Goodbye Is Just A Word

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Goodbye is such a weak word. I had to say it a few times this week and it does not begin to express the emotions I felt any of the times.

One of the goodbyes was final and I hope the others will not be.

The final goodbye was to my family’s beloved lab/setter mutt we adopted as an adult dog just days before he was going to be put down because he’d been in the shelter for six months and no one seemed to want him. He turned out to be the most loving, human-oriented, fun and happy dog I have ever met.

Oh, he had his issues, including what is now known as the night of the exploding dog. He somehow got into the special anti-hairball food we had for our two cats (different ones than we have now). Anti-hairball food works on animals much the way prunes and bran do on humans. He ate about four or five pounds of the food. About an hour later he started exploding. Use your imagination.

Magic loved to chase bunnies, deer and skunks. We live on a moderately busy state road On Wednesday night he chased a deer across the road and was hit by a car as he crossed back to come home. He died about 45 minutes later at the animal hospital. There were tears and hugs and more tears.

A couple of years after we adopted Magic I started graduate school in order to become a teacher. One of the professors at the school, herself the mother of three then-adult developmentally-delayed sons, told her special education methods class that “If you know how to train a dog you know how to teach special education.”

On occasion I get very literal and I wasn’t sure that she actually meant that I should offer bits of desiccated beef liver as rewards for good effort in class, but in a way that’s exactly what she meant.

The best way to train a dog is to consistently reward desired behavior with a favored treat and praise. Unwanted actions are met with sharply toned rebuke and patience. Dogs, being generally Pavlovian and sharp thinkers, quickly get the idea that they should continue to sit still and not get distracted by the pretty golden retriever on his right or the schnauzer getting into a tiff with the wire-haired terrier off to the left.

If only it were that easy in special education. The ideas are the same, but students are generally more complex than dogs, and when training a dog one rarely has to deal with the bitch that gave birth to him.

The goodbyes that I hope will not be final were to the students on whom I got my first full-time opportunity to try out my professor’s theory. The students, who in sixth grade were the victims of my first attempt at having my own class, graduated eighth grade yesterday and I was fortunate to be released from my classes to attend.

At some point in that sixth grade class I told those students that I did not intend to ever let go of them, that I would be their teacher in one way or another for as long as they were in our school, and I kept my word. When they moved onto 7th grade I frequently checked on them in person and through their teachers. I knew who was thriving and who was struggling and I would offer tutoring, praise, Skittles (desiccated liver for teenagers) and an ear. Their classroom was just across the hall from mine and I made a point of chatting with their parents when they showed up for conferences. This year I had those same students in my Read180 program. I kept my word about never letting go of them. Until yesterday.

Yesterday they looked sharp and proud in their caps and gowns. There were tears and hugs and more tears. And photographs. And smiles. And Skittles.

I will never see Magic again, but I really hope those challenging but lovable young ladies and men come to visit.

I’m keeping lots of bags of Skittles around just in case.

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5 Responses to Goodbye Is Just A Word

  1. venhi says:

    This is very well written. Raised with dogs since birth, it conjured up some pretty heart warming memories. Being a public school teacher in nyc, it did the same.

  2. koolkat222 says:

    This is such a touching post in more than one way. The loss of Magic is so sad. You are such a caring teacher, and your students know that. Plus, there’s always something special about that first group of students you teach. You really make a difference in their lives.

  3. Pat says:

    What a moving post! I still keep in touch with many of my special ed students too. I told them that once they are in my class, we all become family and I don’t forget family members. One of my ED students (who was told he was destined to be in jail forever) graduated about 15 years ago, entered Job Corps, and is not a minister of a church. He is truly loved by his congregation. Sometimes I will have lunch with former students who graduated almost 20 years ago. Don’t worry, they won’t forget about the person who believed in them! I know this for a fact!

    • Deven Black says:

      I don’t think I’ll be here 20 years from now (just one of the issues when one starts teaching when 50 years old), but as 8th graders came into the school to drop off their caps and gowns while picking up their diplomas, two of them made a point of coming upstairs to thank me, hug me, and give me their email addresses. It made my day.

  4. Dog Bark Collars…

    Great post and some useful advice….

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