What Did We Learn?

My friend Shiraz and I were chatting about story ideas the other day and he posed the following scenario: a new class hamster is becoming nervous as it watches one of the kids calmly sharpening a pair of safety scissors. We noodled the idea for a bit and I asked him if I could run with it and put a short thing together for the ol' website. And so, here is a first draft little thing about hamsters, sadness and adulthood:

What Did We Learn?

“Do you know why we’ve called you in here, son?”

Samuel did not. He’d never been called into the principal’s office before, certainly not after school. He’d only ever seen the Principal from afar, stalking back and forth across the auditorium stage with his microphone, welcoming everyone to the first day of school.

The office was feeling a little cramped, adding to the feeling of intimidation that was beginning to overwhelm him. Not only was the principal here, he was also faced with his first grade teacher, Mrs. Pert, and another woman who was a stranger to him. She was dressed rather garishly, with loose, multi-coloured scarves draped around her arms and shoulders, beads hanging and clacking about her neck, and a hat like the one he’d seen a monkey at the circus wear one time. The hat was a short cylinder with a little tassel on top, flopping about as she moved her head. Between the flowing scarves, the dangling beads and the hat bauble, Samuel was feeling a little motion sick whenever he looked at her.

“She’s like the ocean,” he thought. “Scary and nauseating.”

The principal repeated his question.

“Samuel, do you know why we wanted to meet with you?”

Samuel shook his head. “No,” he said, “did I do something bad?”

“Can you tell me who Porkchop is?” asked the principal.

Samuel nodded. Porkchop was his homeroom mascot, a little hamster that Mrs. Pert had bought to help teach the class about responsibility.

“He’s our pet,” Samuel explained. “In class. I have a different pet at home.”

His teacher snorted at this, angrily blowing out air like a neutered dragon reaching for long lost flame. Samuel had no idea why she would have reacted that way. The principal gave her a look that caused Mrs. Pert to cross her arms and slouch down in her chair. She looked at the wall and chewed at her lip as the principal continued.

“And do you know this woman?” he asked, pointing at the collection of sound and colour sitting to his left.

Samuel shook his head. “No,” he said softly.

“This is Madame Imelda Zampanos,” said the principal.

“Hi,” Samuel said to Madame Zampanos, unsure of how else he was to react.

The woman bowed deeply, beads jangling and scarves swooped and she did. “Greetings, dear Samuel,” she said with an accent Samuel had never heard before.

“Madame Zampanos, perhaps you’d like to explain what it is you do?” asked the principal.

“But of course,” the woman said. “I, Madame Imelda Marguerite Zampanos am the world’s foremost pet psychic.”

Samuel looked very confused. “What’s a pet side-kick?” he asked. The image that came to mind was that she was like Robin was to Batman, but for pets. Why would a pet need a side-kick? Did Porkchop fight crime?

“My gifts are many, but to put it simply, I can harness the elements to commune with nature on a psychological level, allowing me to divine the thoughts of the animals we hold dear.” She bowed again for some reason, spilling out like flimsy waves.

This was not making any sense to Samuel, until his teacher clarified.

“She can read animal minds,” Mrs. Pert said curtly. “I hired her to find out what’s wrong with Porkchop.”

“There’s something wrong with Porkchop?” asked Samuel with concern. He really liked the little hamster, especially when it shoved food into its cheeks looked all silly.

Madame Zampanos nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid there is. You were right to call me,” she said this to Mrs. Pert, reaching past the principal to wave her fingers at the teacher. Samuel was not sure what this gesture meant, but figured it was just something a side-kick does.

The principal jumped back into the conversation. “Samuel, Mrs. Pert thought that Porkchop looked a little sad ever since school started. Madame Zampanos had helped pick the class hamster with Mrs. Pert…”

“And he was the happiest hamster I’ve ever seen,” Madame Zampanos interrupted.

Mrs. Pert sat forward and pointed a long-nailed finger in Samuel’s direction, “Which is why I was so worried. I specifically bought a happy hamster. Happy hamster for a happy class. It seemed very suspect to me that a happy hamster would suddenly become so lethargic, mere days after I bought him for you little…” she trailed off, leaving the sentence unfinished.

