Not the sunny-eyed, bouncing, hands-raised, tail-wagging ones, not the polite, joyfully running, smiling jumpers, but those who huddle at the back of the run, and the ones who slouch in the middle seat of the middle row, the best place to hide in the open.
Teaching high school age kids taught me lessons about how to work with abandoned dogs, and I know now that had I worked with dogs before teaching, I might have dodged so many early misjudgments, so many wrong moves because I was impatient and full of myself and less conscious of all that passes unsaid between the living.
Eventually, over years of trial and error, many teachers figure out how to be aware in the classroom, how to see individuals in the mass, how to read the signs that suggest a struggling child, one in need of relief. So the child is asked if he or she is ok, and that young man or woman answers the questions, tells stories, tries to control the tone of the replies, but these can be misleading, deflective, opaque. Teachers must listen to what is said and what has been avoided. They must listen for the story beneath the story. The job means for us to open children to a version of enlightenment. No one should be left behind. “Everyone counts or no one counts.”*
With age, life becomes less insulated. Classifications break apart. Previously unseen connections brighten into sight. So it is with dogs and children.
In children, what can we glean from an instant of hesitancy, from the angle of a slouch, an uncertain defiance, a studied disregard and vagueness, or the complete absence of an expected response, what Stevens called “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”*
Because dogs cannot speak, one may sidestep the distractions found in floods of words, and thus we are left only with what we can see, really see, and what we pick up with the senses a dependence on language has blunted. What can we glean from ear flicks, from a big dog who takes one step toward us, one paw raised an inch from the ground, or from a wary approach to sniff, a wariness that can suddenly hum as if an electric current has just opened?
Before his rescue — Diesel, a Great Pyr, chained for most of his three years, often fed just Fritos and beer, afraid of men, a barker, a big, thin boy.
Teachers and rescue volunteers cannot force themselves onto a distant child or distressed dog. No sudden moves. Preserve quiet in the voice. Calm is communicable.
With Diesel, I averted my eyes, turned my back to him, sat leaning against the fence of his run and let him sniff. I set treats near my body. He came close. He took one. Retreated. Took another. Retreated.
Everything should slow down. Be prepared to wait. Get low. Lose your arrogance, that most insidious poison. Be open to learn from anyone, student or Pyr, Pit or Shepherd.
In fifteen minutes, I slowly rose, kept hunched over, crab-walked to the gate and inched in, face averted, speaking quietly, and knelt, waiting, using my peripheral vision. Waiting. A treat extended in my hand. Blindly waiting.
Teachers have to grow antenna. What does a student’s body language imply, the catch in the throat, the bundling of the arms across the chest? What does the moist muzzle on my neck mean?
Wait. Be still. Listen. Be alert. Push your self-consciousness aside. Listen with everything. Watch. Unyielding children or scarred dogs, our job is to find what is in them that awaits discovery and may spark their strength and their fire.
Diesel took the loop and walked with me but at the end of the leash. He allowed me to clean his eyes and delicately scratch between his ears, but any quick movement frightened him, and later, back in his run, he barked at me, a warning bark, a fear-of-men-bark. Over time Diesel will be ready for adoption — after hours and hours of steady, affectionate work by three dozen volunteers. Over time, every child in every classroom deserves steady, affectionate attention, especially the ones who run from us.
*from Harry Bosch, a character in Michael Connelly’s series about an LA homicide detective
**from “The Snow Man“