A Cobra In My Classroom
Whether they were thinking of their dinners, their girl or boyfriends, or looking at the monsoon clouds that gathered every summer afternoon, and hoping they would be home before the skies opened up, I cannot say. A few of the more brazen — half a dozen students — lay sprawled across their desks, sound asleep.
“English,” I said. “Let’s carry on this discussion in English, please.” Interrupted in mid-sentence, Tay Yun Ming looked up and impressively switched from Chinese to English. “You are not right, Hon Fung,” he said, deliberately, directing his remark to his offending fellow classmate. “You are wrong. Eat in class is wrong.”
“Eating,” I corrected. “The subject of your sentence must be a noun or pronoun.”
Hon Fung rose from his seat noisily. “”Mr. Kollo,” he thundered. “It is stupid! Can you agree? It is stupid, the rule.” Several of Hon Fung’s sleeping classmates half opened their eyes, turned their heads away from the noise, and returned to their dreams.
“No, I do not agree, Hon Fung.” He sat back down, a look of betrayal crossing his face. “I think what Mr. Chiew did was the right thing to do. I would have done the same thing.”
“Ha!” explained Tay Yun Ming. “Ha! You wrong. Kollo say you wrong, too.” Excited to have me as an ally, Tay Yun Ming was forgetting his usually carefully crafted sentences, and lapsing into a kind of Chunglish.
“Verbs,” I reminded him. “YOU are wrong. Kollo says YOU are wrong, too.” (I had long since given up correcting their pronunciation of my name, recognizing how difficult it was for Chinese speakers to pronounce the double consonant at the beginning of my last name.)
“No,” shouted Hon Fung, wounded by what he took to be a personal rebuke. “I am right. Mr. Kollo wrong. You wrong… er… uh… you are wrong,” he corrected himself. He had managed to incorporate the mini lesson into his impassioned retort. Satisfied, I praised his grammar.
“Good. Pay attention to those verbs.”
As the debate continued, I thought I heard a sound I recognized — the sixth sense developed over years of collecting snakes and lizards. If anyone else in class had heard it, they gave no indication. It sounded like nothing more than a faint shushing sound, as a mist of water spraying from a hose nozzle that has not been altogether closed.
I glanced down to my left just in time to see the last of a scaly black tail, shiny as obsidian, disappear behind the door that opened into the classroom to form a triangle where the two walls met in the corner. Instantly, I knew we had a deadly visitor among us, and it wasn’t there to learn English. It was time to evacuate the room without causing a panic.
I stood. “Class,” I announced in my most professional tone, “I want you to stand and leave the classroom by that door.” I pointed to the open door to my right, opposite the wall where the snake lay hidden behind the other door. Tay Yun Ming and Chin Hon Fung continued arguing, fracturing their English with Chinese asides, which I did not understand, except for the occasional curse. The sleepers remained sleeping, undisturbed either by the boisterous bickering of their classmates, or by their teacher. I tried again, somewhat louder,
“Class! Class! Please stand and leave through that door.”
Nothing. The argument continued as before, without a pause. Students slept, or continued to gaze out toward the clouds, perhaps hoping for the afternoon downpour that would drown out all sound for the few minutes it lasted. My students paid no more attention to me than to the gecko croaking his pleasure after a mosquito meal. They had grown too accustomed to me. The thing my Chinese teacher colleagues had warned me about was plainly at hand: unlike Dean Witter, when I spoke, nobody listened. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
“Listen to me!” I shouted. “I believe there is a snake behind this door, and I want you to…”
I was wrong. They had been listening after all. Instantly, they clattered toward the open door on the other side of the room from where the snake was hiding, pushing and shoving to get out. Even the sleepers were up and out before I could finish my sentence. Chiew Vui Cheong, crippled by childhood polio, laboriously hobbled toward safety as fast as he could, while his usually attentive and helpful classmates ran over him to escape.
And then I was alone inside the classroom — alone with a snake whose tail I had seen enough of to be sure what I would find when I flung the door away from the wall. Outside, my excited students stood jabbering loudly in Chinese. A few of the brave ones pushed their small noses up against the louvered window panes hoping for a better view. Chee Ming went off in search of the principal.
I surveyed the room. A long bamboo pole caught my eye. It had undoubtedly been lying there in the rafters since the room had been built, but I had never noticed it before. I stood on top of my desk and tried to reach it, but it was resting towards the back of the rafters, and I could not reach it from my perch, standing on top of my desk. Sun Thien Kong, a stocky, Buddha-faced student who wore a perpetual smile, bravely strode back into the classroom. “I shall help you, Sah” he announced in his stilted, formal way. Great, I thought. I can use all the help I can get.
