Nearly every educator will give you some variation on the line, “I love teaching, I learn as much from the students as they do from me!” And as corny as it sounds, it’s true. That’s why I went in to education — I love learning. I don’t mean in a human interest way, which includes learning about the strength of the human spirit or triumphing over adversity. I mean learning actual facts. But I never thought I’d feel those lessons so viscerally.
[Trigger warning: pet death]
Two years ago, I accepted an adjunct position with Sanford-Brown college teaching writing for the vet tech program. I was excited by the job: all of my students were in the same program (which meant lesson plans would be a little easier to prepare), I love animals, and I love science. I would genuinely get to learn while teaching. Also, there were actual animals in the building, so it was fun to sometimes get to see a kitty while on break.
Most of the assignments were geared towards “real world” scenarios that my students would encounter in the work force. One such assignment was a basic piece of tech writing: explain to a client how to perform a basic procedure. I was surprised by how often students wrote about giving injections. I didn’t even know one could administer injections at home. Other than giving pills, I’d never thought about performing any procedure at home. I even took the kitties to the groomer to have their claws trimmed.
The students carefully wrote how one would need to make a tent in the skin and carefully pierce the skin with a sterile needle. The cat might struggle, so one needs to be careful in restraining the animal.
So luckily, even though my heart was frozen in my chest, I was able to follow along as the vet explained how to administer fluids to Sarafina. Recently, I wrote that she had been diagnosed with kidney disease, only a few months after my other cat died from it. Sarafina’s case was progressing more quickly, and was worse, despite her younger age. The vet recommended subcutaenous fluids (an IV with saline solution, basically) twice a week. We could do it at home or bring her in.
As Sarafina calmly held still for the doctor, I thought about my former students, their skill and strength, their ability to work at such a job. Working with scared, upset people and animals. Teaching is emotionally draining, too, but at least it’s not so literally life and death.
A few days later, it was time for my husband and I to adminster the fluids. Sarafina never liked being picked up or held, and she struggled as we tried to get her in place. Even the old stand-by of holding her by the scruff didn’t work. (I later tried the “clipnosis” trick, and that didn’t work, either.) She cried, and I tried to get the needle in; she struggled, the needle slipped out, she cried louder. I tried again. My hands shook, and my brain was nothing by sobs. We gave up and decided to try again. The second try was no better.
Sarafina, like most cats, hated going to the vet, so the thought of subjecting her to treatments twice a week for the rest of her life also seemed awful. At her check up, we told the vet we wouldn’t pursue treatment. He gave her a prognosis of two or three months. Hospice care began.
Two weeks later, we had to put her to sleep.
The vet techs and vet were very kind when we called that morning and fit us in despite their other duties. Sarafina was the first patient of the day. The vet, of course, said that it can be a kindness to help end a cat’s suffering, but I imagine that’s a tough way to start the day.
Do my students ever think about me? I left that position less than a year after starting. I think about them often; they were so full of passion and drive and skill. I think about what I learned from them, about tenting skin and clipping nails and expressing anal glands. What did they learn from me? Maybe those former students think about our lessons as they explain procedures to patients or offer comfort during a difficult experience.
And from Sarafina I learned the value of patience. When we adopted her six years ago, she didn’t like cat treats or catnip. She rarely spoke. We gave her treats and ‘nip and love, and eventually she started speaking (all the time), eating catnip, and begging for treats. She still never liked being held. She’d never sit on my lap. Until her final night. One final item to check off her list.
One final lesson to learn.