Sunday, June 5, 2011

Baby Steps and New Beginnings

Last week saw both Commencement and Graduation: Commencement at my school, Graduation for Cleo and me from beginner’s class.  The last couple months of a school year are always particularly intense and usually culminate for me in an everything’s-done-and-I-finally-have-some-down-time illness of one kind or another.  If I could just remind myself that the end of the school year only opens the door for the press of preparation for the next one, I might remember that I don’t have time to be sick and save myself the boredom of being stuck in bed.  But I’m at least upright now and neither Cleo, quietly chewing on a toy nearby, nor my computer is likely to be disturbed by a little coughing.

Cleo at School
I had never been to a dog training graduation before last Monday.  Honestly, I’ve never done formal dog training before Cleo.  It’s the goal of her becoming a certified therapy dog that prompted me to seek the counsel of a professional.  I had no idea it would be so much fun.  It reminds me a lot of acting—lots of criticism and correction, brief moments of praise.  I spent the first twenty-five plus years of my working life as a professional actor, so I feel right at home in this environment.  Of course, Cleo is so bright and excited about learning that she adores the classes.  She struts around the training track like the blue blood that she is, kicking out her legs like the perfect show dog.  Given the fact that all of her siblings who show, which is most of them, have earned their championship points, strutting around the Del Monte Kennel Club classroom at the Monterey County Fairgrounds should come naturally to her.  I’m the one who has to work at it.

Three weeks ago, at the class the week before graduation, Cleo was amazing.  She is the youngest dog in the class, barely six months old when we started, and she is full of energy and curiosity.  Sometimes this causes an attention span deficit, but at that last class, she embodied the words “concentration” and “focus.”  About three-quarters of the way through the class, we were practicing the down stay.  One of the student teams, an Italian Greyhound and his man, had struggled with “down” for the entire two months of the course.  The IG simply has an aversion to putting his elbows on the floor.  Cleo has no such qualms.  Usually when we are practicing the five minute down stay, she sacks out on her side and takes a nap.  That dog can sleep anywhere.  It’s a gift.  She always lays herself out in the same way: flat on her side, back straight, tail gently curved, all four legs sticking out bolt straight in front of her, a canine model of a rectangle.  One time as we practiced, the fellow next to us, the dad of a Golden Retriever, looked over at Cleo and said, “Oh look.  Your dog got run over by a steam-roller.” 

Anyway, it being the final class before graduation, the teacher wanted to make a last ditch, all-out effort to help the IG get over his phobia and take a load off.  Really, it was a pitiful thing to see him stretched out in a crouch, front legs trembling as he tried to do what his dad wanted, while desperately fighting against elbow contamination.  For at least ten minutes we were in that down stay.  Not once, not once, did Cleo squirm or try to get up.  She didn’t even lie down on her side.  She simply attentively stayed.  Meanwhile, the team next to us, an Australian Shepherd and her woman, quickly became bored.  The woman started chatting with anyone within range.  The Aussie got up to wander around.  A tug on the leash brought the woman’s attention, at least temporarily, back to her dog.  It didn’t last and the Aussie was up again.  Cleo gazed for a time at the wandering dog, then looked back to me with a smug expression.  You’d never catch her wandering around like that.  She all but rolled her eyes.  By this point, the Aussie’s mom was completely turned around with her back to her dog.  The Aussie had decided this was a good time to visit Cleo.  She loomed over the puppy.  Cleo looked up at her calmly.  When the Aussie leaned down to touch noses, Cleo pushed her away as if to say, “You are gonna be in so much trouble!”  Just at that moment, the trainer looked up from the IG and snapped, “Get that dog away from that Bedlington!”  I’m only mildly embarrassed to report that Cleo and I both snickered a little bit.  It’s hard to be gracious when your dog is perfect. 

Based on that last class, I was feeling pretty confident going into the graduation ceremonies.  We arrived at class five minutes early.  Everyone else had arrived twenty minutes early.  The testing was already underway.  Everything was different.  Humans and dogs were clustered in chairs on the opposite side of the room from our usual training area.  A small ring had been set up and one team of our classmates was going through the paces: Heal, right turn, about turn, slow, fast, normal pace.  A bolt of nerves shot through me.  I asked a classmate what Cleo and I had missed and she directed me to a registration table.  We signed in and got our number.  We would be going last.  There were fifteen teams ahead of us and Cleo was bouncing out of her skin with the excitement and newness of it all.  I’m sure my discomfort did nothing to help her calm down.  She wanted to greet every dog, jump on every human.  There were kids in the room who had never been present before.  Kids!  Cleo’s favorites!  I debated—should I take her outside to blow off some steam?  But I didn’t know how many teams had already gone.  What if we were called and Cleo missed her chance to graduate?  Every time I thought about going out, it seemed as if it was almost our turn.  At least, I thought, I can walk her around our usual ring so we can practice and calm down a bit.  That used up about twenty minutes.

