A Family Tree of Felines

A few campus cats enjoy a quiet morning behind the portables.

A few campus cats enjoy a quiet morning behind the portables.

All of us are aware of the cats that make their home underneath the portables. They live a somewhat clandestine life, roaming in the gated yard behind the English classes. I decided to ask Mr. Herring about his perspective on UHS’ unofficial pets.

Meilin: How do you feel about the cats, seeing as you teach right above their house?

Mr. Herring: I feel very lucky to be in such close proximity to them. Cats are amazing, beautiful animals. They have a unique perspective on the world, which anyone who has spent time with cats recognizes. I have even heard it said that people never domesticated cats; cats just chose to start living with humans, and that’s kind of how I feel, that these cats have chosen to come live on the campus and I am lucky that I am able to teach above them.

Meilin: Do you see the cats often?

Mr. Herring: During the day the cats mostly hide out underneath my classroom, but anyone can see them early in the morning or late in the afternoon. When the campus quiets down and most of the students leave, they come out to play and hunt for food. Of course, I have a special relationship with them, so I’m able to see them more often.

Meilin: Oh, so you do see them often?

Mr. Herring: Yes, absolutely. They are my neighbors and I have been able to watch them over the years as they have come and gone. It’s like Homer says in the Iliad, “As is the generation of leaves, so is that of…cats,” well he says humanity, but it’s true of cats too. He goes on, “One generation of cats will grow”—again he says men but you know, it still works—“while another dies.”

Meilin: Oh, that’s an interesting quote. Um, do you ever worry about health issues for you or your students with cats living under your classroom?

Mr. Herring: Oh no, there aren’t any health issues with these cats. They’re very distinguished creatures. But I feel like you looked at me funny when I drew a comparison between cats and the Iliad. What I said isn’t weird. Making a connection between literature and the cats isn’t weird. It’s like Hygd likes to say—

Meilin: I’m sorry…Hygd?

Mr. Herring: Yes, Hygd. She is one of the matriarchs of the current generation of cats living—

Meilin: So you have named the cats?

Mr. Herring: Yes, that’s what I am trying to say. One of Hygd’s favorite lines from Hamlet is when Hamlet is telling the player that a play ought to hold a mirror up to nature—

Mr. Herring reads Hamlet with Hygd.  Hygd says, “Don’t let the iambic pentameter make your delivery so sing-songy; let the meaning of the words determine the emphasis.”  Always the critic, that one.

Mr. Herring reads Hamlet with Hygd. Hygd says, “Don’t let the iambic pentameter make your delivery so sing-songy; let the meaning of the words determine the emphasis.” Always the critic, that one.

Meilin: Did you just say that you discuss Hamlet with a cat?

Mr. Herring: Do you mind if I finish?

Meilin: I apologize. Please continue.

Mr. Herring: So, Hygd has always made a fuss over that line, but it didn’t really hit me as relevant to my understanding of the cats until a few years ago when so many were being caught and removed from campus.

Meilin: Oh yeah, didn’t Dr. Coffey try to catch some of the cats and have the Humane Society take them?

Mr. Herring: And a good many of them were taken. How many afternoons I sat alone in this room thinking about their lives, I don’t know, but it was then that I realized how much their existence is a struggle, like the people of the old warring tribes of northern Europe. After that I started to record their genealogies and name the cats after the warriors and other characters in Beowulf. I named Hygd first after the thoughtful and generous queen who distributed gifts in Heorot. Until then I had only known her as Shadow—she is as black and seductive as a moonless night—but the name Hygd reflects her personality on a more than superficial level. Then, I started to name the other cats too. I’ll show you.

Mr. Herring shows of a partial family tree of the cats living beneath P-17.

Mr. Herring shares a partial family tree of the cats living beneath the portables.

