The Cat Who Needed Glasses: On Caring in the Classroom

I told my husband, “I want a cat and I will name him Bob.”  Six weeks later, a note appeared on an online neighborhood discussion board. Help Robert Find His Forever Home. I went to meet him and the next day, I brought him home.

tabby cat lying on his back, staring at the camera

Robert the Cat

He was a skinny guy; you could feel his tail bones when you stroked him. This is not normal, but it was no surprise. Like most strays, Robert has a complicated story. Claiming that all the kids had gone to college and there was no one to care for him, Robert’s long-time family had brought him to the humane society. A young man adopted him, later saying Robert had “escaped” after several months living in a small apartment. Robert then skulked under bushes in a park for more than a month, avoiding the neighbors’ efforts to catch him. One day, Hanna came and coaxed him out. She had him for six weeks and he put on a couple of pounds. But she already had three dogs who didn’t particularly like Robert. She felt it would be better for all the animals if Robert found a new home.

Robert is better now, but he is still easily frightened. It took weeks for him to leave the safety of my home office to explore the upstairs hallway and he skidded back under my little couch if we came up the stairs. When he came downstairs for the first time we cheered. Now he follows us from room to room. If I call, he will come– eventually. He is a cat, after all, and they have their own minds.

But he doesn’t jump up on things, and when he does he sometimes falls off. Sometimes he misses completely. The other day, we were playing his favorite game, catch the dancing felt. I hold a clear glass wand and dangle a long skinny piece of rainbow-colored felt. He bats at it, tries to get it in his mouth to wrestle. That day, he was lying on his back swatting at it. The only problem was that the yarn was to his left and he was reaching straight ahead. I stopped wiggling the yarn to see what he would do; it took a while for him to catch on, shift directions.

“He needs glasses,” I told my husband. “No wonder he hid for so long; no wonder he was so skinny. He was probably a lousy hunter.” My husband tolerates my cat fixation, mostly good naturedly. This time he stopped and thought for a second. Finally, he said, “I think so.” We compared notes on un-catlike behaviors we’ve observed. Suddenly, I was doubly glad he’d come to us.

Since then, I’ve caught myself wondering how I knew. It dawned on me that all the years in the classroom sharpened a sixth sense in me. My students taught me to pay attention to tones of voice, shifts in demeanor that signalled the difference between tiredness and depression, stretches of absence that weren’t really about illness. More important, they taught me the profound effect of caring. It matters when a ninth grader is upset and you sit with her on the stairs while she cries over a boy she thought was hers. It matters when you realize a student has a drug problem and you can start the process of getting him help. It matters when you show up and stand with them, including that moment when you insist a class or a student has not been doing his or her best and you lay out what needs to change.

This line of thought led me to educational philosopher, Nel Noddings, who believes caring is foundational to educating students for lives as ethical, caring people. Noddings (1984) wrote,

I do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time-consuming personal relationship with every student. What I must do is to be totally and nonselectively present to the student-to each student-as he addresses me. The time interval may be brief but the encounter is total.

My students taught me to be present with them. They taught me to pay attention, and to respond In a way that showed caring for them as individuals and a group.

I think they taught me how to care for Robert. While I can’t get him glasses, I can keep making his home safe and comfortable. In return, I get a furball that bumps his head against mine and purrs and purrs. 

 

 

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: a feminine approach to ethics & moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.


 

Slice of Life is the weekly Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. Come write along with us!

 

 

 

 

 

11 responses to “The Cat Who Needed Glasses: On Caring in the Classroom”

  1. Andrea says:

    I loved how you connected the caring for your cat with the caring for your students. The quote that you included really made me think about connecting with the students in my tricky class this year. I will try to be present for them every day, every time they talk to me.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Andrea. It’s so hard to connect with a challenging class. Even the individual students can seem so affected by the dynamics of the whole class. I hope Nel Noddings’ words help you keep an even keel!

  2. Connie Knapp says:

    Reminds me of Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach. I experienced exactly what you’re talking about, especially with first-year college students, many of whom were so anxious they had no idea what they were feeling!
    Thanks for this, and I love the whole story of Robert the cat. Very cool.

  3. Terje says:

    I like how you moved from telling the cat story to thinking about your students and what it means to be caring. I read Nel Noddings’ “The Challenge to Care in Schools” first edition two decades ago and I still have it on my shelf. Seeing the quote made my heart warm.

  4. Nancy says:

    I loved the comparison of Robert to your former students. I love cats too…I would love to find one that doesn’t jump on the kitchen counter to play with dripping water. xo

    • Karen says:

      Ha! One of our cats used to sit on the edge of the bathtub and meow until we turned on the water. They train us well….Thanks for reading!

  5. It works both ways — time watching non-verbal charges for clues and learning how to communicate pays off reading body language nuances

  6. I enjoyed this layered story, Karen. Made me keep thinking of the storybook potential for a volume entitled _The Cats’s Glasses_…

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