Dogs and Students

Two years ago my daughter called me while she was visiting my mother for the weekend. This is briefly how the conversation went:

Lily: “Mom, Grandma and I found a dog today. She’s beautiful and I’ve named her Rosie. Can we keep her-please?!”
Me: “Honey, we already have two animals. We really can’t keep another.”
Lily: “Please? I promise I’ll take really good care of her and feed her everyday and I will never ask you for anything again. I love her and want to bring her home.”
Me: “No, Lily. I really don’t want two dogs. But we’ll see if we can find her a home.”

Fast forward two years and Rosie is sitting next to me on our front porch while I’m typing this blog post. That night of the phone call, I drove to my mom’s house with every intention of meeting Rosie and seeing what I could do to find her a nice home. What Lily did not tell me was Rosie was old, crippled, dripping with fleas and her once-brown eyes were cloudy with bright green cataracts. I knew immediately when I first laid eyes on her, Rosie would be a tough sell in trying to convince someone to take her. I knew my life was about to change when I took her to the vet and he asked me, “What are you going to do with her? You know they’ll put her down immediately if you take her to the pound.” I looked at him and without thinking said, “Well then, I’m going to keep her,” and she’s been a part of my family ever since. I was determined that this dog would not go from being hurt and lonely, to going straight to a dog pound where she would be sentenced to death for the crime of being abandoned, old and crippled. I would make sure she lived out her days, even if they were few, knowing what it was like to be loved and to be a part of a family. I was determined, even at the cost of many fights with my husband over it. My arguments won out and we were keeping her-it was final.

To say it was an easy transition bringing her into our family would be an outright lie. She spent a week in our garage as we combed dead fleas out of her thick German Shepard fur and allowed her to become acclimated to our other dog, Molly. She would rip food out of our hands as if it were her last meal and whine incessantly all night since she was alone. But then she would follow me around the yard on her crippled legs, pausing frequently to rest since walking even a few feet was a tremendous effort, causing her to pant like a freight train and whine if she couldn’t get close enough. She would bark happily when the girls would come out to pet her; they had to teach her to play “fetch” because she didn’t know how and she would play for hours, retrieving the ball enthusiastically with her strange, hobbled gait.

When Rosie was finally allowed in the house, she would growl and snap at Molly if Molly would so much as walk by her. I broke up many small dog fights which could have turned ugly very quickly! The cat disappeared into the basement for days at a time, frightened of the huge Shepard who bared her teeth at him a few too many times. I was nervous; I had vowed to save this dog, but not at the expense of my other two animals. It wasn’t fair to them and I began to question myself. Could I keep her? What would happen to her if I could not? I was very upset and began hoping and praying things would change so I would be able to keep her and show her the love she was missing and so desperately needed.

Within a few months, things did change. Rosie began to feel secure in the fact that she would have food each day and did not have to fight for it nor snap at Molly for walking by her food bowl. She allowed the cat to walk by without feeling the need to snap at him or attack him. She and Molly began hanging out on the front porch together, both barking at the mailman or UPS truck in solidarity, both vowing to protect their home. She started crawling up the stairs at night to lay by our bed, needing help back down them in the morning, but so proud of herself nonetheless. She has become a part of our family and has thrived (as well as put on 20+ pounds) with the love and affection she’s gotten by having her new ‘people’, especially from my husband who grew very attached to her.

I write all this while thinking about students I’ve had in the past and those I will have every year-those who are unloved, abandoned in some way, hurt and needing someone to tell them they are valuable and worthy. While we, as teachers, can’t save them all, we can certainly try to make them feel as if they are a part of something. We can try to understand why these students may be angry or why they are moody and snap at us or others; it is a defense mechanism and their way of protecting themselves from more hurt. We know this, deep down, but it still does not make it easy in dealing with these students, nor does it excuse their actions. But I think when we try to employ empathy for these students, it helps us to see these students’ true potential and what they could become with just a little faith and encouragement from us. We need to be patient and willing to try with them-we can’t discount them immediately because who knows what they could become with the right encouragement, discipline and support.

Having Rosie has made me understand this idea of empathy in the classroom even more. Had I given up on her right away because she was cranky and hard to deal with, I wouldn’t know the wonderful dog she is today. I think back upon many difficult students I’ve had in my 13 years of teaching; I wish I could have them back and try again because I think I’d do much better with them this time and would see their potential more clearly. Having Rosie has given me more empathy and has made me a better teacher. For that, I am thankful.

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