Kids love dinosaurs, as anyone who was ever a kid would tell you. It’s a strange friendship between something so small and something so large, but you see it when children gaze up at those huge skeletons with wonder… a wonder which remains till they decide to grow up.
But one child who never grew up and out of dinosaurs was Jack Mantell.
Jack Mantell was well into his greying years, with dimming eyesight. But he could still see, and he did see with dismayed eyes, the generation after him. He was now Mr Mantell, the science teacher of a class of twelve-year-olds – a generation of kids whose eyes barely moved from the screens of their smartphones as he entered the room.
“Good morning, everyone!”
His bright greeting was lost as the students returned it, half sleepily, reluctantly. Some hurriedly put away their smartphones because he might scold them… as Mr Mantell sighed inwardly. His eyes fell on a blue feathery shape outside the window, which looked like a strange bird. Bird-watching was one of Mr Mantell’s favourite childhood hobbies, and any time he saw some strange bird, he followed it till he couldn’t anymore.
But kids had no time for that today. He tried a different way.
“BILLIONS OF YEARS AGO, THE EARTH WAS FORMED…… A HUGE BALL OF BURNING ROCK!”
His jubilant voice echoed around the room. Some of the students looked up, curiosity flickering in their eyes… Mr Mantell spread his arms wide.
“No life dared live back then, because one step on the flaming surface, one deep breath of poisonous gases, and you’re…… well, life hadn’t formed yet, so we can’t technically use the word ‘dead’.”
Some of the kids grinned, others seemed unsure if the joke was funny enough.
“But then Mother Earth’s anger faded, and she cooled down” he shivered to mimic cooling – “rivers flowed down her” – he made a swishing motion with his arms – “before emptying into seas. Tiny areas of land rose out of these seas,” he raised his hand, inching his thumb away from his forefinger, before dropping his voice in a whisper. “It wasn’t on this land that first life formed, but the seas. The tiny one-celled life that gave rise to your grandparents? Well, yes, you are cousins, trillion-times removed, to the first bacteria that are now crawling in your gut, boy!” he roared, pointing towards a plump, bespectacled guy sitting in the rear.
The guy blinked, instinctively touching his stomach and the entire class roared in laughter. Mr Mantell waited for the laughter to die out, before smiling.
Yes, he finally had them hooked.
So he began telling them how this life, life “too simple to realize that they had caused a revolution by simply existing” changed – “evolved” – into a host of other creatures, jellyfish, sponges and sea cucumbers, till the backbone finally developed.”
He exclaimed this with great excitement like he had been there to witness the great event, and his lingering voice gave away to a few moments of silence. A silence that was broken by a tentative hand that slowly raised itself in the first bench…… which of course, had been his primary aim all along; because what good was a teacher if he wasn’t able to hold his students’ attention?
“Those are the fish, right sir? The first creatures with backbone. I read in a book somewhere. Creatures with a backbone are called vertebrates…” As Leally was speaking, there came a loud retching sound from behind, as well sniggers of “Miss The-Universe-Told-Me-Its-Secrets Returns.”
But Mr Mantell pretended not to notice, and instead beamed at Leally. “Very good Leally! Now sit down. The universe still has some more secrets to tell us.” He didn’t particularly look at the boy behind Leally as he said this, but he could see him redden. Some more students laughed and nudged the boy.
Another hand was raised; this one more confident, and the boy had stood up even before Mr Mantell told him to.
“Sir, did Leally speak the entire truth? Weren’t there some creatures with backbone or something like a backbone before the fishes existed? I read it in the textbook you asked us to read.”
Mr Mantell beamed. “Brilliant! But you do not need to know that immediately. But brilliant as always, Ben!”
As Ben took his seat amongst awed whispers, Mr Mantell told about how the figurative backbone which signified courage developed much later when the first fish poked its head out of the water and looked out at the land with curiosity rather than fear and climbed out.
“For this act of bravery, we shall henceforth call this fish an amphibian. What shall we call him?”
“Amphibian,” the class chanted, though Mr Mantell heard a few mingled cries of Frog-fish and other names he was sure he hadn’t said.
And thus, Mr Mantell told them how the daughter of that first amphibian decided one day – “Yup, I shall lay my eggs on land from now on” – and how his daughter was born with scales, and would be famous as a reptile rather than an amphibian – how these reptiles grew over time until they finally reached their zenith in…
“The time of the dinosaurs!”
It wasn’t he but an enthusiastic boy from the rear of the class who had spoken. At this point, almost everyone had pulled out their earbuds. Their phones were clutched in pockets or bags.
Mr Mantell couldn’t help a boyish grin from flitting across his face. There was still a half an hour of class left, which he had been wise enough in keeping aside; because this was the part where the students really made their voices known.
“Sir, do you know that some dinosaurs had a feather?”
“One at a time please, yes Brandon?” Mr Mantell asked
“No, me first!”
“I asked first! Sir, do you know the dinosaurs have feathers?”
“Hmm, yes I do” smiled Mr Mantell. “Do you know which dinosaurs – yes, Ben? You want to answer?”
“Obviously the theropods, sir.”
“Sir, did you know dinosaurs can fly? Real dinosaurs, not the pterosaurs, which sometimes are called dinosaurs.”
“Casey, you are an idiot. Tell him…”
“Now kids…” tried Mr. Mantell
“No, Brandon you are a bigger idiot – go google up Microraptor okay? Some scientists say that even birds are dinosaurs.”
“Casey, Brandon, no name-calling in my class, please!”
