I once told my friend Matt that I didn’t want to keep two kittens I was fostering because I believed that people should always outnumber pets in a household, and that no one person should have more than one pet at a time. There are currently four cats living in my home, which says something about my ability to live up to my own principles.
Living with four cats instead of the usual one or two is a little like living inside of a physics experiment: they attract and repel, clump when it’s cold, spread out at higher temperatures. It’s easy to think of them as an environmental feature at times. So in the spirit of remembering them as individuals, I’ve decided to catalog them. The only thing I like more than cats is pedagogy, so I’m going to describe them in terms of different grading methods.
Frida is the only female cat in the house, and her mannerisms are delicate and elegant. When you walk past her in the hall she makes a high-pitched scratchy sound intended to mean something like “hello, don’t crush me!” She likes to perch, and is very cautious about people, except for a few anointed souls whom she licks with great devotion. She is the essence of Pass/Fail, a system that seems forgiving in that it only asks “did you meet the requirements or did you not”, but is actually often nerve-wrackingly unclear about what constitutes passing. For example, Frida will often swing from sitting contentedly on my lap trying to eat my hand to leaping onto the back of the nearest chair and then grooming herself in disgust. What did I do wrong? I’ll never know.
Grade: Pass. Of course she passes. She’s perfect.
Meyer: The Montessori Method
Meyer is my roommate’s cat whom she bottle-fed from birth and trained to have no boundaries. He can lie perfectly still on your lap for hours. He is gentle with his paws. He has none of cats’ usual wariness around strangers. If you push him over he will roll along the ground. Many people exclaim that Meyer is their favorite cat that they’ve met, although I feel like that’s like saying that your favorite kind of coffee is hot chocolate. Of course Meyer is a delight, but he’s missing some fundamental nervous aggression that to me is a key part of cattishness. Meyer is the Montessori Method, a system that eschews letter or number grades in favor of discussing students’ mastery of key concepts, with an intense focus on the individual student’s progress. In other words, it’s kind of like grading, but not exactly.
Grade: Since moving in, Meyer has made great progress toward learning how to deal politely with other cats, rather than getting in their faces and meowing for attention the way he would with a human. From the other cats, he has also learned how to claw furniture.
Magneto: Traditional Letter Grading
Magneto started asking to go outside as a kitten. As a grown cat, he once got lost outdoors, and we put up posters and searched for him for three months before he turned up in a woman’s yard about four blocks away. He was asking to go outside again by the end of his first day back in our home. He now goes in and out approximately ten times a day. If he were a teenage boy, he’d own a skateboard. My spouse and I have arguments about how to enforce boundaries with him. He is traditional letter grading, in that he is anxiety-inducing, arbitrary, and yet surprisingly popular and widespread (he sometimes comes home brushed, or with someone else’s flea medication on him).
Grade: C+, but he could be an A student if he applied himself.
Guilty: Rubric Grading
Guilty is my spouse’s cat, selected from a litter that had been rejected by their mother for being too bitey. We now believe that it’s because Guilty was doing all the biting and she rejected the others because she couldn’t tell which one he was. The first time I met him, he took my glasses off my face and then fell asleep in my lap so profoundly that I thought he was dead. As an adult, he vacillates between terrorizing Frida, eating the other cats’ food, knocking things off of tables with his hanging gut, and cuddling so expertly that despite not being my cat, he’s the one I spend the most time in direct contact with. He also appears to understand how mirrors work, and has been known to wait minutes before taking revenge for a slight, as a way of lulling one into a false sense of security. He is rubric grading, in that it is impossible to grade him accurately without separating his traits out into categories; he would probably get an F overall, but his proficiency in some areas cannot be overstated.
Grade (All rankings on a 1-5 scale):
Disconcertingly human level of theory of mind: 6