Cleo sometimes refuses to pee at school.  I realize this seems like something of a digression, but bear with me here.  The peeing thing is not, I promise, because I have made the mistake of taking her out to pee and then dragging her immediately back inside.  We always play after she pees, sometimes for half an hour.  But there will be days she shows no interest in going from the time we leave the house until we get back home.  Then she’ll rush outside and squat like she’s desperate.  Okay, so graduation day was one of those days.  There had been no peeing since 8 AM.  It was now 6:45 PM.  So when Cleo started urgently pacing back and forth on the mat, sniffing the ground, I had a pretty good idea of what was on her mind.  Did I immediately run her outside?  No, I dithered.  And as I stood there dithering, she squatted and peed on the mat.  If you are saying, “Good God, woman, what is the matter with you?” I completely agree with you.  I can only reply, “I have no idea.”  I just don’t know what comes over me in situations like this, when I feel stupid and out of my element.  It’s as if my autonomy and good sense simply desert me.  At school, I make tough decisions left and right.  I have no trouble being assertive.  But put me in a world where I am ignorant of the customs, expectations, mores, and I’m a dithering basket case.  But I’m also a huge believer in Beginner’s Mind.  The humbling moments are good for us.  Like the moment the trainer stopped in mid conversation to shout across the room, “Mom!  I knew she was going to do that!  How come you didn’t?”  Um, I did?  I was just being too stupid to do anything about it?

Our turn finally came.  We were complemented on our healing.  Stand for inspection went about as could be expected—one jump up and several attempts to taste the hand of the judge.  Our finish was lovely, a tidy turn around and perfectly square sit.  We joined five other teams for the group exercises: sit stay and down stay.  We’ve got this one nailed, I thought to myself.  By the third time I had to make Cleo lie down again and the second time I had to stop her from visiting the German Shepherd next to us, I was a tad less confident.  To add insult to injury, the German Shepherd had the same smug look on his face that Cleo had worn just the week before.  I didn’t dare look at the Shepherd’s dad.  We scored 140 out of 160 points.  We didn’t even place in the top four.  What would Cleo’s siblings think about that performance? 

One of my colleagues, Pam, is a very experienced dog trainer.  She attends the advanced class with the same teacher, and the next day she asked how we had done.  I told her the whole gory story.  She laughed and said, “Let me tell you about my weekend.”  On Saturday, she and her Corgi Lizzie (whose name has been changed to protect the four-legged) had gone somewhere near Fresno to compete in a dog trial.  Her Corgi, she reminded me, actually holds a title in these trials.  They entered the ring with style and Lizzie sat attentively at her mom’s heels.  They got the go ahead, and Pam said brightly, “Lizzie, heel!”  Pam stepped out smartly only to realize, three steps later, that she was on her own.  She looked back.  Lizzie gazed up at her.  “You’re allowed one extra command,” Pam told me, “so I said firmly, ‘Lizzie, heel!’”  Pam ended up walking the entire course by herself, her Corgi obstinately watching her the entire way.  “I think it was just too hot for her,” Pam said, shrugging.  I felt a lot better.

And so, Graduation week culminated in Commencement.  As I’ve said, the last couple months of the school year are intense in my position.  This year, for many reasons, was particularly challenging.  One of those reasons was the down-to-the-wire nail biter question of whether one of our seniors would be able to graduate or not.  Emily is the last person a casual observer would peg for depression.  She is beautiful, talented, unfailingly cheerful and wittier than a person her age has any right to be. She took up residence in my heart the first month of her freshman year and has had squatters’ rights there ever since.  Last November, everything started to fall apart.  For no reason that she can pinpoint, she spiraled into depression and couldn’t find her way out.  She tried to keep her misery hidden, but finally the mask slipped, fell and shattered.  She could barely get out of bed let alone focus on homework or completing projects for her classes. 

The compassion of my colleagues can’t be overstated.  They supported Emily, extended deadlines, waited, extended the deadlines again.  Emily’s family rallied around her.  She plunged herself into counseling, accepted the idea of medication with a willingness I don’t often see.  She forthrightly said, “If it has even a chance of helping me feel better, I’ll try it.”  Over and over I told her that the school would give her time, that she could walk through Commencement with her class, but finish her requirements over the summer, receiving her diploma once she had gotten everything in, no harm, no foul.  And each time she told me, “No, I want to graduate on time.  I’m kinda done with high school.” 

When you are deeply depressed, it’s far easier to think about working than to actually get the work done.  It’s hard to concentrate, heck, it’s hard to get out of bed some days.  And motivation?  Never heard of it.  Emily’s teachers finally gave her until 1 PM the day before Commencement; they had to have time to read and evaluate the work she handed in.  She submitted the last piece of the last project with three minutes to spare. 

Our Commencement is held outside in the Quad formed by classrooms, the library and the theatre.  It overlooks wooded hills and a canyon through which peregrine falcons and vultures glide daily.  Late in the afternoon before Commencement, I was putting name labels on the audience seats so families would know which seats were theirs.  The Academic Dean sauntered from his office to find me.  “Emily’s cleared.  She can graduate,” he told me.  “Then I’ll go ahead and release her diploma,” I said, turning to tape a nametag to the seatback in front of me so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.  At that moment, a gust of wind whipped through Quad and one nametag, way on the opposite side of the Quad, ripped from its seatback and fluttered to the ground.  I ran over to pick it up before it could blow away.  Even before I turned it over, I knew what it would say.  It bore Emily’s last name.  I held it up for my colleague to see.  “Our little butterfly,” he said, “has flown away.”

And so she has.  She was radiant on Commencement day in the cap and gown she’d been too busy to pick up and iron because she’d been writing papers.  She hasn’t found her way completely out of the hole of depression, but she is getting better.  And whatever happens next, there is time for exploration and learning about life.  There is time for college later, when she’s ready.  She didn’t graduate at the top of her class, but that doesn’t make her any less special and it certainly doesn’t shake her place in my heart.

As for Cleo and me, we graduated, too.  And on Monday, we start the Intermediate Class.


  1. Congradulations Cleo, We are proud of you. You are beautiful.

    Another great heartwarming story, Thanks Jan

  2. Jan, you are such a faithful reader. Thank you! Cleo loves her grandma!!