The Hermit Crab As Teacher

Over a year ago, my wife bought a pair of hermit crabs as class pets for her second grade students. She’s had hermit crabs before, and she’s heard that if the environment is too stressful for them they cannot thrive, and in some instances if it’s too stressful, then they die. In the end, her students were a little too rowdy for the crabs to live happily in the classroom, so Ralph and Miss Honey came home one evening, and were home to stay.

Both Ralph and Miss Honey were extremely shy. They rarely came out of their shells, and when they did it was only briefly for food or water. Then they’d retreat to opposite corners of their tank and burrow down through the peat and soil, all the way to the glass bottom. At times I’d forget they were even in there, their vigilance and deep commitment to their namesakes a given.

During the first few months at home they also behaved oddly, at least according to my wife. They switched shells with one another more than once, despite there being at least two or three other options in their tank. They even refused hermit crab food and would only eat fresh vegetables or fruit, and exclusively watermelon for a while.

Over summer we were out for a day or two, maybe on a short day trip or vacation, I can’t remember, and when we came back we saw that they’d switched shells again, but that this time Ralph was missing his big claw. Those claws are their most important asset, their main self-defense weapon. Those claws even seal them off from the outside world when they retreat into their shells. Poor Ralph with no claw. But amazingly, he survived at least another few weeks without it. One day my wife came home and went to check on them and say hello, and she saw that Ralph was no longer with us. It was down to just Miss Honey. Solitary Miss Honey.

And she’s lived alone ever since, changing tanks once, but other than that living quietly and elusively for months, rarely coming out and retreating quickly whenever we’d walk by or bend our faces to the tank to say hello. At one point my wife researched how hermit crabs get to pet stores — you know, are they bred, trapped in the wild, all that. Turns out their journey to a pet store is traumatic:  they’re captured from the wild, then put into large sacks with hundreds of other crabs, many having their shells cracked open or dying along the way. By the time they arrive in display cases in pet stores, they are most likely battered physically and to whatever depth they feel and sense, they are likely psychologically or emotionally battered, too. Makes sense that she is the way she is. If she could speak, she’d probably say Humans? Fuck humans, I’m staying in my shell.

However, my wife has continued caring for Miss Honey, even after her violent incident with Ralph, overcoming her own dislike of seafood to serve Miss Honey shrimp, cutting up tiny pieces of fresh fruit and veggies for her everyday, changing her waters (hermit crabs need both fresh and salt water), spraying down her tank and checking the temperature to make sure she’s living in an optimal environment, and gently talking to her at least once or twice a day. I too have walked by and occasionally seen her out — rather, I’ve seen her shell on the surface instead of burrowed down as far as possible — and I’ve taken the time to say hello and observe her, tried to admire her strange little antennae and skinny walking legs, her jet black eyes on stalks. She was the ghost pet of the house, a figment or a specter, but I thought, well, you never know if she’s listening, might as well be kind.

And after all this time, nearly a year, she’s finally finally come out. I think on Thanksgiving, when we hosted almost 20 people and we were at our noisiest, one of the cousins saw her walking around her tank. Miss Honey, just out for a stroll. I was so surprised, but also delighted. I took it that she too was making an effort to be hospitable for the holiday.

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I’ve sat here across from Miss Honey on the couch many times:  her tank light glowing, water drops humidly clinging to the sides, no movement or life apparent, but I know she’s in there, up to something. And as a living creature she is so much like so many of us:  she’s been battered along her journey, and thus scared to no end, convinced it’s best to stay hidden away or strike first before being hurt again herself. But I’d also like to think that she is an example of the victories, large and small, that we can all have with finding safety and beginning to trust, of allowing care and kindness to touch us even when it’s at the risk of re-injury.

My wife has played a significant role in Miss Honey’s story. Sometimes holding out our hands, offering love and care consistently and patiently and without expectation is the cure that a battered heart needs. And like my wife caring faithfully for Miss Honey, the response and the validation may not come right away, but it is the right remedy.

We are mysteries inside our own shells with our own complicated histories and hurts, trials and successes. Sometimes we stay buried and sometimes bravely push ourselves to go out for a stroll. And sometimes we are the gentle and patient caregiver, giving just to give, participating in the rebuilding and the healing one day at a time, knowing that one day our hermit crab will emerge from her shell.


Which Is Better: Your Best or Good Enough?

