Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: A Lesson in Reading


  1. meekly – in a quiet, gentle, and submissive manner
  2. incurring – becoming subject to (something unwelcome or unpleasant) as a result of one’s own behavior or actions
  3. astonishing – extremely surprising or impressive; amazing
  4. prime – of the best possible quality; excellent
  5. technical – relating to a particular subject, art, or craft, or its techniques
  6. recognition – the action or process of recognizing or being recognized
  7. tinny – (of a sound) high-pitched and thin; lacking resonance
  8. inkling – a slight knowledge or suspicion; a hint
  9. formula – a set of chemical symbols showing the elements present in a compound and their relative proportions, and in some cases the structure of the compound
  10. snaky – resembling or characteristic of a snake; winding or twisting like a snake.

A Lesson in Reading

Of course, Justin did not escape that day, nor even that year. When they -Julie – put on a glove and went to pick him up, he submitted meekly enough, and in a short time he was back in his cage.

Yet he had learned some things. He had, as Julie noticed, examined the air ducts – the openings along the wall through which warm air flowed in winter, cool air in summer – and he had studied the windows. Mainly he had learned that he could, occasionally at least, jump from his cage and wander around without incurring any anger or injury. All of this, eventually, was important. For it was Justin, along with Jenner, who finally figured out how to get away. I had a part in it, too. But all that came later.

I won’t go into details about the rest of our training except for one part of it that was the most useful of all. But in general, during the months that followed, two things were happening:

First, we were learning more than any rats ever had before, and were becoming more intelligent than any rats had ever been.

The second thing could be considered, from some points of view, even more important – and certainly more astonishing – than the first. Dr Schultz (you-will recall) had said that the new series of injections might increase our life span by double or more. Yet even he was not prepared for what happened. Perhaps it was the odd combination of both types of injections working together – I don’t know, and neither did he. But the result was that as far as he could detect, in the A group the ageing process seemed to stop almost completely.

For example – during the years we were in the laboratory, most of the rats in the control group grew old and sickly, and finally died; so did those in B group, for though they were getting injections, too, the formula was not the same as ours. But among the twenty of us in A group, no one could see any signs that we were growing older at all. Apparently (though we seldom saw them) the same thing was happening with the G group, the mice who were getting the same injections we were.

Dr Schultz was greatly excited about this. ‘The short life span has always been a prime limiting factor in education,’ he told George and Julie. ‘If we can double it, and speed up the learning process at the same time, the possibilities are enormous.’ Double it! Even now, years later, years after the injections were stopped, we seem scarcely any older than we were then.

We could not detect either of these things ourselves. That is, we didn’t feel any different, and since we had no contact with the other groups, we had no basis for comparison. All we had to go by was what Dr Schultz said. He and the others were preparing a research paper about us – to be published in some scientific journal – so each morning he dictated the results of the previous day’s tests into a tape recorder. We heard all of it, though there was a lot of technical stuff we couldn’t understand, especially at first. Until the paper was published (he kept reminding George and Julie of this) the whole experiment was to be kept secret.

The one important phase of training began one day after weeks of really hard work at the’shape recognition’ that I mentioned before. But this was different. For the first time they used sounds along with shapes, and pictures, real pictures we could recognize. For example, one of the first and simplest of these exercises was a picture, a clear photograph, of a rat. I suppose they felt sure we would know what that was. This picture was shown on a screen, with a light behind it. Then, after I had looked at the picture and recognized it, a shape flashed on the screen under it – a sort of half circle and two straight lines, not like anything I had seen before. Then the voice began:




It was Julie’s voice, speaking very clearly, but it had a tinny sound – it was a record. After repeating ‘are’ a dozen times or so, that particular shape disappeared and another one came on the screen, still under the picture of the rat. It was a triangle, with legs on it. And Julie’s voice began again:




When that shape disappeared a third one came on the screen. This one was a cross. Julie’s voice said:




Then all three shapes appeared at once, and the record said:





You will already have recognized what was going on: they were teaching us to read. The symbols under the picture were the letters R-A-T. But the idea did not become clear to me, nor to any of us, for quite a long time. Because, of course, we didn’t know what reading was.

Oh, we learned to recognize the shapes easily enough, and when I saw the rat picture I knew straight away what symbols would appear beneath it. In the same way, when the picture showed a cat, I knew the same shapes would appear, except the first one would be a half-circle, and Julie’s voice would repeat: ‘See – see -see.’ I even learned that when the photograph showed not one but several rats, a fourth shape would appear under it – a snaky line – and the sound with that one was ‘ess – ess – ess’. But as to what all this was for, none of us had any inkling.

It was Jenner who finally figured it out. By this time we had developed a sort of system of communication, a simple enough thing, just passing spoken messages from one cage to the next, like passing notes in school. Justin, who was still next to me, called to me one day:

‘Message for Nicodemus from Jenner. He says important.’

