Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lessons From My Dog: Part 1

May is always a busy time at our school.  For students, the end of the school year is so close they can taste the summertime freedom, yet they still have the hurdle of final exams to overcome.  For faculty, there are exams to be written and read, grades and progress comments to upload, last lessons to craft.  The awards ceremony, eighth grade rising up ceremony, senior graduation all must be planned and implemented—a weeks-long process that bears a significant resemblance to staging a Broadway play.  Between adolescent antsiness and teenage angst, Cleo and I are kept pretty busy.  If we’re not conducting stern conversational reminders of the three tenets of the school—honesty, respect and responsibility—we’re turning a listening ear, a damp nose and a fuzzy flank to reassure a student that the AP exams will not determine their future success or failure, that the heartbreak of the first lost romance will fade, that the school would never allow the evil substitute teacher to ruin their college chances, or that the faculty will surely allow them to make up the work they missed while they were away winning awards at the Intel National Science Fair.

When I first started as dean of students, I wanted to fix every problem a student or parent presented to me.  I have been accused of having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.  My sisters and I often comment on our shared need to “do” for others, to right perceived wrongs, to make the world safe for—if not Democracy, at least for those we care about.  It was an eye-opening moment when the facilitator of a stress reduction workshop I was attending turned to me and said, “You know, Joyce, I’m going to suggest a mantra for you: I am enough.”  She’d known me for all of three weeks.

I’m coming to the keen understanding that I can’t fix everything.  In fact, growth, healing, resolution, each has to be a process.  One summer I attended the Stanley H. King Counseling Institute, a week long training program for teachers who are in a position of counseling students, but who have no advanced training in the field.  What they teach is the art of listening and reflecting.  While I can’t possibly fix a student’s relationship with a demanding, hyper-critical parent, I can allow that student to know that she is heard and understood.  In fact, the very fact that I don’t immediately start spewing advice or mouthing clichés lets the student know that I hear her and even more important, that I have faith in her to effect her own solution.  It won’t be immediate, it won’t be painless, but it will be a process, and Cleo and I will be here every step of the way, if the student wants.

There is a kind of danger in deciding that your dog is going to be a therapy dog before you even meet her, in knowing that you wouldn’t even have gotten a dog if she couldn’t be trained as a therapy dog, because any other role for her would be unfair to every party that’s involved.  In the first several weeks of Cleo living with us, I experienced regular moments of despair, convinced I had ruined this perfect puppy.  If I was having trouble teaching her to heel, it was not due to her youth, but to my incompetence.  It meant I would never be able to teach her to heel, and a dog who can’t heel can’t pass therapy dog certification.  It was a catastrophe; she would be condemned to a life of loneliness, spending her days cooped up at home.  I knew what the books said, that you have to take charge when people first meet your dog.  The Sirius puppy training manual instructs us to have every visitor ask our dog to sit, down and roll over.  Visitors are not to enter the house unless the dog will obey these three commands from them.  Between school and home, Cleo met about three hundred people who had mastered none of these.  I was destroying her.

One day, a colleague, a true dog lover, swept up to Cleo, who was sitting on my lap, scooped her up and walked out of the room.  Until they were out the door, I had no idea what was going on.  Should I run after them, shouting, “What the hell are you doing with my dog?”  Or should I just relax and let them have a good time?  I opted for the latter.  When they returned about forty-five minutes later, Cleo was beside herself, four quarters of frantic energy.  It was as though her grandmother had taken her to the fair and fed her nothing but candy all day, let her skip her nap, then plopped her back in her parents’ lap when things started to get out of hand.  As I walked Cleo back to my office, a student ran up to me and said, “Your dog attacked somebody in the Quad just now.”  What!!  It seems that a student had been lying in the Quad during lunch, eyes closed, taking in the late fall sun when Cleo, unrestrained by my colleague, had exuberantly pounced on her, licking her face and nibbling on her nose. Okay, the word “attacked” might have been a bit strong for the actual situation.  A better phrase might have been, as my daughter would say, the student was “Tiggered.”  Oh, but I was convinced that Cleo had learned an indelible lesson; she was ruined.  And why?  Because I was too trusting and had simply allowed her to be snatched off my lap and into harm’s way.

Of course she wasn’t ruined.  And equally obviously, I’ve continued to make mistakes.  But she is a brilliant dog; she learns even when I’m clumsy.  Over the months, she has learned to heel.  And sit, down, come, stay and stand to greet.  Okay, we’re still working on that last one, but it’s a process.  More and more often, right after someone says, “That’s a beautiful dog,” the next comment out of their mouths is, “She is so well behaved!”  Believe me, I’m not taking credit for this.  What I am doing is trusting in the process.  Cleo is simply blossoming, unfolding, fully becoming her beautiful self.  This dog is a born therapy dog; she purely loves people.

This morning, I was sitting on the couch grading papers, Cleo napping beside me as the unseasonable May rain spittered against the windows.  Tump, tump, tump.  I looked down at Cleo.  Tump.  Tumpa-tumpy-whack-whack.  She was wagging her tail in her sleep.  Was she dreaming about the couple we met on our walk this morning?  Or about greeting her beloved daddy when he came home from his gig last night?  Who knows.  But that tail only gets going like that when there are people involved. 

There is beauty to the unfolding.  There is calm in being in the moment.  There is bounty in Slow.  It’s all a process.  And if you’re very lucky, one day you’ll be sitting on the couch next to your dog whose tail is wagging in her sleep.

Standing to Greet

1 comment:

  1. I remember the day I cuddled her up in my arms and told her she was a lucky little girl, to be chosen as a therapy dog for a school. How right I was that day.

    She is beautiful both on the outside and inside.
    Grandma Jan