Friday, February 02, 2007
N. and I have cut a deal this semester that Breezy the Dog comes to school with me pretty much every day so that N doesn’t have to break up her writing to do dog things. This is fine, as coming to Zenith is one of Breezy’s favorite activities: there are long jogs around campus, where you can often find an old sandwich under a tree, and lots of admirers who want to make much of her. One time the President’s office called me on my cell as I was walking with her across the front lawn and said, “Would you bring your puppy up to say hello to everyone?” I have a crate in my office, a baby-gate for the door, and I’ve loaded up on dog supplies for the term. Since, with the advent of e-mail and JSTOR, none of us needs the file space we once did, one drawer serves as a storage cabinet for Greenies, dog food, rawhide chews, treats and a box of 1-quart plastic bags suitable for “picking up.”
Breezy has been coming to work off and on since she was about six months old. If I haven’t explained this before, she is a Portuguese water dog, otherwise known as a “PWD.” And PWDs crave constant companionship. In fact, they don’t even like to be in the house with you and not touching. They get in the shower so they won’t have to be alone for the five minutes it takes you to bathe. As one of the breeders we consulted warned me, “If you need a lot of personal space, this is not the dog for you.” Also if you want quiet: when Sailor feels that she needs something (like the cheese you are eating, or more room on the couch) she starts to talk. It’s a humming noise that sounds kind of like this: “Verrrrrrrrrrr.” She does it over and over, softly, and sometimes with a little yip at the end, until the problem is resolved.
The only reason Breezy can come to work (since dogs are officially not permitted in Zenith university buildings) is that my office is no longer in the humungous social sciences Complex where Someone who will remain Nameless once brought a large, unneutered hunting dog to work. The dog galloped relentlessly and unsupervised around the building until one day it took a small chunk out of an administrative assistant (probably because the Xeroxing wasn’t done properly.)
My move to a new building (the Castle) was not precipitated by the desire to bring a dog to work, but it helped, since I believe the union got involved with the dog bite thing, it was all very unpleasant, and Edicts Were Issued. But, in addition to sharing much of my day with a few congenial people and staying out of the way of campus gossip, bringing Breezy to work has been a bonus of moving to the Castle. It is a snug little Federal House that I share with six or seven other colleagues and 1.75 secretaries. Breezy is a big hit with everyone, and particularly likes office hours, when she can run in and out of my office, visiting with the students who are waiting to see me and who seem to keep a lot of snacks on hand that they are more than willing to share. I have only had one student who did not like her, and frankly, that was not his only flaw.
The reason I bring this up is that Breezy’s presence in the building periodically provokes a conversation about the pros and cons of bringing dogs to a teaching institution. Some people are afraid of dogs, and don’t want to have to navigate that, and there is the argument that they prove a distraction to our serious enterprise of teaching, scholarship and learning. I don’t think I buy this, except the fear, which is one reason I have a crate. But I do know there are many pros.
Animals are cheerful, they make other people cheerful, and the happiness they spread around the world lowers stress. When Breezy is rushing around doing her thing, whether it is running pell mell with a tree branch in her mouth, or holding office hours, she invariably leaves people in a better mood than they were before. In other words, for the same reasons people take dogs to nursing homes and hospitals, dogs belong in school. Probably cats do too, but they are exceptionally hard graders, so they are a tougher sell.
Students who are shy about coming to office hours can break the ice by asking questions about Breezy, and very often the first real thing a student will tell you about himself starts with the phrase: “Well, MY dog….”
Students who are crying, and who we are not allowed (through good judgment and on the advice of attorneys) to comfort with more than a Kleenex and a lifesaver, can touch and be touched by the dog. This is one of Breezy’s particular skills. She is very empathetic and, if I have not emphasized this sufficiently, loves full body contact. She is really good at sensing when a student is about to start crying, and will often tip toe over and put her head in said student’s lap. Should petting the dog cause the tears to flow rather than be staunched, Breezy works her way upward so that eventually she is sitting fully in the student’s lap, with her head wrapped up against said student's neck, licking the weeper's ear. You can't giggle and cry at the same time, and I think Breezy knows this.
It is not unusual for Breezy and I to be minding our own business when the phone rings, and someone on the other end says: “Send the dog down, will you?” code for: I have a weeping student in my office. And I will say to Breezy, “Go see X!” She hustles her butt down the hall to comfort whoever needs comforting.
Which leads me to my main point: Breezy allowed me to remember last week, after two years of being away from Zenith, that students are often more isolated than we know and dealing with that is one of the constant challenges a teacher faces. Students are almost never alone, but even the ones with lots of friends are often lonely. Students can also be too insecure to reach out for the kinds of connections with faculty that a university is supposed to offer, either personal or intellectual, but that can elude all but the most self-confident kids.
Taking breezy to the office reminds me of an earlier time in my life, when I was better connected to students than I am now. I was, of course, younger, I had more energy and wasn’t afraid of getting snarled in the endless, time-consuming entanglements that knowing students in trouble produces. Before I moved to Shoreline a few years back, I used to have students to my house for seminar meetings or reading week parties. Before we weren’t allowed to drink with students I used to bring them champagne on the last day of the seminar to celebrate the great work they had done and thank them indirectly for being such good kids. I played squash with them, and I sometimes went to their plays and art exhibits. Before I had all the responsibilities being a senior member of the faculty entails, I had the energy to make sure I saw each student in office hours at least once, and the time to go out for coffee spontaneously with the last student who was in line.
Changing isn’t bad, and more distance from students may even be a good thing, particularly since I am now so much older than they are. I am supposed to offer stability, authority and experience, not anything that might be remotely perceived as friendship. But Breezy’s office life brings the unexpected bonus of reminding me that students value the time they have with me, however constrained it might be, and that making even the slightest intentional and personal connection lets them know that I value them.