Dr. Greta Jones (principal at PHS): In March 2020, during one of those anxious faculty meetings about how to teach over Zoom, Ms. Turkewitz was so worried about her needy cat being on camera. And I told her, “Don’t fight it! Use it.”
Ellie S (student at PHS): We saw a lot of amazing pets that spring. Ms. Fernandez had a labradoodle named Muffin. Sam Miller had a cockatoo named Sir Sings-a-Lot. But Dimitri? He was in a league of his own. Ms. T would be rambling on about Shakespeare or whatever, and his little ears would slowly pop on screen, and we’d know he was about to do something crazy, like knock her laptop clean off the desk.
Ms. Turkewitz (Dimitri’s owner/teacher at PHS): Shakespeare? It was a unit on dystopian literature.
Dimitri: I didn’t set out to be a star. Sure, when I was a kitten, I’d dreamt of being an Instagram model. But you need a good manager, someone who isn’t satisfied with a few likes and a heart emoji from her dad. So I thought, Okay, it’s not your destiny. Settle down. Kill some mice. Watch some seagulls. But if you’re meant for greatness, greatness will find you.
Larissa M (student): What made Dimitri special? Easy. It was the floof.
Ms. Franklin (biology teacher): At first I didn’t understand the obsession. The memes. The “joke” nomination for Teacher of the Year. The stories that were like, “Then Dimitri yawned like this.” Or “Oh my god, in second period he got his nail stuck in his scratching post and yowled until Ms. T got up, and we could see that she was wearing Cookie Monster pajama pants.” He kind of sounded like an asshole. But then we had our first Zoom faculty meeting. Stage actors train at Julliard for years and still aren’t able to convey the intensity of emotion that he can express with the flick of a single ear.
Dimitri: Pretty soon, the endorsements started rolling in. Chewy was sending me these huge swag boxes. Brand name only. We’re talking FurryFido, SmartyKat, Tuft & Paw. But that’s not what I cared about. Those students were lost. They needed me. And I delivered, with a strategic paw coming in from off screen to swat at the end of Mom’s hair, or a long drawn-out stretch. I won’t say I was their savior. But I will say I saved them.
Ms. Turkewitz: It was only supposed to be a fun joke in the first couple weeks of remote learning. I bought Dimitri a little bowtie, printed him a fake school ID. I thought, ‘What’s the harm?’ [Long pause.] And for a while, I was right.
Dimitri: I know the gig was supposed to be temporary. Mom thought I was a distraction. She preferred me napping contentedly, playing with Moustache Mouse, gazing out the window, never striving for more. She couldn’t see that maybe my life was bigger than that.
Dr. Erica Nuñez (pet psychologist): It can be stressful when the power imbalance in the home shifts so dramatically, when suddenly the pet is outshining the owner.
Ms. Turkewitz: Jealous? [Laughs]. Look. Did it sting that I’d be up until midnight planning a lesson on the historical context of 1984, but all the students wanted was for me to angle my computer so they could watch him do something totally unremarkable, like take a sip of water? Did it bother me that Miles Fink, who did not submit a single essay that entire semester, made a series of increasingly complex memes of Dimitri fighting off the paparazzi?? I mean… [Long pause. Tries to unclip her mike.] I’m sorry. Can I have a minute?
Larissa M: I think it was in late May that I started to notice that Dimitri would be squinty-eyed and a little wobbly, dragging around his catnip carrot. And I was like, “Woah, Ms. T, shouldn’t you take that away from him? It’s ten a.m.” And she’d have to stop blathering on and on about photosynthesis or mitochondria or whatnot to wrestle it away from him.
Dimitri: I loved the work, but sometimes I needed something extra to keep me purring for the cameras. So then Chewy tells me they think my new bad boy image doesn’t “fit with their brand.” But here’s the kicker. Where do you think I was getting all that catnip from in the first place? [Pauses. Flicks his ear.] That’s right. Chewy.
Ms. Turkewitz: After Chewy dropped him, all the endorsements started drying up. Purina found out about the deal with Iams. It was a legal nightmare.
Dr. Erica Nunñez (pet psychologist): When school returned to the classroom, it was hard for educators’ pets all over the country. They had this brief taste of celebrity and then became has-beens overnight. And for Dimitri, a superstar whose rise can only be described as meteoric? All I can say is, when you fly that high, it’s a long way down.
Dimitri: The apartment suddenly felt huge. But wherever I went, I couldn’t get away from myself.
Ms. Turkewitz: One day, I came home, and he’d ripped the treat bag wide open. He hadn’t even eaten all the treats. He was just lounging over the pile, like that scene in Scarface.
Dimitri: After that day with the treats, I started to reexamine my priorities. I’d always looked outward for proof that I was worthy. For Mom to call me her sweet little man. For the students to squeal over how cute my sneeze was. But did I think I was the goodest boy? I’d never even considered it.
Maryanne Jones (Ms. Turkewitz’s friend): Dimitri still makes a few appearances over FaceTime. Honestly, it feels desperate. Like, enough with the head-butts, dude. I’m trying to tell her about my new job.
Dimitri: Sure, there are still hard days when I can’t fight off the demons. But most cats don’t achieve even half of what I did. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that has to be enough.
Ms. Turkewitz: I’m proud of him, proud of his journey.
Dimitri: I don’t know what’s next for me. I’ve heard good things about Scientology.
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Rebecca Turkewitz is a writer and high school English teacher living in Portland, Maine. Her short stories, essays, and humor writing have appeared in The Masters Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Catapult, The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere.