The twilight gloom buries me, its weight landing heavier on me than on my husband or our three young children. We climb from the car and plod up the asphalt path, wielding a shovel and two garden spades. Now I hold the shovel and the hand of our toddler daughter while my husband gently empties a plastic bag of carcasses into the hole he has just dug in a lightly wooded hill. We stand next to him, silent witnesses on the blacktop outside my third-grade classroom. Our older two, seven and not quite four years old, are on guard, ready to scoop the displaced dirt into the hole with the spades when sufficient time or maybe a few reverent words have passed. If anybody can think of some.
It felt like a lucky day, this first April Sunday of daylight savings time. The gift of time, an extra hour, was suddenly squandered in panic and hasty planning as we jumped up from the dinner table, grabbed tools and a flashlight, and headed to school. On the ride, my oldest soothed me with words of hope, reminding me I might be worried for nothing. All would be well. Maybe I remembered just in time.
Not so, we discovered, upon unlocking the classroom door and being flooded with the scent of decomposition in the air. Not so.
Until dinner, I had enjoyed day ten of an eleven-day spring hiatus, almost refreshed. Tumbling into the break, I was exhausted—tires flattened, no steam left in my engine, out of gas, and no longer finding fumes to run on. So for the first time in my career, I pledged to take the word “break” literally. I hit pause on planning, on preparatory reading, on school-related emails, and even on laying out the year’s final, ambitious projects. For eleven days my focus would be my own three children, my own family, and my own home. With any luck, I might spare a thought for myself.
Even that final weekend felt celebratory. The Sunday stone-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach feeling that perhaps every teacher knows, even those who love our work and cherish the children for whom we labor, was missing. We chattered around the dinner table, discussing what games or movies we might relax into that night.
Privately, though, with only one day left in my self-imposed “clean break,” I was slipping away. As we talked I began a mental inventory of my classroom. I would arrive on Tuesday an hour earlier than usual, set up the book display for a new project, review the notes from our most recent math work, replace the art hanging in the room with more recent examples, and of course, feed the…
Dinner screeched to a halt. Eyes on me. My eyes were wide and brimming with tears and I stumbled through an explanation. “I locked the door…I thought…I have eleven days, I’m taking eleven days…I even left my bag. My bag with all my stuff…so I wouldn’t do work…but I forgot…I forgot the mice!”
They know the saga of the mice—the mother in my class who donated rodents to the group, the class trip to the abundantly kind small animal vet when one of the mice experienced seizures, and the arrival of additional mice when nature had taken its course and they grew from three mice to…a lot more.
Three dead mice. Three dead mice. Or thirty. Or thirteen. I can’t bring myself to remember the number. What is certain is that a young mother mouse, captive to a class of eight and nine-year-olds, was desperate enough to devour every one of her litter before succumbing herself. Her cannibalism was not a capricious act driven by natural impulse, but the direct result of my forgetfulness and negligence.
It is the result of the insurmountable exhaustion to which I succumbed. It is the natural consequence of unmet basic needs.
We complete the burial, our still presence the only ritual we can bring to the moment. We do our duty in somber silence. Quiet compassion replaces assurances.
I have never felt so guilty. Or so loved.
As planned, I arrive at my classroom an hour early. I wander through routine tasks and brace myself for the morning check-in circle. Yesterday I wrote a letter for the children to take home, the same explanation of the demise of the mice I offer them this morning—the unvarnished truth, minus any description of the wholly missing and partially consumed remains that we saw when we entered the room that Sunday.
My children—my classroom children—and I hold a ritual for our furry friends. They prepare a short reading, some final words, planned and impromptu, and a moment of silence. With that, we added a sticks-and-stones marker to the burial spot.
When a small group of children asks with heartfelt curiosity whether they might dig up the remains to have a look at the decomposing mice for themselves, I decline. I am not squeamish about such things, but this time I side with those who can’t bear the thought over the natural interest of those other few.
The demise of the mice leads to difficult conversations with a few class families and I spend the rest of the year working to heal relationships, to restore trust with the children. The demise of the mice starts conversations with my own family as well. It takes another year and twice daily use of a nebulizer in response to worsening stress-induced asthma, but I finally act.
I devise a plan to meet my basic needs, to escape the consequences of ignoring them for so long. I resign my position to build a teaching life that I can survive. For the next fourteen years, that means homeschooling with my own three and teaching other people’s children only on a part-time, occasional basis. Unlike that poor mother mouse, I realize I was called to this work. I am not held captive by it. Tormented by my choice to leave the classroom—until about 20 minutes into my new life—I begin to breathe freely again. After two months, the nebulizer gathers dust on a shelf in the closet.
Diane Webber loves to learn. From the suburbs of Philadelphia, she has learned alongside young children, young adults, and every age between for decades. Diane continues to teach, coach teachers and families, and learn for a living, but now pours more of her energy into writing essays as well as nonfiction and historical fiction for young readers. She is a current student in Spalding University’s cross-genre MFA program.