When I taught 4th grade at an inner city school in Philadelphia, my classroom was always filled (much to the consternation of our maintenance staff) with non-human life forms, i.e. pets. One pet in particular stands out at this time; our rabbit, "Hoppy". As with mammals in general, Hoppy needed a great deal of attention, and this suited one of my students, Katrina, just fine. Katrina was from the "projects" and often came to school without breakfast. Her personal hygiene and clothes were often uncared for and, surprise!, Katrina was often disruptive and sometimes violent. Hoppy, on the other hand was one of the friendliest darn rabbits on the face of the Earth. Katrina and Hoppy took an instant liking to each other. At first, Katrina would just pet Hoppy through his cage and when he tickled her fingers the first time, she laughed happily in a way that I had not ever seen in this young, troubled girl. As time went on, Katrina wanted to make sure Hoppy's cage was clean and that he was well fed, responsibilities I was only too happy to assign to her. Almost seamlessly with the arrival of Hoppy, Katrina's behavior and even the quality of her classwork improved. She became more cooperative and her attendance at school improved dramatically.
The first time I noticed Hoppy was out of his cage and nowhere to be seen, I started to panic. Where could he be? Students, and especially Katrina, were able to take Hoppy out of the cage when they were done their work and pet him, give him exercise, etc. Sometimes, Hoppy just sat on their desks like a stuffed animal. So Hoppy was out of his cage, unannounced and without permission and nowhere in sight. Then I noticed that as Katrina was doing her work at her desk, her attention was inordinately focused on the inside of her desk. I walked up behind her and there was Hoppy, in Katrina's desk happily ensconced inside with her books, her Now n' Later wrappers, and her pencils.
Katrina's story is the most pronounced example of why classroom pets, despite their ungodly mess and the care it takes to maintain them, are on the whole wonderful additions to any classroom. For Katrina, it seemed as if Hoppy was the embodiment of everything that was lacking in her homelife and she responded accordingly. I long ago lost track of Katrina but for that one shining year, with the help of a rabbit named Hoppy, Katrina was just a normal 10 year old in nameless classroom in some obscure corner of North Philadelphia.
Next Up: Bubba and Richard Nixon, the goldfish.