Death, elementary school, and the silkworms

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The teacher left me with few instructions, but the one instruction that loomed large at the top of her letter to me read: The Children Should Not Be Touching The Silkworms At This Stage. They Need To Be Left Alone To Build Their Cocoons.

What is it with elementary school and worms? When I was in kindergarten we housed caterpillars in our little classroom too. We dedicated an entire school-unit to these weird, runty things, binge-reading Eric Carle’s famous book about them, going out into the forest to study their habitat, and of course, noting their life cycle, which included monitoring their inert chrysalises for a month and then witnessing their explosion into butterflies. Of course, that final metamorphosis was an anti-climax as the insects would sneak out of their protective sheathing sometime when we weren’t watching — during lunch, or gym, or when were at home, asleep. And then we’d have a box full of butterflies, which we didn’t know what to do with, and I certainly don’t know what the teachers did with them. I assume we just let them go?

Why do young kids still “take care of” caterpillars and silkworms in school? One argument is that the worms help kids learn some responsibility. They have to feed them with leaves they collect from outside (my students yesterday gathered mulberry leaves out behind the school during Reading Class), provide sticks and dirt for the worms to play around on, and, uh….. well, I guess that’s it. Turns out the worms are pretty self-sufficient. Another argument evokes the metaphorical power the worms hold for children. By watching the worms struggle for weeks in the crowded slop of a plastic box, disappear for a month, and then, gloriously, emerge as beautiful, high-flying adults, the kids supposedly learn something about themselves and the human condition. They can come to accept their loathed preadolescence knowing that one day they’ll be beautiful, vibrant, free. Or so it goes. Finally, some say the purpose of the worm unit is to foster an early interest in science/biology and occasion some basic scientific maneuvers — yesterday, for example, my students took time to observe the worms as they ate the leaves, drew pictures of the worms’ positions, and wrote a quick description of the worms’ behavior. The students were “young scientists” noting and analyzing “life processes.”

Maybe the best explanation is that the worms are just kind of fun. They infuse life into our increasingly staid educational spaces; they give kids something to talk about and something to touch. This was clear to me as I walked into a third grade classroom yesterday to discover the students were pretty much only interested in the silkworms over the course of the entire day. That and the laptop computers their classroom was equipped with, on which they played action-adventure games during any free moment.

So my instructions clearly stated that the students should not be touching the worms but these kids were all over those worms from the get-go. “Don’t touch the worms,” I said, to which the students all replied that I was wrong and that it was fine to touch the worms. “We raised these worms,” one student informed me. “We know how to take care of them. They like being touched.”

I was ready with my one counterargument. “But they’re supposed to be making their cocoons now. They need to be left alone.”

The students politely told me that this was not necessarily the case for all the worms; some were not ready to enter the cocoon stage yet and thus they were still available for petting, carrying, clinging to t-shirts, crawling atop laptop computers, getting lost in the carpet, etc. If they started to weave cocoons outside their box that’s when the kids knew it was time for them to be left alone.

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Well, I thought, that makes sense, and so I let them play with the worms. But I still didn’t feel good about it. What if the worms were trying to make their cocoons but couldn’t because the kids wouldn’t stop messing with them? What if they really just hated being out of their makeshift homes, away from the familiarity of leaves, twigs, toilet paper rolls, dirt, and an infinitude of little dabs of worm droppings? Then in the afternoon, one student accidentally squished the silkworm he was holding while playing his computer game. A sticky green fluid squirted out of the worm and onto the computer and his jeans. “Ewwww!” the kids said. “You killed it,” one student cried. “No he’s still alive,” another commented, as the worm was still moving. The student who’d done the deed brought the worm back to its home box quickly and we all tried to forget about it. I regretted again letting them have their way with the worms. What if all day we were slowly killing them, and this one atrocity was merely symbolic of the mass death that would befall the worms after we all went home?

But why was I so concerned about the silkworms? First of all, they were not my silkworms. I had no stake in them or this classroom, and if these kids were unwittingly sabotaging this crop of moths and the worms all died out before they reached the adult stage, what did that matter to me? Surely there were enough moths in the world; and the kids themselves would promptly forget about the dead worms/unfulfilled moths hours after any massacre happened. Did my concern, then, originate simply in my aversion to being disobeyed? Was I disgruntled because I had been corrected by a group of eight year-olds? Was I worried that an administrator or another teacher would walk in, see that the worms were being mishandled, and indict me for letting them get away with it? Maybe this was partially it–I wanted to be seen as competent, responsible, etc.–but at the same time I realized I was angry at what I perceived as the students’ lack of regard for biological life. They were butchering these worms. They were abusing them, denying them the right to live the way they wanted. Pent up in plastic boxes.

Indeed, at the core of my anger was a harsh judgment against the students for not being careful with the worms and not honoring their autonomy. It made little sense when contextualized with the reality that these worms had been literally born into boxes and pushed onto the kids by their teachers. And then I thought more about who these worms were and what they would become. There were hundreds of these crawly things just in our room alone. They would turn into moths, and I did not know of any moth crisis to get bent out of shape about. It’s not like the kids were trying to raise honeybees and botching it and thus imperiling the human race. I thought about moths, how they infested our closets and swarmed the streetlights at night. I remembered how, back in my preadolescent glory days at summer camp, on some special nights of the year a new generation of moths would be born. They would rush to the bare bulbs which would fry them by the billions, and in the morning we’d come into the bathroom to find the floors completely covered in dead baby moth bodies. The custodians would fill entire garbage bags sweeping them up. These fuckers lived to die.

One of the students confirmed this for me when I asked her about the life trajectory of the moths they were raising. “You can either take them home once they become moths, or keep them here. But by then they will have already each lain 500 eggs. That’s their purpose. Once they become moths they live for three days.”

“Only three days,” I remarked. “So it really doesn’t matter what you do with them after they leave the cocoon.”

“Not really,” she said distractedly, working on a Model Magic sculpture at the same time. She was building an ice cream cone. “You can take them home if you want, but they just die anyway.”

I said, “That’s crazy to think about having an adulthood that only lasts three days. What would you do if you knew your whole adulthood was only three days long?”

Her eyes grew big. “I would have the fun of my life.”

That’s where our conversation ended. The kids kept playing with their worms and, dutifully, they put them back at the end of the day so they could proceed with their cocoon stage. By the end of the week, the students told me, all the worms would be nestled in their cocoons, and the kids’ entertainment would cease, at least for the time being.

Is the elementary school worm-raising ritual an early lesson about death? I left the school confused about how much I knew about the world, and wondering if these kids were more in touch with reality than I was. I wondered if the fate of the worms was as tragic in their minds as it was in mine. And then I wondered if the tragedy I imagined only felt that way because I insisted on thinking about it. It’s just worms. It’s just life. But alas, these questions are too much for a substitute teacher to handle.

 

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