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Spider Silk

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

My sister Lizz holds up the book she is reading to her 3rd grade science class. The eight-year-old students go wide-eyed at seeing a picture of little Fern attempting to wrestle away an ax from her father. He has planned to kill a newborn pig, the runt of the litter.

Holy shit, I think. Charlotte’s Web is brutal. I remember loving the book from my childhood, but now, as an adult? I had forgotten how unsparing E.B. White is with his charming tale about a pig and a spider.

I look around to see how the children are reacting.

The class is silent, hanging on to their teacher’s every word.

Quite an introduction to her unit on arachnids! Displays of mites, scorpions, and ticks decorate the classroom. Colorful plastic spiders hang down from the ceiling. Worksheets outlining the parts of a spider are partially colored on every desk.

My sister Lizz is the kind of teacher that parents beg the principal to place their children with. As for me? I’m just visiting her classroom, like I usually do when my soulless—but well paying—job becomes insufferable. A couple of times a year, I ask Lizz what unit they are studying. I take the day off and bring in treats. Today I have personalized Spiderman cupcakes from a bakery near my apartment, a luxury my sister cannot afford on her teacher’s salary.

She continues to read about Fern and her father. “If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?”

Lizz solemnly puts down the book, looking pointedly at every child in her overcrowded classroom.

“Do you agree with Fern? What should Mr. Arable do?”

The students think before responding. Don’t just say whatever comes across your mind. Think first. 

A hand is raised. She nods at the student.

“Mr. Arable needs to raise the other pigs so he can make bacon.”

“That’s a good point,” Lizz replies. The young boy beams, continuing to speak when another student cuts him off to make a counterpoint.

“Janelle,” Lizz says gently. “Let’s keep our classroom rules.”

Sheepishly, the girl raises her hand.

“I’m sorry, Marquis. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Thank you for listening to each other,” she commends them.

🜋 🜋 🜋

Lizz chooses to teach at a Title I school. Underdressed for the cold Virginian winters, her students dig into a clothing box she keeps in the classroom, filled with tiny jackets and sweaters she’s scavenged from Goodwill. When her students scratch their heads, Lizz pulls them aside after the lunchline departs. If need be, she washes their hair while the other children are in gym class, using the lice killing shampoo she keeps in her closet. She has been to some of their homes, paid an electric bill or two, purchased a gently used bike for a walker who lives farther out than most. She hands out peanut butter crackers and oranges to keep her students’ stomachs from rumbling in the early morning hours.

“Now let’s talk about Charlotte. How did she spin her web?”

Hands fly up. She nods to another student.

“Charlotte used her silk glands to make it.”

“Look at your worksheet, please.” Lizz prods. “Always consult your sources. Don’t guess. Science is a place for facts, not fiction. What is the scientific term for silk gland?”

“Spinneret.”

“Well done.”

Lizz stands up from her chair and brings out a plastic terrarium. Inside, a brown spider busies itself in mending its web.

“I want you to see how smart this arachnid is. Look where he’s chosen to make his web.” The students gather around, alert and attentive. I even crane my neck to look. “Spider silk is stronger than steel, but it can stretch up to five times its length and not break. Being stretchy is called being ductile. Say ductile.”

Ductile. I say it in unison with the 3rd graders. Ductile.

“If you are ductile in life, you will be strong and tough like spider silk.”

She lets that sink in.

“Spiders can produce seven types of silk,” she continues.

“Why so many?” I ask.

The students turn around. I’ve broken the classroom rules. 

I raise my hand. My sister nods at me.

“Why so many?” I ask again, genuinely curious.

“Because they need that many different silks to survive. There are silks to make their homes, silks for defending their homes, silks for hunting, and silks to protect their eggs. Some silks are sticky. Some are not.”

Clever bastards, I muse. Spiders and their webs. Who knew something simple was so complicated? 

🜋 🜋 🜋

I drive her home since her car is in the shop.

“The cupcakes were a hit,” I say, trying to pat myself on the back.

“Thanks for doing that. It means a lot to the kids,” she plays along, always the big sister.

Police lights. 

“Ugh,” I say, pulling over.

“Were you speeding?” Lizz asks.

“Of course.”

A very young police officer makes his way to the driver’s side.

“License and registration,” he says when I roll down the window.

“Why did you pull me over?” I feign innocence.

He bends down to repeat his request, then notices my sister. “Miss Crabtree?”

“Hi Ray,” Lizz replies.

“Are you two related?” the trooper asks, pointing at me.

“Unfortunately,” Lizz laughs. I punch her on the shoulder.

“Y’all just go ahead. Watch the lead foot.”

We wait until he drives off.

“Former student or parent?” I inquire, grateful my sister is a minor celebrity.

“I think he was a parent. I can’t keep track of them all.”

🜋 🜋 🜋

Leukemia of all things. 

“It’s quite ingenious how T-cells mutate,” Lizz says.

“Can you not be a scientist for five minutes?” I yell at her.

We sit restlessly in plastic chairs. The hospital’s admissions is running behind.

“So what is it again?”

“T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia,” she explains.

“Is that the good kind of leukemia?”

“I’m not sure there is a good kind of blood cancer.”

“Gees. Not when you put it that way.”

“You’re going to have to be tough during this,” my sister says, as if I were the one who has a rare form of leukemia. I am just her stem cell donor. She is the one preparing for a transplant, assuming the chemotherapy puts her into remission. The odds are long.

“I got you, Lizz. I’m tough.”

“Nonscientists often confuse being strong with being tough. I’m going to need you to be both.”

“Like spider silk,” I whisper.

“Just like spider silk,” she replies, putting her arm around my shoulder.

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