In 1977, my seventh grade homeroom teacher was a Vietnam Vet. Mr. Jewell was enthusiastic and encouraging, and seemed too young to have the few streaks of gray hair that kept the girls from obsessing about him. But when he shared the rare stories of being in the jungles, we knew he’d earned his silver.
He tried to make 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 Saturday in September, he foraged into the Montana wilderness with a friend, a snake pole, and a cage. He 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.
Having the only teacher with a rattlesnake in their homeroom made you cool.
Snake was fed various creatures, but usually not during class time.
Growing up in Montana, you learned to watch for rattlesnakes, the original settlers. You watched the sunny rocks while hiking, you 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.
Then, after a year of being the cool kids with the rattlesnake in their classroom, we took one step further into the adventure.
We ate our pet snake.
This sounds like a scene from Lord of the Flies, but there wasn’t anything ritualistic or sadistic about it. He cooked at home and brought in a snake-shaped aluminum foil package to the classroom.
Mr. Jewell, the coolest teacher in the world, presented it to us in a way 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 told 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 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 was able to casually mention, “Well, I’ve eaten rattlesnake.”
Moving to the the west coast where people love all kinds of exotic and ethnic foods, I’m still able to assert, “I’ve eaten rattlesnake.”
It wasn’t just about the snake, I know now. It was about confidence and conquering. It was about taking chances. It was about 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.