Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Loss of the Family Pet

If you are looking for the usual quasi-educational blog, this will be something a little different. Perhaps as a means of self-therapy, I've decided to write about our family pet and her recent passing.

The story begins on a random day during the summer of 1998. My father had in the weeks previous begun to bring up the idea of adding a dog to our family. I was enrolled in law school; my younger sisters were hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Knowing that the responsibility of the family pet would eventually fall onto her, my mother sternly reminded my father that under no circumstances was he to bring a dog home. Fast forward a few days, my mother and sisters left for a day of shopping at the Gilroy Outlets. Prior to her departure, my mother once again reminded my father "You are not to get a dog." What happened next is up for much debate.

From what I've been able to piece together over the years, my father went into his office for the day to catch up on a few medical reports. Somehow, he was detoured to the local animal shelter, ending up in the row of dogs that had been abandoned by their previous owners. According to my father, many of the dogs were barking, snarling, or otherwise overly excited. As he progressed past the cages, he came upon one dog who was sitting quietly in the corner. My father reached out his hand as to signal to the animal. The dog slowly approached and rested her head in his hands. It was all over at that point; we had added a family pet.

My dad later returned home and, I suspect, dreaded my mother's return. My sisters and mother returned soon thereafter and the bedlam began. My sisters and I were racing around the house, in and out of the yard, so incredibly excited to the new family addition. My mother stood silently, glaring at my father. She repeated over and over again, "I gave you one instruction: do not get a dog... and what did you end up doing? The one thing I said not to!" My dad just looked at my sisters and I, saw the smiles on our faces, and surely thought to himself that it was definitely worth it. Looking back, he was right.

We named her Casey.

Casey was an absolutely delightful addition to our family. While we joked about Casey's lack of intelligence at times, I was always impressed by the little moments where she shined. On our walks, she knew the exact route and would often drag me back to the house. Every evening, she knew when it was time to go to the park, often waiting by the back door or finding my father to slightly nudge him with a reminder. At the dog park, we became friends with other pet owners, a subculture in its own right. These were good times.

One thing Casey did not enjoy was being left alone at home for the day. Often, after the family left to dinner or event, we would return to find a single slipper, usually belonging to my mother, in the front entry way. Somehow, when we were gone, Casey found her way into my parents' closet and would retrieve the slipper. She would then carry it down to the front door, leaving us to find it upon our return. Whether this was an attempt from Casey to ingratiate herself into my mother's good graces or perhaps an act of defiance due to being left alone, we never could tell.

As the years progressed, my sisters returned to our home town and took physical custody of Casey. After one of the twins gave birth, Casey moved next door (my younger twin sisters live next door to each other and across the street from our parents) and resided for the last few years of her life with the other twin. Here, Casey began to need an increased level of care. She had to be carried up and down the stairs. She needed a special harness to be led on short walks. She needed special food, updated medical care, and slowly began to lose her hearing and eyesight.

Despite these medical and health concerns, Casey repeatedly received glowing reports from her veterinarian. "She's just getting old," they would say. Thus, with a seemingly clean bill of health, Casey continued to be a part of our lives. She was at every holiday and attended every family dinner. She even moonlighted as a cover model for one of my sister's wedding invitations.

And despite any health concerns, Casey continued to make daily appearances at our father's medical office, spending all day asleep along side my two younger sisters (both of whom work at our father's offices). It was rare for Casey to miss a day, often one of the first to arrive and the last to leave. Patients would often ask to see Casey and would refer to our father as the "dog doctor" even though physical medicine, specifically for humans, was his forte.

Recently, late one Friday night, I received "the call" from my sister. Tomorrow was going to be Casey's last day with us. Her health had taken a serious turn for the worse. She stopped eating. She couldn't move. The veterinarian said it was time. We scheduled family time the following day in the morning with Casey. Videos and pictures were taken with all of our blissfully-unaware-of-the-situation children and Casey. Soon it was time to go. Quick goodbye. Lots of tears.

