The tally of creatures in Dan Lockwood’s science classroom comes to roughly 80, a collection that includes two bearded dragons, an Eastern king snake, a hamster, a tarantula and an 8-foot boa constrictor named Otis.
Every flat surface in Room 523 is occupied by a creature that slithers, crawls or eats crickets — a living display of raw biology that places Lockwood’s animal science course among the most popular electives at Reedy Creek Middle School.
Inside one tank, there’s a pink and hairless mouse waiting to be dinner. Over on the counter, there’s a Styrofoam crate full of Everglades rat-snake eggs on their way to hatching. On a shelf, there’s a jar of blue crabs floating in what looks to be formaldehyde.
Lockwood, 64, often tells his students he would have killed for this classroom as a kid. I can relate. Science class for most of my public school career consisted of copying notes off an overhead projector or watching filmstrips on the phases of mitosis.
So I’ll pause on this Monday to applaud a teacher who is retiring this year after 39 years of rubbing his students’ noses in the natural world. Maybe “rubbing noses” is too strong a phrase. After all, Lockwood does make allowances for the squeamish.
“My policy is you don’t have to touch anything you’re afraid of,” he said. “You’ll still get an A in my class.”
Lockwood started at East Cary Middle, and in those days, the animal science course were handled by the teacher who drew the shortest straw, and who typically filled the time with crossword puzzles and word finds. Then Lockwood got his turn.
“I went crazy,” he said.
He already nurtured a herpetology hobby. So some of the snakes in the Room 523 collection are reptiles he caught himself. Prince, a king snake as thick as the fat end of a baseball bat, came from the swamps of Bladen and Sampson counties.
But the size of the menagerie isn’t what pleases me most about Lockwood’s class. It’s the doggedness of the research conducted outdoors. Reedy Creek has six erosion control ponds on its campus, and for years, the animal science gang has meticulously recorded the comings and goings of its turtle population.
Inside a three-ring binder, Lockwood’s kids have filled out dossiers on 113 painted turtles, 27 yellow-bellied sliders, 13 snappers and a few odd river cooters that don’t care for their sardine bait. Since 2006, one turtle named Gemini has been captured on 50 different occasions, its weight and dimensions noted each time.
“In here, they can see things, smell things, touch things,” Lockwood said. “A lot of that is lacking in their world, where the answer to everything is, ‘Google it.’ ”
Each beast in Room 523 has a student caretaker, responsible for its feeding and cage maintenance. This responsibility breeds intimacy with snakes and spiders that is uncommon for a middle-schooler. For example, a tarantula will not drink from a bowl. Rather, it must suck moisture from a cotton ball.
“They’re pretty low-key,” Lockwood said. “I’ve never had one bite.”
I shook hands with Lockwood and wished him well, thinking of my own experiences with hands-on biology. Once, in the 10th grade, I cut a worm in half. It was long and yellow and not terribly interesting on the inside. Later that year, I dissected a chicken heart. It fell short of the worm for entertainment value.
The bulk of creation is crawly and slimy and hairy and many-legged. Nature bites, defecates and lays eggs. If you’re going to get kids interested in the world outside an Apple tablet, you’ve got to show it to them while it’s alive and wriggling. Thanks to Lockwood and teachers like him for flipping over rocks and dipping nets into muddy water, pulling out the stuff of life.