Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fairy Tails

It has been anything but a quiet week around these-here parts.  On Wednesday, one of the students in my care had a complete meltdown, suffering a full-blown, adult-sized panic attack.  She sat in my office sobbing, nearly howling as she talked about her feelings and her fears.  It turns out that she had already been through two panic attacks, one Saturday evening, one Tuesday.  On Friday, she was back in my office with another one. 

When the girl first came into my office, Cleo responded with her usual peppiness.  She hopped down from her perch on the back of my couch—an ideal spot because it affords her a panoramic view of the lawn where students hang out and chat, as well as of the canyon where hawks flit around looking for an afternoon meal.  As is her practice, she pounced on the first toy that met her eye and carried it over to our visitor to show it off.  No wonder that the girl, face buried in her hands, didn’t even notice Cleo.  So Cleo nudged her in the shin with the toy, then stepped back, peering up at the girl.  No reaction.  Nudge, a little harder this time.  No reaction.  It was at this moment that the poor girl began to wail in earnest.  Cleo hastily backed away, dropping her toy and nearly tripping over her back feet.  Her ears forward, her tail fully extended, a small furrow in her brow, she regarded the girl from a safe distance. 

Then, she walked quietly up to the sobbing child and slipped behind her legs.  She lay down and pressed the length of her body against the girl’s calves.  I wasn’t sure the student had even noticed, and she may not have, consciously, but in a moment, one hand dropped away from her face and reached down to rest on Cleo’s head.

As the child calmed down, she was able to talk and tell me what had been going on during the week.  Panic attacks are painful and confusing for so many reasons, not the least of which is that there may be no single incident that triggers them.  Nothing specific had happened to the student, she just kept falling to pieces.  And when you don’t know why something is happening, what is causing it, the fear of the next episode can be almost as overwhelming as the episode itself.

Eventually, the student talked herself into a more peaceful state, and I thought some glorious October sunshine and fresh air might help her even more.  We took Cleo up to the athletic field and watched her chase her ball, hunt for gophers and just generally bound around, ears flopping in the clean joy of being alive.  We sat on the grass and talked for a couple of hours with Cleo, obviously in seventh heaven, stretched out between us.

I wish I could say that the student is completely recovered,  but that’s not the way of anxiety issues.  She was back in my office again on Friday.  As she sat on the couch weeping, Cleo snuggled up beside her and quietly licked her hand, a soothing, if somewhat damp, gesture.  The student’s advisor joined us this time, and after the child had gone home, the advisor turned to me and said, “Cleo was just awesome!  Is she learning to do this in her classes?”  For a moment, I couldn’t figure out what she was referring to, then I realized: “Oh, no.  Those are obedience classes—sit, down, come, stay.”  No, caring and compassion just come naturally to this therapist in dog’s clothing.

After a week of working very hard, Cleo deserved some special romps this weekend.  Both Saturday and Sunday, my husband and I took her to walk on one of her very favorite trails.  It’s wooded and grassy and must smell like a dog’s candy store.  She can really put on some steam on this trail, running ahead of us, then loping to catch up when she stops for a prolonged sniff.  Our favorite spot is an open lawn that abuts the trail.  It always requires a thorough inspection, nose hoovering the blades of grass for every iota of scent.  Suddenly, on a signal known only to her, Cleo jackrabbits into a run and flings herself at top speed around the lawn.  She is a blur, ears streaming behind her, mouth open in laughter, her hind feet reaching forward far beyond her front feet as she propels herself, banking into the turns, back to the trail and to us.  It is as if she has to express her joyful exuberance or burst.  Watching her in this ritual is one of the happiest moments of my day.

And so, tomorrow for Halloween, Cleo is going to be a woodland fairy.  It seemed fitting.  She is the beautiful bringer of love, the grantor of wishes, at home in the world of green.

