One bite of rattlesnake deeply impacted my life.
It was 1977 and my seventh-grade homeroom teacher had served in Vietnam before becoming a Science teacher. Mr. Jewell was enthusiastic and encouraging, and seemed too young to have the few streaks of gray hair that kept some of the junior high girls from obsessing about him. But on the rare occasion when he shared stories about living in the jungle, we learned how he earned his silver.
He made Science fun. It was a challenge considering his pre-teen students were more concerned if they could afford HASH jeans or if they would be asked to slow dance during the first Helena Junior High School dance.
On a September Saturday, he foraged into the Montana wilderness with a friend, a snake pole, and a cage and came back with our new classroom pet. A rattlesnake. The snake lived in the corner of the room where he was constantly watched by kids who absorbed his identity.
We were cool because we had the only teacher with a rattlesnake in his classroom.
Snake was fed various creatures, but usually not during class time.
If you grew up in Montana you watched for rattlesnakes, the original settlers. You observed the sunny rocks while hiking and listened for the rattle noise in the bushes. In the olden days, we were told to cut an X over an accidental bite to suck the blood and venom and spit it out. We were taught to identify snake head and pattern shapes to know friend or foe.
Mr. Jewell taught us the foe could also be a friend.
After a year of being the cool kids with the rattlesnake in their homeroom, we took one step further into the adventure.
We ate our pet rattlesnake.
This sounds like a scene from Lord of the Flies, but there wasn’t anything ritualistic or sadistic about it. Mr. Jewell cooked it at home and brought in a snake-shaped aluminum foil package to the classroom.
Then the coolest teacher in the world presented a challenge we couldn’t resist. It was our chance to do something unusual. It was our chance to push ourselves to do something we were afraid of.
He encouraged us, “You can brag about this the rest of your life.”
I listened to his urgings and like the majority of the other kids in the homeroom, timidly took a bite. It tasted like chicken.
That summer I moved from my beloved Montana to North Dakota. In trying to impress the flat-landers, on more than one occasion I was able to work into the conversation, “I ate rattlesnake one time.”
In college, when much bragging was done inside and outside of classrooms, I casually mentioned, “Well, I’ve eaten rattlesnake.”
I moved to the the West Coast and when people share their love for exotic and ethnic foods, I still assert, “I’ve eaten rattlesnake.”
It wasn’t just about the rattlesnake. It was about confidence and conquering. Taking chances. Having no regrets. (I’ve never been offered rattlesnake again.) Overcoming fear. Listening to an adult who knew more than you.
It was a life-changing experience.
Cuz’, you know what?
I’ve eaten rattlesnake.