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Why rats are a teacher's best friend

Disgusting personal revelations are difficult, especially when they involve infestations. It's all the more difficult when the infestation is in a classroom where you have been entrusted with the education of other people's children.

Let me unburden myself. My classroom has an infestation of goodwill brought on by a pair of that most reviled of species, Rattus norvegicus, the Norway rat. These specimens have craftily insinuated their way into the hearts of hundreds of students at the high school where I work. Successfully clawing through the walls of fear, revulsion and plain old prejudice, they have obtained their rightful status as an educator's best friend.

Over the past few years, my classroom has changed from just another cinder-block cube to become the venerable School of Rat.

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I teach a university-level psychology course (soon to be renamed Advanced Rat Whispering) at a public school in Toronto, and some years back I was casting about for ideas to make my lessons more "hands-on" for my students. Budget and space restrictions would not permit the lab equipment that would have been desirable, but a pair of rats, a serviceable cage and provisions for the year could all be had for less than $200.

I made my intentions known to a few of my colleagues, and was met with the mildest support I have ever encountered. "Will they bite the kids?" some asked (though not in a hopeful spirit). "What if they get loose?" others asked. "No one will want to be in your classes," still others declared.

This was not the first time in history that a major educational innovation would be opposed by naysayers, scoffers and avowed rat-haters. Undaunted, I kept asking the question until I got the answer I wanted. I put the query to my students. Here I got the support I needed from those who were born to love rats, heed their lessons and receive their wisdom. We put a resolution to acquire rats to a thoroughly undemocratic vote, and won.

Then I put in the order for our first pair from a science supply company. When I told the secretary in the school office who handles departmental orders what I was up to, I think she considered early retirement on the spot.

"Will I have to touch them when they arrive?" she asked.

"Only if you really want to," I said.

"I'll call you in your classroom when they're delivered," she said, suppressing her gag reflex.

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The first of numerous pairs of rats arrived about a week later. Since then, many tiny paws have roamed around Room 215. The students have given the rats various names: sometimes brain parts, sometimes slang terms for psychoactive drugs, sometimes after younger siblings. Our current pair is known as Cere and Bellum.

The rats have participated in sundry experiments to aid in the advancement of science, including rope-climbing, eating contests, maze running and desk jumping.

But as so often happens in education, the most valuable contribution of the School of Rat has been outside classroom hours. They have become a lunch-time and after-school attraction for students who have moved on from my classes or who never took my courses in the first place. Young people who have never had family pets find themselves ensnared in the trap of an intriguing little animal that has successfully beaten all human attempts to wipe it out over millennia.

A tall student passing my room happens to glance in the doorway and stops in her tracks: "Why do we have rats in the school, sir?"

"We use them in experiments in psychology class."

"They're so cute. But their tails are nasty!"

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"Would you like to hold her?"

Nervous hands are extended to the white rat I'm holding. "Oh my God, she's so soft! If they're so cute, why do people hate them so much?"

Rather than bore this new applicant to the School of Rat with a lengthy explanation, I suggest that she feed the rats.

"What do they eat?"

"What have you got?"

"You mean they'll eat anything?"

"Sure. You wouldn't survive thousands of years of humans trying to kill you if you were picky about what you eat."

"That's so cool."

Thus another student is enrolled in the School of Rat. Students in this school confess to having dreams about the rats, call the rats their children, keep the rats on their desks during lessons and organize ad hoc rat races along the chalkboard ledges. They come to play with the rats when the school day becomes too stressful or to make new friends. They are struck by the bond they can create with a non-human, and, yes, they grieve the severing of that bond when the rat inevitably dies.

A Grade 9 boy enters my room at lunch time. "Sir, are your rats boys or girls?"

"They're girls."

"Why don't you get a boy and a girl so they can have children?"

I delicately explain that rats will mate up to 200 times a day if given the opportunity, that a single rat can be responsible for thousands of offspring.

His jaw drops. "Wow, I wish I was a rat!"

A rat he will never be, but one day he may be an alumnus of the School of Rat.

Mark Harding lives in Toronto.

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