Cleo's first Halloween (6 weeks old)
Cleo, Halloween 2011

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Love is a Burning Thing

It has been something of a trying week.  Among other upheavals on the home front, my trusty MacBook Pro crashed on Sunday in mid blog.  It had mini-crashed the week before, but an emergency visit to the Genius Bar at our local Apple Store resurrected it.  A simple power down, battery removal and button push to reset the startup chip got everything working again.  At the time, I was embarrassed that a thirty second fix (literally) was all that it took to right the glitch that had sent me scurrying for help.  When, a week to the day later, the same fix failed to right what seemed to be the exact same wrong, I was a bit frustrated.  So I tried the technique five more times.  Hey, maybe I was doing something wrong in this three step procedure.  Nada.  Nothing but a blank screen and the quiet moan of the CD drive searching in vain for its hard drive companion.  This time, the Genius Bar couldn’t help me; the MacBook had to be sent away for diagnosis and repair.  “It’ll be back to you in five to seven days,” the Genius told me.

Luckily, they managed to turn it around in three days, which is pretty darned impressive.  But that meant four work days (Monday through Thursday) of reading student essays and addressing the hundred plus emails that come in every day (I’m not exaggerating) on the relatively small screen of my iPad.  I’m not saying that I have to answer a hundred emails every day.  Some just go straight into the trash.  I only have to write back to half of them—parents, students, colleagues, individuals outside the school asking questions.  I’ve gotten much better at typing on the iPad keyboard. 

Let me just take a moment to add, Thanks, Sweetheart, for getting me that iPad for my birthday; I would have been sunk without it.

Coincidentally, the faculty got together Wednesday afternoon to discuss ongoing technology-related questions.  This week’s agenda: What treasured aspects of our school can never go digital? The digital realm permeates the school because it permeates the lives of our students.  It permeates the world.  But our school thrives on interpersonal connection and we value the analog world as much as the digital one.  As we brainstormed which analog activities we would go to battle to preserve, I was so happy to see that one of my colleagues had written down “Cleo time.”  In less than a year, the fuzzball has become an essential part of our school.

I have been allowing Cleo a slightly higher profile as she matures.  I have begun taking her to the all-school meetings which we hold three times a week or so.  These are twenty-minute, student led forums for the communication of information.  They can be goofy, celebratory, somber, serious, hilarious.  There is always applause, sometimes polite, sometimes riotous.  As the school community is filing in, Cleo mostly just wants everyone to notice her.  Once the meeting is underway, she would prefer to be outside chasing rabbits and quail.  She is getting used to the clapping and generally does nothing more than prick up her ears and look around.  Today’s big activity was a different story, however.

Cleo and I were in our office together when the fire alarm first went off.  I had zipped back there from a meeting in order to reassure her and to shepherd her through the first drill of the year for which she was present.  This was also the first time I was allowing her to participate in the drill.  The moment the buzzing began, Cleo started barking.  When she saw students walking purposefully past our door, she barked more insistently.  Leashed and out in the Quad where students were streaming from buildings, heading up to the near athletic field, she continued barking and added bouncing and spinning around in circles to the act.  Nothing I said or did was helping.  I picked her up and she temporarily settled down, though she perched alertly in my arms.

We made it up to the field and I set her down onto the grass.  She was much calmer, no longer barking or spinning, just fascinated by all the activity.  Just as I was getting ready to help the safety director, a reddish-brown and white blur shot across the edge of the field.  It was Sidney, the Australian Shepherd who sometimes comes to school with our academic dean.  She flew by me and plowed right into Cleo, bowling her over.  Cleo, on her leash, couldn’t get away from the juggernaut.  She sprang up and turned to face off with the much larger dog.  When both of these girls are off leash, they have a ball together, but Cleo never enjoys interacting with dogs when she is leashed.  I think she feels it’s bad manners.  After all, when we’re in training class, the dogs may look at each other, but may not touch or play when they are on leash.

As Sidney pawed and stomped on her, Cleo darted between my legs.  The Aussie tried to follow.  I was wearing an ankle length skirt, so she didn’t get very far and had to retreat.  She lunged around one side of me just as Cleo dashed in the opposite direction, wrapping the leash around my leg.  I made a grab for Sidney’s collar and missed.  She did a victory lap around the bleachers.  Cleo tried to sprint after her, leaving me straddling the leash with one arm between my legs and no dignity to speak of.  By now, the students were lined up by grades facing the faculty.  They had nothing to do but be counted and watch the fracas.  They were laughing loudly and cheering the dogs on: “Go, Cleo!”  The academic dean finally ran up to me, “I’m so sorry!  I was trying to clip Sidney to the bleachers and I unclipped her harness by mistake!”  Okay, I’m not entirely sure how that happens, but whatever.

He corralled Sidney and hauled her ignominiously from the fray.  I untangled myself from Cleo and her leash and went to stand in line to be counted.  Cleo plopped down happily at my feet, tongue lolling, and gazed at the students.  On the serious side, if the Fire Marshal had been there, the whole event wouldn’t have been amusing at all.  As it was, I was testy.  Cleo is the school’s therapy-dog-in-training; she has the right to be there.  But I’ve also never been patient with bullying in any form, maybe especially with my gentle little lamb. 

We got the all clear, and students filed off the field.  Cleo, Sidney, my colleague and I hung back.  When most of them were gone, we unleashed the puppies who instantly started chasing each other around the field in the highest of spirits, happy and playful.  Sidney is not the runner Cleo is; Cleo had to slow down to let her catch up.  We threw balls for them.  They competed to see who could pee in the most spots (Sidney won this event, hands down).  I calmed down and got over being testy.  Mistakes happen, and the simple truth is that he loves his dog as much as I love Cleo.  Though it was only a drill, it’s impossible to imagine leaving either of our girls in harm’s way.

We stood watching them romp on the grass for quite a while.  Then my colleague turned to me and said, “They’re just a joy bomb, aren’t they?” 

They are the best of the analog world.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler!

This week I did one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done.  I left Cleo at home with a babysitter while John and I went to New Orleans for five days.

The bamboo leaf bindi is the latest in canine fashion
Training books, our vet, friends and friends of friends have told us over and over, “You need to let your dog get used to being alone so that she can feel confident and happy even when you’re away.”  Forgive me, but that is a joke.  Cleo had no problem being alone and seemed to thrive with the babysitter.  It was John and I who didn’t do so well.   Alright, truth be told, John was fine once we left the house.  I, on the other hand, worried for the first twenty-four hours until I could text the sitter for reassurance that everything was fine.  Of course, Cleo was doing great.  I missed her every day of the trip.

It’s hard to imagine a more serendipitous run up to our vacation.  Shortly after we booked our flight, I saw our neighbor watering her front yard.  Knowing that Terri has a wide range of contacts, I ran across the street to ask her if she was acquainted with any good dog sitters in town.  Terri has been known to say, in her usual forceful manner, “A house is not a home without a dog.”  Benton, her portly old gentleman of a four-legged companion, is deaf as a post and his heart is probably the size and tensile strength of a tissue paper basketball, but their deep love for each other is palpable.  He wobbles around after her as she does her yard work and keeps a watchful, if rheumy, eye on the goings-on in the street.  I think Terri was even more excited than we when Cleo came to live with us.  “I knew you couldn’t live without a dog,” she exclaimed triumphantly the day we introduced her to our little girl.

Not only did Terri know someone, but she herself had hired that someone to stay with Benton during the three weeks that Terri would be in Italy with friends, the middle week of which was the time we would be in New Orleans.  Would Cleo like to come stay with Benton and Jane during the days we were out of town?  An email to Jane confirmed that she was willing to take on both charges, and so the day she arrived we made our introductions.  Immediately, my stress level went from Red Alert to a cautious Yellow.  She was capable, confident, and no nonsense, and, most important of all, thought Cleo was adorable.  “We are going to have the best time,” she assured us all.  “We will be fine.”  I believed it.  Cleo certainly did.  She flung herself at Jane’s knees as if she were greeting a long lost relative.  The plan was made: Twelve hours of the day Cleo would hang with Jane and Benton; the other twelve hours she would be in the care of my step-son.