“Grade one is a lot harder that kindergarten,” Samuel thought.

“You can imagine my surprise when Mrs. Pert called me to look in on poor little Porkpie…”

“Porkchop!” said Mrs. Pert, with more than a little aggression.

The principal motioned for her to sit back. “Now, now,” he said. “I’m sure Samuel was unaware that he was making Porkchop so upset. Isn’t that right Samuel?”

“I made Porkchop sad?” asked Samuel. He was starting to tear up. He didn’t want to cry like he did when he skinned his knee playing jump rope and all the kids laughed at him. He didn’t want to be a baby again because he was getting older now and it wasn’t fair to call him a baby.

Madame Zampanos made a move to comfort Samuel, reaching out to him with wiggling fingers like he had with Mrs. Pert. Samuel momentarily forgot his sadness and jerked away from the knobby things attached to the side-kick’s hands, nearly toppling out of his seat.

“No need to be upset my dear boy, no need, no need,” the woman said, retracting her arm back into the swirl of clothing that enwrapped her. “You are most certainly the cause of the hamster’s depression, but there’s no way you’d have known. It is only because of my magnificent power that we have any idea what’s going on in the creature’s head at all.”

Samuel calmed down a bit, but his breathing remained ragged and the water in his eyes prepared for the slide down his face. “How do you know I’m making him sad?” the boy asked.

Madame Zampanos waved her arms dramatically, ending the motion by placing two fingers from each hand against her temples and then closing her eyes. “That is a very good question, dear boy. Allow me to explain. As soon as your teacher called me, I came as quickly as I could. When I saw the hamster, it became immediately clear to me that a miasma had sunk into the four walls of his tank. I prepared to meld minds and as soon as I did, he told me all about the sadness. Oh, the sadness. He was unable to move the way he once did. He started eating more to make himself feel better. He started sleeping more to hide away from the world. And so, he grew fat, tired and felt oh, so very alone.”

Samuel was crying now, but keeping himself together, allowing only a small sniffling sound here and there, though he wanted very much to break down completely.

The side-kick continued, “I asked the hamster, ‘Hamster, what causes you this pain?’ He indicated to me that it was a student. With this knowledge under my hat, I moved from desk to desk. At each one, I would ask, ‘Is this the desk of the student who is making you sad?’ And he said no, and he said no, and he said no, until finally, I received a clear and triumphant ‘Yes!’. He said, ‘Yes, that is the boy who is making me sad.’ And do you know who’s desk it was?” The woman’s eyes were open wide, her whole body shaking with dramatic fervor.

“You already said it was me,” Samuel said, eyes down. “It was my desk.”

The woman deflated, sitting back suddenly and dropping the act. “Well, yes. Yes, I suppose we have. When I moved to your desk, that’s when he said ‘Yes’.”

This didn’t make any sense to Samuel at all. The hamster hadn’t been around very long, but he was nice to him. At least, he thought he’d been nice to him. He fed Porkchop from the little bag of pellets and watched him run around on his wheel to play. The animal hadn’t seemed sad at all. He thought of his cat, Buttercup. She seemed happy too, and she purred when he pet her, but sometimes she was grumpy. Was she grumpy because of something he’d done? Thinking of the effect he might be having on the mood of his little cat was making it much harder to keep himself together.

“This is your fault,” said his teacher, either not noticing or choosing not to notice the boy’s feelings. “And since it’s your fault, you have to fix it. You’ll be taking Porkchop home tonight and you will cheer him up.”

“It’s the only way,” added the side-kick, jangling theatrically. “You must make peace with the animal.”

“But how am I going to cheer him up?” Samuel sniffled.

“You’ll just have to try your best,” said the principal. “This is your responsibility now Samuel. Do you understand?”

Samuel nodded, though he truly didn’t understand.


