In 1997, Julie Bernstein decided to introduce her kindergarten class to Shelly the Turtle. Bernstein just became the de facto caretaker for the pet turtle, who once belonged to her young son Graham Johnston. There, inside Bernstein’s classroom, Shelly was cozy in an aquarium, its glass walls inviting students to peer in.
For more than a decade, Bernstein and Shelly were a dynamic duo at Holmes Elementary School, 508 N. Kenilworth Ave. In many ways, Shelly was a fixture at Holmes.
Bernstein said Shelly befriended the “shy kids,” who would often crowd around her tank during play time and watch her jump off a rock and into the water. Students often pitched in to help feed Shelly and keep her home neat, one of Bernstein’s ways of teaching lessons on responsibility. The school also hosted races between Shelly and Bella, a classroom pet rabbit, according to administrative assistant Margaret O’Malley. And as the old fable goes, O’Malley said Shelly would win.
“That was a big thing,” O’Malley said. “They would set up courses and have the turtle and the hare races. Shelly often won because the bunny would take off, and then get confused, and be running in the opposite direction and things like that.”
When Bernstein retired in 2013, Shelly stayed behind, finding herself under the care of other school staff such as O’Malley, and would go on to support batches of students for about another decade. Shelly died May 20. She was about 35 years old, “give or take a few years,” Bernstein said.
Shelly’s death has been tough for the Holmes community, including Bernstein, O’Malley and Principal Christine Zelaya.
“I cried, not going to lie. It was really sad,” Zelaya said. She told Wednesday Journal that Shelly had fallen ill over the last two years. A local veterinarian diagnosed Shelly with dystocia, Bernstein added. It’s a medical condition common among female reptiles who have difficulty laying eggs.
“I remember when we first found out she was needing a lot of intensive support,” Zelaya said about Shelly, who was prescribed medicine to help with her condition. Zelaya said for two weeks, O’Malley stepped in and injected Shelly with her medicine, hoping for her comeback.
Zelaya told the Journal Shelly did get better, and for about five months, the turtle was back to her old ways, swimming around in her aquarium.
“We thought she was on her way to recovery,” Zelaya said, “and then she started to kind of go through the same things again and had stopped eating. It was really hard for everybody.”
O’Malley shared how Shelly found a home in different parts of the school building. After Bernstein left, Shelly made her way to the library before making her last stop and settling in the school office. This has sort of been a pattern in Shelly’s life, traveling from one person to another, one place to another. Bernstein said her son was 6 years old when he received Shelly as a gift from her husband’s coworker, Larry Kofoed (Andy Johnston and Kofoed are former employees of Wednesday Journal).
“[Kofoed] had two sons who had Shelly, and they sort of lost interest. So, he asked my husband, Andy, if Graham would be interested. I do remember when Graham came home with Shelly. He said, ‘This is the happiest day of my life,’ which as a 6-year-old, it was a pretty big deal to get a pet.”
In an email to the Journal, Mindi Maneck, a former Holmes school librarian, wrote that she would have students practice reading to Shelly. The pet turtle helped the children not feel nervous or judged as they sounded out words that trailed into longer sentences.
“Shelly was the ultimate listener,” said Maneck, one of Shelly’s caretakers, in an email. “She sat, with her sweet, crooked smile and just … looked at you. She truly was such a sweet soul. I’ve moved on to another school library where I have THREE [sic] turtles in my care (I don’t know how this happens!), but none of those turtles listen like Shelly did.”
In the office, Zelaya and O’Malley said Shelly took on another role. Shelly became “our comfort turtle,” working with students who may feel sad, frustrated or angry, they said. The two said it wasn’t uncommon to see students sitting in the office and talking to Shelly.
“She was always the best kind of listener,” Zelaya reiterated.
O’Malley agreed, summing up Shelly in a nutshell: “She was a great support for our students.”