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Snake escapes in Dillingham classroom — twice

220823 thomas the snake dillingham
Izzy Ross
Thomas the ball python relaxes in Dillingham's fifth grade classroom. Aug. 23, 2022.

All's well in Dillingham Elementary School's fifth grade classroom. But the students and their teacher had a bit of a fright at the start of the year, when the class pet snake escaped — twice. The experience has taught the students about reptiles and overcoming fear of the unknown.

It all started when Dillingham Elementary School’s principal Nick Tweet sent an email to staff asking if anyone would be willing to adopt a few classroom pets, including a snake named Thomas.

“He’s probably a four or five foot ball python," said Haley Bolduc, the fifth grade teacher. "Nick refers to him as ‘low key’ because he doesn’t need a lot of maintenance. But yeah, he’s really sweet and I was just really excited to get to learn about this snake.”

It’s Bolduc's first year at the school district, and she was happy to take care of Thomas.

“Usually in the morning when I come in I just bend down and look in his cage and I say, ‘Hi Thomas,’” she said.

But when Bolduc checked on Thomas on the first day of school, he wasn’t there.

“I couldn’t really believe what was going on, because how is that even possible?" she said. "He’s in a giant cage with a lid that has books on top of it. So he had escaped.”

After hours of searching, Thomas was found in a box of markers. Bolduc was relieved.

“Thomas had just nudged his way out of the cage, slithered all the way across my classroom and then ended up in my supply cabinet with all my sharpies,” she said.

Having a snake in the classroom is a new experience for many of the students. Kolbi Clouse admits she wasn’t thrilled.

“At first I was like scared of Thomas, ‘cause I don’t like snakes," she said. "Then the teacher started talking about him, how he’s like a python and he’s not poisonous. So then I’m like, ‘I want to touch him now!’ But I don’t think you’re really supposed to.”

It didn’t take Clouse long to get used to Thomas, but she’s still not a snake fan.

Ross: Do you feel differently about snakes now?
Clouse: "Not really. Just Thomas,” she said.

Her classmate, John Henry Timmerman is still learning about the python.

“All I so far know is that he’s de-fanged. And he’s pretty much a nice snake that likes to randomly, at random times, climb — slither not climb; they don’t have arms or legs — onto his box, his little log,” Timmerman said.

While these elongated reptiles are new to some students, Carmen Johnson saw a snake in class a couple years ago.

"It was like a white snake with white eyes," she said. "I think it had a rattle – probably a rattlesnake."

Unlike some of the others, Johnson has no reservations about having Thomas in the classroom.

"I love snakes!" she said. "They’re just cool. Like how can they slither around the floor and stuff without no legs? And they just have a long tongue with a triangle shape in the middle. And they make a cool sound."

When asked what a snake sounds like, Johnson said, "Like a slithery little snake.”

Kenya Davis also saw a pet snake in class a couple years ago. She was a little ambivalent. But she’s observed how Thomas behaves in different situations, and it turns out that he gets scared of things, too.

“He’s scared of loud noises and he goes in his tiny box and he only gets out when it’s quiet," she said.

At the elementary school, a few days after his first escape, Thomas was back in his aquarium-like box next to the teacher’s desk.

"We have to have really heavy stuff on top because of the whole getting out situation," Bolduc said. "So now I have lots of books and a giant plank that goes on top of his cage. I’ll move it so you can see him. He likes to hide in this little box," she said, pointing to the top of a cardboard box. "He has a little heater under it so he’s really warm."

Bolduc let Thomas stretch out. He explored the classroom, moving along the floor next to the cabinet. When he reached the corner, he paused. Then he raised his head up and disappeared into a small hole.

Fear not: Thomas is now safe. After a few hours, the principal came and disassembled the cabinet, where Thomas was waiting in a corner. The students are happy he’s back — at least for now — and are looking forward to learning more about him.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.