Sunday, August 14, 2011

May You See the Lights Surrounding You

It’s been a busy week for Cleo and me.  On Wednesday, school started and Cleo took up the mantel of School Dog once more.  Most of the time she was in her element.

Returning students who stopped by to see her commented enthusiastically on how big she’s gotten, how much lighter her hair is and how come she’s got those weird black spots?  I was delighted when one of Cleo’s good friends from last year came by after school on Friday to hang out with her.  It didn’t take long for them to reengage in a rousing game of Keepaway. 
Ready for Keepaway.

New students walking by my office have stopped dead in their tracks when they realized that she is, indeed, a real dog.  “I thought she was a stuffed animal,” one boy exclaimed.  Many times I was asked, “Does she really come to school every day?”  Yep.  

And of course, the common refrains:

“She looks like a little lamb!” 

“Oh, she’s so soft.  Pat her!  You won’t believe how soft she is.”

“Can we play with your dog?”

And sadly, “Is she supposed to have those black spots?”

It’s a tribute to our population of students that they were all fascinated to learn that her hair has grown back in the same color as her baby coat and will gradually lighten until it once again blends in with her current hair color.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some science fair projects are developed which revolve, somehow, around Cleo.

One afternoon I needed to speak privately with a student.  At the same time, three freshman girls appeared at my door wanting to play with Cleo.  “How about if you play with her in the library?” I asked them.  You would have thought I’d told them they’d all won a date with Taylor Lautner.  As I spoke with the older student, I kept an ear cocked to the sounds outside my door.  Giggles and excited tones reassured me that all was well.  When I opened my door fifteen or so minutes later, a pretty adorable sight met me.  One of the young women was stretched out on the floor just outside my door.  Cleo was perched on the girl’s stomach, tongue lolling, a look of victory in her eye.  The other two girls, kneeling at the prone girl’s head, were waving a toy at Cleo.  I have no idea what game they were playing, but it was clear that a better time would have been hard to come by for all four of them.

Not to say that every moment was an unmitigated triumph.  Earlier in the week, a student became emotional as we talked about a tough time she’d had over the summer.  Though she’s only eleven months old, Cleo has come so far in her training since May that I hoped she might be ready to settle down next to the unhappy teenager and provide a little snuggle-comfort.  Well, not quite yet.  Instead, she grew fixated on a toy that had previously become wedged under the couch.  Rear end in the air, tail waving, she tried doggedly (sorry!) to squeeze her muzzle into the narrow gap between the floor and the bottom of the couch.  She clearly decided that the student’s legs were in her way because she kept planting her back feet on them, trying to shove them aside.  Maybe she thought what the student needed was a good laugh.  As multiple sodden tissues made their way into the trashcan, the error in Cleo’s reasoning became apparent. 

A friend told me this joke the week Cleo came to live with us: What’s the difference between a terrier and a terrorist?  You can negotiate with a terrorist.

To give the student a little respite from the scrabbling four-legged, I scooped Cleo up, popped her into her office crate and closed the door.  She looked at me resentfully, then curled up with a long-suffering sigh and went to sleep.  It turned out she would get the last word.  When the student had cried herself out and had moved into the cheering up phase, I thought it would be a perfect time for Cleo to join us.  I opened the door to her crate and said, “Want to come out, baby girl?”  Without lifting her head, she opened one eye and looked at me.  Then she shut it again, curled up a little tighter and went back to sleep.  To be fair, I was pretty sleepy at times last week, too.  It isn’t easy for any of us, getting back into the swing of the 6 AM alarm.

My colleagues also stopped by to give her their various greetings. 

“Hey, baby.”

“Hi, Chloe!”  (It took this colleague a couple years to get my name right, too.)

“C’mere, poofball!”

“Ooo!  I’ve missed you.”

Several years ago, the faculty came up with an effective practice.  The early morning library proctors for the first six weeks are always the ones who are strict enough to instill good behavior each school year.  On Thursday, Cleo and I had just gotten into the office when someone at the computers outside our door made a noise—knock, knock, knock, knock.  In a flash, Cleo was at the baby gate sounding the alarm.  Loud barking echoed through the library.  “Hush!” I said, and she stopped.  Without missing a beat, the proctor said, in a strong, clear voice, “What Cleo is telling us is that the library is much too noisy.  Let’s keep the noise level down, please.”  There is more than one way to make yourself useful at a school!

Last night I went with my husband to his fortieth high school reunion.  I have never been to a reunion of my own high school class.  Sure, it's not uncommon for people to actively avoid reunions, and I don’t know if John would have gone if his band hadn’t been asked to play for it.  That would have been a real loss for him.  There were a couple hundred people in attendance, all having a wonderful time.  They were unrestrainedly delighted to see each other.  There was a resurrection of the old folk festival group that culminated in everyone singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.”  Food, drink and conversation flowed naturally into a touching remembrance of classmates who have died.  This flowed naturally into the celebration of life that is the act of dancing to a kick-ass rock band.  John’s grin and energy and sheer pleasure at playing for his classmates had me smiling so much that my cheeks hurt by the end of the night.

Part of the evening was a celebration of a retired teacher, a fellow with a complicated history who happens to be an old friend of mine as well.  Often both witty and wise, this man, now in his seventies, spoke to his former students clustered around him.  “People say that high school is supposed to be the best time of our lives.  High school is one of the hardest times of our lives.  Hormones are pogo sticking our emotions so that we feel on top of the world one day and in the deepest misery the next.  We need support to make it through.”  He talked about the support of fellow students—in class, in choir, on teams.  He mentioned the support of teachers and parents.  He pointed especially to the support offered by the handful of students who formed a folk group and performed for the school, the ones who reunited last night to sing together for the first time in many years. 

I was especially touched by what he said.  It is so profoundly true.  Of course, we all need support.  We need the courtesy and kindness of loved ones, acquaintances and strangers alike.  But it is especially true that adolescents need support.  Life is even more complicated for them than it is for those of us celebrating decades of life after high school.  So many daily issues are brand new to them: first dates, first breakups, college applications, strained friendships.  To make it harder, they are told by advertising, media, their peers that they should be grown up and in control of their existences. 

My old friend was right.  Support comes in many shapes.  A teacher or a parent.  A folk music group.  A classmate you haven’t seen for forty years telling you you’re awesome.  A stranger who says, “I know you!  I read your blog!”  A friend who checks in to see how you’re doing after a particularly tough day.  Or a dog who sits on your stomach and makes you laugh.

Support is having a friend to nap with.


  1. I love that story, and the picture at the end is so touching, I remember when you ask me if she would get along with cats? I thought they get along with anything or anyone they just want love, unconditional. jan

  2. You were so right, Jan. Cleo gets along with everyone! Today on our morning walk she tried to make friends with a neighborhood cat. He was less than social, but Cleo was a doll! And she had such a good time at school today, being admired and loved by scads of students.