“I don’t want to go to school today, Ma. I don’t feel well.”
“You felt well enough to stay over Lamont’s house two hours past your curfew, playing video games. Now get up and get ready for school. And I mean now, Gregory John Burton!”
The boy jumped out of bed. He knew that when his mother called him by his full name instead of the familiar Greg, she could not be argued with and was primed for the yelling that would most certainly alert his father and bring him into the conflict.
As he scuffed his way towards the bathroom he thought about explaining to his mother why he had distracted himself to the point of disobedience at Lamont’s last night. They were both trying to erase the fear and anxiety of what was sure to be the most horrible day of their seven-year education the next morning.
His father flung open the bathroom door, his waist wrapped in a purple towel as he delicately dragged a large comb through his thinning brown hair. “It’s all yours. How’s it going, Sport?”
“Terrible,” answered Greg. “This morning we’re going to cut up a frog. Yuck.”
His father paused his grooming to put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Greg. I remember not being too thrilled by the dissection my science teacher forced us to do, but he reminded us that we don’t kill the frogs, that they were already dead. And if we didn’t learn from their sacrifice, then their deaths were wasted. He also told us to pretend that we were surgeons cutting into a patient. It turned out to be quite interesting.”
“Yeah, well the only cutting I’d like to do is to cut class today. Dissection’s disgusting. I mean, there’s already enough violence in schools.”
“I suppose you have a point, Greg. I remember reading an article about that serial killer who cut up his victims and ate them. What was his name?”
Yeah, that’s him. Right before the prison inmates killed him Dahmer gave an interview where he said that he became fascinated with blood and guts when his school gave him a knife and a dead animal to cut apart in biology class.”
“Gee thanks, Dad.”
His father made a silly face, scooped him off the ground and tossed him into the air. The squeals of delight coming from the boy temporarily made Greg forget about the brutal day he was about to endure until his sister Carol, hearing her brother’s screams of pleasure, trotted into the living room and demanded that her father also give her the chance to go airborne.
Greg’s four and a half block walk to school took on the pace and enthusiasm of a killer being led down death row for a private sitting with an electrician. As he turned the corner he saw Kostas, Selim, and Pascal climbing the steep steps leading to the school’s entrance. When he shouted at them to wait up he thought that they, too, had a sickly look about them. The four of them silently scuffed their way to the classroom.
Everyone except Regina Boloff was inside and in their seat. Greg didn’t think Regina would show up. Every time Mrs. Worton would give a math or spelling test, Regina would wet her pants and cry. When this happened, Mrs. Worton would send for the school nurse and Regina’s mother would come to pick her up and take her home. The day afterwards Regina was always absent.
As Greg settled himself behind his desk, he noticed Regina walking in. This worried him. Because of the terrible importance of the day, even Regina’s embarrassment couldn’t allow her to stay home, and she certainly had made a huge mess the day before during the math quiz. But what really bothered Greg was that none of his classmates (or himself, for that matter) bothered to tease her. The class looked as if their thoughts were a million miles away.
Mrs. Worton strolled in and put on a big smile, even bigger than the smile she gave when the class presented her with a large, multi-colored paperweight, shaped like an egg, for Christmas. Trumella Austin’s father took the seven dollars and sixty-four cents the kids had raised and picked it out for the class from the stationary store he owned. Greg thought it was a beauty.
Behind his teacher’s smile Greg knew she was nervous too because she took roll call before the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Nothing was mentioned about what they had to do in a matter of hours.
For the first time all year the classroom hours sped by. The clock read 10:30 when Mrs. Worton ordered them to lay down their pencils. She then distributed 11×15 sheets of construction paper to each student and told them they were to use it to create a frog map that they would fill in as they dissected their frogs.
Greg raised his hand. “What do you mean by a frog map? I don’t understand.”
Mrs. Worton looked sternly at Greg. “Had you been turning in your homework regularly the past two weeks, Mr. Burton, you would have known that the handouts I gave out in class were to prep you for this project.”
“Why do we have to cut open a frog?” whined Regina. “What’s the point?”
“The point,” said Mrs. Worton curtly, “is to satisfy national standards for sixth grade introduction to organs and organ systems.”
“I get all the info I need about organs and organ systems by sneaking on to my father’s Spice Channel website,” Hector whispered to Greg. Both giggled.
“Hector, is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the class?” asked Mrs. Worton.
Hector shook his head.
“Very well, then. As you cut away the layers of the frog’s anatomy, you will record your findings on your frog map. Everyone draw an outline of a frog using the markers I placed on your desks before you arrived this morning.”