“Can you get me that pole?” I asked. He looked back at me blankly, though he continued to smile. I pointed upward. “The bamboo pole. Can you get it down?” Ah. Bamboo. Bamboo he understood. Without hesitation, he stood on Hon Fung’s desk at the back of the room, and fetched down the pole, which he brought to me. But now what? Was I planning to beat the poor animal to death with a bamboo pole?
At last, an idea dawned. “A string,” I said. “I need a string.” Where other children may have led constructive lives learning how to shoot pool or steal hubcaps, I had grown up in the mountains, far from other human habitation (I don’t count my family as human), where I frittered away virtually every afternoon snagging fence lizards — blue bellies — with a simple slip knot at the end of a string tied to a stick. It sometimes required standing nearly motionless for long periods of time while maneuvering the noose around the curious lizard’s head, before gently tugging the noose tight and lifting the wiggling reptile into the air. I had grown quite skillful over the years.
Thien Kong did not move. “String,” I shouted from my perch atop my desk. The urgency in my voice startled him into movement, but it was aimless. He comprehended the situation well enough. What he did not comprehend was the word “string.” The fact that it was a vocabulary word I had not taught them made no impression on me whatsoever. My voice rose as I stared at him incredulously. “String!” I demanded. “String! String! String!” He looked blank.
At last I remembered what I was in Borneo to do. I resorted to my role as teacher. This time, as I repeated the word “string,” I pantomimed tying a knot. Thein Kong, not one of the quickest students, furrowed his brow as he tried to unravel the mysterious meaning of my fingers. “String,” I said again, this time pretending to tie up a package.
“Ah, strin,” Thien Kong said, as a light bulb went off in his head. “Strin.” He was grinning broadly again. He left the room and was gone for less than a minute. When he returned, he had a long piece of yellow nylon cord. It was thicker than what I had in mind, but it would have to do.
“Good,” I said, rewarding him with teacher’s praise. “Thank you.” He beamed.
With my eyes constantly darting toward the door, I tied the nylon cord around one end of the bamboo pole, leaving a piece about three feet long dangling down. At the end of that piece, I tied a slip knot and drew a noose through it. I was ready — Frank Buck in the wilds of Borneo, about to confront the beautiful but deadly cobra.
“Go out,” I told Thien Kong. Reluctantly, he went to the other door and stood there, ready to jump to my aid if needed. I stepped down from my desk and took a deep breath. Hooking the door handle with the free end of the pole, I pulled the door from the wall. As I did, the collective gasp of my students coincided with my own involuntary gasp. There before me lay coiled the largest cobra I had ever seen outside a zoo. Instantly, it raised its head and spread its hood. My hands were wet with sweat, which had nothing to do with the heat.
A number of things flashed through my head. Could I just sort of whoosh the snake out the door with the bamboo pole? Not really. The thought of a huge cobra slithering down the halls of a public high school during school hours conjured too many pictures of disaster. Couldn’t I just throw heavy objects at the dragon-headed beast? Possibly, but what would happen to my reputation as a snake handler extraordinaire? I had earned the title, “Sah” (snake in Hakka, the Chinese dialect of 90% of my students), which I surely would have to forfeit. (And what would happen if I missed, and it slithered out on its own?)
No, I had to face it squarely. Although it was the snake that had crawled behind the door and was now waving slowly from side to side, it was I who had boxed himself into a corner. I blinked quickly, trying not to take my eyes off the animal for more than a beat, wiped each hand dry on my jeans, and grasped the end of the pole tightly.
“You put where?” Thien Kong asked, startling me and breaking my concentration.
“I put what where?” I replied.
“That sah… snake,” he said, pointing toward the door. “You hold, you put where?
Good question. I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. Indeed, I now found myself preoccupied by his quaint descriptive phrase, “You hold…” Still, I thought about his question.
“How about a trash can? One of those large trash cans with a lid?” I heard a few shouted commands in Chinese. In a flash, Thien Kong had retrieved an empty aluminum trash bin with a lid from somewhere, and he now placed it in the middle of the room. “Rubbish,” he said, proudly showing off the fact that he remembered one of the vocabulary words from last week’s lesson.
“Thank you,” I said. He backed out of the room, and again I turned my full attention to my worthy adversary.
