Wormy, the catfish with class

Willow’s classroom catfish teaches life lessons

Longtime École Willows School custodian Wayne Ridley feeds a catfish affectionately called Wormy. The fish has been at the school for six years with the Grade 5 kids assigned to take care of him. Ridley cared for the fish through the summer.

Willow’s classroom catfish teaches life lessons

It’s not unusual for David Masini to walk into his Grade 5 classroom on any given day and see the 120-gallon tank in the room is missing its resident.

In fact, Wormy is known for his tricky disappearing acts. The Clarius catfish has been found flopped on the floor, hiding in the recycling bin, even skulking off behind a curtain – lucky for him, his special “walking” abilities mean that Wormy can survive on land for a number of hours. But, thanks to a new weighted lid, Masini and his class have been able to contain the adventurous fish a little more this year.

“I’d have to admit, Wormy has had a very exciting life – you might even say he exceeded expectations in the classroom,” says Masini, who purchased the catfish for École Willows School six years ago from an aquatics store in Hillside Shopping Centre.

Back then, Wormy was just a few inches long and could easily fit in a yogurt container. But when he started eating the other fish, Masini realized he would need his own space. Now, the nearly two-foot long fish has to be kept in his massive tank, even while it’s being cleaned because of his size. And he tends to make some people a little nervous come feeding time. But he’s a lovable kind of sea monster.

“I have to admit, I made plans to part with him some time back. We have a 90-gallon tank upstairs of African Cichlids from the Great Rift Lakes, and I would love to have more of those,” says Masini. “They are so graceful, and Wormy is kind of a beast in the water, but the kids just love him so much, so they begged me not to get rid of him.”

Muddy water stains splashed down the bulletin board are as common as jokes about Wormy monitoring the math tests, but Masini says there is a science behind having animals in the classroom. Each student is responsible for Wormy’s care, and there are more than a few lessons going on at once.

“There isn’t a discipline that you can’t teach through Wormy’s tank,” Masini says. “Whether it’s the science behind filtration stages, the bio-chemistry of his feeding, math, writing – every year his tank is covered with Christmas cards from the students.”

Wormy has also been used as a bit of a school counsellor and nurse, with some other teachers bringing upset or nervous students in to sit by Wormy’s tank if they are having a bad day.

“The effect of just sitting by one of our fellow creatures can be incredibly calming,” Masini says.

That doesn’t mean life for Wormy is always easy.

It was the day of U.S. President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech that Masini remembers coming into the classroom to find Wormy missing as usual. He discovered him wedged between the wall and the bookshelf, stiff-dry and looking grim. Thinking he was a goner, Masini threw him back in the tank, and sure enough, within minutes Wormy was moving around again before he sulked off to his cave to heal.

Nowadays, Wormy has plenty to look forward to. With school back in session, students will continuously bring him earth worms found during recess, and one parent is gathering a selection of slugs to see how he likes that feast. While Masini says he isn’t sure how long a catfish lives, with any luck, Wormy will have another good school season yet.

“Last year, Wormy didn’t do so well on his report card,” Masini jokes. “So, we had to retain him. We’ll see how he does this year.”

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