When I unexpectedly met a white rabbit the other day, I felt somewhat like Alice in Wonderland. But unlike Alice, I had not fallen down a rabbit hole.
Rather, I had just opened a classroom door as the substitute teacher for Mrs. Tracy Ward's fourth-grade class.
Snowy is a pet rabbit in that room, and although he has a cage, he is free to roam about the room most of the time – even at night. That is why he was hopping around when I entered the classroom just before the first school bell rang. There is carpet on the floor in that room, and for some reason, Snowy never ventures out into the tiled hallway.
Snowy is your basic breed of bunny. His ears are not especially long. Like a dog, he licks the students occasionally.
Snowy has a pleasant personality and is relatively obedient. Unlike Peter Rabbit, who ate vegetables in Mr. McGregor's garden, Snowy doesn't hop outside to get something to eat from the school's garden in the springtime. Instead, teachers and students provide daily room service, bringing him meals, which include carrots and broccoli and his favorite treat, raisins. Since Snowy is a messy eater, he is supposed to consume his food in his cage, but that doesn't always happen. Sometimes when he is roaming about the room, his special friends give him banana slices to nibble on.
Unfortunately, not long ago, Snowy added something inedible to his diet. He took a liking to chewing one particular non-food item – wires. There are a lot of them in Mrs. Ward's classroom because of the computers and other electronic devices. But wires are not a good treat for Snowy. So to keep him from chewing on the wires, Mrs. Ward coated them with Bitter Apple, a sour spray that is not tasty to animals. This product, used to keep dogs from chewing furniture (among other things), worked. Now Snowy stays clear of all wires and doesn't go near them, preferring less sour-tasting food – for the moment anyway.
Are some students distracted from doing their work because Snowy is present? Probably, but not everyone pays attention to him. Haley Horowitz, a student in the class, told me that if she is sitting on the floor for a lesson and concentrating on the rabbit instead of her work, she has to return to her desk. But Snowy also has a reason to let the students complete assignments. Often after Haley carefully finishes her work, she gets to go back and sit on the floor and pet Snowy for a while.
During the day, students like to coax him to come to their desks. Right now, students also want to play with the fur Snowy is shedding.
In general, though, Haley told me that this class pet comes right up to you when you are quiet. So maybe Snowy helps with noise control in the classroom!
During tests, Snowy is locked in his cage, and he doesn't like that at all. That is when he becomes noisy – thumping his foot, chewing on the bars of his cage, or clicking the spout of his water bottle to get a drink. Maybe he doesn't like it so quiet after all!
When Snowy is allowed to roam free again, he often squeezes into the most unlikely places. Then it is difficult to find him. His favorite hiding places are behind the bookshelf and under the rolling cart.
He also likes to hop on top of the beanbag chairs. Do you suppose students ever practice reading out loud when they are sitting there on the beanbag chairs beside him?
Through the years, I have seen a variety of pets in schools – snakes, spiders, goldfish, birds, mice, guinea pigs, turtles, and even dogs. So why did Mrs. Ward choose a rabbit for her fourth-grade classroom?
"I want to create a homey environment," she says. "My students feel a sense of pride by having a rabbit in their classroom because it is unusual."
Even without a pocket watch like Alice's rabbit, Snowy attracts a lot of attention and makes the fourth-graders and the classroom feel very special.