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Lessons From Raymond and His Rat

Two school teachers compare notes on one of their more unusual pupils:

I was surprised that morning when standing in the hall watching the students change classes, I saw Raymond turn the corner with a crowd parting before him. He was Moses and the Red Sea, except that instead of carrying a staff, he had a big white blob on his shoulder. I couldn't quite make it out, but it seemed to be snuggling under the brim of his huge hillbilly hat.

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Then a senior raced up to me, his hands waving and a mixture of awe and apprehension on his face: ``Raymond has his rat. Raymond brought his pet rat to school.''

Off-the-cuff remarks can get you in trouble. A classroom teacher has to be especially cautious; there may be a student really paying attention at that moment. That's how I came to find myself staring at Raymond as all 200 pounds and six feet of him came striding toward me. I had encouraged students to bring ``something'' that expressed their personality. At the time, I hadn't noticed that Raymond was particularly struck by this remark.

He often had a distant look. A red bandanna usually held back his shoulder-length hair, and cut-off shorts revealed two massive log legs. He resembled a lumberjack, his face beefy and inscrutable. No one messed with him. Students avoided his gaze and never dared to snicker around him.

He had little connection to school except that he knew he had to attend class in order to get out.

I discreetly sidled to the teacher standing across the hall and asked, ``Ah, what would you do if a student brought a rat to class?''

She didn't miss a beat; she'd been in education for more than 30 years and had probably seen everything: ``I'd call the office.'' Ah, yes, disciplinary action taken against student sharing pet with other students. This did not bode well for Raymond's class. I had asked them to share and here it was, the ultimate bonding experience.

Raymond's massive frame was now halfway down the hall. I had to act fast. The rat was perched precariously on his shoulder. I watched as Raymond's form darkened my doorway and then disappeared inside as the bell rang. I had been thinking along the lines of baseball-card collections or maybe photos of pets.

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* * * * *

It was after this incident that Chris persuaded me to take over Raymond's class - a class of seniors so divergent in interests that you could have set up road signs identifying the different communities they represented (from middle-class suburb to trailer park to project housing). Although I had helped teach these students on occasion, it was Chris who had cemented her credibility with them by stroking Raymond's pet. How could I follow her act?

This was a course in English, and the traditional approach was to assign one novel that everyone would read. With a class like Raymond's, such a teaching strategy would obviously not work. Instead, I decided to allow the students to choose their own literature. The hope was that self-selection meant increased ownership on the part of the student. We were trying to train them to see that learning was a lifetime activity, not something dictated by someone at the front of the room. But what reading recommendations could be made to one of the more disconnected, such as Raymond?

Raymond had begun writing a story in Chris's class about a man in search of the perfect coffeehouse. He spent many hours at Pizza Hut observing the movements and dialogue of numerous waitresses and actually had a knack for writing.

As other students settled into their desks with everything from detective novels to science fiction, I began talking to him about Robert Pirsig's ``Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,'' a book that explores the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and one man's search for value and meaning.

Bingo! Raymond became hooked by this book and exchanged letters with me on the nature of reality. By year's end, he had read five books, including Orson Scott Card's science fiction novel, ``Ender's Game.'' In his letters on this work, Raymond had made astute observations about genocide and the apparent futility of human existence. He had come to understand what Anthony Hopkins (as C.S. Lewis) says in the film ``Shadowlands'': ``We read to know that we are not alone.''

Some months later, Chris encountered him at his station at Pizza Hut, hunched over a book. He had graduated and was working at a local hardware store, sweeping floors and sorting PVC pipes. He waved a beefy hand in recognition. Wasn't that a copy of ``Lila,'' Pirsig's new book, she wondered?

Although there were no college plans in the immediate future, Raymond was pursing his own avenue of education. The world of books would always be available and waiting.

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