My sisters later took Casey to the veterinarian to send her on her way. I can't imagine what they or any pet owner goes through in these moments. We still struggle to talk about our loss. Even in typing this blog, my throat swells and words struggle to be typed.

In a delicate administrator-parent conversation in what feels like took place eons ago and in relation to a discipline incident at school, it was shared with me that what their student was going through was the worst thing their family had ever had to endure. Reflecting on the past week of my life, I wonder if they've ever lost a pet... because to me, nothing compares to what we're feeling individually and as a family right now.

I miss you, Casey. We all do.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Transitioning Back to School

Just prior to returning to school after the holiday break, I sent the usual "Welcome Back from the Principal" email to our staff. I shared a few stories from my own vacation, highlighted a few upcoming conferences that various staff members would be attending, and included a few jokes of expected student comments now that we're nearing the end of the first semester. Nestled at the end of the email, I included a quick reminder of how challenging our lengthy away-from-school breaks can be for some of our more fragile students. 

As a former opportunity teacher, I was challenged daily with balancing the emotional needs of my students as I supported them academically through their studies. We spent significant efforts on providing structure, care, and guidance for our students during their school days. Very often, after a three day week, my students would return a bit emotionally fractured from spending an extra day at home. A week off during Spring break could throw some of our more adjusted students into a complete tailspin. Worse, the two week absence over the Winter break would often prompt a complete rebuilding of our students' emotional safety and willingness to participate in our class. 

Having experienced these challenges as a classroom teacher, I always try to remind our staff about leading with their heart during these first few days back. We don't know how their Winter break truly was and how it will affect them during their return to school. I've seen a challenging two week layoff from school manifest itself in three distinct ways among our more fragile students.

Student 1: Humpty Dumpty

A few of our emotionally at-risk students returned from the holiday break barely able to make it through the school day. Our school counselor and mental health therapist have seen many of these students and have begun to put these students back together again. Many of these students have an unstable home situation and struggle with the lack of structure during this time. As they return to school, they immediately act out and hopefully seek out support from their peers and trusted adults. This rehabilitation process can take days, sometimes weeks, to get the student back into a space where they're able to focus on their academic growth. These students need the support of their entire village to return to their previous standing as an engaged learner at your school.

Student 2: Everything's Fine

We also see a few students return with the repeated mantra of "everything's fine" when asked about their holiday break and how they're feeling being back at school. Truthfully, it couldn't be further from the truth. Everything isn't fine. They're either slowly building up their walls of distrust and refusal to discuss what truly happened during their time away from school. Again, our school counselor and mental health therapist spend many of their days with these students, connecting and chipping away at these very real emotional concerns. 

Student 3: Back to the Routine

And for most of our students, the time away from school was truly okay. While they may not have had the holiday vacation they expected or wanted to have, they're excited to return to their daily school routines, to spend time with their peers, and catch up with their adult mentors. These students actually look forward to the end of their break so as to return to the structure school provides. Perhaps they miss spending time in the game room, playing wall ball at lunch, or just generally miss the support of their peers, these students have built sufficient inner emotional strength to look forward to the routine of school and not let the changes of their days negatively affect them. Fortunately, after a few years spent at our school, many of our at-risk students return from their school breaks in this specific category.

As a site administrator, my role to to support both our students and staff with the transition back to school. Similar to the students, staff members sometimes struggle with the return to school after the holiday break. One staff member mentioned just how difficult it was to leave their young child after spending every waking moment with them for the past two weeks. I try to keep a relatively clear calendar on the days following a lengthy break, so as to have the necessary time to meet with students and reconnect with staff. These are the days an administrator needs to be especially present for your staff and students. 

If you're a classroom teacher, in what ways can you best support your at-risk students during their return from lengthy breaks?

If you're a site administrator, how can you best support your students and staff during these first few days back from break?

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