Return to Rio


In one memorable passage from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary,    Louis Creed mentions a day in March and flying kites with his son Gage as the last good day he would ever have.

Now, I haven’t read Pet Sematary since it came out, and shunned the movie altogether–but that passage came to mind when I wanted to talk about April 26th as a good day to be a teacher.

While I hope it wasn’t the last good day, it was a very good day.  Memorable.


Testing was done, and the assessment lockdown was over.  Well, not really–that Thursday, fifth graders were taking the STAAR science test.  But first grade–the same first graders who’d braved two days shut in to overcrowded rooms so their teachers could test or proctor a student or two–the first graders were off on their annual spring field trip.

Destinations in Laredo are limited, and in the past it wasn’t uncommon to end up at the mall two times in a year, especially during one stretch when rabid bats at turned up dead at the local lake.  Now, however, Texas A&M International University offers the Planetarium, and the Lamar Bruni Vergara Environmental Center is housed on the historic grounds of Laredo Community Center, a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande.

The center exhibits native Texas plants and animals, featuring an outdoor alligator exhibit that fascinates young viewers.   In addition to the alligators, a bobcat, javelina, fox, and raccoon are caged outdoors, and numerous fish, reptiles and amphibians are displayed in attractive indoor exhibits.  Much better than the mall, even at Christmas.

My students were ready to get out of the classroom, and so was I.  We appropriately headed down Main Street, and when I pointed out my house–7 blocks from the school, the poor old thing got rousing cheers, although one of my kids remarked a little smugly that her house was better.

Once we arrived at the center, two of my students asked if they could climb up the high fence guarding the alligator enclosure–the one right next to the equally large sign warning “Danger!!  Alligators!” in two languages.  At least they asked first, right?

Our guard this year was a well-informed young man, more knowledgeable than our guard last year, who was nice, but a bit overwhelmed by 22 students.  The young man who escorted us this year took charge and moved us painlessly from one exhibit to another, providing information that my kids listened to.  And I did too.

Javelinas aren’t wild pigs?  I had never, ever heard that–I had even told my students they would see a wild boar.  Well, at least we all got the mammal part right.

We’re studying classifying animals this six weeks, and my students were hitting a 100 on which of the animals were reptiles, mammals, and such.  Maybe 99%, since one of my boys insisted that dragonflies were reptiles.  But the chorus of voices explaining why he was wrong–giving the characteristics of both reptiles and insects–put a smile on my face.

Probably the first smile since Ms. Smug dissed my house.

Anyway, the morning flew by.  We walked Paseo del Indio, a path Native Americans once traveled.

I learned that ebony is native to Texas.  I grew up liking–and recognizing–pine trees as opposed to cedar.  Maybe mimosa, daffodils, kudzu, and dandelions.  Not much else.  Ebony just always seemed like it should come from the orient, not poke out from the dry south Texas brush country.

The teacher came out on me on that field trip, with no objectives on the board, no one doing walk-throughs, just a bunch of excited kids caring about what was around them.

But the teacher almost fled when the guide introduced us to the salt-eater plant Native Americans had used as a condiment.  He plucked a branch of the thin, pasta like leaves and explained its use in frontier days.  Suggested we taste it.

The kids were aghast.  We hadn’t brought our hand sanitizer, required before food ingestion on campus.  Don’t misunderstand–I’m not mocking health safeguards.  I know why we need the hand washing.  The alcohol free hand sanitizer.  And what if he was wrong about it being harmless?  Bugs must have at least brushed against it…

But frontier folks had survived.  Thrived.  Heck, my sister and I and those pesky neighbors, the Hester twins, had eaten stuff no one had even assured us was safe.

None of my kids were volunteering to try the plant.  I reached out for the branch, stripped off a slender leave, and tasted it.

Immediately, every kid in the line followed suit.

You know what?  It was salty.  And we all survived.

Somewhere along the way that morning, I became a teacher again–as I, too, learned from our guide.  Things I can use as a teacher in the classroom, talking about mammals and reptiles and plants people can eat.  As a writer, who should know more on general principles.

Sure, some of the education was colored by today’s culture.  The big highlight for some of the kids was the alligator poop floating in the tank.  That the tortoise they got to hold peed on the guide, not on them.  I’ll never forget the student who misclassified the dragonfly running around the bobcat’s cage shouting, “Come smell!” after the bobcat urinated.

But I’ll also never forget that one of my students left the games at the mandatory pizza place lunch, sat down with me, and told me in her developing English that she’d had the best trip ever.

She’s only six, and I hope school provides her with other best trips.  Best moments.  For that moment, and on that day–I believed it could.

April 26th was a good day to be a teacher.

One thought on “A Good Day To Be A Teacher

  1. marybethlee says:

    Love this. I’m so glad you got a chance to be a teacher this year and that your kids got a chance to be true students in a way that can lead to lifelong learning.


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