Of Mice and Birds

Of Mice and Birds
While waiting for the school bus one spring morning, I came across a dead bird with advanced rigor mortis, apparently killed by a car. “Now, what can I do with this?” my scheming mind wondered. I couldn’t come up with any real good ideas immediately, so I promptly plopped the bird into my jacket pocket and boarded the bus. “I’ll come up with something later,” I thought. If I had any clue as to the amount of trouble that dead bird was about to cause, I would never have picked it up, let alone take it to school.

I have always known how that dead bird made its presence into the lunch bag of our world cultures teacher. But, my lips are forever sealed. I admit today, as I did to our vice principal back then, “I brought it to school, but I did not place it in her lunch bag.” And that line sailed over Mr. Plummer’s shaved head like a non-stop flight over the Pacific, no place to land.

I went so far as to give him the name of the individual whom I knew had last possession of that bird.** I was bordering on being a snitch, but I didn’t want to take responsibility for this incident, because I was not the guilty party.

There were plenty of other cases where I was indeed blameworthy. But taking punishment for a crime that I did not commit was not an option. I wasn’t about to take full blame for this one, and I couldn’t understand initially why I was the only one being implicated. Perhaps it was because of……

The time I hung a dead mouse in Jean Resick’s locker, complete with a mini rope and hangman’s noose – now I was guilty there. And when her startled scream echoed through the halls that day, I did admit to Mr. Plummer that it was my doing. Come to think of it, no wonder I was considered suspect number one.

Somehow another student also got involved in the bird investigation. My only guess is that he was guilty by association. He was in the same homeroom, enjoyed the company of us birdbrains, and was in that infamous world cultures class too. Like me, he refused to give any information to Mr. Plummer. So, he was rewarded with a permanent letter in his student file for his lack of cooperation. If you like, ask Mr. Penrod at Forest Hills High School for his version of that dead bird story. The truth is – he never touched it.

I didn’t realize it then, but this devious dead bird joke and the investigation that followed were being scrutinized by our homeroom teacher, Mr. Pettorini. No doubt hearing about the dastardly deed in the faculty room, he set out to investigate and eventually take the law into his own hands. He was going to use his position as a biology teacher to get even with the culprit and to teach him a lesson at the same time.

As fate would have it, the biology classes were working on a project in which the students collected samples of wild deer mice. They’d skin the little critters, stuff them with cotton, and then preserve them. The storage area in the back of the biology room was literally filled with dead mice. The carcasses were located on shelves, on tables, in jars, and in the refrigerator in that small room.

Students had access to the room and the refrigerator too, so that became a popular place to put our lunch bags, to keep them cool. I placed my bag in there the morning after “bird day” and retrieved it later that afternoon. We had an away track meet and we were permitted to take a small lunch with us on the bus.

I don’t know the name of the student that told Mr. Pettorini which bag was mine. But someone did. There were a half dozen of us that day who used that refrigerator and later hopped aboard the track bus. I was the only one to find a DEAD DEER MOUSE included with my meal. I must also acknowledge that it wasn’t very appetizing.

At first I thought the prankster was one of my cronies, but when Mr. Pettorini asked me the next morning how much I enjoyed my lunch, I knew who the vigilante was.

“But you have the wrong guy,” I tried in vain to explain. A simple smile was all the response I got. To this day, I bet he thinks he had the correct suspect.

My punishment continued beyond the dead mouse incident. Later on, after my football coach campaigned for me to be inducted into the National Honor Society (a story in its own), our world cultures teacher, who was also the NHS advisor, threatened to boycott the annual educational trip to the University of Pittsburgh. Her threat was based on her inability to black ball me from the honor organization. And she freely admitted it to the other students. She had tears in her eyes that day when she spoke to the group and told them that the trip may be cancelled.

My fellow classmates were ticked off and I was made to feel rather foolish and embarrassed too. Eventually, after much persuasion from the well-behaved NHS members, she reconsidered and we did visit the campus. I doubt our advisor enjoyed that day on the bus trip. She probably was wondering what was going to happen to her next.

In today’s educational setting, Mr. Pettorini probably would have been fired and had his pension frozen for his methods of discipline. He then would have been tarred and feathered, skinned, and stuffed with cotton for his retaliatory scheme. But back in the day, teachers could still rule as they deemed necessary. I never did drag out that whole scenario with him because I knew there were numerous other instances when I had gotten away with something. So this time, I took the heat and accepted it.

Later in college, I majored in biology like Mr. Pettorini. He was the key reason for my interest in the field. And for over thirty years I taught life science too. But I never once did that same project using wild deer mice – way too tempting to the mischievous.

And even though our faculty refrigerator was off-limits to my students, I couldn’t count the number of times I checked the contents of my lunch bag before I reached in. I guess I’ll always be leery of receiving Mr. Pettorini’s interpretation of a “happy meal.”

** Special thanks to Frank Spaid for his ghost role in this story. It's high time people know the truth.

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA