Scarlett Davis : To Remember Frogly (memoir)


Southern Legitimacy Statement: My name is Scarlett. I was born in California , but my family moved us at an early age. I have lived in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia, but I proudly grew up in south Louisiana in Cajun country. I currently live in New York, but am still southern enough to write “thank you” notes and wear my pajamas to Walmart on a Saturday.

“To Remember Frogly”

Growing up, I sometimes had to remind myself I was living in south Louisiana. No more so than in Doctor Tate’s Anatomy and Physiology class, where it could be argued that our methods and tests subjects were somewhat untraditional from other high schools around the country. Doctor Tate, a rare breed of teacher, a Mister Chips with a heart of gold and a pocket anecdotal story for any occasion that would either applaud your intelligence or highlight your lack there of. David Tate hailed from the mountains of Tennessee, he majored in English but got his doctorate in science at the University of Knoxville. I don’t know to this day a man who could wax in poetic prose about a body farm at a University with anatomical perfection said in iambic pentameter. No one else has ever compared with this rare set of skills, except perhaps a dentist I had once known who liked to inject my mouth with Novocain, while reciting Kipling war poems and quotes from The Marathon Man.

It was my senior year. I had already completed my required sciences: physics, biology, chemistry. In my mind, I had no need to flounder about with anything outside my discipline of English and Drama classes. I was advised that colleges would not be impressed, so I enrolled in anatomy because any class with DT (David Tate) was a privilege. Even then I had the forethought that the knowledge and lessons he would impart on me would extend beyond the lectures themselves.

The class naturally had a lab component. I knew beforehand that I was going to be dissecting rats, frogs, and performing urine and blood tests most likely on myself. It would all be in the good of science, I would think sardonically. We did not always know what the lab entailed for the day; however, DT usually liked to preface the situation with on of his favorite expressions. For effect, wearing his white coat he would take off his glasses with one hand in a pensive gesture and then in a Mark Twain voice would say something like, “When your up to your ass in alligators, it’s easy to forget to drain the swamp.” We did not always know in what context this meant, whether or not it was a good omen or bad one. The alligators were ironic, given we lived in bayou land.

The day we dissected frogs needed no such expression. Walking into the classroom that afternoon was plague city because all of the frogs were alive, not dead and entrenched in formaldehyde. Before anyone could object, Doctor Tate informed us that the frogs were in fact dead and that their nervous systems had been capacitated.

“So they are brain- dead,” Chucky piped.

“Yep, and I can show you the puppet mallet I used in the back room before
you go callin’ PETA.” DT responded while shaking a pen at Chucky in a playful manner.

I won’t say much about dissecting frogs; the images in my mind of twitching limbs and oozing eggs sacs still linger. I don’t remember which vein, I set out to cut first so much as I remember Chucky make incisions in the frog while singing the Warner Brother’s theme song, “Hello My Darling…” It was dark humor but that was part of the fun of the class. The body and skeletal form were interesting, but thoughts of death and immortality are inescapable even in a methodical constraint of thinking.

Overnight the frogs were put on ice. The next day we would experiment with how the blood coagulates and circulates. We used electric shock to study the body’s reflexes. The effect is slightly eerie, a room full of seemingly dead frogs on plastic trays, in pools of formaldehyde, reenacted perfectly the story of Lazarus. Mimmie shrieked and ran out the room. We all laughed, DT the hardest.

“Well, that’s all for today. Clean off your instruments and wrap the frogs in paper towels and get them a little bit moist. Just leave them rightch-er, and tomorrow I have a surprise for you.”

This sent the class’s minds into a tizzy. He did not specify whether or not this was going to be a good surprise or bad one. We didn’t know if he was going to decide to quiz us on the anatomy of a chicken leg or give us one of his “Pop” quizzes. A quiz whereby you state the name of your father or parental figure, your “Pop”. Easy tasks for everyone except Alec whose father we decided as a class, for our intents and purposes, would be Mick Jagger. This surprise of Doctor Tate’s was definitely a curve ball. He did not announce his surprises; rather they just unfolded to us in that way like the day we were supposed to dissect rats. We did not dissect rats that day because David Tate and his wife Anne hit a possum on their way school. We walked into the lab to the faint inducing smell of a bone saw; as DT chiseled away at his road kill. This came as a surprise to the sixth graders who were passing by and found more of DT’s curbside carcasses and their friends strung outside the classroom. Doctor Tate was unaware of the sixth graders and their screams; the saw muffled a lot of noise. When he was finished he notified us that he had hit the lottery. As it turned out, the possum had been pregnant, so we the class had more bodies to study. When we asked, he said that yes, not to worry and that the school locked far away in south Louisiana was till getting grants.

The real surprise Doctor Tate had in store for us was out of the norm. When we came into the lab, DT was cooking something on the Bunsen burner. It was not uncommon to see people cook their Ramen or lunch on the burner, but something had to be perverse here. I spotted Slap Your Mama Cajun Seasoning and Tony Chachere’s. The room smelled too much like Dijon mustard and less like formaldehyde. One by one, each of my classmates grabbed a napkin and were grabbing a bite of the mystery meal. Then, it hit me as Shana licked her fingers and her lips. They were eating frog legs from our former test subjects.

I was a vegetarian for many years, until I moved to New York as a broke graduate student. There I became more of an opportunistic eater, and now bacon is a welcomed dietary habit. When people ask about where I grew up, the story of the frogs and DT is always my favorite to tell. It amuses me to watch a northeastern audience pick their jaws up off the floor and to do so in a way that seems to say, “Yes, I knew that was the kind of thing to happen down south.” Instead of seeing a tale of the Southern Gothic, a southerner might recognize another fond story from their own upbringing. They would remember the many people they have encountered like my teacher DT who remind us of the magic in the seemingly ordinary. It was nothing short of magic what DT did in getting a room of young adults on the precipice of starting their futures, to contemplate death and nature in way that not only made them grateful and humble, but also perhaps a little bit hungry. Of course, by hungry I mean for more of what life has to offer that is…