‘All right,’ I said, ‘what’s the message?’

‘Look at the shapes on the wall next to the door. He says to look carefully.’

My cage, like Jenner’s and those of the rest of A group, was close enough to the door so I could see what he meant: near the doorway there was a large, square piece of white cardboard fastened to the wall – a sign. It was covered with an assortment of black markings to which I had never paid any attention (though they had been there ever since we arrived).

Now, for the first time, I looked at them carefully, and I grasped what Jenner had discovered.

The top line of black marks on the wall were instantly familiar: R-A-T-S; as soon as I saw them I thought of the picture that went with them; and as soon as I did that I was, for the first time, reading. Because, of course, that’s what reading is: using symbols to suggest a picture or an idea. From that time on it gradually became clear to me what all these lessons were for, and once I understood the idea, I was eager to learn more. I could scarcely wait for the next lesson, and the next. The whole concept of reading was, to me at least, fascinating. I remember how proud I was when, months later, I was able to read and understand that whole sign. I read it hundreds of times, and I’ll never forget it:


But then a puzzling thing came up, a thing we’re still not sure about even now. Apparently Dr Schultz, who was running the lessons, did not realize how well they were succeeding. He continued the training, with new words and new pictures every day; but the fact is, once we had grasped the idea and learned the different sounds each letter stood for, we leaped way ahead of him. I remember well, during one of the lessons, looking at a picture of a tree. Under it the letters flashed on: T-R-E-E. But in the photograph, though the tree was in the foreground, there was a building in the background, and a sign near it. I scarcely glanced at T-R-E-E, but concentrated instead on reading the sign. It said:

NIMH. PRIVATE PARKING BY PERMIT ONLY. RESERVED FOR DOCTORS AND STAFF. NO VISITOR PARKING. The building behind it, tall and white, looked very much like the building we were in.

I’m sure Dr Schultz had plans for testing our reading ability. I could even guess, from the words he was teaching us, what the tests were going to be like. For example, he taught us ‘left’, ‘right’,’door’, ‘food’, ‘open’, and so on. It was not hard to imagine the test: I would be placed in one chamber, my food in another. There would be two doors, and a sign saying: ‘For food, open door at right.’ Or something like that. Then if I – if all of us – moved unerringly towards the proper door, he would know we understood the sign.

As I said. I’m sure he planned to do this, but apparently he did not think we were ready for it yet. I think maybe he was even a little afraid to try it; because if he did it too soon, or if for any other reason it did not work, his experiment would be a failure. He wanted to be sure, and his caution was his undoing.

Justin announced one evening around the partition:

‘I’m going to get out of my cage tonight and wander around a bit.’

‘How can you? It’s locked.’

‘Yes. But did you notice, along the bottom edge there’s a printed strip?’

I had not noticed it. I should perhaps explain that when Dr Schultz and the others opened our cages we could never quite see how they did it; they manipulated something under the plastic floor, something we couldn’t see.

‘What does it say?’

‘I’ve been trying to read it the last three times they brought me back from training. It’s very small print. But I think I’ve finally made it out. It says: To release door, pull knob forward and slide right.’


‘Under the floor, about an inch back, there’s a metal thing just in front of the shelf. I think that’s the knob, and I think I can reach it through the wire. Anyway, I’m going to try.’


‘Not until they close up.’

‘Closing up’ was a ritual Dr Schultz, George and Julie went through each night. For about an hour they sat at their desks, wrote notes in books, filed papers in cabinets, and finally locked the cabinets. Then they checked all the cages, dimmed the lights, locked the doors and went home, leaving us alone in the still laboratory.

About half an hour after they left that night, Justin said: ‘I’m going to try now.’ I heard a scuffling noise, a click and scrape of metal, and in a matter of seconds I saw his door swing open. It was as simple as that – when you could read.

‘Wait,’ I said.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘If you jump down, you won’t be able to get back in. Then they’ll know.’

‘I thought of that. I’m not going to jump down. I’m going to climb up the outside of the cage. It’s easy. I’ve climbed up the inside a thousand times. Above these cages there’s another shelf, and it’s empty. I’m going to walk along there and see what I can see. I think there’s a way to climb to the floor and up again.’

‘Why don’t I go with you?’ My door would open the same way as his.

‘Better not this time, don’t you think? If something goes wrong and I can’t get back, they’ll say: It’s just A-9 again. But if two of us are found outside, they’ll take it seriously. They might put new locks on the cages.’

He was right, and you can see that already we both had the same idea in mind: that this might be the first step towards escape for all of us.

Paul Hoets is a freelance maker who lives in South Korea. If you liked this article and would like to contribute to his empire of dirt, silicon and tech. education, buy him a coffee!