Virus Diary: When the class hamster came home – and stayed

Mr. Rich, a classroom pet, spent several months in the home of Associated Press writer Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Ark., during the coronavirus outbreak until he was brought back to school May 30. (Jill Bleed/Associated Press)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – After 60-plus days, I threw in the towel. Mr. Rich had to go.

Mr. Rich is a hamster who most recently served as the classroom pet in my 9-year-old’s science class.

In normal times, kids clamor over who gets to be its caretaker over holiday and school breaks. My daughter Claire, shut out over the winter holidays, volunteered in January to take Mr. Rich home over spring break. Then, my biggest worry was how to keep our two pet cats from eating him for a week.

Flash forward to March 12, where the news kept tumbling all afternoon long. Arkansas was shutting down schools in a handful of counties, essentially adding an extra week to spring break. My 5-year-old’s preschool was following suit.

As I got ready to pick up my kids, my head swimming with how we would manage childcare while also working, my phone rang. The caller ID showed it was my older daughter’s school. As all parents know, that’s never good.

“Mom? I’m not in trouble,” Claire began, “but is it OK if we bring home Mr. Rich today?”

That’s right. The hamster.

We loaded up Claire’s backpack with Mr. Rich’s food and bedding. Claire marched outside carrying his cage, the envy of all the third-graders. We were lacking a key fact at that moment: We didn’t know that we were leaving for the rest of the school year.

At home, the cats never noticed Mr. Rich and he provided a pleasant diversion, something for me to document on social media while I tried not to spin into a pit of anxiety over the impossibility of working from home (and doing it well) and caring for my children (and doing it well.)

At least a dozen friends sent me this meme: “Somewhere out there there’s a kid that brought home the class hamster for the weekend. Their parents are not happy!!”

We were happy. For a while. This all felt doable when we naively believed an end was in sight.

But the uncertainty dragged on. K-12 schools in Arkansas shut down for the remainder of the academic year. Our summer plans went poof. My 5-year-old will never return to her preschool.

And the novelty of Mr. Rich faded, much like the chalk rainbows that once brightened our neighborhood back in March.

Now, Claire has to be repeatedly reminded to clean Mr. Rich’s cage. The fragrance of hamster lingers. The 5-year-old loves on him a little too aggressively. We are tired.

“How long can we keep doing this?” I ask myself. Sometimes I mean socially distanced parenting and homeschooling. Sometimes I mean working from home. Sometimes I mean keeping the kids away from their friends. And, yes, sometimes I mean hamster ownership.

I gave up. I emailed Claire’s teacher to coordinate a hamster handoff as the school year wrapped up. We bid Mr. Rich a fond farewell, putting at least one tiny bookend on a time that seems unknowable and endless.

We can only hope that this fall, there’s a classroom – with schoolchildren in it – to welcome him home.

Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world.


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