we examined the earthworm and crayfish, Steve gradually returned to his old ways, his shenanigans more frequent than ever. So, I was already on edge the day before our first look at the vertebrates.
“Tomorrow we dissect the frog and that will prepare us for our study of human anatomy,” I told the class. “The frog is anatomically similar to the human.”
“Mr. Kennedy!” Steve waggled his hand high in a gesture of mock decorum. “If we’re studying human anatomy, why don’t we cut open a human?” Steve gave me his innocent look, a few of his classmates chuckled and then it got quiet. A silly question, I thought, deserves a silly answer.
“Steve, that’s an excellent idea.”
I crossed my arms and brightened my expression. “You see, a friend in medical school has offered a body to me. His school wants to provide a hands-on experience for ninth-graders. I had previously thought this class wasn’t ready for it, but now, Steve convinces me you are ready. I’ll have the body here tomorrow.”
“Damn!” somebody whispered just loud enough to be heard, then the bell rang, the students erupted from their seats and in seconds the room was empty. Had I piqued the curiosity of one student? Probably not, I thought.
So, I forgot all about it, finished my teaching day, went home, ate dinner, played with my children, watched a National Geographic program on TV and went to bed. I got up the next morning and drove to work.
With a light heart and a whistle on my lips, I walked from my car to the front door of the school. As I joined the chattering tide of students sweeping down the hallway, I heard the principal call my name. I stopped and turned around.
“The phone’s been ringing off the danged hook, Mr. Kennedy,” he said. “Parents are saying you’re going to dissect a human body here in school today. Some say it’s a contagion and, I have to tell you, some say it’s a sacrilege! I didn’t know what to tell them was going on. Now, Mr. Kennedy, what is going on? Please just tell me you don’t have a body here. I know you don’t . . . do you?”
“No-no-no,” I said, “you see I . . . .”
“I don’t want to hear all about it!” he said, louder this time and some heads turned our way.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry.” He continued, quieter now. “It’s been a crazy morning. Just tell me if there’s a human body here or not.”
“No.” I said. “A frog.”
“Yes. You see I got a little frustrated with . . . .”
“That’s all I want to know,” he said waving me off as he turned to push back through the crowd.
Well, I thought, I’ve learned my lesson. I should’ve known better. I turned toward my classroom and had taken only a few steps when I was stopped again, this time by a student I’d never noticed before.
“Mr. Kennedy!” Then, after glancing over at some of his buddies nearby, he asked, “We heard you have a body at school today. Do you?”
“Yes, I do,” I told him.
“Where are you keeping it?”
“I’ve got it in the trunk of my car.”
“Thanks,” he said with a big grin and was gone.
The day’s first bell rang students to my chemistry class where I stood with open textbook in hand. “What is the molecular weight of oxygen?” I began. No one responded.
Finally, Alex, my star chemistry student, raised his hand.
“Mr. Kennedy,” he said, glancing around the room before looking at me again. “We’ve heard some things this morning and, well, are you going to bring a dead person back to life or something? This afternoon in one of your science classes? That’s what I heard. ”
I told the chemistry class that, no, the body was permanently dead. “I don’t think I know how to bring somebody back after they’re gone,” I said.
“Oh no,” cried Cindy near the back of the room. “You mean it used to be a real person?” Cindy, a pretty good chemistry student, now demonstrated a precocious grasp of biology. Then came a flood of questions. Was it a man or a woman? Where did it come from? Why did I bring it to the school?
“I see you’ve got the same problem I have,” said a voice from the doorway. With hands on hips, Mrs. Curtis, the chairman of the science department, surveyed my classroom. “My biology class thinks you have a dead body at school. I know it’s not true, but I can’t convince them of that and they don’t want to talk about anything else. Would you please come tell them it’s not true so I can get on with my lesson?” I told her I would and followed her across the hall.
