Write something every day. These are words I live by and it is a message that I feed my students. These words are met with resistance, occasionally by myself and regularly by my students.
In my classroom, each class starts with quiet writing time followed by sharing. The optimist in me hoped that this action of setting valuable instructional time aside for writing and sharing would be enough to prove the value of writing. Instead, the classroom is plagued with that age-old complaint that generally comes in the form of a question, “Why do we have to do this?”
In an academic setting, time spent on practicing a skill matters. Time spent reading books (at the proper difficulty level) makes students better readers. Time spent practicing math skills leads to mastery of a skill. Time spent on the court, makes students better basketball players. Writing is no different. When students complain that they aren’t “good writers,” I remind them that this is why we practice and I let them know that my own path as a writer is far from complete.
Understanding the role of writing in becoming a better writer answers the question at the surface, but there is something very important missing from this explanation. It is the underlying question, “Why is writing important?” that isn’t addressed.
I have not spent nearly enough time answering this question, for myself or for my students. In my own life, I write for so many different reasons. I write in my journal to ground myself in reality and to set goals for my future. I use my blog both to inform and to explore ideas. I write to uncover pieces of humanity and to grow as a person. Each time I write, I place a piece of myself, my unique fingerprint, out into the world.
Recently, when we were writing memoirs in the classroom, I began the lesson with reading a memoir of my own, “Old Faithful.” This story, included at the end of this post, is about the greatest dog of all time. As I read my memoir to the students, I lost myself in the words. My eyes welled up with tears and my voice cracked, remembering my furry companion. When I got to the end, it felt as though I had not just remembered, but also relived a portion of my life. I paused in that vulnerable moment of having shared something so personal, and something amazing happened.
My students who are so quick to verbally jab at me, protest every direction given to them, and put on general airs of being too cool for the rest of the world, were applauding.
That moment reminded me of why I write. I write to remember. I write to forgive. I write to display my humanity and to experience life to its fullest. I write to keep memories alive. I write for myself, but frequently bring others along for the ride.
They say that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but also know that a thousand words can ignite the heart.
I remember that last day so vividly. My heart ached with every tick of the waiting room clock. When they came to take him back, he used all the strength he could gather to prick up his enormous, pointy ears. Reggie looked back at us longingly and made an attempt to leap off the stretcher and land all four padded feet on the waiting room floor. The green lab coats held him back with reassuring pats.
“Easy boy. That’s a German Shepherd for you. He is still looking out for his people.”
The scene, glimpsed through hot tears, was a blur to me. He had always known he belonged with us. My mind wandered, with an aching need to go back to day one.
Trees whizzed past as the truck jostled down the rutted gravel road. Atop the hill, a small white farmhouse came into view. It wasn’t the house, but what was in front of the house that made a squeal escape from Cody’s lips. “Puppies!” There they were, as advertised, six German Shepherd pups. I stepped down from the grey Toyota 4×4, and swung Cody through the air, placing him gently on the ground.
“Come on sweetie. Let’s find us a precious baby girl to take home with us.”
And there she was. She was perfect. Her tiny puppy tongue lapped at my bare legs, as her frantic paws tried to find some part of me to scramble up. She lost her balance, round tummy now exposed to the sweltering summer sun. I scooped her up and took my furry treasure over to the small, grey haired woman.
“I’ll take her,” I smiled triumphantly.
“Are you sure,” she asked with a quick wink of her eye. “The master doesn’t always choose the dog. Sometimes the dog chooses the master.”
Confused, I looked up to where her wrinkled, tan hand pointed. There was Cody rolling in the grass. Alongside him was a dark, fluffy ball, mirroring his every move.
Cody came running toward me excitedly. Right after him ran his new companion, squeaking and whining, because his little puppy legs couldn’t keep up.
“Sorry girl,” I said as I set down the puppy that was still cuddled lazily in my arms. “It looks like we already have a dog.”
And from that day on, our Reggie played the part perfectly.
“Mom, will he be okay?” Cody’s voice jarred me back to the present.
“Oh honey, I’m not sure. I can see he’s holding on, but I’m afraid that he is only doing that for us.”
“He’s always been there for me, Mom. I can’t live without him. Reggie’s the best dog in the world. He has to be okay.”
The reality of the matter poured from Cody’s heart — marking the bond and the moments shared between the boy and his dog.
What we wouldn’t give now for one of Reggie’s patented whisper barks. Nobody had taught him that trick. Like most of Reggie’s skills, he had picked it up because of his own intuition and an eagerness to please us.
It was Cody’s third grade year and he had developed an intense fear of the dark. Reggie and I would camp out on Cody’s floor, reassuring him until taken over by sleep. Afterward, I would stay up, frantically typing up the papers that would eventually earn me my master’s degree. The nights were long and excruciating, until Reggie took matters into his own paws.
I don’t know how he did it, but I’ll never forget that first night when he figured out his new occupation. Reggie escorted Cody to his room. There they were — Cody had one hand on Reggie’s collar, as the other hand rubbed his puffy, tired eyes. I watched them go down the hall and into the bedroom, wondering which one of them would reemerge first. The seconds passed, followed by minutes, but neither boy nor dog came out of the room. Relieved, I peeked in quickly at the sleeping boy. Reggie looked up knowingly as I gently clicked the door shut.
I lost track of time that night, because I was up to my neck in textbooks and papers. An odd sound disrupted my studies — part whisper, part bark. The intent of Reggie’s “whisper bark” was clearly to get my attention without waking the peacefully slumbering boy. It was the first of many nights to come — Reggie playing the role of nanny and household hero.
It was not a whisper bark that now caught my attention in the waiting room of the emergency pet clinic, but a piercing wail. With his family out of sight, Reggie gave in to his pain. It was then that I knew; we had to let him go.
“I’m sorry Cody.”
“Mom, I just don’t want him to hurt anymore. I want to say goodbye.”
They carried him back in to us. Somehow he looked smaller and more fragile, swaddled securely in a fleece blanket. The tender look he gave us as he glanced up said, “I love you.”
We loved him too; more than he could ever know. Reggie was a part of me. He was a part of all of us. His soft brown eyes, loyalty, and gentle demeanor will never fade from my memory. He was my old faithful.