The Mother’s Day Mystery

I taught a Deaf class in an otherwise hearing school. As Mother’s Day approached, my colleagues were teaching their first graders to spell “appreciate,” “grateful” and “breakfast in bed.” My class took a slightly different route. They learned to sign the words “deception,” “mystery” “destruction” and “ruin.”

We Had One of the Best Mother’s Days Ever.

I taught reading, writing, math, all the usual things. But first I had to teach language. Most of my students started school with little to no language skills — in any language. Their parents were wonderful, but like the majority of parents of Deaf kids, most didn’t sign.

In my class, the students learned ASL astonishingly fast. It seemed like a key that unlocked their minds and let magic stream freely in and out. The more language they got, the more their imaginations and intellect soared. It was a remarkable thing to witness.

One year, I had a mixed class of kindergarten to second graders. A few weeks prior to Mother’s Day, I bought little clay flowerpots. My students painted them white, then added designs to them. Then I bought dirt and a pallet of marigolds, and they planted the flowers in their pots.

Flowers on the Windowsill

Our classroom that year was on the first floor, and large windows opened out onto the street. We put the flowers on the windowsill and almost immediately, the buds pushed upwards, triumphantly. Every morning the students ran to inspect their flowers, enthralled. The anticipation of Mother’s Day built to a frenzied level. The rich smelling dirt and healthy plants injected a rush of happiness and hope into our room.

I too, went straight to the windowsill first thing in the morning. But one day, I came in to find the marigolds decimated! The flowers were gone, lopped off down to the stems. Only two, somewhat insecure-looking blossoms remained. I stood gaping, unable to make sense of it.

When my students came in a minute later, they ran to the windowsill as usual. On seeing the desecration, they screamed in outrage. Two collapsed to the floor, crying, while the others demanded an explanation. I quickly started the morning circle, so they could process their flower-grief as a group. They sat down looking shaken.

Maria, whose pot had the surviving flowers, looked at the others uncertainly, not sure she wanted this distinction. Again and again, the kids repeated descriptions of the damage.

Broken Flowers

“The flowers are done! They’re finished, Rachel. Broken!”

“Yes, they’re gone,” I signed back. “Ruined. Destroyed!” The students took note of the signs “ruin” and “destroy,” which they hadn’t seen before. They incorporated them into their laments.

“They’re ruined, Rachel! Gone!”

They’re so destroyed! What happened?”

I had no clue, I told them, and asked what they thought happened.

“Maybe the wind blew the flowers off,” Maria said. Given the proximity to the window, I thought this was a good idea. Seeing how impressed I looked, Lemarcus stated that the sun may have burned the flowers off. Vanessa Dae said she thought maybe there was some snow that came in through the window and froze the flowers.

“But it’s summer, in California,” I said, gently.

“You never do know, though,” Vanessa Dae said. It had never snowed in our area, but Vanessa Dae looked so wise we all followed her gaze out the window.

A Rat

“Oooh, I know, I know!” said Jayla suddenly, waving her thin arm in the air. “It was a mouse! It came in through the window and ate all the flowers!”

“A little mouse ate ALL those flowers?!” I asked. “It would have gotten so fat!” I signed “waddle” with a wobbling Y, making a drunk-looking mouse staggering around, its belly touching the ground.

“It’s a rat!” Lemarcus said. “It came in through the window with its old grandfather. I mean, he is old! They ate some flowers and took some others to keep and give to the grandmother.” Lemarcus was obsessed with grandparents, since his were visiting that weekend.

“How could the grandfather rat climb up the wall, though?” I asked.

“The little rat pushed him up,” Lemarcus explained matter-of-factly, demonstrating with his hands, pushing a large rat-butt upwards. The others nodded as if this was something they’d seen many times before.

“Wow, okay. So, Jayla thinks it’s a mouse. Lemarcus thinks a rat and his grandfather did it. What do you think, Mateo?” I asked. Anything was grist for the mill in teaching language, and the same went for reading. I planned to write it all up at lunch time for the students to read. Maybe we’d make it into a book.

Santiago had been carefully analyzing the part of the room where the flowerpots were, and he signed somberly.

Was it a Pig?

“I think it was a pig. It walked into the room after we’d all left. It just quietly slipped in. It tried to get up on the counter and fell down the first couple of tries but then it got an idea and moved a chair. It used the chair to get up, and ate the flowers quickly, looking around to make sure nobody was watching.” Santiago pointed at a chair bumped close to the countertop. Indeed, it was an unusual place for the chair to be, and the class stared, a little awed. “Then it slipped out again and coolly walked down the hall like nothing happened, got on the bus and went home.”

