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?

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