Monday, July 16, 2018

The Puppy Days of Summer

            July is a quiet month in most school buildings. It’s a time when administrators, custodians, computer technicians and secretaries do a lot of preparing for the onslaught of activity that will take place in just a matter of weeks. I’ve been enjoying the quiet at school, especially since life at home is a whole lot more hectic than usual. Two and a half months ago, we came home with a rescue puppy, and life has most definitely not been the same.

I was reminded of how this 60-pound, 6-month-old Labrador/Great Dane mix landed in our house just as I was sitting in my serene office this past week. You see, one of the ways I’ve been preparing for my new job as an assistant principal is by studying and reviewing my school district’s Board of Ed-approved policies, so that when issues arise I am better versed in the rules. One of the many board policies in our district is the one regarding live animals. It’s not the most-read policy, of course, and I would imagine it was designed mostly for science classes. But it can apply in other ways as well.

            Take this past April, for instance. One of my colleagues asked if the Community Service Club that I advise would be willing to welcome a visit from a dog rescue organization for which she volunteers, as the group was looking for teens to help them out as well. I asked the students, and they said yes, they’d love a visit. My colleague then asked if we’d be OK if the dog rescue person brought an actual dog with her to class. I said no, that wouldn’t be allowed. She said maybe it would, if the principal agreed to it. I said sure, feel free to ask.

            When my boss was asked about the dog, he dutifully referred to the aforementioned board policy, which stated that in this kind of situation, a live animal could enter a classroom if all students and parents had been informed, and no one was allergic to the animal. I sent out a note to parents, and a few days later, we had our visit. The dog rescue worker entered the classroom, followed by a “foster parent” who held the leash of a 4-month-old Lab/Great Dane nicknamed “Big George” by the rescue group.

            When this black Lab stepped gingerly into the room, he settled on the floor, resting his head on the leg of a student who had knelt down to pet him. He seemed like the gentlest puppy I’d ever met. My students fawned over him, and several of them signed up to volunteer for the rescue group. As for me, I found myself skimming the organization’s website, looking at the writeup on Big George. He was found in a garbage dump in Georgia, it said, and his name came from the theme to this litter – all of them were named after characters from the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. I emailed my wife the link and wrote, “I don’t know why I’m sending you this.” She responded that she didn’t know, either. She passed the link along to our daughters.

            We had a dog already. Our 8-year-old golden retriever, Daisy, was perfectly content, if a little lonely. But she found her life turning upside down when we brought her to a meet-and-greet with this friendly puppy. And when we brought that puppy home, Daisy was even more confused. It was as if she knew what we were in for before we did.

            We have spent the past 11 weeks raising a puppy – which, in case you have never done so, is second only to raising a child in its degree of difficulty. George is growing about 20 pounds per month, and by the time he’s filled out he will look more like a pony. He likes to get our attention with a howl that sounds like it came from Chewbacca. When losing his baby teeth, he would shake his head to try and free the dangling tooth, thereby sprinkling blood all over the floor. He drinks from his bowl and then walks away while still swallowing, leaving puddles of water all over the place. He chewed his leash in half, and chewed the laces off my running sneakers.

            George is learning to stop pulling on his new leash, which is important because he’s almost stronger than we are already. He wants Daisy to play all the time, but that’s not our older dog’s style. So between growling and completely ignoring him, Daisy is mentoring George on the art of settling down. We take him for three walks a day, and he still has energy to spare. One day he was stung by a bee or wasp, and we had to give him Benadryl. When the medicine knocked him out, we enjoyed our quietest night in months.