“On a bus?” our classroom aide, Shelly, asked, scoffing.

“Yeah. It always takes the bus”

“That doesn’t sound very likely.”

“So,” I said. “An awkward, sneaky pig! Who plays it cool, and totally deceives everyone around him,” I said, slipping in the sign for pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

By the time we came to the end of the circle, a dinosaur had been added to the mix, since Neechie was studying them in his mainstream class. While it had struggled to get in the window, it had the ability to become fluid at will, so it slithered in, straightening up to occupy the whole room once it entered. It ate the flowers in one bite. Angel was last.

“I think it was God,” he said. “God just said BOOM! And took the flowers away like that!” He waved a magic wand, striking the center of our circle so sharply all our heads jerked forward.

“But why?” I asked. “Why wouldn’t God want your moms to get flowers?” Angel shrugged dramatically, saying he had no idea. His expression seemed to hold a history of issues with an unpredictable, unhinged God. I flashed back in my mind to when I first met him in Kindergarten. Then, he’d had so little language that he answered my question about whether or not he had a pet by saying, repeatedly, “Dog, I like yes. Cat, I like, yes.” He might not understand God’s motivation, but he sure had come a long way!

The Best Ideas

“Gosh, thanks for your fantastic ideas. It’s time for math now.” I decided to skip the weather and the calendar that day, because, truly, in the face of theft, a moody God, and a shape-shifting dinosaur, the fact that it was Thursday, and warm outside, didn’t carry much weight.

Mother’s Day was fast approaching, so that evening I bought more flowers. They were out of marigolds, so reluctantly, I got purple and yellow Asters instead. I stopped by the classroom and planted them.

Purple asters with an orange butterfly sitting on top. Rachel Zemach

The next morning, when the students arrived, they dropped their backpacks on the floor and ran to look. On seeing their pots rejuvenated, they jumped up and down, shrieking. Maria and Damien were so happy they hugged people, their faces wet. “How did that happen?” they all asked me.

I shrugged, telling them I was mystified too. I’d arrived that morning to find the flowers. I didn’t like lying to them, but I’d discovered there was a place for enchantment, too. Plus, I wanted to see how their stories would play out.

Once we were seated for circle, I asked what they thought had happened.

“I think the flowers made the mouse sick, so it came back and vomited the flowers back into the flowerpots,” Jayla said. She hunched over and held her stomach as she mimed retching so convincingly that I almost rushed her to the sink. “Inside the mouse’s stomach the colors got jumbled. That’s why they’re different this time.”

“No, you forgot,” Lemarcus said, looking at Jayla sternly. “It was a rat. He left his grandfather at home this time, ‘cuz the grandfather is getting too old and couldn’t go through all that again.” He looked sad, and I realized I should check in with him.

“Yeah,” Maria agreed. “The rat came and vomited quickly. Not like Jayla said, all projectile-like. Just quick neat little vomits like this, into each pot.” According to Santiago, the pig pooped the flowers back, eliciting screams of disgust from his classmate. Angel informed us that God had changed his mind and refreshed the flowerpots. He figured this mean reversing the direction of the wand, so this time our heads jerked upwards.

The Disappearing Flowers

The disappearing flowers remained a mystery for a while. The last weeks of school were especially hectic. For a week or two, I’d found little brown pellets in the middle of the couch every morning. Brushing them off as I rushed to get the lessons ready for the day, I didn’t give them too much thought.

When school got out for the year, I was in the classroom one day, cleaning up, when the custodian stopped by to tell me something. He pointed to the cupboard under the sink and gestured excitedly. “The length of a pencil,” he gestured, wide-eyed, and I realized he’d found a rat there. “Was it dead?” I asked. He nodded, moving his hand across his throat dramatically.

Eventually I realized the rat had slept on the couch every night, its whiskers no doubt twitching with flower-dreams, its hairy stomach protruding. Before scurrying away, it would relieve itself on the couch, and I unwittingly cleaned its bedding and patted it down in advance of the next night’s slumber.

The end of every year was a time of reckoning for me. I’d reflect on what I had and hadn’t taught. This year, like most, the kids’ language skills were thriving, but as always, I wished I’d had time to teach more. Looking at the windowsill, I decided to bring flowerpots in, in the Fall. It could be a prolonged writing project and a way to re-coup the odd ebullience of nature in the classroom. The rat was gone — in spite of my excellent housekeeping services — so it wouldn’t interfere.

Although we still had a chance of snow, God having a bad day, and an immoral pig to contend with.

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