Tales from the Front #1: How sharper than a serpent’s tooth

I have hoped for a while that one day I could write down my experiences in teaching in a book.  I’ve only been teaching fifteen years, and feel I have enough for a good one.  Today, while I was having lunch, I thought I needn’t wait, and that I could start putting virtual pen to virtual paper.


The first school I taught at was a little rough around the edges.  There were some truly great kids, but it was not a high accomplishing school, academically.  you had to be on your toes.  There were more than the usual number of fights, and quite a few kids got expelled or suspended for a myriad of reasons.

One afternoon in April, I was in my room after school (school had been out for maybe a half an hour, and I was grading.  Suddenly, I hear a blood curdling scream from out in the hall.  I knock over the stool I was sitting on rushing to the hall to see what is happening, fearing the worst (a knife?  a gun?).  I see a young lady running at full speed from the girls washroom, and not looking back.  As I arrive, a female colleague (a biology teacher) arrives too.  She slowly proceeds in, and I am continuing to think the worst (a body?).

She comes out after a moment with this “you’ve got to be kidding” look on her face.  She informs me that she discoerved what appeared to be a baby garter snake.  We laugh, because she was apparently thinking the worst too.  I volunteer to snap on the latex and go in and capture it to release it to the wild (I’m not even sure why I put the gloves on … I had handled dozens of garter snakes as a kid).  I snap on the gloves and go in and corner the snake, and pick it up by the tail.  Sure enough:  black snake, yellow- green racing stripes down the side:  one run-of-the-mill common garter snake.

As I am lifting it, the snake twists its head up and bites.  I let go of the tail, and gently grab the head.  The teeth had broken the latex, but had barely touched my skin.  No big deal.  I escort the snake to the door, and gently put him in the grass.

As I am walking back to show off my “wound” to my colleague, the assistant principal arrives.

The AP was a Doctor of Education, and insisted that everyone refer to her as “doctor”.  It was from that moment that, in deference to having to call her doctor that I started using “doctor” as a common greeting to anyone.  She even called me on that once when I called someone “doctor”, and she asked if that person had earned their doctorate.  Her heart was in the right place, but I always got the impression she was more into pomp and circumstance than genuine education and student welfare ….. but I digress.

She arrived and wanted to know what was going on.  We had a good laugh, but when I mentioned that the snake had bitten the gloves, her demeanor changed.

“We have to get you to the hospital.  Are you able to drive?”

I started laughing …. I explained that garter snakes were not poisonous, that I had handled them many times, that the skin hadn’t been broken, and I suspect not even touched.

She informed me that an accident had occurred, and that until I was cleared by a physician, I couldn’t return to work.

Needless to say, I was now upset, but more than able to drive to the emergency room at the local hospital.

I arrive, and inform them of a snake bite.

“Do you have the snake?”  “Are you sure it is not poisonous?” “Are you feeling dizzy?”

When they asked to see the bite, the admitting nurse that this was a joke.  I told her the story, ending with the part “not to be admitted to work until cleared by a physician.”  She said it might be a while.

Three hours later, I was admitted to a bed.  For the fourth time, I explained my story to a nurse who was rightfully more angry than I was.  I finally saw a doctor, who seemed to take it in stride.  I soaked my hand in what I think was iodine for 20 minutes.  The nurse returned and donned a pair of gloves, removed a band aid, unrolled it, and put it on my now dry finger.

Fortunately, the school paid workman’s comp on the hospital visit.  The good Dr. AP was in the science office promptly the next morning to receive my letter of clearance.  I then had to fill out an accident report.  I hope that whoever read that got to see the exorbitant hospital bill that accompanied that.  I still never got back the four hours of my life.

Tip to budding school administrators:  There is a difference between getting bitten by a timber rattlesnake, and grazed by a garter snake.  Rules are good, but common sense is a far more important thing to have, if you want to be a good leader.


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