A Hamster Named Demon

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He was a typical, cute furry little hamster. The mascot of our Environmental Science class – along with earthworms, an ant farm, plants and two fish (Eivel and Kneivel). The boys, the class was all ninth grade boys, voted to name the little hamster “Demon.” I was a little startled and not sure how appropriate it was. After a little questioning I decided it was more the influence of fantasy, and dungeons and dragons, than any theological reference. So, our hamster became “Demon”

Still, I found the contrast between his new name and his natural personality a little puzzling. Why would my students want to create such a fearsome image for the creature that sat on their shoulders and tried to hide in their shirts? But in an odd way I think it reflected a conflict in how they saw themselves, and in the expectation we have of them in school and society. I have noticed how often we try to reassure and comfort our students as they face frustrating and difficult assignments. Hoping to make school seem easier, we tell them that algebra, or long division, or writing, really isn’t that bad, it’s easier than they think, once they try it. But they’ve struggled with basic skills for months or years, and they know it isn’t easy. And many have watched their parents struggle to find stable jobs and provide them with security and food and clothing, and they know that being a furry little hamster isn’t always enough. The owls and hawks are real, and we have to acknowledge them. And teach our students to be somewhere in between the vulnerability of a hamster and the ferociousness of a demon.

I got a new perspective on hard work, challenges and frustration not long after my first teaching career ended. Buying some affordable apartments in Albuquerque, as a long term investment, I soon tried my hand at repairing plumbing, patching tar roofs, and maintaining air conditioners. None of which was covered in my undergraduate seminars or educational theory classes! Fitting washers, pipes, copper tubing and ferrules together was much more difficult that manipulating words on a page. Fortunately one of my neighbors, Harold, Juan, or Procopio, would wander over after awhile, to see how the new gringo in the neighborhood was surviving, and lend me a hand. I was very appreciative, but to have my hours of struggle turned into a simple fifteen minute task rather deflated my sense of accomplishment. My great achievement of replacing a simple faucet suddenly wasn’t that big of a deal.

I think of my frustrations with nuts and bolts, and how long it takes to fit a starter into a 1969 Rambler, when I help students trying to fit adverbs and adjectives together on a page. For the rural and small town students I have worked with, nuts, bolts and starters fit together much easier than words, and are much more interesting. As I try to help them work with complete sentences and punctuation, I don’t try to tell them how easy it really is, because I know that will deny their deserved sense of accomplishment when they finally succeed.

And see no apparent irony in the situation? I finally decided the normalcy of what seemed a little odd to me simply reflected the confusion in some of their lives, and the conflicting expectations society, and our schools, have of them. I have noticed how often we try to reassure and comfort our students as they face frustrating and difficult assignments. On subjects which, when we were in school, probably didn’t seem all that challenging. During my first years in teaching I had a similar attitude – I thought the assignments I was giving were creative, interesting, even fun exercises in self expression and exploring new ideas. I had difficulty understanding how much of a struggle, and not necessarily interesting, class work might be.

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