I adjusted the noose as I would before going after a lizard, hoisted the pole to a height about three feet from the floor, and began to move toward the cornered cobra. As the end of the pole moved within its short visual field, the large black snake struck ineffectually at it. Each strike seemed to be in slow motion, as if the animal were trying to warn me to keep my distance. Which I did.
I made a few false passes towards its hooded head with the noose, then backed away. The pole was beginning to slip and slide in my sweaty palms. Again I wiped my hands. Again, I picked up the pole. Again, I advanced cautiously. Now, I lifted the pole higher than the animal could see, and slowly let the noose come down from behind. In this way, the snake could no longer see the stick as a threat. Instead, it kept its unblinking black eyes fixed on the largest object within its view — me!
Facing a live cobra, especially one you intend to bag, focuses the mind as magnificently as a hanging.
I had caught hundreds of snakes with nothing more than my bare hands. I had been bitten by many of them. The king snakes and gopher snakes of my California youth all had tiny, pin-sized teeth designed to hold a mouse secure as they wrapped it up in their coils and squeezed the living breath out of it, before engorging the entire rodent. When bitten by such small teeth, it is barely noticeable at all. Snake catching had been my substitute claim to macho-hood in the absence of any sports accomplishment (that did not result in ridicule). But not one of the snakes I had ever captured, held, or been bitten by, had been poisonous.
This was of a different nature altogether. Not only was this snake extremely venomous, it was the very symbol of deadly nature, raw in tooth and claw. I planted my size twelve feet firmly between two desks in the front row, shifted the bamboo until it felt comfortable in my hands, and, from behind, let the noose slip gently over the cobra’s head and around its neck. My heart was beating in my ears, and the unspoken words, I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I’ve got it! beat through my brain in time with the ever-increasing tempo of my heart, like a mantra.
Dimly, through my mounting excitement and fear, I began to perceive that something was wrong. Whenever I had caught a lizard in my noose, it wiggled and jerked helplessly in the air as I hefted it towards me, removing the noose from around its neck and plopping it into a waiting flour sack, which I then tied with a string. In my eagerness, I had forgotten something very basic that differentiates most lizards from most snakes, and which made my immediate situation very precarious: most
lizards have identifiable shoulders from which their front legs protrude, and which prevent the animal from simply crawling out of the noose head first. A snake is not so encumbered. Indeed, that is one of the things that makes a snake a snake.
As I considered this anatomical difference, the frightful fruit of my error was closing in on me. The magnificent cobra was steadily crawling through the noose, up the nylon cord, and, now, along the bamboo pole towards my hands. My brain was processing this new information incredibly slowly. Finally, a belated synapse went off somewhere inside my head (the head of the cobra was now just inches from my fingers), and I heaved the pole, the cord, the snake and all back into the corner from which it thought it had found a refuge from the burning afternoon sun.
Instantly, it was out of the noose, recoiled and ready, bobbing and weaving like Mohammed Ali. I backed up, sat down hard on a desk top in the second row, and wiped my hands. My students were laughing, kibitzing in Chinese. I doubt that I would have understood them even if they had been speaking English. Vaguely, I was aware that the principal had joined the crowed, hovering outside the window, craning his short, fat neck to get a good look.
I took a deep breath, and stood up slowly. Inching my way forward, I retrieved my end of the pole, and retreated to the back of the room to redo the slip knot. I now recognized its inherent weakness as a tool for snake catching, but I didn’t know what else to do.
With no more of a plan than before my just-aborted attempt at heroism (but determined not to be humiliated, much less murdered by a dumb snake), once again I stood facing the animal with my one apparently ineffectual weapon. As the noose slowly came down over it head this time, I became aware of Thein Kong’s voice commanding me to “turn, turn, turn.”
Turn? Turn what? I wondered. For a moment, the cobra’s menacing hood prevented the noose from slipping further down the snake’s body and permitting the huge reptile from repeating its past performance. But then, as before, the hood melted back into a single, sinuous shape, and, again, the snake began twining its way inexorably up the nylon cord toward the end of the bamboo pole to which my wet hands seemed glued.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” Thien Kong now shouted. Aha! Twist it. Yes. Yes. I began twisting the pole in my slippery grip, faster and faster, wrapping the unused length of nylon above the snake’s advancing head tighter and tighter around the end of the pole, until my efforts were decreasing the distance between the snake and the pole faster than the snake’s efforts could overcome them. Suddenly, the cobra was truly caught. Its large head made a strange angle against the pole, which I continued to hold tightly at the other end.
