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The Dead Hamster

Over the years, in the name of education, I have been responsible for many creatures (quite apart from children).

In various settings I had gerbils, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, fish, more fish and, on occasions when the fish died, slices of carrot.

Caring for pets in a foundation unit is not looked on so positively these days. It can be unkind to animals and of course there are mountains of health and safety issues.

Many years ago I began work at a new school and found I had inherited two gerbils. They seemed quite happy and then they started reproducing, which was very sweet and an ideal learning opportunity. But within a very short space of time their babies also started reproducing and pretty soon we had approaching 8 zillion gerbils. So I gave up on gerbils.

I recovered from the experience and years later suggested we had some goldfish in our nursery (probably having read somewhere about how soothing they are). It was my job to clean them out occasionally. We had a sink near the cloakrooms, too high for the children to reach. Following directions in my 'Goldfish Encyclopedia', one day I plonked the bowl in the sink and left our two goldfish with water running gently into their bowl to aerate the water and so clean them out.

Several hours later, when I finally remembered them, I was horrified to find that there appeared to be only one goldfish in the bowl. Unfortunately the other goldfish had floated out over the top of the bowl, got itself wedged in the plug hole and was now extremely dead. I gave up on goldfish.

Many years later in another setting we were offered a hamster cage by a parent. So we stupidly decided to go for it. We bought a beautiful tiny baby hamster from a reputed pet shop, and ferried it to the setting in a proper container, which it had almost entirely chewed through by the time we got back (a ten minute journey – perhaps we should have started worrying then).

It turned out to be a total beast! The first time a member of staff tried to handle it, it gave her a vicious bite on the finger. Her instinctive reaction was to flick it off which resulted in a hamster with a fractured leg and vet bills.

It survived and matured into an interesting character which would escape from its cage whenever possible. We spent endless hours searching for it, both before and after sessions and there were many times when I would be working happily with a group of children only to see it, Scarlet Pimpernel like, whiz past and then disappear again.

One time it had gone missing for several days and we had finally given up looking for it. It was a child's birthday, we mixed a cake and I opened the oven door to be greeted by our hamster. How on earth it actually got in there I will never know. I assume it had been living on the bits of dried burnt food in the oven.

Anyway it finally died. During our OFSTED inspection, of course.

We had a weekend rota to care for the hamster. It was mostly sort of voluntary but I had been known to beg desperately on Friday afternoons. Actually parents came up with the most amazing reasons for not having the hamster for the weekend, but that's another story...

Daisy and her family had been looking after it which I had completely forgotten about, my mind being so full of the forthcoming inspection (which had also resulted in me filling our diesel car with unleaded petrol that weekend).

Monday morning finally came and with it my first opportunity to impress our Inspector. She was observing me as I greeted children and parents on their arrival and for a short time I thought I might be doing quite well. Daisy arrived carrying a small decorated box – nothing new there, she was a creative child who often brought things in that she had made at home. In classic teacher mode I said how lovely the box was, asked had she made it, what was inside, etc. Daisy was very quietly spoken, she said something which I didn't quite catch and then went to hang up her coat.

I continued expressing joy at the box, knowing I was being observed and mentally congratulating myself on being such a wonderful teacher.

Then Daisy's Dad (also very quietly spoken and shy) whispered something in my ear but had absolutely no idea what he had said either so I just nodded, saying, 'Good, good, that's nice' thinking how impressed the inspector would be. In exasperation he said it much louder 'THE HAMSTER'S DEAD, IT'S IN THE BOX''.

I bet we were the only people in the entire educational universe to have an OFSTED inspection and a dead hamster at the same time.

Needless to say I have now given up on hamsters. And I would also gladly give up on OFSTED inspections. If only they would let me!

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