My Students Ruined a Nursery Rhyme

When you spend your workday with 100+ students, you are going to hear some weird conversations. We all have strange moments – random thoughts said aloud, obscure inside jokes, etc. – but my school day is rife with half-overheard oddball moments.

Students in the playground asking which animal would make the best “were-animal” (my answer was werekomodo dragon), a hallway discussion on “the point of eyebrows” and at one point a student fiercely argued with me that the Titanic was a movie. Not a movie based on historic events, but a movie and nothing else because, and I quote, “if the boat sank then there is no way to prove that it happened”…

So at the end of one recent lesson, when a student asked me a random question, I thought it would just be another weird moment to add to the list. I soon realised that this would be terrible moment, and one that would prevent me from singing a particular rhyme ever again.

That question?

“Sir, why is ‘Mary had a little lamb’ in past tense”.

The students were working hard, so I asked them to elaborate. The fun they were having, of course, was that the song states that Mary had a little lamb, not that she has one, so what terrible fate must have befallen the baby sheep?

I smiled and said that I was sure that the lamb grew up and had a full and happy life. Maybe he kept on going to school with Mary, and eventually passed his exams with flying colours. He might have trained to be a veterinarian?

Besides, the whole rhyme is in past tense. Mary and the lamb were together a long time ago:

Mary had a little lamb,
   Its fleece was white as snow,
And every where that Mary went
   The lamb was sure to go ;
He followed her to school one day—
   That was against the rule,
It made the children laugh and play,
   To see a lamb at school.

A nice, wholesome chuckle was had by all. Ah, young minds and their jovial musings. What larks, what japes…

…and then I googled the origins of the song. I am a History teacher after all.

The nursery rhyme, which was was first published in 1830, is based on an actual incident involving Mary Elizabeth Sawyer, a woman born in 1806 on a farm in Sterling, Mass. In 1815, Mary, then nine, was helping her father with farm chores when they discovered a sickly newborn lamb in the sheep pen that had been abandoned by its mother. After a lot of pleading, Mary was allowed to keep the animal, although her father didn’t hold out much hope for its survival. Against the odds, Mary managed to nurse the lamb back to health.

“Aww”, I thought to myself, “not only is the song historically accurate, but it’s a warm and happy story. Mary’s lamb was happy and healthy and…

…but then I continued reading. I like to get my facts straight. What else can I tell my students about this happy little lamb?

The lamb grew up and would later have three lambs of her own before being gored to death by one of the family’s cows at age four.


So the students’ silly conversation about a verse written in the past tense turned out to have a mortifying reality to it. The nursery rhyme should refer to the sheep in the past tense, because it was violently attacked by another farm animal. I’m glad we got that sorted??

It gets worse, by the way. A boy associated with creating the first version of the rhyme, Roulstone, died suddenly at age 17. The nursery rhyme was mired in controversy, over who originally created it, for nearly a century. Best of all, a little commemorative statue of a lamb was built in the hometown of the rhyme, but was destroyed by arsonists four years ago.

I relayed this macabre information to my inquisitive students, with mock-fury. How could they ruin such a light-hearted song for me?! How will I ever be able to enjoy this nursery rhyme again without thinking about burning sheep statues? And what about all the other nursery rhymes? What are there dark stories? Of course I’ll need to look it up, I’m a History teacher. I hope you’re pleased with yourselves.

Of course, they were very pleased with themselves.

Thank You for Reading

Author: Rufus Scott

I am a long term Gamer, a full-time History Teacher and a part-time geek. I enjoy writing about the positive aspects of gaming, especially when it comes to education. My posts are sometimes nostalgic, occasionally irrelevant, largely meant to provoke further discussion. I'll sometimes punctuate these whimsical ramblings with a random comment on gaming and/or teaching.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: