Forty years ago, when I taught eighth grade at a boarding school, the headmaster somehow ended up with three German Shepherd puppies. He asked me to take care of one. And so it was that a subsequent piece of my education began.
Lesson one | In my early months with puppy Bart, he ate and you-know-what with great frequency, tugging at the leash as if it were all part of the game, grew excited at the least provocation, and generally made me more patient and tolerant of faults.
As he grew up and became more well-behaved, he eagerly watched me during training periods to carry out commands, tagged along with me wherever he could, and liked to awaken me at 3 a.m. by fervently staring at me in the dark. He became part of the eighth-grade classroom routine where he spent most of the day with me and generally contributed to the well-settled atmosphere of our learning environment. At the end of the year, the class insisted he sit for his yearbook photo, which he did.
Lesson two | Late one evening on my rounds, I discovered him in a school hallway, where a fifth-grade student was seated on the floor in a dark alcove. He was sitting on the floor with Bart, petting him and saying things like, “Nobody understands me. You understand me, don’t you?” Bart just licked his hand.
Lesson three | When it was time to play and exercise, Bart knew it through my body language and the thousand little signals known only to those with limited vocal skills. Once in the field, it was a time of great fun and running through the tall mustard grass until he was exhausted. He’d lay down, content with being tired, tongue lolling and bright eyes shining, happy to be alive.
Lesson four | Several years later, when he was not so patient anymore with kids pulling his tail or sitting on his back, the headmaster suggested I find Bart a new home. I stopped by Guide Dogs for Independent Living, walked him into the vet center, and convinced the founder to take him as a breeder. She sat on the floor, grabbed his nose, put her face up to his, and stared into his eyes for a full minute. Then she said, “Okay.” I took the leash off and he obediently walked to the back, ready for his next adventure.
A good number of years later, when curiosity led to wonder led to inquiry, I found the address of the family whom he lived with now, long retired. I drove out, but no one was home. From around the side of the house came an old, partially blind German Shepherd. He didn’t react much until he began sniffing and heard me quietly say his name. Then, his old tail began to wag, and the head shoving began.
Lesson five | I sat on the ground for a good 20 minutes reliving old times, mostly in silence with some mumbling on both our parts. Finally, I returned to the car, Bart walking to the rear door ready to come along. One of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Imagine that. The last image is of an old dog in the rearview, standing in the middle of an empty country road, both of us going back to where life brought us.
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