Sunday, April 29, 2012

Got a Black Magic Puppy

On Tuesday, Cleo was executed three times and brought back to life, all in the service of education.  This is how it came to be.

The week before, the ninth grade history teacher, Mr. B., a Santa Cruz hippie born in Lancashire, England, and a true character, approached me with a request.  “Do you think I might borrow Cleo next week?”  He was about to embark on a lesson on the medieval witch trials, and he wanted to put Cleo on the stand.  “I want to try her as a witch, ya see?”

During the witch trials, it was not at all uncommon for dogs to be called as witnesses against their owners, or even to be required to answer accusations against themselves.  The courts would have called cats, too, had they not already had all of them hung for witchcraft.  Of course, without cats the rat population exploded, leading to the Black Death which swept through Europe killing a third to a half of the population of the time, wiping whole villages out of existence, so the cats had the last laugh there.

Mr. B. planned to ask Cleo a few questions, find her guilty and haul her off to be burned at the stake.  He thought that using her, a dog the students all knew and were fond of, would both catch their attention and give them a graphic sense of the brutality of the witch trials.  Initially, I thought it was a brilliant idea, but when I got home that night and told John about it, his reaction was very different from mine.  “I don’t like that at all,” he told me, a frown pinching his forehead.  “What if she gets scared.  I don’t want anybody yelling at her.”  Ah, the protective daddy!  He was worried about his little girl!  Come to think of it, I didn’t want anyone yelling at her, either.  Sure, she’s known discipline, but she has never known harshness.  Dogs don’t understand “acting.”  They don’t do pretend; they’re far too sincere.  She would never comprehend fake yelling, especially if she was simply trying to do what she was asked.

When the teacher came back to me early this week to confirm Cleo’s availability for the next day, I asked for details of what her role would be.  “You’re not going to yell at her are you?” I asked him.  He looked shocked: “Oh, no, no, no!” he said.  Then gave me an outline of what he had planned. 

Mr. B. is a curious fellow.  Regular readers of this blog might remember him as the colleague who, when introduced to Cleo for the first time, looked down at the teensy ball of fluff that she was in those days and sneered, “Hello, dog.”  For months, whenever he came into my office to consult about something, he would look with disgust at the puppy and half turn away from her, doing his best to ignore the unseemly creature.  Then, something changed; students began telling me that she had started to appear in his stories.
One of the reasons this teacher is so popular is because he makes history come alive.  For him, it’s not about dry dates and names; no, he puts the story back in history, and he makes it riveting.  Often, as he relates events, he’ll draw parallels to the students’ lives or he’ll introduce schoolmates as characters in the stories.  At first, Cleo was the example of the character who seemed to embody innocence and sweetness, yet who, without warning, went bad and murdered all the townspeople.  As time went by, she “appeared” whenever a noble animal was called for.  By now, her roles have gotten more and more sympathetic and loveable.  So I was pleased and relieved to hear what he had planned for her witch trial. 

The next morning, Maggie, Cleo’s best buddy at school, came by to pick her up.  Mr. B. had arranged with Maggie’s other teachers for her to be at all three sections of ninth grade history.  Because of my own class schedule, I could attend only one.  Off we went to medieval England.  Knowing what was going to be asked of Cleo, Maggie had been doing some training with her just before her debut.  As soon as we walked in, there was a chorus of “Cleo!”  This was followed by, “Hi, Mrs. Sherry,” “Maggie isn’t in this section,” “Why are you here, Mrs. Sherry?” and “Why’s Cleo here?”  Maggie, completely in her role as assistant to the judge, kept a stony face.  Mr. B. responded to all the questions with some jest or other.  Until the last question.  To this he answered, “Because I’m going to try her for witchcraft!”  The students laughed.

“Cleo, please take the stand,” he commanded.  Maggie gestured to the chair that was set up at the front of the room.  Cleo hopped onto it, turned around to face the class and sat, happily looking around.  “Cleo,” Mr. B. continued, “you are charged with casting your spirit into students and causing them to do harm.”  Here, he mixed a little recent ninth grade scandal into the story.  “Last week, one ninth grader played a thoughtless joke on another, daring him to jump over a chain, then raising it, causing the victim to trip on the chain and fall onto asphalt, grievously spraining his elbow.”  The students laughed and shifted in their seats, exchanging knowing looks.  “Cleo, place your hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth.”  Maggie gestured and Cleo put not one, but two paws onto the book Mr. B. held (a treat was seen to pass from hand to mouth on this one).  “Aha!” Mr. B. exclaimed.  “That proves it!  This was not the Bible.  She has just sworn on the Malleus Malleficarum, the witches’ handbook!”

“That’s not fair!” a student protested.  “You tricked her.”

“Yeah,” called another, “she didn’t know what the book was.”

“No matter,” Mr. B. replied, waving away their comments.  “It’s still proof.  Cleo, do you deny that you have done these deeds?”  He paused.

“Maggie, make her nod or something,” prompted one of the girls.

Mr. B. cut her off.  “She doesn’t deny it!”

“But she can’t!  She’s a dog!”

“Ah!” Mr. B. exclaimed, delighted.  “So you’re defending her?”  He grinned from ear to ear.  “Who else wants to defend her.”

A couple hands flew into the air, and a voice or two spoke out, “I do!”

“Then you’re all in collusion with her!”  Mr. B. looked victorious.  “It’s obvious!  You’re witches, too.  Wait here and I’ll deal with you.  In the meantime….” He laughed ominously and pulled a barbecue lighter off his desk, flicking the flame into a stream of fire.  “Cleo is sentenced to be burned at the stake!”  As he swept out of the room, followed by Maggie and a peppily prancing Cleo, a storm of protest followed him.  A beat, then Mr. B. reappeared in the doorway.  “The job is done,” he announced, holding up a package of hotdogs.

When the laughter had died down, an active discussion began and lasted through class and beyond.  Educators now know, thanks to modern brain science, that lessons that endure and stay with us for years are those that are connected to our emotions.  I initially thought of Cleo as a source of comfort for students.  I love that others can see different, equally meaningful roles for her.  I have no doubt about Cleo’s position at the school.  She is so clearly part of the warp and (forgive me) woof of the whole community.

Cleo & Maggie

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