Student project transcends generations
Famous reptile returned to former New London student
By John Faucher
Dave Sexton Jr. was in the seventh grade at New London’s Washington Junior High School in 1995.
He was self described as a “goof-off kid” and admitted he was not always very serious about school.
Sexton was into reptiles, fishing, hunting, sports and the kinds of things boys get into outside the realm of ordinary textbooks.
Patty Grossman, on the other hand, was a young teacher beginning her career.
She was not particularly into snakes and reptiles.
When Grossman started her career as a long-term sub for New London’s Gifted and Talented program at Washington Junior High, she had no idea she would soon develop a unique classroom aide that would literally stick with her for the rest of her career.
Sexton was identified as a “Gifted and Talented” student at the time.
Gifted and Talented programs in schools recognized a student’s abilities outside of standardized tests and other measurements. In GT programs like the one Sexton was in, a student’s characteristics such as leadership, motivation and creative reasoning become more of a focus.
A GT instructor works with students to set up a long-term project in an area of interest of the student.
Much to the dismay of many school staff, Sexton’s project involved snakes.
Twenty-seven years later, Patty Grossman and Sexton, her former student, reminisced about the early days of that project.
“First I had to draw up a business plan, a safety plan, and research different kinds of snakes and present a proposal,” said Sexton. “It was a lot more work than I anticipated.”
He wanted to purchase a snake for the school for educational purposes.
“It had to be set up so it was property of the school so there were no ownership issues between kids,” said Sexton. “The kids were all on board with it but the staff was definitely not,” said Grossman.
Sexton coordinated a massive schoolwide effort to promote and raise funds for the project.
He had to keep records and receipts and document the entire process as planned and outlined in his project.
In addition to raising funds to purchase the snake, Sexton had to ensure a proper place for it to live within the school.
They kept its home in the school library for the first year.
Sexton also organized a school-wide naming contest and students voted on the name Phyllis.
On Saturday, July 16, 2022, Sexton sat on his living room couch next to Phyllis the now 27-year old ball python as he paged through the file folder from 1995.
Sexton smiled and held out the receipt from the day he purchased Phyllis.
“That was a lot of money back then,” he said. “I can’t believe you kept this folder all these years,” he said to Grossman.
“I don’t think any of us thought Phyllis would be around this long either,” said Grossman with a smile.
While ball pythons are known for having long life expectancies, 20 to 25 years is the average, according to vetfollio.com.
Ball pythons grow up to 4-5 feet in captivity and can sometimes live beyond 30 years.
The oldest ever recorded is 63 years.
“I’ve learned a lot about snakes,” said Grossman, who ultimately became the snake’s caregiver for the next 26 years.
After the first year, she said the school librarian Dianne Fossum was relieved they relocated Phyllis to the GT classroom.
“She crawled into the printer a few times,” recalled Grossman.
Eventually, industrial arts teacher Dean Peterson made a fancy cover for Phyllis’s 30-gallon tank, but there were a few other escape adventures in Phyllis’s tenure at the New London Middle School.
After New London built a new high school and converted the old high school into a middle school in 1998, Phyllis moved with Grossman to the middle school.
Phyllis as teaching tool
Although Grossman taught math in middle school, Phyllis was still very actively involved in other student learning and incentive opportunities.
Art students borrowed Phyllis and studied her unique sheds and skin patterns and shapes.
Science teachers incorporated the docile reptile into their curriculum as well.
“Phyllis was really a breakthrough for some kids that otherwise were hard to engage,” explained Grossman.
Through the years, she has had many students come back to visit Phyllis.
“Now I’ve got parents who were former students that come in for their kid’s parent teacher conferences and they can’t believe she’s still alive,” said Grossman.
They ask, “Is that Phyllis?”
“Phyllis has long surpassed my legacy at the school,” said Sexton with a smile.
“Thousands of kids have known her over the years,” said Grossman.
In addition to her math students, Grossman frequently introduced Phyllis to the entire fifth-grade student body during a special fifth-grade day at the school.
This spring she ran into Sexton at the school while he was attending his son Dixon’s parent teacher conferences.
Grossman let him know she planned to retire in June and asked if he would accept Phyllis and become her caregiver again.
He and his son Dixon gladly accepted.
“It was just too good to be a coincidence,” said Grossman. “Most of all I will miss what she does for kids.”