A Man on a Ladder and the Dog of Pompeii

Time doesn’t stop at school. Not often. Caught in the remorseless march of clocks and calendars and bells and quarters, the academic pace can feel breakneck. Either that or endlessly lagging.

But now and again, school clocks pause. These are the magical moments when students are so absorbed they lose track of the minutes until lunch. They forget they’re even in school. And these moments are often unexpected.

Take, for example, the day my class read the short story “The Dog of Pompeii.”

“This story,” I told the students, “is in another time and another place.”

But as I said this, I worried about their ability to concentrate on an ancient Roman city. After all, their desks had been shoved together to make room for a twenty-foot step ladder. And at the top of the ladder a man was repairing the vaulted ceiling of my classroom.

But I labored on, explaining about how Mount Vesuvius had erupted in A.D 79 and trapped Pompeii. I made my voice expressive to move their attention from the ceiling to me. And it worked . . . partly. But soon I noticed that the man had come down a step. And then another. I had his attention, for sure.

“Ma’am,” he said. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help listening in. I’ve been to Pompeii.”

Thirty sets of eyes swung upward.

“What did you see?” I asked.

And he took us to Pompeii. He told of how the twisted bodies of people showed their horrible final moments. He made us see an ancient fast-food bar where poor people who didn’t have ovens in their homes could order food from a menu: salty fish, coarse bread, baked cheese, and lentils.

“I heard you’re reading about a dog in Pompeii,” he said. “I saw a dog in Pompeii.”

And, still perched on his ladder, he told about that dog. It had been wearing a bronze-studded collar and chained up during the eruption.

“It struggled to get free,” he said. “It’s legs were all twisted up. Its mouth was open. Even saw some teeth.”

He kept telling stories, hanging onto the ladder with one hand and gesturing with the other. I noticed a student or two absently rubbing at a kink in their necks, but faces stayed pointed up.

It was the bell that jerked us all from Pompeii back to the school room.

We hadn’t read the story, and I was now behind in my lesson plans. But it didn’t matter. For those moments, time had stopped.

And the next day, students gave rapt attention as they read “The Dog of Pompeii.”

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