Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Big Dog in a Small World

He was just a dog, so I didn’t expect to erupt into tears on that Tuesday afternoon in the vet’s office.

But that’s exactly what I did when Jake lay on the cool tile floor, dropped his head onto his front paws and closed his eyes for the last time. My right hand was clutching the thick white fur on his back.

I don’t cry at commercials, but you should know that I am emotionally moved by the daily headlines in the big world. So often it feels like we are all sharing a house of chaos – built with the bricks of terrorism, inequity, savagery, injustice, poverty, dishonesty, financial ruin, unsavory politics. Pain. If I watch television news too often or stay attached to social media too long, I start to believe that I actually live in that world.

Thank God, I don’t.

I live in a small world – where the only occupants are close family members and a few trusted friends. People who like to drink coffee. And the inordinately happy people who greet me at the YMCA three mornings a week.

I live in a house that was built a long time before I was born. For years, the only person who lived here was a woman known by everyone in town. To the neighbors, it’s still “Brownie’s house.”

The house sits on a shady street in a neighborhood where people talk over the fence, and unsupervised kids play in the streets. Where I can walk to church. And the best coffee place on the planet is eight-tenths of a mile from the house.

My world consists of sunsets at the lake. A good book on a Tuesday night. Friends and laughter on Friday nights. Watching the cardinals and the squirrels play in the backyard or the torrential rain wash sins all the way to the end of the street out front. A roaring fireplace in the winter and a big porch in the summer.

For the three years I knew him, Jake was the gentle bear who offered unconditional love, support and silent counseling during a time of considerable change in my small world. Talking to him was natural. Hugging him was easy. I’m pretty sure I trusted that dog more than I do most people.

A 110-pound Great Pyrenees, Jake was a dependable sentry who patrolled the chain-link fence. He slept wherever he was needed – on the back porch, at the foot of my teenage daughter’s bed, in the patio room, beside the couch. Even the timid seven-pound gray tabby stayed nestled in the couch cushions when the dog was in the room. Until he was too sick to move and too tired to speak, Jake was on duty.

“I told him more than I told any person,” my daughter whispered, choking on her tears.  

In the big world, I know, he was just a dog.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Free Education

“You’re a hardass, Prof,” my dad used to tell me. He would always flash that evil Cheshire Cat grin when he said it, because it meant that I was like him.

Truth is, I’m not. I’m the M&M of my profession. Gooey on the inside.

I don’t fail students or ever “give” an F. Students fail themselves – by not attending class, skipping assignments or blowing off tests. In my classes, if you show up regularly, turn in everything and work hard, you will not fail. 

I strongly believe in passing on God’s grace and will do anything I can to help a student who is drowning in personal problems. Life’s complications come in many forms: work stress, chronic illness, divorce, family strife, death of a loved one, financial crises. And that’s just a snippet from my personal list.

But a student who develops a pattern of excuses for why he/she cannot attend class or complete assignments will – well, tumble out of my good graces. I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I can tell the difference between someone who is entangled in an urgent, traumatic crisis and someone who makes up some weak excuse about not coming to class because it’s raining. I have an internal BS meter. I recognize it when I hear it. (I did get that from my dad.) Just so you know, I prefer the truth. Don’t make an excuse; tell me that you overslept and then accept the consequences. I will respect you more.

So when I read the news about students demanding tuition-free college, I get angry. Millions of people before them attended college because of parental sacrifice/savings, loans, grants, scholarships and work-study. Countless students in my classes are working more than one job to pay for school. You are not entitled to a “free” education. Do you think you would appreciate it more if you didn’t earn it? And do I have to explain that anything that shows up on my tax bill is not free?

Yes, of course, you have the right to protest, march, demand, question authority. But use your youthful energy and emotions to attack issues that matter. 

A few years ago, a student fighting an aggressive cancer still managed to miss only a few of our class sessions. By the end of the semester, she was using a wheelchair and could only move one arm. Her dad would attend class with her. She finished all those InDesign assignments, painstakingly moving the mouse with her nondominant hand.

She died just months after our class ended. I still look to the back of the classroom where she sat and think about her. A lot.

You’re not a victim. You’re not entitled to any more than the person next you. A lot of things will happen in your life that could crush you. Don’t let them. Get up and fight for respect and dignity. Put down your damn phone. Work hard, study hard, volunteer.

Be a hardass.