Last week I had the opportunity to stand in front of a classroom full of sixth graders and talk about dead things and flesh eating beetles. One might think that what I do would be too disturbing or gross for kids to handle, but, as I found out, they can handle it better than most adults!

I got invited as a guest speaker to come in and talk about decomposition, since that happens to be my specialty. I figured I’d bring some of my very own decomposers in to share, so I kidnapped some unsuspecting beetles from their warm dark home and put them in a glass storage container with some scant bedding and a hot dog. I considered putting a little bird head or something in at first, but this was my first time as a guest speaker and I wasn’t prepared to risk screaming, crying, horrified children. I packed up a box of miscellaneous skulls, my container of pissed off beetles, and headed to the middle school.

It’s easy to not give kids enough credit for what they can handle. They passed around the beetle container and an array of skulls with genuine curiosity. Even the kids who first said ewww quickly came around. A classroom poll decided that, in the future, the beetles should come in with a real head, no more boring hot dogs. Lesson learned. And while I came prepared for a lively scientific discussion about decomposers and their role in the environment, the kids had other, more important topics in mind.

Do the beetles try to eat you in your sleep? Will they eat children? Do they eat eyeballs?

I let the students know that I actually remove the eyeballs and brains before giving a head to the beetles, which proved to be the single most fascinating thing I could say. “How do you remove an eyeball?” “What do brains feel like?” “Can you bring us an eyeball?” (I promised the teacher I would) “Can you bring us a brain?” (nope) – one student suggested finding a recipe for eyeballs and eating them. I explained that I don’t eat anything from the heads that get brought in*, but good for him for being open minded to eating weird things.

It was a good reminder that kids are fascinated by death. They want to understand it, talk about it, poke it with a stick. I have a theory that this is our natural state, and being afraid to talk about it is something we are taught as we grow up. But deep down we know it’s an unavoidable part of life, something we all depend on and will one day have to reconcile with ourselves. It’s our food, our soil, our room to grow on this planet, and it is fascinating.

I don’t know how much the kids really learned about decomposition that day, but now they know that flesh eating beetles exist, and there are people like me who make a living with them. They got to hold skulls in their hands ask all of the crazy questions about dead things that adults probably want to ask, but are too polite to. So I’d call it a success, and the good news is that I got invited back to do it with another class. Next time, I’ll be sure the beetles are eating something more interesting than a hot dog!

*I didn’t remember at the time, but I did eat an eyeball once. A whole rabbit was cooked as part of a dinner while I was traveling in Mexico, head and all, and I decided to eat one of the eyes. I was mainly just curious, and it’s unlike me to turn down a chance to eat a new weird thing. I took a bite of one eyeball and decided that, while it didn’t taste bad, the texture wasn’t for me. I don’t think anyone ate the other one.