I hadn’t even noticed until my neighbor pointed it out. In the weeks after my youngest went off to college, I started taking my dog with me whenever I drove the car on errands. It was two years ago, while my wife and I relearned the silence two people can make, that my dog Penny became my riding buddy, a luxury for her I had generally avoided until then. She was a Corgi, a shedder, and I hated all the dog hair on the seats. But in the wake of change, she became the steady landmark I could count on to guide me home. Her tailless wag and smiling eyes made our rides together special, and whenever I stopped at Rock Creek Park for a quick romp, she sprang from the seat like a kid at a carnival.
Penny pulled me through that first year in a childless home, and she lounged with me during long nights of reading and paper grading. Last Wednesday, my wife came home and found her lost in a final sleep. She would have turned thirteen next month. They tell me that is a long life for a purebred, and I am trying hard to be grateful.
I told my students about it on Thursday, the last day before spring break. They laughed nervously, the way kids do when they don’t know what to say. They realize this has been a year of loss for me, and they started asking silly questions or lobbing jokes to distract me. A few boys gave me short, man hugs. A girl asked, “Did you cry?”
In the days since I buried Penny in my yard, I have moved to reclaim routines without her. It is amazing how much vanishes when a life departs, especially one with which you have shared so much space and time. I finally put away her food and water dishes and removed the blue leash from its hook beside the front door. I no longer toss the morning paper in the air, smiling as she leaped to catch it and failed. She usually traveled wherever I walked in the house, and I have yet to adjust to the gaps where her feet should be.
It got me thinking about the lessons a family pet teaches. There is, of course, the constant need for food and attention a dog requires, as well as the normal considerations when planning vacations and stints away. A pet instills a need for responsibility and timeliness, and, now that both my cat (who passed late last year) and dog are gone, I do find myself a little less anchored in my day-to-day.
I wanted to phone my mother and tell her all about it. No one understood grief like my mother, but she’s gone too. A year of loss is what it is, but I am learning something as well. You really do have to savor the moments you are given and make them matter. “Giving is the biggest gift,” I told my students. “And it’s free.”
I want to carry the lessons Penny gave me into my classroom. No matter how difficult the class, I must always be happy to see them and demonstrate that gladness. No matter how crowded, I must find a way to know each of them, their proclivities, their insecurities, their dreams. I must always forgive their transgressions.
Once, during my first year of teaching, a young lady said to me, “One thing I like about you. You don’t hold grudges.” I thought nothing of it at the time, but she’s right. If a student becomes disruptive or surly one class, a teacher must always leave it with the bell. If the same student continues the behavior, a teacher must find a connection or a ploy to lure the uncooperative back into the fold. The hurdles come with the job.
I’ve been watching high school movies on these days off. Today, I moved from To Sir, with Love, to Stand and Deliver, to Finding Forrester (one my principal recommended). Tomorrow, I am looking forward to Breakfast Club and Cooley High. What I will take from each of them is a reminder of the blessings in my life–not just my family, my daughters, my wife, but also the wonderful friends I have known and the adventures I have been allowed to take.
I will reheat my juices and reexamine the very special calling teaching is. Lately, too much time and press have been devoted to the science of education. During this short break, I want to celebrate the art of teaching. Sometimes, in my own classroom, the aroma of minds unfolding is so strong it seeps into the hallway, drawing the security guard in for a closer listen.
It does not happen all the time, probably not most of the time. But it does happen, and there are days I can actually taste the learning. It makes me feel like Penny must have felt on those long drives in the park. It makes me want to roll down a window somewhere and let the fresh air blanket my eyes with acceptance and remembrance. It rejuvenates my spirit and reawakens my joy. It reminds me why I became a teacher.