Mr. Herring pulls a thick black binder from a shelf and begins flipping through pages of crude cat sketches and feline articles that appear to be printed from Wikipedia. He stops on a family tree and points out some of the names—Hygelac, Eanmund, Onela, Hrothulf, Heoroweard—describing their relationships and characteristics with animated glee. I am a bit taken aback with the depth and obvious time put into the tracking and recording of all these cats.

Meilin: Wow…that’s alarmingly thorough.

Mr. Herring: Thank you.

Mr. Herring beams, clearly excited that he was able to share his cat binder with someone. 

Meilin: Well, seeing as you have named them after Beowulf characters, I’m sure they are familiar with that book. Do they know any other great works of literature?

Mr. Herring: Sure. Unfortunately, they are not big fans of Jane Austen—Eofor has made that abundantly clear. He yowled throughout Pride and Prejudice. But I understand: living always so close to death, they have no time for escapism. Camus they like. They get him. They get the indifference of the world. They understand that just fine. We’ve spent many afternoons discussing existentialism and absurdism.

Mr. Herring is quiet for a minute as he gazes fondly into the distance. After this last response I’m not really sure what to say so I change the subject.

Meilin: You know, when we were taking our Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead final, I heard a lot of loud, long meowing. Do you hear them meow a lot or know what was happening?

Mr. Herring smiles at first but then looks slightly embarrassed. 

Mr. Herring: Well, the cats are a family, and as one generation goes, another one must take its place. Both the elders of the cat tribe and I are awaiting a Beowulf, a hero who can fend off the threat of the campus hawks once and for all. I’m hoping the noise indicates that kittens are coming, opening a possibility that the hero the cats need is on its way. We’ll have to wait a little longer to find out though.

Meilin: Oh. Ohhhhh…um…well I guess you would like some more kittens to be able to add to your detailed family tree. Well I think I’m out of questions.

Mr: Herring: Nothing makes me happier than meeting a new group of kittens. There is one more thing I’d like to add.

Meilin: Okay, sure.

Cats are beautiful whether they live in a house or under a classroom.

Cats are beautiful whether they live in a house or under a classroom.

Mr. Herring: I have been waiting for someone to ask me about the cats for a long time because I don’t think a lot of people on this campus really appreciate how special they are. A while back the mayor was here and gave a proclamation. I’d like to make one too: Whereas, all cats everywhere and on this campus are beautiful and sensitive creatures; and whereas, all cats everywhere and on this campus are brave and heroic and epic in surviving however they can; and, whereas, cats don’t kiss up to humans like dogs but maintain their own dignity; and whereas, cats are just plain awesome in general; now, therefore, I proclaim the first day of April 2013 to be henceforth known as University High School Cat Day.

Meilin: Alright, well thank you for your time and your, um, unique perspective on UHS cats. I hope your cats continue to live prosperous lives and that your Beowulf is on his way.

 

12 Comments

  1. This was just perfect!

  2. I think this is the best thing I’ve ever read.

  3. Oh Mr. Herring! Hands down, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. I don’t know about anyone else, but I want to check out that book! Mr. Wildner might have been envious of Mr. Herring’s closeness to the cats before, but if he gets wind of this article…

  4. I’ve never been more proud to have been involved with the Perspective, or to know you people in my life. Perfect.

  5. John Whisenant says:

    Really awesome and really unexpected. The way he looks at the cats really took me back. This is a wonderful article

  6. 9/10 very long but great job!

  7. That’s amazing! I want to meet this teacher.

  8. Mr. Herring, you and those cats have something special; I was so moved by this piece I was nearly cat-atonic (wait . . .). This fine piece of journalism should be cat-alogued in the “best of” Perspective file.

  9. Laura Van Slyke says:

    i’m so happy

  10. Sarah Niegocki says:

    Great job Meilin!!! I love this! It was a wonderful interview with Mr. Herring! These are some special cats!

  11. This explains so much!

    Thanks Meilin!

  12. Carmen Hernandez says:

    I loved it! Not a cat lover, but this was priceless, truly a classic!

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