Keeping it well away from my face, I maneuvered the snake end of the pole towards the open trash can. Thien Kong approached gingerly and picked up the lid, ready to slam it down once the snake was safely inside.
“The scissors,” I instructed, pointing to my desk. He got the scissors. I hoisted the heavy animal, squirming and wriggling mightily, and slowly lowered it into the can. When the end of the pole with the snake attached reached the bottom, I untwirled the pole as fast as I could, freeing the snake from the vice grip of the tightened nylon cord. As the end of the pole appeared above the lip of the can with no snake in sight, Thien Kong slammed it shut, though the cord prevented a tight fit. Quickly, I cut the cord with the scissors. The short piece extending down the outside of the can from under the lid disappeared with a sudden jerk back into the can, as though it were a shiny yellow snake itself.
The deed was done. I collapsed into one of my students’ chairs until my focus returned. Amidst excited talk, I could hear my students clapping for me — or, perhaps, for Thien Kong who stood next to me, beaming his hot smile.
Someone suggested getting some chloroform from the science lab to dispatch the poor animal in the quickest, cleanest way, and thus to preserve it as a science exhibit, my legacy to Government Secondary School, Tawau. With shaking hands, I lifted the lid barely — not enough to peer inside — to squeeze a piece of chloroform-soaked cloth into the rubbish container.
The principal, Mr. Hiew, had called the local constabulary, which now arrived, four or five dark-skinned but diminutive Malay cops who wore khaki shirts over khaki shorts, and carried drawn pistols.
“No need for those,” I said, feeling like Peter who’d just succeeded in tying the wolf safely to the tree. The cops approached the closed trash can with a certain dangerous arrogance, swaggering rather than walking.
“Open!” the top cop ordered.
“I’m not so sure,” I warned. “The chloroform should have done its work by now, but that was the biggest cobra I’ve ever seen. It may take a little longer.” They sniggered at my apparent cowardice, exchanging their own personal assessments of me in unintelligible Malay. I had the distinct feeling that whatever they were saying, it was not particularly flattering. Not incidentally, however, their self-amusing asides had the effect of killing a few more precious minutes to give the chemical more time to have its desired effect.
“Open!” The sneer on his face did not match either his small stature or his cute shorts. Still, he had a gun. I obeyed.
Tentatively, I pulled one small edge of the lid from the rim of the can. It was too dark to see inside, but I heard nothing. The smell of chloroform suffused the area for a moment, before dissipating into the oppressive humidity. I poked one end of the pole into the can until it hit something firm but yielding at the bottom. It did not squirm away. I pushed and prodded the lifeless, invisible serpent at the bottom of the bin. There was no resistance. Finally, with a deep breath, I lifted the lid from the can.
Guns drawn, the police peered down into the trash receptacle at the huge, coiled snake at the bottom. It was completely still. I prodded a few more times, deliberately touching its head for signs of life. There were none. The creature that had slithered innocently into my classroom had gotten a lesson it had not counted on.
“Dat no cobra,” the head cop sneered, holstering his pistol. He turned to his Malay comrades-in-arms, who followed his lead, putting their guns away, and punctuating their animated Malay comments with bursts of laughter.
“Yes, yes, cobra,” protested a chorus of excited Chinese voices, to no avail. Still swaggering, the cops left, and I was left thinking, Keystone Cops with guns, a truly dangerous combination…
I fished the heavy snake from the can and laid it out on the classroom floor. It measured ten feet from tail to nose. Ten feet! Suddenly, the potential for any number of different outcomes hit me with the force of an earthquake with a magnitude of eight on the Richter Scale. My legs buckled, and I sat heavily. My students remained outside the classroom, wondering what to do next. Finally, I stood on shaky legs, and faced the class through the louvered windows.
“I want you to go home,” I told them. This announcement was greeted as all such announcements are greeted by students the world over. They cheered.
“Wait,” I continued, to their chagrin. “I want you to go home and write down everything you saw, felt, heard or smelled. I want an essay from each of you tomorrow. Do it now, while it’s fresh. Now go!”
They went, talking excitedly among themselves. The argument that had festered since Chin Hon Fung had been reprimanded by Mr. Chiew that morning was completely forgotten. The essays my students rendered were among the best I received in my three years of teaching there. (“Mr. Kroll grew so angry,” wrote Chai Teck Keong, “that his beard turned red.”) And, forever after, I had a snake story to top them all. “That reminds me of the time I caught a ten-foot cobra in my classroom,” I will say, and all eyes turn in my direction.
There is nothing like a snake story to command a respectful, even fearful silence. Which reminds me of the time…