Meet New York’s Oldest Third-Grader

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Molasses, a class pet for the ages.Photo: Bobby Doherty

This is Molasses, an Eastern box turtle. She is 55 years old and lives in Room 208 at Friends Seminary on East 16th Street. In 1975, when she was a mere teenager, she arrived at the school under the care of Linda Chu, a young teacher a few years out of the Peace Corps. Forty years on, they are both on their second generation of students. 

Molasses is, by herpetological standards, an extrovert. “When the kids are here,” Chu says, “she follows them with her eyes and head. In the summer, when I’m here myself, she’s more lethargic, and not as happy.” Like many New Yorkers, Molasses is susceptible to dietary fads. Recently, she was scarfing down cheese. Before that, she’d eat anything red. Chu puts her through a lettuce cleanse on weekends, “but I’m not sure how much of it she really eats.” Molasses lives in a custom-built plexi enclosure, which replaced a box that she could, and did, regularly escape, marooning herself on a bookshelf. A few times a year, she has her claws trimmed by a member of the New York Turtle & Tortoise Society. She figures in third-grade lessons both general (how animals eat, how they poop) and specific (“How does Molasses upright herself when she falls upside down on her shell?”). 

At least one story about her has entered Friends Seminary lore. When Hurricane Sandy struck, principal Bo Lauder made his way in to check on the building and its many pets. Room 208 was locked, so he smashed the door’s glass in order to rescue Molasses—only to discover an empty tank. She was out at the manicurist, and just fine.

Chu says she’s not sure whether she’ll hand off Molasses when she retires. “It’d be difficult,” she admits. But she also sees that this classroom continuity is unusual and probably unique. “I have students now whose parents were here, and grandparents,” she says. “And they say, What? It’s the same turtle?” It is, and it may be for a long time. Eastern box turtles can reach the age of 100.

*This article appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.