While weaving through the desks and chairs inside her portable with bluish-green aluminum siding the color of a corroded penny, Mrs. Menefee fanned herself.
“Is hot in here? Is anyone else hot? I’m burning up.” She’d open up the windows and double-check to make sure the air conditioner was on full blast, even in winter. We could see our breath, and we wore our winter coats.
Now I realize she must have been going through menopause, hot flashes and that sort of thing. She perspired as though she were playing a game of pick-up basketball. Beats of sweat quivered on her upper lip, and when with one of her hands planted on my desk and the other on my shoulder, she’d come by to offer an encouraging word or check our progress, I couldn’t help but stare at them. They quivered. They could roll off and splash on my homework at any second.
She had given us tapeworms to dissect.
Tapeworms could regenerate damaged parts, which sounded like something straight out of a Marvel comic. The body of the rowdy, incorrigible Wolverine healed almost instantly from wounds that would kill a non-mutant without an adamantium skeleton. If you cut a live tapeworm an inch from the tip of its arrow-shaped head down the middle of its body, it would grow back two heads. Other than this remarkable ability to become even more disgusting, the tapeworm was boring.
Frogs, which came next, were a different story. For some reason, Mrs. Menefee told us all to them.
Trying to choose a nickname for the hard, chemical-smelling frog on my dissection trays seemed strange. We were about to cut them open after all, though I suppose that I, like most boys, welcomed any opportunity to get away with something, to pull a prank or test a boundary. The hard part was not thinking of names but deciding which one of my least favorite teachers would receive the honor, and with it, a scalpel in the anus.
Nothing makes for an exciting day in science class like dead amphibians, razor-sharp knives, and Mrs. Ferguson, the saggy-breasted librarian, whose translucent white belly would soon regret the demerits that she gave me for talking.
Despite the morbid humor of my group of friends, we all enjoyed finding the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, stomach, and the more elusive parts of frog anatomy.
Mrs. Menefee must have understood our need to destroy because after we had played Operation with our frogs, she told us that we could do what we wanted with them for the last five minutes off class.
My response was to take a pair of shears and cut mine up into little bits. Unsure of what to do next, I then stacked them in the middle of the tray. At the table next to mind, Carter Bradley was being admonished for putting part of his frog on a girl’s bare skin. Many of the other kids had simply thrown what was left of their unfortunate pets, mostly skin and skeleton, into the garbage cans.
Though I’m sure those frogs were bred and raised for the purpose of wide-eyed faces hiding sick senses of humor, opening them up, removing their miniature organs, and dumping them among the snotty tissues still seems like a waste.
Not to say I was a great respecter of life at that point in my life, but to say that my friends and I were in-between: we had retained enough of our childish wonder to marvel at the frozen architecture of their delicate bodies which had at one point enabled them to eat bugs, jump, and swim. At the same time, we jockeyed for position, who could be funniest and secure the girls’ admiration; who could shock the other friends and show boldness by pushing the limits of decency.
How strange to touch the preserved body of a creature once living! Perhaps some educator back when decided that dissecting frogs could teach the double lesson of anatomy and mortality—the fragility of living, breathing, pulsating existence.
Dissecting a frog would mean more to me now, that dear members of my family have died; people in high school and college with me; a girl I took to homecoming one year; a girl I studied with in Vienna, Austria; my father’s father who bequeathed to me his bony brow, his love of the written word, and his gregariousness. Dust animated for a day or for one hundred years inevitably completes its journey where it began. The rest of us are left to wonder where they are, if the stories of heaven are true.
In the seventh grade, we held death in our hands, yet we waited impatiently for the signal to sever the webbed feet and crack the tiny skull. We couldn’t wait to peel back the clammy skin and glimpse the fine, white muscles underneath before shredding them. I’m afraid the mysteries of biology and locomotion were lost on us.
I don’t know what I would do differently, whether if I were the teacher, I would speak in terms of science or faith; whether as the students slid their frogs out of its plastic sleeves, I would tell them to the dead creatures a number or a name.
Perhaps, instead, I would place a live frog, kicking and croaking, in each pair of upturned palms and say, “You decide whether this frog lives or dies. If you decide to save its life, you must find it a good pond or river, then let it go. If you decide to kill it, you must do so at the front of the room where everyone can see. That’s the cost of being human.”
I wonder, if Mrs. Menefee had tried to teach that lesson, would we have learned it. Would one of my classmates squeezed out a fart and ruined the seriousness? I suppose it’s never too late to start learning the cost, the danger, of deciding for ourselves which life is sacred and which should be snuffed out.