            A day in the life of Big George features all kinds of fun. Today, for instance, we had a 5:30 wakeup call, as he howled from inside his crate. I tried to take a nap after work only to have him hop on the bed next to me and start chomping on a bone. While clearing off the table after dinner, I was treated to him dipping his snout in the garbage pail, leaving a trail of couscous across the kitchen floor. And tonight, my wife says we need to order an XXL dog crate since he’s grown out of the 42-inch crate we already have.
            There’s no board policy on raising a puppy; that’s my own riddle to solve, outside of work time. The dog days of summer will be more literal than figurative for us this year. But the family will figure it out together, and George will mature and pay more attention to our rules. Eventually. Meanwhile, I’ll keep sneaking away to work each day, trying to recover from dog education by focusing on the education of teenagers.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Lessons from a Neighbor

            As I begin my career in school administration this week, I’ve been paying attention to the many mentors in my life. While there have been plenty of role models on the job and outside of work, I’ve also found inspiration from mentors whom I have never met – writers, public servants, activists and storytellers, to name a few.

            Recently, I got the chance to learn again from a childhood mentor. My wife and I saw the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which revisits the life and work of Fred Rogers. If a theater near you is playing this film, I strongly recommend seeing it.

            It’s been a long time since I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and this documentary illustrates the degree to which Rogers combined his training in ministry, child development and television to offer a program that was unlike any other show before or since. Rogers offered deep commentary on the world while also speaking directly to children about the most basic of human emotions and behaviors.

The core of Rogers’ message was not complicated, yet it is so difficult for many of us to adhere to with consistency. He offered complete support to the children with whom he was speaking, both on screen and in person, without any judgment. He told children that they were all special in their own way, and did not ask for their back stories in order to believe this to be true. He encouraged them to care for one another, and to use love as a guiding principle in life.

He opened each show by inviting his TV friends into a community of neighbors, and closed each show by reminding us that “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.” When I observe the stress that so many students experience today, as they try to figure out how to succeed in highly competitive academic, athletic and social media environments, Rogers’ words seem almost radical in their simplicity and importance. And when I learn of children and adults struggling in so many ways both in my own neighborhood and far beyond it, Rogers’ message seems to be about the most important one I can think of.

            Rogers also dove directly into the most controversial issues of the day, and spoke with children about violence, family separation, race, intolerance and disabilities. When he dipped his feet into a children’s swimming pool along with Fran├žois S. Clemmons, an African-American actor who played the role of “Officer Clemmons,” the two men did so at a time when many public swimming pools were still segregated. When Rogers’ puppet character King Friday XIII built a wall around his castle in 1968, he did so during a period in which many Americans were worried about the changing makeup of their neighborhoods (a sentiment that continues in many places to this day). The stunning sight of this puppet leader “building a wall” 50 years ago is not lost on viewers.

When Rogers’ puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asks what the word “assassination” means, he is speaking right after Robert F. Kennedy’s murder. One can imagine Daniel doing the same today with terms such as “terrorism” or “migration” or “school shootings.” And in a different episode, when Daniel asks another character if he is a “mistake,” we see Rogers going straight at the essential issue of childhood self-esteem and self-love.

            Fred Rogers was so compassionate that he lives on as a caricature to some of us. We think of the opening song, where he changes into his sweater and sneakers, with the traffic light and the trolley rolling around the bend. Some of us smile at the memory, and leave it at that. But this film reminds us just how much was going on inside that 30-minute program, and how real the Neighborhood of Make Believe really was. Throughout the film, director Morgan Neville interviews former crew and cast members, but as the film nears its end, he slices together images of each cast member crying. It’s been 15 years since Rogers died, but his work and his love left such a profound impact on these individuals that they are moved to tears in discussing the man. And that’s just the adults.

Despite the many struggles around us today, there are still a lot of great role models in this world. But it can be hard to focus on selfless giving, on true service toward others, and on the need to talk through the tough stuff. Fred Rogers did all of those things, pretty much every day of his adult life. I can’t say I’ll be able to do that as a school administrator. But if I can reach for just a sliver of the impact he had, I will at least be on the right track.

In an archival interview shown in the film, Rogers puts it this way: “Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”

Here’s to the love, and not the lack. Time to get back to work.