What followed was the greatest shock in a day already filled with much tension and apprehension. The frogs that Mrs. Worton handed out to each student weren’t dead and pickled, but alive.
“Oh my God,” said Habib.
“Gross,” said Sophia.
“This is gonna be cool,” said Badra.
“Your frogs have all been anesthetized so they won’t feel any pain,” Mrs. Worton smiled.
“I bet,” muttered Greg.
Mrs. Worton heard Greg’s remark but chose to ignore it. “The school paid extra so that we could observe the organ systems of a living frog,” she said rather proudly. “Before we begin the actual cutting, please weigh your frog and measure its length from snout to vent and record this data in the lower right hand corner of your frog map.”
Greg waved his arm. “What’s a vent?”
“Had you been studying like the rest of the class, you’d know that the vent is the cloaca.”
“The what?” shrugged Greg.
“It’s the ass, you ass,” whispered Badra.
The moment Greg’s hand squeezed around his frog and felt it inhaling and exhaling, he wanted to run outside and set it free instead of lining up in the back of the classroom, waiting his turn to use the scale. But he figured what would the point of freeing it be? There aren’t any ponds around here. It would just get squashed by a car or some punk would shove a firecracker down its throat.
After all the students measured and weighed their frogs and returned to their desks, Mrs. Worton pulled her desk to the center of the room to talk them through the surgery while slicing up her very own frog. “Our first step will be to decapitate the frog with your special dissection scissors and then pith its spinal cord with the pithing needle on your tray. The frog will twitch. Pithing greatly reduces the incidence and intensity of muscle contractions, thus simplifying the dissection.”
Most of the class scrunched their faces with revulsion as they followed Mrs. Worton’s commands.
“As you hold the frog’s head, “ continued Mrs. Worton, “squeeze it with your thumb and index finger to open its mouth for easier insertion of the scissors into the mouth. Hold your frog against the tray with your palm as it may twitch while you are decapitating it.”
Greg did as he was told and placed the lower scissor blade inside his frog’s mouth while the outer blade rested on the back of the frog’s head. Without applying much force, he was surprised how quickly the head was severed from the body. His frog twitched and contorted so violently that it jerked out of his hand and fell to the floor, where it flopped about like an awkward break-dancer trying to spin into a finale.
Mrs. Worton hurried over, responding to the many shrieks of disgust surrounding Greg’s desk. “Didn’t I tell you to pith your frog?” she asked.
Greg just stared at her as she picked up his headless frog and dropped it onto his tray. It continued to twitch. She handed him a pair of forceps and ordered him to lift the skin of the abdomen with them before cutting into the skin, from left to right. Greg made an incision with his dissecting scissors into the lower abdomen and then cut along the sides of the frog to make a flap of the skin and abdominal musculature. He then lifted the flap back and cut it off, exposing the internal organs that his teacher called the viscera. The exposed innards of the frog were such an appalling sight that it made Greg want to heave his breakfast.
“Now cut off the intestine and urine duct from the hip to free the viscera from the body,” said Mrs. Worton. “Be careful not to touch the nerve when cutting.”
Many nerves were touched in the classroom, and most of them belonged to the students. As he snipped through muscle fascia, hemostats, and the sciatic nerve of his frog, Greg felt terrible. He thought about the trauma he underwent weeks earlier, the day he had to get a stupid TB test. And that was simply a prick of his skin while his frog, who was alive and breathing when he first held him, was now dead and Greg was ordered to remove its skin because Mrs. Worton said the skin represented one of the ten body systems a frog needs in order to survive. One of the ten body systems they needed to expose and explore. She called the skin the Integumentary System, but flaying the frog proved too much for Greg. He lay down his scalpel and put a paper towel over his torn, mutilated amphibian.
“Hey, Mrs. Worton,” said Victor. “What are gonna do we do with all of these frogs after we’re done?”
“Victor, do you know what you call a group of frogs?”
Victor shrugged.” What do you mean?”
Mrs. Worton smiled. “Well, a group of fish is called a school. A group of geese are called a gaggle. A group of birds are called a flock. A group of horses are called a herd. But what do you call a group of frogs?”
“Butchered,” muttered Greg.
Mrs. Worton once again ignored Greg’s comment. “A group of frogs are called an army. An army of frogs.”
Mark Blickley is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center whose most recent book is a text-based art collaboration with fine arts photographer Amy Bassin, ‘Dream Streams.’ (Clare Songbirds Publishing House).