*                *              *


When he got home, Samuel hid the hamster from his parents. The teacher had bundled Porkchop up into a carrying case that was roomy enough for him to stay in while he was with Samuel, and had made a care package of food pellets and cage lining. As soon as he got off the bus, Samuel ran from the stop to his house, being careful not to jostle the cage as he flew through the door and up to his room before his mother or father could stop him. He wasn’t sure how much trouble he could get into for making a hamster sad, so he figured it was for the best if his parents didn’t find out.

He spent the time before dinner talking to the hamster and trying to hold in his emotions. If he started crying like a baby at dinner, he wouldn’t be able to keep his secret and he might even get grounded.

“I’m really sorry, Porkchop,” he said. The hamster responded by sniffing at the air curiously. “You don’t seem sad to me. Are you sad?”

He heard a scratching at the door. The cat was likely curious about the rodent smell coming from Samuel’s bedroom.

Samuel cracked the door open enough to see the cat, but not wide enough to let it through.

“I’m sorry Buttercup,” he said. “For everything.”

During dinner, he pretended that everything was fine, but with his mind preoccupied, Samuel was not able to make much in the way of conversation. His responses to “How was your day?” or “Did you learn anything fun today?” were short, one-word answers. He noticed his parents sharing glances across the table, though if they were worried, they didn’t press him. This was a good thing, as Samuel was deep in philosophical thought. He did have the presence of mind to squirrel away some lettuce from his salad – it would make for a nice snack for the hamster and a change of pace from the pellets. Maybe the hamster was just unhappy with the lack of variety in its diet?

“Mom?” he asked during a lull in the dinner chat between his parents. “Does Buttercup like to eat the same thing every day?”

“Buttercup is just happy to have something to eat,” his mom said. “If she had her say about it, she’d be Butterball. Cat eats like there’s no tomorrow.”

“But doesn’t she want different food? What if her food is making her sad?”

“That cat is living the sweet life,” said his father. “Sleeping all day, eating when she’s not sleeping, getting attention whenever she wants… I wish I was Buttercup.”

He pictured his dad with whiskers and white fur and was happily distracted from his conundrum.

As soon as he’d helped clear the dishes, Samuel ran upstairs and popped the crisp lettuce into the hamster’s cage, but the little thing didn’t go near it. It was breathing heavily, crouched in the corner and making a strained noise.

“I’m making it worse,” he thought, and began to cry again.

In the next hour, he tried everything he could think of. He introduced the hamster to his favourite stuffed toy, the little red porcupine with its plush quills, but it had no effect. He tried playing “Hot Cross Buns” for the hamster on his recorder, but there was no change. He read the hamster a story, small little tears hitting the pages as he did so. The hamster only seemed to get worse.

Finally, he could stand it no more. Porkchop really didn’t like him, it was true. No matter what he did, the hamster only seemed to hate him more and more. He made a big decision – he would have to tell his mom what was going on.

He ran downstairs in tears, found his mother on her computer and hugged her leg.

“What’s wrong honey?” she asked with concern, reaching down to rub her fingers through his mop of hair.

“It’s Porkchop,” he said.

“Who’s Porkchop, Samuel?”

“The hamster from school. My teacher said I made it sad and I’m trying mom, but it’s not helping and he’s just really sad.” He clutched her tighter.

“You brought a hamster home?” she asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Samuel just shook his head.

“Come on then, let’s go have a look.”

His mother led him upstairs, and opened the door to his bedroom, shoeing Buttercup away from the door as she did do.

“See what I mean about fatso?” she joked. “Don’t let her in here or she’ll have something different than kibble for dinner for sure. I don’t want her getting a taste for Porkchops.” She smiled at him but Samuel wasn’t seeing the humour in it.

His mother sighed. “So, where is he?” she asked.

As Samuel led his mother to the cage, he froze. Something was different. “Look!” he said, pointing into the cage. Where there had been only one hamster, now there were four.

“Well look at that,” said his mother. “Looks like Porkchop had a few piglets. You only brought one hamster home?” she asked.

Samuel nodded, and ran up to the cage. The small grey animal was calmly licking the newborns clean, and as he watched the new family huddle together, he grew up just a little bit.

“Mom,” he said, “maybe I need to find a new school.”