Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Touchstone

So much is revealed about people by their reaction to a puppy. 

There is a teacher at school with whom I work very closely.  He oversees one of the younger grades, and so we spend a lot of time comparing notes or updating each other on students’ academic, social and emotional well-being.  He’s in my office at least once every day.  I think of him as being compassionate, level headed and highly opinionated.  Before he left England, he taught developmentally disabled students and he still exhibits the patience and understanding that made him so good at that challenging work.  He grew up in the northern part of England, but moved around so much throughout his childhood and young adulthood that his accent is a patchwork quilt of diphthongs.  The word “herb” begins with a haitch, but the game Charades rhymes with Scheherazade. 

So shortly after Cleo’s arrival, this fellow came to my office to check in with me.  He gazed at the ball of fluff that was enthusiastically wagging her tail at him, and his lip curled with disgust.  “Hello, dog,” he muttered, then turned his back on her.  For days he ignored her.  Finally, one afternoon he paused on the way out my door and cast a chary look at Cleo.  “What is this thing?” he asked, gesturing towards the puppy with mild distaste.

“This is Cleo.  Remember?  The therapy dog in training?” I prompted.

“Huh.”  Cleo was looking particularly adorable at the moment, in full stuffed animal mode, but my colleague was singularly unimpressed.  He continued regarding her as if trying to puzzle out how anyone could possibly be interested in such a creature.  It’s not that he dislikes animals.  He and his wife have cats and chickens, and they are extremely fond of their own pets. 

And then I had an inspiration.  This colleague is a history teacher and the students love him for the way he brings history to life.  He is also an ardent spokesman for the underdog, for the disadvantaged or impoverished.

“She’s a Bedlington Terrier,” I said, assessing the climate.

“Mm,” he grunted, noncommittally.  Well, at least he was still looking at her; that was progress.

“Bedlingtons are from the home country—from the north of England.”

He laughed.  “Oh?”  Eureka!  He had turned back into the room.

The evolution of the
Bedlington Terrier.
This painting is from 1870.
I talked fast to keep his attention:  “People think that they were originally bred by gypsies and peasants sometime in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century to poach small game from the estates of noblemen.”  I had his attention now!  He was looking delighted.  “They’re really fast, like whippets, so they would race onto the nobleman’s land, grab a rabbit or a pheasant, and tear back to their owners before anybody even noticed.” 

And now he was downright grinning.  “It’s one of my people!” he exclaimed, laughing.  “What’s its name?” 

The Bedlington Terrier
Gustav Muss-Arnolt (American, 1858 -1927)
Hutchinsons Book Of The Dog -
Original Bookplate from 1935 Edition - Vere Temple - Bedlington Terrier
These three pictures are from
The Bedlington Terrier Club of America

Every time he comes into my office or passes us on our way into or out of the library, he makes a point of greeting us both.  Don’t misunderstand me.  He’ll never be a dog person, but sometimes, open-minded tolerance is the best we can hope for.

On the other end of the dog acceptance continuum is Donald, a senior with a questionable reputation.  It’s not that Donald has ever done anything illegal or even unsavory.  He is just unusual in our school for his snobbish attitude and frequent putdowns of those around him.  Over his five years with us, I have heard more complaints about his attitude from both teachers and students than any other student currently at the school.  He bitterly complained, then finally quit when the orchestra director made another student first chair for their section.  That student, by the way, has since played at Carnegie Hall among other prestigious venues.  Donald walks around campus with a look on his face as though everything and everyone around him smells of unwashed feet.  It used to be that when I greeted him, he merely looked at me with a mildly hostile stare.

So honestly, you coulda knocked me over with a feather when he glanced into my office as he walked by the door one day, stopped dead in his tracks and gasped, “Look at the puppy.  She’s so cute!  Mrs. Sherry, may I come in and say hi?”  I could barely get out the words to tell him yes.  That first visit, he stayed for half an hour or so, playing with Cleo, patting her, cooing over her (yes, cooing).  The next day, he knocked on my door.  This time, he had a classmate in tow.  “I found her in a corner of the library crying.  Is it okay if we come in and talk to Cleo?  I think it will make her feel better.”

Over the last several months, Donald has visited Cleo, and by extension me, pretty regularly.  Not every day, but at least twice a week.  He snuggles with Cleo, taking on the role of her older brother, wrestling with her, helping to teach her not to chew on people, sometimes just looking at her.  And while he’s there, he talks to me.  He tells me about his college acceptance struggles, his anxieties about the future, his successes in class, the things he finds interesting in the world, all the many details that he worries about every day.

One afternoon as we were talking, Cleo fast asleep, splayed out across Donald’s lap, the academic dean came into my office for a conference.  “Hey, Donald,” said the AD in a hearty, man-to-man tone.  “Nice dog, huh?” 

Donald’s eyes did not leave Cleo’s sleeping face as he cradled her in his lap, gently stroking her tummy, but without missing a beat he whispered, “I love this dog.”

Sometimes, what a puppy’s unconditional acceptance reveals is a carefully guarded sensitivity.


  1. Wonderful story, a dog gives love unconditional and can relate to anyone. I am printing and going to bind and enjoy for many years and share with friends. jan

  2. Thanks, Jan! It's so true--dogs have so much to teach us. Please do share the story with anyone you think would enjoy it. Love to Gracee and the whole gang. Cleo sends hugs to her grandma!

  3. :) Very sweet story. I have known and taught many "Donalds" over the years and I wonder how they would have evolved if they had had a Cleo in their life. (and a Mrs. Sherry.) xoxo