“Okay, Mr. Kennedy’s going to clear up all this nonsense.” Mrs. Curtis crossed her arms. “Ask him anything you want to ask him and let’s be done with it.”
A large boy in a letter jacket raised his hand. “Jack,” Mrs. Curtis snapped, “ask your question.”
“I heard you had a dead body in the trunk of your car,” Jack said. “Is that true?”
“No, absolutely not,” I said.
“Just like I told you,” added Mrs. Curtis.
“It’s in the cafeteria,” I said, “in a refrigerator. It was too warm in the car.” Mrs. Curtis and I shot each other a look, I with a faint smile, she with a slack jaw. “Well, if there’s nothing else, I’ll be running along.” As I turned to leave, Mrs. Curtis opened her mouth as if to say something, then changed her mind and raised her hands toward the ceiling.
I didn’t get far in teaching any of my classes. Each group had to ask questions and as soon as I had answered them, I was called to speak to another class.
Late in the morning I had finally gotten a chemistry class down to the business of molecular weights when the school’s dietitian came to my door. Mrs. Hollings apologized for interrupting my class. “I know you’re busy,” she said, looking over my shoulder into the room. As she flapped her white apron into place, I inhaled essences of sauerkraut, yeast and dishwater.
“I wanted to tell you that we’ve had kids sneaking in the cafeteria to look in the refrigerators. You know why they was in there, don’t you?” I nodded. “And now that we’re serving, some students won’t eat a bite. I know you can’t do anything about it this time, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do anything like this again. Okay?” She patted me on the arm a nd squeezed it a little, adding, “It’s all right, don’t worry about it.” Mrs. Hollings had twelve hundred mouths to feed, and before I could muster a response, she turned on her crepe soles and strode away with nobility and purpose.
What was my purpose? I had spent so much time telling others what they wanted to know, I’d not spent any time figuring out what I needed to know. It was clear to me I couldn’t stand in front of Steve and his classmates and tell them that I had just been kidding. In the short break I had before Steve’s class met, I finally found solitude in an art department storage room. I visualized my predicament. On the one hand, everyone was expecting a body in fifteen minutes. On the other hand, I had no body. What was I going to do? As I grabbed some large white rags and a petticoat left over from a school play, I formed a vague idea. By the time I was halfway to my classroom, I knew what I would do. I only needed to find Larry.
Almost every day Larry came early for class to talk and to offer help in setting up dissections. I hoped he’d be waiting for me that day and as I approached the classroom, I saw I was in luck.
“Is the body in there?” he said, laughing and pointing to the wad of cloth.
“Come with me,” I said, entering the classroom and locking the door behind us.
“What are we doing?” he said. “Does this have something to do with the body?”
“Indeed.” I thrust the rags into his hands.
“You mean I’m going to be this body I’ve been hearing about all day?”
“That’s right,” I said.
In the five minutes we had left, I explained to Larry what we were going to do, placed him on the demonstration bench in front of the classroom and covered him with the cloths and petticoat. Even with the small amount of cloth we had, he ended up looking pretty much like a loosely-wrapped mummy.
“I know it’ll be hard not to laugh, but if you do, it’ll ruin everything.”
“I know, I know!” said Larry under the shaking cloth.
The bell rang and I opened the door. The entire class stood outside, as silent as a prayer meeting.
“Please come in!” I said with a slow sweep of my hand.
Of their own accord, they entered single file. As they passed through the door, each student turned to look at the wrapped figure on the bench. A shuffle of feet was the only sound. After each of my science students had taken a seat, the room continued to fill with unexpected guests--boys from the shop sat on the floor, girls who assisted in the library stood against the wall and two football coaches stood in the back.
I took a deep breath and looked at the assembled group. Everyone faced directly toward the front of the room and did not move. They shifted their eyes from the cadaver, to me, then back to the cadaver. I could hear some of them breathing.
“In a few minutes we will begin.” I said. “I want to point out, though, that this was once a living, happy, lovable human being just like you. Until I say so, no one is to go near it.”
