x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Dissecting milkfish takes more than guts

I couldn't think of a single transferable skill I had acquired in my 17 years that could be imparted to my classmates - except dissecting a milkfish.

We have something called Wednesday Project in our school, where a student has to lead the rest of the class into doing some constructive or team--building activity. Projects have ranged from Sudoku to mini golf. My black-belt friend Prianka did a karate session, for instance.

Unsurprisingly, cooking projects are the most popular. A couple of weeks ago, we made pasta with Toby, who’s Italian. Actually making the pesto instead of getting it out of a jar, then solemnly pouring it over the spaghetti, felt authentically Italian. We all had our MasterChef moments, passing smug comments such as: “The pine nuts have such a deep, fragrant flavour, don’t they?” and scoffing the lot with supreme gravitas.

I couldn’t think of a single skill I had acquired in my 17 years that could be imparted to the class. I have been managing to wriggle out of leading a Wednesday Project all year but fate finally caught up with me.

No brainwaves struck until Jamie suggested that I could demonstrate a biology-related practical since I take the subject. So I decided to get everyone in the class to carry out dissections on fish. Ms Drake, our tutor, was gratifyingly enthusiastic about it, so I booked a lab.

I arrived at school on Wednesday clutching a huge icebag of nicely sized milkfish bought from the supermarket. One of the school cats, who usually regards everyone with superlative contempt, even gave me the exalted honour of purring and accompanying me to the freezer.

I realised, rather belatedly, that it might have been useful to thaw the fish – they were frozen stiff and had to be defrosted in the sink. The class set up dissection boards, grabbing their lab coats and scalpels. As I slapped a fish on every board, I thought I’d run through the outer organs. “That’s the operculum, and the dorsal fin,” I droned in a monotone; Ms Drake seemed the most genuinely interested.

Alex had already made an incision; we all hastened to cut open the fish. Rhys and Irina were slowly drawing out the ropy gut and taking it in turns to squeal: “Eww! Gross!” Ben was peering hopefully at bits of meat splayed out on his board, and I realised, alarmed, that I was meant to know what was going on.

“That’s the heart,” I improvised wildly, pointing to a reddish blob. “And the swim bladder, and, er, the pyloric caeca there.” I couldn’t remember for the life of me what the pyloric caeca was but everyone nodded intelligently.

The project goal was “familiarisation with the anatomy of a milkfish”. I’m not sure whether it was accomplished but everyone ended up with an impressively bloody mess and walked away smelling strongly of fish, a badge for the effort they’d gone to.

Dorottya, always wonderfully helpful, was fantastic in helping restore the lab to its former glory, armed with disinfectant and a toilet paper roll. In the end, the affair went surprisingly satisfactorily: there weren’t even any casualties – a wonder when you’re letting unleashing a bunch of giddy teenagers equipped with sharp scalpels upon the world.


The writer is a 17-year-old student in Dubai