And so, Cleo being a big girl of one year, two weeks old, we launched.  Neither John nor I had ever been to New Orleans before, but we have two wonderful friends who lived there for nearly a year and who just loved it.  They provided us with lists and maps detailing must-see places, dependably delicious restaurants, and, most important of all,  the absolute best music venues.  For the most part, we followed their recommendations, though we did stray a little bit.  One afternoon we took the ferry across the Mississippi to Algiers and strolled through the town to a coffee shop.  A light breeze stirred the magnolia trees that lined the quiet streets, making the nearly eighty degree day feel fresh and gentle.  Mockingbirds sang out at the tops of their lungs, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the line from the novel I’m teaching this year for the fourteenth time: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  Everywhere we went in Algiers, we saw dogs.  Dogs lolling around on porches, dogs walking in the square, dogs sitting quietly by as their people sipped coffee and ate plum pie.  Maybe when you’re missing your own four-legged, the presence of others is more noticeable.

New Orleans itself is clearly a remarkably dog friendly city.  The evening we arrived, Sunday, we made our way uptown to a bar-slash-music-joint that our friends had taken care to warn us was “pretty divey.”  There was no music when we got there sometime around 7 PM—we learned shortly that even on Sunday nights, the music doesn’t get going till 10:30 at the earliest—but there were several patrons bellied up to the bar.  What I first noticed were the three dogs sacked out on the floor by the line of bar stools, each with a leash leading up to the drink-free hand of its owner.  I’m happy to say that by the time the music got going, the dogs had gone home. This bar was in no way unique.  It was common to see dogs in the bars, in stores, walking in and out of hotels, and of course on the streets and in the parks.  There is something to be said for a town that has risen to this level of dog friendliness.  It also helps to explain the tragic numbers of dogs who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina, either during the storm or from the effects of disease in its aftermath; it seems like every family washed out by the flood had at least one dog.

Though I kept looking, I didn’t see a single Bedlington on our trip.  Every time we went through a residential district, I had my eyes peeled.  I was hoping to bring back some stories for Cleo.  And truth be told, I was hoping to meet another Bedlington and its person to have the chance to say, “Oh, yes!  We have a Bedlington at home,” and to compare notes.  We did meet another four-legged, but of the distinctly cooler and less fuzzy variety.

Cleo's mom with a baby alligator
 When we arrived home Thursday evening, I spied Cleo before she saw me.  She was gazing out the car window at the airport parking lot, a look of long-suffering boredom on her face; she and my step-son had been waiting while we deplaned and got our bags.  Even when we popped the hatch on the back of the car to stow our luggage, she barely turned to look at us.  Then, all at once, she heard our voices.  She leapt up and scrabbled with her hind feet against the rear seat cushions, trying to launch herself over the seat back.  A hairy projectile hit me as I climbed into the car.  Flying feet and flailing tongue fought each other to make contact first.  Standing in my lap, Cleo grasped my shoulders with her front feet and enthusiastically licked the travel wear off of my face.  As John slid behind the wheel, Cleo turned to welcome him in much the same way.  “Thanks, puppy,” he said after a moment, holding her away from him, “my nose hasn’t been that clean all week.”

A six-footer in the wild

Saturday, October 1, 2011

School Days, School Days...

There are times when school can take over your entire life.

The first quarter of our school year ended this past Wednesday.  It’s always true that teachers assign some flavor of assessment at the quarter’s end.  For me it was an essay on Neil Gaiman’s wonderful novel The Graveyard Book.  The papers were due the week before last, which means that as my students were taking a well-deserved hiatus from English homework last weekend, I was immersed in reading and responding to all of their essays, trying to sort out inspired analysis obscured by impenetrable sentences or faulty analysis ennobled by stylish writing.

