I have always been both fascinated and repelled by snakes, and so when I read this story* several years ago when teaching literature to eighth graders, it was unforgettable. Surprisingly, it also made me think about the importance of teaching emotional intelligence skills to students.
Grace Wiley chose to became a zoologist who specialized in the reptilian world. She was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall and did not weigh 100 pounds. After an early, disastrous marriage, she had decided snakes were easier to cope with than were husbands and so snakes had been her main companions for over 40 years. When Daniel P. Mannix, the author of this story, met her, she was 64 years old, living in Cypress, a small, desert town just outside of Los Angeles.
Daniel had first heard of Grace from Dr. Marin, Director of the Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. Dr. Marin had shown him a picture of this tiny woman with a cobra draped over her shoulders like a garden hose. The snake had partly spread its hood and was gazing intently into the camera, while its mistress stroked its head to quiet it. Daniel described the snake as a “running brook of horror.” Daniel, like I, became fascinated by this woman who let poisonous snakes, imported from all over the world, run around her house like cats. So, Daniel, accompanied by his wife, Jule, decided to call on Grace.
When they arrived on what would be their first of many visits, Grace was working in the yard, cleaning snake boxes. As Daniel and Jule approached her, she picked up the rattler next to her and dropped it back into the box. She called to them, “Oh, don’t trip over an alligator.” There were at least twelve ‘gators ambling along. “Just ignore their hissing,” she said. “They don’t mean anything by it, not any more than a dog barking. They are very tame and even know their names. Now come along and meet my snakes.”
Grace had snakes and snakes and snakes. She had diamondback rattlers from Texas, vipers from Italy, a fer-de-lance from the West Indies, and a karait from India. And then she performed a feat that Daniel had thought was impossible.
Three Strikes and the Snake Was Out
Grace raised her hand toward the nearest cobra, and the snake “swayed like a reed in the wind, feinting for the strike.” Grace then deliberately attempted to touch its hood. The snake struck at her hand but missed her. Grace presented her open palm to the cobra, and the snake struck three times against it. Then she slid her hand over the snake’s hood and petted it. At this point the snake went limp and she picked it up and cradled it like a baby.
Daniel spent the next three weeks studying Grace’s techniques. He learned what many so-called “snake charmers” also know and understand. When a cobra attacks, it rears straight upward. Here’s how it works. Put your elbow on a table. Your forearm now represents the snake. Cup your hand to symbolize the open hood of the cobra and sway your arm back and forth. This is approximately the fighting stance of a cobra. Now let your index finger represent the tiny, mouse-like head of the snake. Your attack range is limited by the length of your forearm. This is also true of the snake. Its range is limited by the length of its swaying body.
So with a little practice and lots of courage, you could learn to tell a cobras striking range to within an inch, just as Grace had. Because a cobra is comparatively slow, an individual, with steady nerves, can jerk away in time to avoid being bitten. Also, Grace was well aware that a cobra’s fangs are short and do not fold back, as do a rattler’s; therefore, the cobra does not stab, but must bite. It grabs its victim and deliberately chews, while the venom runs into the wound.
Grace had put all these pieces of information together, as well as the fact that a cobra cannot strike directly upwards. She combined this knowledge with wearing down the snake, who probably became puzzled and frustrated. The snake may have believed it was fighting an invincible opponent.
“Let Me Take My Glasses Off”
Many months later, Daniel was writing for a national magazine an article about the giant king cobra. The king cobra is 15 feet long and has enough venom in its poison glands to kill (if injected drop by drop) five hundred people. King cobras, unlike most snakes, will attack without provocation. In fact, they have been known to trail a man through the jungle for the express purpose of biting him.
To accompany his article, Daniel wanted a picture of the deadly king cobra with its hood blown up. Since this activity was something he and Grace had done many, many, many times before, he went to her for the photo. Only because this picture would appear in a national magazine, Grace said, “Oh, wait, let me take my glasses off, so I’ll look better.”
No doubt, many of you can guess what happened next. Without her glasses Grace misjudged the distance and was bitten by a favorite friend. The consequences were dire; she died that night in hospital.
Emotional Intelligence: Those Glasses
I have thought a great deal about those glasses. They protected Grace from the snakes deadly neurotoxin, which paralyzes the nerves in the human body, but, removed in a moment of vanity, they left her vulnerable. I see a connection between Grace’s glasses and the special kind of education that we provide our students during nine years education from Kindergarten to eighth grade.
The glasses are a metaphor for the training, the techniques, and the skills that an emotionally intelligent education provides its students.
Preparing Students for Life’s Dangers
Teens and adults that I have taught during their earlier years are clear about the many dangers they face once they leave school. They have described enticement from drugs and alcohol; the lure of using your knowledge and skills for power and control; the pull of material wealth; the way war, poverty, and hopelessness can erode your spirit; and the many ways the world can attack the confidence and the self-esteem which such an education has striven to equip them.
Keeping the value of an emotionally intelligent education requires life-long efforts to make sure our glasses are always in place, that we have the correct prescription, and that we take good care of them. We need to avoid being trapped by our vanity, of course.
But beyond that, we need:
• To hone our communication skills;
• To read and reflect on the best of books;
• To write in our journals in order to provide perspective to our struggles, our decisions, our lives;
• To fine-tune our critical and creative thinking skills so that we may contribute to solving personal, social, and academic issues;
• To remember that we are in charge of our lives, accountable for our choices and responsible for their consequences;
• To persevere in all that we do.
*The story first appeared in Daniel P. Mannix’s book All Creatures Great and Small (McGraw-Hill, 1963)