Adventures In Biology

Sharp knives. Dead frogs. High school boys.

Somehow, somewhere along the line, a school administrator decided that combining the three in one class would be a good way to teach students biology. Speaking as a high school student who attended biology class faithfully – sometimes I even attended an extra class and dissected other people’s frogs for them when they weren’t looking – I can tell you we learned a helluva lot about frogs, but none of it related to biology.

For example, we learned the semi-annual “dead frog puppet show” is an age-old honored tradition at Norwalk High. We personally had this amazing frog showgirl rendition of Michael Sembello’s “She’s A Maniac” that had Flashdance beat all to hell, but our teacher, never a patron of the arts, threw our star performer away. We also learned that if you leave a dead frog in a locked drawer over a hot spring break you can get an extra class off while several janitors fumigate the room trying to get the smell out.

I recall vaguely that dissecting frogs was supposed to teach us something about anatomy – for example, frogs have tiny frog stomachs that contain dead flies, which aren’t nearly as fun to dissect – but we never could learn anything about anatomy from frogs because we had the wrong books.

The biology texts they gave us were apparently written and drawn by people who had eyes that saw in a different spectrum than we did. Their dead frogs had gaily colored neon blue and red veins that pumped bright fluorescent frog blood; our frogs had grayish-green stringy things that looked like toxic waste trickled through them. Their frogs had nice, neatly-arranged organs that practically called out, “Hi! I’m a frog liver! I process blood!”; our frogs just had this mass of froggish gunk that looked like it would mug you if it got the chance. We were doomed to educational oblivion; somebody had sent us the wrong frogs. So we just settled, happily may I add, for doing “Frog Faces of Death”.

One day our teacher left a catalog laying around. We flipped through it. It was a veritable menagerie of preserved animals, reptiles, and embryos for dissection. God help us if we had had credit cards then, because we would have shipped dead animals to anyone who ever pissed us off.

It had never occured to me that one actually had to order dead frogs, but here was this catalog full of all sorts of dead animals you could buy. What’s more, there are probably several companies in the dead frog business, all competing for customers, possibly advertising on late-night TV (“That’s right! Order a gross of frogs tonight and we’ll throw in a mummified hyena for free! And don’t forget, we’re the only ones who guarantee leak-proof packaging!”), which is just too strange.

The oddest thing about the catalog is that people in the business have trade names for the animals. The one I remember best is that they called pig fetuses “Happy Pigs”, which struck me as being a bit ludicrous. I admit I don’t know a whole lot about what makes a pig happy, but I just know that isn’t it. And I didn’t check, but I’m sure they call the frogs “Prince Charmings”.

Our final assignment for biology class was when we went multimedia dissecting a shark fetus. The shark fetus was about a foot long and looked more like Woody Allen than Jaws. We each got our own shark and our job was to dissect it and, on videotape, explain it by saying such mind-blowingly interesting things like, “This is a shark brain. The shark thinks with it.” Thelma and Louise it wasn’t.

Except for Lee Urchinson.

Lee was the kind of kid who long ago had decided he was going to fail the class, but with a misplaced sense of loyalty he refused to skip. Like clockwork, every day Lee would come in, make fun of the teacher and annihilate another frog. We had watched forty minutes of bored students explaining shark guts to us when Lee’s effort flashed on screen.

It was a closeup of the shark. Completely intact. The only thing wrong with it was it had a spike sticking out of one eye.

The camera pulled back, slowly, to reveal Lee in an oilskin raincoat and a sailor’s cap, one leg up on a chair.

Lee took the pipe out of his mouth.

“We were seven days at sea…” he said slowly.

Lee told the story of how he had been out hunting for whales in the Carribean when the fetal shark (or, as he put it, “This… this BEAST!”) attacked his ship, eating five men and sinking the ship before he managed to kill it. Fade to black. Lee failed the class, of course, but he failed spectacularly. As the teacher said, “I would have given him an A in anything except biology.”

I could go on about Biology – I haven’t even told you about Hapland Peter Pig, our suicidal mascot, and there’s this great story involving a cow eyeball and an air compressor – but I really have to go now. Someone just wrote me more hatemail, so I’m going to be ordering some livestock for them now.

Happy pigs, indeed.

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