A Tale of Kindergarten, Death, and a Turkey
I don’t remember what name we’d given our pet turkey, but given that our ideas stemmed from five and six-year old minds it may have been something irrelevant yet topical, like Cobra Commander; or something obscure and ridiculous such as Poindexter or Patty or Poncho. But I’ll bet that beyond the absurd, the name we most likely chose was something simple. Something obvious. Something like Tom.
It was early November, and Mrs. Meiden’s kindergarten class had a project of vast importance: We were to take care of a turkey. With lots of supervision, we’d fed her, made sure she had plenty of fresh water, and made her the unofficial mascot of Northern Hills Elementary. Within the halls of our school we saw firsthand what a turkey looked, acted, sounded, and smelled like. It’s a fond memory, and Mrs. Meiden rarely helped produce those. Hers was the last gasp of a dying teaching style; a method heavy on belittlement, intimidation and discipline, an approach that one would be hard-pressed to find in North America today. I imagine teachers like her still exist in small pockets across the states, in anachronistic polygamous sects in the deep deserts of Utah or in the somber recesses of a Catholic boarding school, where the cracks of weathered yardsticks can still be heard slapping against the hands of little boys and girls who, for whatever reason, have a hard time following the rules.
And that, undeniably, was me. Easily distracted, rarely focused during lessons or field trips or anything educational, I constantly invited Mrs. Meiden’s wrath, a wrath she was all too eager to dole out. I can still hear her crackling, joyous voice on that wintry day before the beginning of Christmas vacation, weeks after we’d seen the last of Tom, when we all, with the disproportionately exultant anticipation that accompanies youth, scurried in to our green carpeted classroom, greedily fetching the small stockings Mrs. Meiden had prepared for us the night before. Depending on each student’s individual ability to adhere to instructions, stockings were filled with items denoting the good; candy, the bad; candy and a stick, and the really bad; candy, a stick and a piece of coal. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that there were very few girls who’d discovered anything but candy. And I can say with an equally fair degree of certainty that nearly every boy that day had discovered a stick jammed between his candy canes and sweet tarts. But I, in a way no six-year-old boy wants to be, was special. “Look everyone,” Meiden announced, “Jason has a stick and a piece of coal in his stocking!” In hindsight, this is actually a bit comedic, a kindergarten teacher publicly declaring the rottenness of a toddler in hopes that ostracizing him would somehow set him straight, but at the time, I probably didn’t find it funny at all. I don’t really remember what I thought. Maybe I shrugged it off, laughed about it with my fellow stick-earners. I’d probably even felt an odd tinge of pride, knowing that I’d went the distance, that I alone had set a new bar for troublemakers everywhere. “Someday,” perhaps I thought, “you can all earn a piece of coal too.”
It unsurprisingly got worse. I beat up my classmate Donnie and three of his friends when they jumped me in the playground. In a battle so inconsequential, yet so epic, we four locked horns under the slated shadows of a playground log cabin. I shoved like my life depended on it, and when Donnie hit his head on a log, the war was lost. He cried, so he got ice cream. I didn’t, so I got in trouble. Later on I played with my Hot Wheels cars while Mrs. Meiden was talking about something boring. She paused, only for a moment, to pick up the die-cast chunk of metal and whip it violently across the room. I don’t remember what happened next.
Tom the Turkey helped me focus. I really liked animals, always have, and this was an important project: the sustainment of life, caring for something that depends on you for its very existence. But I had never stopped to wonder why we were raising a turkey so near a holiday that signaled death for them and their kind. And when the day arrived when all that was left of Tom and her cage was a lightly discolored square of linoleum, I still had no clue as to what fate befell her.
We were shuffled over to the other kindergarten class adjoining ours, a sort of alternate universe where the other kids, like strange, nocturnal gremlins, attended class after we’d left and tore down our painstakingly erected wooden block towers. I don’t know why we went there, but I imagine it was because they had a counter. “Gather round,” Meiden said. “Today we have a special guest!” I wasn’t sure who this “special guest” was, all dressed in white, wearing a manufactured expression of scientific curiosity, but the pinkish lump that lay in front of him was unmistakable. There she was, our Tom. Lifeless. Her body efficiently plucked of it’s earth-brown feathers. Headless. Her body prepared for consumption. The butcher showed us magic tricks. “See what happens when I pull this ligament?” Tom twitched. “Look at what this tendon does!” She twitched again.
And at once Mrs. Meiden’s fiendish plot came into focus: the whole endeavor, the feeding, the naming, the imparting of affection and consequent bond between child and animal was merely the means in which to teach this lesson: “Life is pain. Everything dies. And the sooner you realize it the better.” Or at least, that’s what it seemed like. In adulthood, whatever resentment I may still harbor towards her, I realize that the real lesson Mrs. Meiden was trying to convey was probably this: “Animals are living, breathing organisms with real needs but we eat them, and it’s okay.”
I can assume, living in Wisconsin, that Meiden was raised on a dairy farm. It seems like everyone that old was. She had had to learn the stark realities and consequent tragedies of earth’s life cycle at an impressionable age. But we were just kids raised in a burgeoning town hoping to be a suburb. Our animals were cats and dogs, hamsters and parakeets. We cried when our goldfish was ignobly flushed down the toilet. We held miniature funerals with shoebox coffins for our gerbils. And when a cat or dog died? That was nearly catastrophic. There’s no doubt that ours is a world filled with tragedy and pain. Sure, steak tastes good, but something has to die for us to taste it, and yes, every Thanksgiving millions of turkeys are slaughtered in the name of tradition, and while I see the inherent sadness in this life cycle, I honestly have no problem with that. But to make it personal, to attach a name, to care for, feed and love an animal that will unknowingly be butchered in the name of education? Who would willingly subject a child to that? Well, I know exactly who would. But more importantly, I know exactly who wouldn’t. I have Meiden to thank for that.
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