Yesterday I was scrolling through my Facebook page, and I came across an old friend from elementary school. She typed the simple words. “R.I.P. Mr. Fiegel.” My heart sunk. Mr. Fiegel was my 6th grade teacher at Berger-Vandenberg school in Dolton, Illinois. He filled the position of 6th grade teacher in the most amazing way. He brought a classroom full of kids in a very unsettled time in our community, turned them into friends and lifelong learners. Many of my friends in that class were living below the poverty line, coming straight from the housing projects in Chicago. He treated them like he treated the kids who were from middle class families—exactly the same.
Going to Mr. Fiegel’s classroom every day was taking a trip to a small zoo, and we were the zoo keepers. From my memory, we had 4 rats, a few parakeets, a dozen or so guinea pigs, a King snake named Rocky (he hated me), and a boa constrictor named Vincent Von Boa. We were allowed to take an animal out and play with them at our desk when we finished our work, and of course that was some serious motivation. The guinea pigs would pee on us so much that he had a special blow dryer set up just in case it got on our clothes. It really didn’t bother us at all. They would bite us, but we would get over it.
The students that were from the housing projects in Chicago were particularly terrified of the animals. They would scream, cry, shudder, etc. when the animals came near them. I will never forget the day that one of the girls allowed one of the guinea pigs to come on her desk, and she sort of petted it quickly, then pulled her hands to safety under her desk. Mr. Fiegel got the biggest smile on his face. He had accomplished his mission. He was successful in replacing terror of these small animals into a sort of genuine affection for them.
I will never forget the day it was my turn to take Vincent Von Boa out to recess. I picked him up out of his cage, wrapped him around my shoulders, and carried him out to the playground. He was probably 3ft long, and coiled around my arms tightly, but not too tightly because he knew he’d be getting his weekly mouse to eat soon, and he didn’t need to eat me.
I remember the feeling of freedom I had. I was playing with a giant snake by myself, and I had zero fear. I was in control, and he was beautiful.
We learned about the stock market that year. We were pretend stock traders all year long, broken up in teams, competing with each other to see who would come out with the most money in the end. We were interviewed by the local newspaper because of our knowledge of the stock market ins and outs in 6th grade. I remember the reporter being astounded at our knowledge, and not really knowing what we were talking about.
The Cubs were in the playoffs in 1984. We would all sit in a panic through the afternoon hours, tapping our feet and watching the clock, waiting to run out of the class to catch the end of the game. Mr. Fiegel. was doing the same exact thing, so he finally brought in a small tv so we could watch the game while we did our work.
He was a wonderful man. My memoires of his class could go on and on. I can’t think of another more tightly knit class than that 6th grade bunch of misfits that he somehow brought together with his love for us, for animals, his passion for life and for learning. He was one of the good guys, and I know a lot of his “kids” are very sad today, but remember him fondly, and are so grateful to have known him.
R.I.P. Mr. Fiegel.