By Susan Ford Collins
Mrs. Hepplewhite was my very wise second grade teacher who assigned us a class project that changed our lives forever! The first day of class, she introduced us to two identical young white rats that would be living in our classroom all year. She said they would teach us how to eat, and how not to.
We would feed the rat in Cage 1 a typical kid's diet—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hot dogs and buns, pizza and spaghetti, donuts, cupcakes, cookies and sodas. We made signs that listed what he would eat...only.
The rat in Cage 2 could eat lean fish and meat, whole grains, nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, but no pizza, spaghetti, donuts, cupcakes, cookies and sodas. We made a list of what he would have... only. We felt really sorry for poor Rat Number 2!
Both rats were fun to play with... at first. Sometimes we were allowed to take them out of their cages and put them in the rat playground Mrs. Hepplewhite had set up. They loved running around and around their exercise wheels for hours on end. They were gentle and friendly, sitting up on their haunches and wiggling their long-whiskered pink noses. We enjoyed stroking their smooth, shiny white fur.
But after a couple of months, we started noticing changes. The rat in Cage 1 was biting our fingers. He was snarly and snappy. So we started playing more and more with Rat Number 2.
In another few weeks, rat Number 1 began to lose his hair. It started falling out in large ugly patches. His eyes were all red, and he got fatter and fatter. Nobody played with Rat Number 1 any more... except the poor boy or girl whose turn it was to take him home for the weekend and clean out his cage.
Rat Number 2 was more fun than ever! He could run longer and faster. He could even do tricks, like jumping over his food bowl in one easy leap, while the other rat slept in a corner most of the time.
Mrs. Hepplewhite asked us to draw pictures of our rats and give them each a name. By unanimous vote, we chose the names Happy and Grumpy. The pictures we drew were great. Happy looked healthy with a smile on his face, and Grumpy was really fat with scraggly fur, long scary teeth and red eyes.
Next Mrs. Hepplewhite showed us pictures she had taken the first day of school, and we talked about what made our rats change so much, about the food we were feeding them, and what it had done to them. Then we talked about the food we were eating ourselves, and what it was doing to us! We also decided to change our eating habits and wrote letters to our parents to tell them what we had learned.
Now we felt sorry for Grumpy. It wasn't his fault! He hadn't meant to bite us. He didn't really want to be snarly and snappy. It was the food we were feeding him. Then Mrs. Hepplewhite had a wonderful idea. She said, from now on, we could feed Grumpy the foods that had made Happy happy.
By the end of the year, both white rats were healthy and happy again. And all thirty of us were far wiser too. Thanks Mrs. Hepplewhite. I still remember!
(c) Susan Ford Collins. For permission to use this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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