The first five or six essays went quickly because, as I always do, I began with the ones that students had asked me to review in earlier drafts.  After that it was slower going.  Maybe some day I will learn to reward myself by putting the more polished essays last or possibly by interlarding them into the stack.  Until then, I continue to front load with the cheering success stories.  Reading the rest of the essays was a little like hacking my way through a forest of Manzanita: lots of ticks, but also some tasty berries.

So Sunday, the day I usually write about Cleo, was devoted to reading and commenting on eighth grade essays.  The next three days, the last school days of the quarter, were busy ones for Cleo and me. 

As I’ve mentioned before, the school days leading up to an extended vacation often prompt increased student anxiety.  Obviously the loaded work schedule has something to do with this, but I believe that another cause is that students suddenly realize they won’t have access to me, to Cleo, to other advisors on whom they rely.  For several of them, the thought of extended time with their families is also a source of anxiety.  This isn’t to say that family time is inherently stressful or that they have some kind of a hideous home life.  It’s simply natural for an adolescent in the throes of individuating from his or her family to feel somewhat anxious about the expectations and the close proximity that go hand in hand with vacations.  In the three days we worked, Cleo and I comforted a broken heart, helped a young girl sort through the minefield of Facebook messages, arranged tutoring for a freshman trying to stay afloat in fast paced classes conducted in his second language, and counseled parents on how to help their children who are struggling in school.  This was in addition to holding writing conferences, planning and conducting classes, attending meetings, answering emails, and all the other day-to-day tasks of school life.

Checking the perimeter
In the last couple of weeks, Cleo has really settled into the routine of school.  She bounds up the steps and into our office the moment we arrive.  Once inside, she inspects the perimeter, double checks that all her toys are where she left them, then settles down for a nap until someone comes in.  She jumps up to greet every arrival, liberally sniffing knees and shoes.  If a student wants to play, she will play.  And play and play and play.  If the visitor wants to talk quietly, she happily lies on the floor gnawing on her Nylabone or working on eviscerating one of her other toys.  Before lunch, we head up to the field for a potty break and a romp.  She has recently discovered that crows can be chased off the field and that ground squirrels skulk on the hillsides.  It’s hard to imagine how life could be better.

So at people school, she is a model citizen.  At the school for her own kind it’s another story.  Dog training classes started up again last Monday after a break of six weeks during which the Monterey County Fair and the famous Monterey Jazz Festival took over our venue.  It’s not that Cleo forgot anything during her vacation; in fact, she’s improved at many of the commands.  No, the challenge was that we had a substitute teacher. 

In fifth grade, our teacher Mrs. Fredrickson went away on maternity leave and we were saddled with a sub.  I remember absolutely nothing about her, not her name, her face or her style of teaching.  What I do remember is how it felt when she arrived.  The entire class, which had previously worked together like a happy family, almost instantly came unglued.  Previously engaged students were suddenly taking bets on how quickly they could make the new teacher cry.  Tacks magically sprang up on chair seats and frogs appeared in desk drawers.  Even for us shy little goody-two-shoes, the view through the window exerted an undeniable pull and it was impossible to sit still in class.

Last Monday, Cleo was a wild child.  The sub’s high voice worked her into a frenzied excitement within the first five minutes.  As the new trainer assessed our dogs’ responses to a recall by repeatedly squeaking “Coooommmme!” some dogs flinched, others whined, some bounded about the room.  Cleo short-circuited.  First she dashed back and forth from one side of me to the other, jerking to a halt as she reached the end of her leash.  Then she began dancing on her hind legs, balancing herself by the throat against the training collar.  To make the situation worse, while our usual fabulous teacher discourages training with treats in favor of training through love and relationship, the sub was spreading chopped hotdogs liberally around the class.  And the classroom floor.  Cleo’s come, sit and finish disintegrated into an attempt to mug me for the remaining fragrant tidbits.  It was not a pretty sight.

Some days, school takes over our lives by filling every waking hour with one responsibility or another.  Other days, it prompts us to behave in ways very unlike our true selves.  Then again, school is for learning, and if we never push boundaries, make mistakes or challenge ourselves to step out of our comfort zones, how can we ever hope to learn?