Most other teachers in the school would have quailed and told the class to quieten, but Mr Mantell was enjoying himself. He told them more and saw a sense of gloom descend upon the class, like the kind he used to have on learning that dinosaurs were gone, that no matter how massive and terrifying, not one of them lived today. He told them how the final asteroid spelt doom for the dinosaurs.
“Or,” as he joked. “That’s the version we know anyway.”
More than half of the class still had questions, and more than half of the questions were asked by Ben, who seemed to have read the entire book they were supposed to. One round-faced boy seemed doubtful about the existence of dinosaurs, because “How did we even know that they existed?”
Mr Mantell smiled. “That’s because like all great figures, they made a mark on our world. The marks left by their bones on the rocks are called fossils. And the greatest thing? We don’t yet know it all; new discoveries are being made every day, regarding their colour and skin…”
“What if they are still there?”
“Like, we recently learnt that some species have feathers… what?” Mr Mantell peered through his thick glasses towards the back of the class, where a hand was making itself known. He frowned, adjusting his spectacles and called out in what he hoped was a kindly tone. “Please, will you stand up so that we can – thank you. Yes, mister, what’s your name?”
“Yes, Mr Buckland. What do you want to – what do you mean by “What if they are still there?” asked Mr Mantell. “Do you mean the birds, since they evolved from dinosaurs?”
“I… I meant about… the dinosaurs… sir.” Gregory Buckland, Mr Mantell could see, was a nervous, slightly healthy boy with brown hair and brilliant blue eyes which flitted towards his classmates and back. He kept fidgeting with his fingers and Mr Mantell had to wait for a considerable time before he managed to speak.
“What if some of them are still alive? The… the Loch Ness Monster… is supposed to be a dinosaur...what if they if they aren’t extinct?”
A derisive snort greeted his words. Most of the class had now split up in pairs, one member of each pair whispering to the other. Mr Mantell discerned a few of the words, “Is he really that stupid, or does he try too hard?”
“Gregory”, he said slowly. “Those are just rumours and Internet hoaxes. Dinosaurs have been extinct for over sixty-five million years!”
“But you just said that new discoveries are being made…” the quiet words faded into a nervous silence. Everyone had turned to look at him in horror. Saying “you just said” to a teacher was one of the worst sins a student could commit, because that implied he was saying something different now and that he was wrong one of those times.
But he didn’t scold Gregory. Or rather, he didn’t get the chance to, because, at that moment, the bell rang, signifying the end of the period. As he turned to leave, he saw Gregory’s face etched with a longing. A longing he used to feel back in his schooldays.
So it was with a twinge of guilt that he turned and answered. “Well, that’s not the version we know anyway.”
Laughter rang at his words, and he turned to leave.
His office was on the third floor. The elevator was being repaired, and while passing, he turned to look at it curiously. There always seemed to be someone repairing the elevator, which never seemed to work. However, Mr Mantell had never seen these particular people before. Once or twice, his gaze kept moving outside the window... to a flash of blue feathers among green leaves. Somehow, he knew it was the same blue bird he had seen earlier... strange, the bird didn’t seem to have a beak.
But of course it did. Birds were known for their beaks. Mr Mantel shook his head.
It was almost five minutes to reach his office and unlock the door. He had no more classes to take today, so he plopped himself on a chair before a glowing computer screen.
Suddenly, the telephone on his desk rang. With a groan, he picked it up.
“Yes, Mr Jack Mantell speaking” He listened closely, as the voice on the other end said something. After about a minute of listening, he sighed.
“And they cannot do it without… yes, I know, but… fine! I am coming.”
He kept the phone and waited for a second. Then, after muttering a loud “Bother”, sprang up and went outside. There was a click of the door being locked from outside.
The room returned to quiet, and like all silent, empty rooms, remained so for several long minutes, with no sound except the ticking clock. The silence was only broken by a loud rap on the window.
No one was there to open it, so there was another loud rap… followed by a smash as the windows were flung open from the outside. A figure jumped into the room, looked all around and ducked behind the table. The silence of the room returned, broken only by a strange panting sound.
When a figure re-emerged from behind the table, it wasn’t the same. In fact, it wasn’t a creature one would expect to find in the 21st century. Its tail swept the table, sending a pen rolling to the floor. It grunted and turned again. This time, its tail brushed the edge of the wall.
It was evident this creature was too big for the room.
It seemed to be searching for something. It sniffed the table and then the open book that lay on it. Reaching out with its claws, it grabbed a book off the bookshelf and flipped through the pages. Evidently, it didn’t have what it was looking for so it tossed this book aside and picked a new one.
The second book didn’t satisfy it either. Neither did the third, or the fourth, or the ones that came after that. Holding about the ninth book in its hand, it finally gave up.
“Stupid books,” the hiss issued from between its lips, and in rage, it raised the book to toss it out of the window, but stopped. Its eyes widened, noticing the computer on the desk.
“If this doesn’t work, someone else had better do this stupid job next time,” it muttered, claws flying across the keyboard. When this too seemed to be failing, and it almost hit the clock on the wall with his tail in anger, its eyes widened and then a smile appeared on its face.
The creature had got what he was looking for.
It could hear the distant sound of approaching footsteps. Returning the computer to what its screen originally showed, he deftly slid the books back into the shelf. He even replaced the pen which had fallen and was gone before the door clicked open.
Mr Mantell entered and frowned. The windows weren’t open when he had left but that was probably the work of some strong gust of wind.