Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Death of a Merman

I'd like to remember my childhood as a carefree time when I ran around with the wind blowing through my unruly hair, loved by everyone, never frightened, never damaged. These tender years, we believe, are the time to daydream; dream big, be immortal, be sheltered from the wide scary world by loving parents and wise, benign teachers. Yes--those icons of moral education who are there to guide us gently into language arts, history, math, science and beyond, starting with kindergarten. They are not generally the ones who usher us into the knowledge of Death. But so it was with me.

I was a chubby-cheeked, dewy-eyed second grader in a pair of winter boots and a bright pink parka when I first witnessed death in all its violent, gory, awesome dimensions. I had just walked through the front doors of my rural Alaskan elementary school on a dark winter morning. I was mildly excited that we were celebrating Sea Week, which meant we'd get to decorate the classrooms and halls with all sorts of fish, whales, turtles, and (I hoped) mermaids and mermen. I remember that as I came into the foyer I was struggling to remove my mittens, the kind that you can't lose because they are connected to one another by knitted strings. I always found these rather annoying and restricting--the kid version of handcuffs--and I was dealing with this problem while trying to hang onto my lunch box. No idea what type of lunch box was in vogue at the time; this has completely escaped my memory along with most of the idyllic moments of my childhood before that precise moment, because just then I looked up to behold a monster in the throes of its demise at eye level with me, and my mind flew out the back of my head. 

What happened next imprinted itself on my eyeballs and will be seared there for the rest of my life. Mr. Newton, a third-grade teacher not known for coddling his students, in fact known for the opposite, was wheeling a table down the hallway and past the foyer where I stood. It was one of those 6-foot long tables so common to public schools at that time, used for everything from cafeteria lunches to library book displays to school bake-sale fundraisers. The table had a squeaky wheel and this is what drew my attention. My eyes traveled from my pesky mittens, slowly, slowly, drawn by the sound of the wheel, up to the vision of the table and its occupant being pushed along the hallway by the eternally grouchy Mr. Newton. And my world slowed down as if time had punched straight into a wall of molasses.

On the table, writhing and gaping, lay a gray, wet, interminable length of muscle fronted by a frightful, basketball-sized head filled with rows of teeth. The thing twitched and coiled, serpentine, then lay still. I goggled at it. It was the only thing in the world. There was nothing else to look at; my vision had narrowed down to this one thing, this creature from the edge of unreality. It lay still, stiller than still, for an eternity. I can't remember if the table was still moving along the hallway. I can't remember what Mr. Newton was doing at this point. I stared into the one glazed eye of the creature that was closest to me. It was black, intelligent, depthless.

The spell was broken, of course. Like a jack-in-the-box, or a toaster watched too closely, the thing jumped to life again, jaws agape, and my young psyche broke. I can't remember if I screamed, but I know my heart dropped out of my body and into the ground, and Mr. Newton took action then. He said, and I remember these words like they are being spoken to me at this very moment, "Stand back. You don't want to get splattered." And then he raised the baseball bat which he'd been carrying and which I hadn't noticed, and he brought it down with all the strength of a grown man, onto the creature's head. There was a sick, solid thud. There was no splattering of brains. A little blood. A twitching and shuddering set up along the incalculable length of muscle that was the creature's (body? tail? what the hell was this thing, that was longer than the table and hung toward the floor and was now, I understood deep in some newly-awakening part of my brain, dying?) The jaws with their rows of splintered teeth chomped once or twice, and stopped. And with them stopped any illusion of an idyllic, Little Women-style childhood where I might run innocently about, wind in my hair, my belief in the goodness and justice of the larger world blissfully intact. This new childhood was decidedly more...Hobbesian.

The moment ended. Time seemed to remember that it had a job to do, and it sped back up to its normal pace, and Mr. Newton carried on pushing the table down the hall. I never saw the creature again, never heard its name. Years later, when I uncovered that memory, because I had an adult brain that could contemplate such memories and the Internet had been invented, I hunted the thing down on Google. It took a bit of digging; I asked the Internet what in fuck's name is big enough, ugly enough, and intelligent enough, that lives in Northern waters and can survive out of water for a bit. Turns out Mr. Newton was wheeling a wolf eel down the hallway of our elementary school. See it here:

http://www.robertbaileyphotography.com/section633096_111465.html


Wolf eels are actually fish, not eels, and are fearsome-looking but fairly peacable animals. They mate for life, and are rather affectionate, if one could call a fish affectionate. I don't know why I'm explaining all this--I guess I feel I owe them a favor, after such a disservice was done to one of them in my young presence. Even back then, a fear-frozen second-grader watching the death of a monster, I understood that the monster was actually us. The creature on the table should never have been there. It's not like he asked to be brought up out of the water and get a free tour of our lovely school. He wasn't looking to have me for breakfast. Maybe he'd left behind a lady friend in the dark, cold water, a mate who wondered where he was. Taking a baseball bat to the head--that's no way to die.

So I did learn something from Sea Week, and I did get my merman, after all; a creature more fantastic than I could have imagined, because in the end, it was real. And if it's real, then we still have a chance to save it. It's up to us to educate ourselves, via our big brains and the fantastic Internet, and any other way we can, about our oceans. We don't have to wait for Sea Week, and we don't have to wait until one of these incredible creatures dies in front of us. We can do it now. We owe it to them.



















3 comments:

  1. Oh, KB, I just wanted to reach out and hug that second grader right now and say, "I'm sorry!" I'm sorry for all the insensitive educators (okay, all the insensitive PEOPLE out there) who would subject you and any precious child to such an awful experience. (There is a reason I teach language arts and not science. I barely made it through dissecting a worm in 8th grade) I love how you flipped it all though. You shared the memory to educate us and encourage us to have a lot more compassion (and a lot more action) for our fellow, sentient beings. I swear every day I lean more heavily toward being a vegan. Beautiful, straight-to-the heart writing as usual.

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  2. Oh, KB, I just wanted to reach out and hug that second grader right now and say, "I'm sorry!" I'm sorry for all the insensitive educators (okay, all the insensitive PEOPLE out there) who would subject you and any precious child to such an awful experience. (There is a reason I teach language arts and not science. I barely made it through dissecting a worm in 8th grade) I love how you flipped it all though. You shared the memory to educate us and encourage us to have a lot more compassion (and a lot more action) for our fellow, sentient beings. I swear every day I lean more heavily toward being a vegan. Beautiful, straight-to-the heart writing as usual.

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    Replies
    1. Little Bird, thank you for reading this all the way through its gruesome conclusion. I really debated setting this down in writing, as it was such a gory and disturbing memory. I had to check with a classmate to confirm the details; once I did so, I knew I had to write it. Wolf eels are amazing creatures, as are all of our oceans' citizens. They have their own stories. They deserve to be heard. <3

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