Doing my best, trying my hardest, giving it everything I’ve got is a big part of my identity — especially when it comes to work. As a kid, school (the junior version of work) came pretty easily to me, but I would still try my hardest, study diligently for tests, strive for my personal best, look for ways to challenge myself, all that. Even in high school, most Friday nights I’d sit at my convertible dresser / desk, consult my meticulously written out homework agenda, and get to work. And it wasn’t because I wanted to get it out of the way to open up the rest of my weekend, it was because I wanted to feel that feeling of achieving and doing things well. Same thing in college, grad school, and on into my adult work life. Problem is, this work ethic and my perfectionistic tendencies have caused a lot of stress and heartache.

I’m currently in my eleventh year of teaching and sometimes I still feel like I put in as much time and effort as a rookie. Lately I’ve been reflecting on reasons why — and I don’t want to make excuses for myself — but from what I can see there are a few major factors, some that I can control and others that I can’t and never could have.

First and foremost, teaching is one of those professions that can become a 24/7 occupation. If I spent my full energy thinking about each of my students, their unique talents and needs, and then designed meaningful and personalized learning for each of them that in itself could be an endless task — not to mention developing a beautiful, enriching, and engaging classroom; creating attractive and interactive bulletin boards in the hallway; reaching out to all the kids’ parents regularly via their preferred communication method; continuing to develop my professional capacity with after school, weekend, and summertime opportunities; applying for grants and writing Donors Choose proposals; the list goes on and on and each task — when done to the best of my ability — could be a nearly full-time job on its own besides the task of teaching the kids who come to learn something with me everyday. So there’s that. Teaching is hard.

Second, my early career — and even my pre-service experience — was rocky at best. As a student teacher my cooperating teacher didn’t even know I was going to be with her (for the entire school year!) until I sat down next to her in August and introduced myself. Just imagine — she had had no idea that for the entire school year a 25-year-old was going to be shadowing her, observing her, and hoping to eventually take over her classroom instruction. She was also not the best model of how to teach creatively or use time efficiently. Just to give you some context:  she had 15 students and taught out of basals — essentially pre-written curricula in all content areas — and was still at work every day until after six o’clock at night reviewing lessons and wondering to herself what to teach. Once I got into my own classroom, the first four years were a different grade level, a different classroom, or a different school. First it was first grade, then it was a triple split with first, second, and third graders all in the same room, then it was just third grade but I had to move classrooms, then I was in a brand new school with no curricula at all and I was responsible for writing essentially all of it with a team of strangers. Phew! After that, I was in the same classroom teaching the same grade, but turnover at my newer school was so high that for four years the entire team was new each year — except for me — so I was responsible for guiding my new team members through curricula I’d written and then managing, revising and rewriting that curricula with each new team. So there’s that. Teaching is really hard.

All the while, through every major change, I felt very responsible for my students and an obligation to do my very best. Because the kids needed me and because doing a job well is an expression of me, of who I am as a person. It’s been a huge part of my identity to do things well, actually — if I want to be fully honest — it’s been a huge part of my identity to do things the best, to be the best, to be outstanding. And for many years I’ve strived to do just that and many times I’ve stayed at work 11, 12, 13 hours a day, working half-days on Saturdays and Sundays, and over breaks, too. I’m doing things “the best,” but when I’ve had those moments to step back and look at my life as a whole rather than just work, work is the only thing getting done — no time or energy for eating right, exercising, socializing. And now that I’m in my eleventh year of teaching, I’m tired. Because teaching is hard, and because it’s hard to give it my all, all the time, and in many cases for it to make not that much of a difference to anyone but me.

So this is where I am — stuck — and maybe in transition. Some days I leave my classroom feeling like a failure:  I have dozens of things left on my to do list and it’s unlikely they’re going to get done anytime soon. Certain lessons or moments didn’t go the way I planned or wanted, and I just don’t feel like I gave it my all. Other days I look around the room — mess that it is — shrug, tell myself I did the best I could with what I had, remind myself I have a life to live outside of work, turn off the lights, and leave.

And on those days, even though I’m gone, in my car on the way to the gym or home to cook dinner, looking forward to a new episode of Fixer Upper or another couple of chapters from a library book, there’s this nagging, needling feeling that keeps me wondering — is it okay that today was good enough, or should I have really tried my best?