I was a pretty good kid. Other than occasional acts of extreme rudeness (hanging up the phone on my father before he was done talking – this is the only time I can remember being shouted at by him) or impulsive, ill-informed choices that scared the crap out of my parents (coming very close to jumping off of the top of our swingset with a plastic bag as my ‘parachute’), I didn’t give my parents or teachers any real cause for alarm or discipline. I was a quiet, dreamy-eyed kid who fidgeted a lot and tried to be kind to everybody.
As I was born with severe allergies to fur, dust, pollen, and the like, we were never allowed to get the dog I so longed for. Forming close relationships with stuffed animals was also out of the question. While I was permitted to drag Brown Bear around during the day (my parents weren’t totally heartless), I have distinct memories of my little guy being gently tugged from my grasp as I pretended to sleep, then watching through half-closed eyes as my mother or father placed him a safe distance away on my dresser.
I was going to have to find another way to fill this hole in my heart.
Fast forward to second grade. It is just after 8 AM, and I am in the middle of a three-seater on the back of the school bus hugging a small plastic terrarium to my chest. Inside of it are small rocks, a few pieces of moss, a dish with water in it, and a frog-- The frog is strikingly colorful—navy blue with bright orange and red markings on its back—and its big, black eyes bulge with fear. It is completely and perfectly still, but none of the kids around me seem to mind this fact.
“Is it poisonous?” they ask.
“I’m not sure,” I answer.
“Is he scared?”
“Yeah, really scared… He trusts me though.”
To the delight of my classmates, my second grade-teacher is totally in favor of putting the frog terrarium on display for everyone to enjoy. She clears a space for it on top of the tables in the back of the room, and for the rest of the day the class is abuzz with talk of the exciting new visitor. Everyone is eager to stop by the little tank and check on how the frog is adjusting to his new environment, and there are so many trips to the water fountain and bathroom that eventually my teacher has to revoke the privilege.
I, too, visit the frog terrarium several times that day: once during lunch, when I’ve come inside to use the bathroom and once during group activity period, when everyone is moving about the room and too busy to notice me move the frog. Each time, someone inevitably notices it and sends a current of excitement through the room.
“He moved! He moved! He’s closer to his water!”
“He must be getting thirsty!”
Each time, I am equally thrilled and relieved.
By the middle of the afternoon, the class’ fascination with the minute movements of my frog has only grown, and finally my teacher makes an exciting proposition. Why don’t we move Mr. Frog to a bigger home, she says. We’ve got an empty old fish tank in the science classroom, so why don’t we just clean it out and give him more space to roam?
Cleaning out the fish tank is the last activity of the day. Surrounded by a class of enthralled seven year olds, my teacher wipes the glass with a damp paper towel and asks for suggestions on how we might fix a loose hinge on the lid. My classmates are full of ideas, but I am silent and sick to my stomach.
Later that day I am lying on the rug, eating coffee yogurt and watching CatDog when my babysitter comes in with the phone in her hand. I didn’t even hear it ring, but apparently my teacher is on the phone.
Her voice sounds very soft and far away. I try to pretend I’m not sure what this call is about.
“You’ll never believe what happened to me this afternoon.”
I am standing barefoot in my backyard and the rocks are cool and scratchy on my skin.
“I stayed after school to put the new tank together, and it was all ready for your frog.”
“Oh… you did?” I am feeling very sorry both for her and for myself.
“But then I reached in, all still and careful so I didn’t scare him, and when I touched him—when I touched him, he was made of plastic.”
She falls silent, and I am well-aware that my great trick has come to an end; there is nothing further I can do to keep the frog alive. Unwilling to pursue it any further now that the magic of the situation has been deflated, I am backed into the inevitable corner of The Truth. Eager to escape this mortifying conversation as soon as possible, I stammer, in what feels like a complete cop-out,
“But… but… the people at the pet store said it was real..”
I’m not sure if I’m trying to get out of trouble or whether I am simply too embarrassed to admit to the tale I’ve told. Either way, my response has the intended effect of making my teacher stop talking about it. After I say this, the conversation remains gentle and quiet but ends relatively quickly.
Later that week, my teacher calls my mom to express her concern that I am struggling with reality. Her exact words are that I am “having some trouble distinguishing reality from fiction.”
I don’t know if my mom realizes the extent to which I carried The Frog Trick; she is perfectly comfortable with my grasp on reality and is more sympathetic to my obvious desperation for a pet.
Two weeks later, we get a real tree frog. Christened Frisky due to his spastic jumping behaviors, he lives a solid five years and is well-loved by the Frog Master.