No one went near it.
“First we should be familiar with the feel of cadaver flesh.” I said. “We need a volunteer.” I looked at Steve, who had become intensely interested in his fingernails. “Steve,” I said, “Please come forward.”
Steve began what appeared to be an earnest attempt to leave his desk, yet his legs and arms had turned to rubber. Every push with hand or foot resulted only in a bent and crumpled limb with no upward movement of his body. I walked toward him and held out a hand, but before I could help, he regained the rigidity necessary to rise from his seat. Then he found that he had to retie one of his shoes before leaving his desk.
“We don’t have all day,” I said, and Steve finally made his way to where I stood next to the body. I reached under the cloth and, with exaggerated effort, pulled out an arm which Larry held in feigned rigor mortis just where I stopped pulling it.
“Steve, feel inside the hand with your finger.” I demonstrated, placing my index finger inside the hand which was curled into a loose fist. I gently rubbed the inside of the hand. “Now, you do it.” I looked around the room. Nobody moved or made a sound.
Steve stood looking at the hand, and he wasn’t moving either.
“Go ahead,” I said.
He glanced out at his classmates and then looked back to me. “Really?” he whispered.
“It won’t hurt you,” I told him.
Steve reached toward the hand. His own hand shook so much I didn’t know if he could get his finger in the right place.
As soon as his finger was in the hand, he leaped backward and yelled “Woah, woah, woah! That thing’s done squeezed my hand!” He sprang up and down in the same spot while rubbing his finger.
“Steve!” I said, “Don’t be so silly--sit down!”
He slunk past his classmates toward his seat. They followed him with their eyes, apparently still afraid to move their heads.
“Steve,” I said before he had reached his desk. “Please come back. I’m sorry. I was being a little impatient.”
“That’s okay,” he said, “you don’t need to . . . “
“No, I want you to come back! I’ve been too hard on you!”
“No, you haven’t!”
“Oh, yes I have! Come on back for just one more thing. It won’t take you very long this time.”
Although his face still radiated anxiety, Steve now walked toward me a little easier than before. When he reached the front of the room again, I handed him a ruler.
“Don’t worry, we’ll do it together, and I promise it will turn out fine,” I touched his shoulder and smiled. “Now, let me show you something.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Kennedy, I don’t think I can do anything else.”
“Just look at this,” I said, “here’s how we’ll make the incision. Let me diagram it for you.” Instead of drawing, though, I scribbled the words, “It is NOT REALLY a dead body, just do as I tell you” on the paper and showed it to him. “Do you understand how we’ll do it now?”
Steve looked at the paper, then at the cloth-wrapped figure and then at me, nodding with enthusiasm. I hoped he wasn’t giving anything away and checked the audience again. They were still paralyzed.
As we stood behind the cadaver, facing the class, I pulled back the cloth from the abdominal area and told Steve to show me where he would cut. “Just draw the ruler across the belly and let me see if you have the right idea,” I said.
Steve, now with a much steadier hand than before, began an imaginary cut. Larry suddenly sat bolt upright and the room erupted in one collective scream. Some of the girls clutched one another. The screaming quickly gave way to a small voice from the front row.
“Look at those green pants.” A girl pointed to a spot where the cloth had fallen away. “Is that Larry?” Larry, with all instructions to the contrary, began to shake and sputter. The girl laughed. I laughed. Every bit as loud as they had screamed a moment earlier, the whole class laughed. Steve, halfway back to his desk, but still holding the ruler in the cutting position, laughed loudest. That day, laughter was what I wanted and that’s what I got.
What I wanted more, I got the next day. Most students learned to identify thirteen features of the dissected frog. Then, as class drew to a close, Steve asked, “Mr. Kennedy, what are we doing tomorrow?” and everyone fell silent.
Copyright ©2004 Barbara Knott · All Rights Reserved
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