Thursday, April 25, 2013

What the Dog Knew

Some 30 years ago, when I taught 8th grade at a Lasallian boarding school in California, the Brother in charge of the school somehow ended up with three German Shepherd puppies. In his eagerness to find someone to take them, he asked me to take care of one. And so it was that a piece of my education began. Over the subsequent months, “Bart” ate and you-know-what with great frequency, tugged at the leash as if it were all part of the game, grew excited at the least provocation, and generally made me more patient and tolerant of faults. Lesson One.

As he became older and better behaved, Bart grew to eagerly watch me during training periods in order to carry out the commands, generally tagged along whenever he could, liked to awaken me at 3 AM by fervently staring at me in the dark, 4 inches away, became part of the 8th grade classroom routine where he spent most of the day, and generally contributed to the well-settled atmosphere of our learning environment. At the end of the year, the class insisted that he sit for his yearbook photo, which he did and which was included. Late one evening on my rounds, I discovered him in a school hallway, where a 5th grade student was seated on the floor in a dark alcove, having temporarily escaped from the dormitory, petting him and saying things like, “Nobody understands me. Only you understand me, don’t you?” Bart just looked at him and licked his hand. Lesson Two.

When it was time to play and exercise, Bart knew it through my body language and the thousand little signals known only to those with limited vocal skills. Once out in the field, it was a time of great fun and running around, chasing here and there through the tall mustard grass, until exhausted he lay down content with even being tired, tongue lolling and bright eyes shining, happy to be alive. Lesson Three.

Several years later, when not so patient anymore with kids pulling his tail or sitting on his back, the new Brother in charge suggested that I find another home for him. After some searching around, I stopped by Guide Dogs for Independent Living, walked him into the vet center, and convinced the founder, who happened to be there, to take him as a breeder (great pedigree, well trained, impervious to loud noise, etc.). She sat on the floor, grabbed his nose with her hand, put her nose up to his, and silently stared into Bart’s eyes for a full sixty seconds. Then she said: “Okay.” I took the leash off and he obediently walked to the back, ready for his next adventure. Lesson Four.

A good number of years later still, when curiosity led to wonder led to inquiry, I found out the address of the rural family where he was boarded, now long retired. I drove out there, but the family wasn’t home. From around the side of the house came an old, partially blind German Shepherd who didn’t react much, until he did the smelling thing and heard my quiet voice say his name. Then his old tail began to wag and the head-shoving began. I sat on the ground and spent a good 20 minutes reliving old times, mostly in silence and some mumbling on both our parts. Finally I returned to the car, Bart walking to the familiar rear door as if to come along. One of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Imagine that. The last image is of an old dog in the rear-view mirror, standing in the middle of an empty country road, both of us going back to where life has brought us. Lesson Five.

Do I regret any of it? Not a bit. Would I change any of it? Very little. Are there parallels with the life of a teacher, or any life for that matter, and the nature of learning? You bet. 

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was right: “Knowledge makes a bloody entrance.”