The Anchorage School District recently said goodbye to one of its longest-serving and most unusual educators. What’s more, the departure leaves the district with a gap not likely to be soon filled.
Last Friday, in the carpeted basement of the chalet at Russian Jack park, a group of kids and their parents gathered between plastic tables, a commemorative cake, and a square blue tarp to bid farewell to a beloved classroom instructor.
“People just call him tortoise,” explained one young attendee, candidly.
“His real name is Tort,” added an associate, tapping a palm on the guest of honor’s shell.
Tort, so-called by those closest to him, is a Sonoran Desert Tortoise.
“Our classroom tortoise has been in the Anchorage school district at three different schools,” explained Kerry Reardon, who inherited Tort from his original handler, Betty McCormick, and has been his keeper at the King Career Center’s early education program for the nearly three decades since.
“It’s a very unique program because we have the high school students and the pre-school population and their families,” Reardon said. “So it’s kind of a multi-generational educational experience.”
“And,” she added, “some of our students come back as parents.”
One such parent at the retirement party was Crystal Bukala, who had brought her daughter Mia, a recent daycare attendee under Tort’s tutelage, and was saying goodbye.
“It’s a happy but sad day,” Bukala explained. “I know he’s old and needs to go some place warmer. But I remember him being there when I was in high school 15 years ago.”
Bukala’s family had also volunteered to take Tort during school breaks and summer vacations, the educational and cognitive-social benefits of which Mia reflected on concisely: “It was good. It was super fun.”
Those feeding, weekend check-ins, and host of extra chores that are part and parcel to pet ownership are one of the main reasons why there are less and less classrooms have pets today. Reardon says that is a shame, since they happen to be such good teaching tools: an ever-present, hands-on biology lesson, as well as a crash-course in the basics of care-taking—which is part of why Tort stuck around the early ed program for three decades.
But as Reardon explained, the benefits of pet pedagogy go even deeper, “Especially [in the] early childhood classroom, where children are just beginning to develop empathetic skills and being able to look at things from another perspective or point of view. So pets provide that opportunity–especially for young children when they’re so excited about everything–you saw them when they were with the tortoise, they were looking at his eyes, and his nails,” Reardon continued, gesticulating wildly, her voice picking up.
In keeping with broader demographic trends, Tort will be leaving the life he made from himself in the cold North to retire in Arizona. Specifically, to the Tortoise Adoption Program at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, something like a free-range interactive zoo combined with a reptilian retirement village (motto: “We’ll turn your idea of a museum inside out!”).
It’s a bit of a full circle, since Betty McCormick, the original early ed teacher at King Career, came from the same area. “She was the one responsible for bringing the tortoises to Alaska,” Reardon said. “She grew up in the Sonoran desert.”
Tort has been watched over and hand-fed since he hatched, and no one is sure if he’ll take to unfettered life out in the expanses of desert with other middle-aged turtles instead of human toddlers. But Reardon says if he’s having trouble adjusting the museum’s lead herpetologist will help adopt him into a nice family in nearby Tuscon, since he could live as long as another half-century.
That’s the plan Reardon and McCormick came up with together. However Reardon will have to carry it out by herself. McCormick, her mentor, passed away unexpectedly this summer.
“That is why it meant so much to me to do this part of it. And to Betty too, she was so excited about this and really worked with me on what we thought would be the best ending for him. And I was looking forward to her doing it with me,” said Reardon after the party had wound down. “But I know she’ll be there in spirit.”
After a full career spanning five presidential administrations, Tort is finally saying goodbye to Alaska. He’s even doing it in style: Reardon was able to talk the airlines into letting her take him as a carry-on, stuffed under a 1st class seat, inside what looks like a regular black pet-carrier. But weighs 17 pounds.