Two-Way Teaching

On the first day of every semester, I always carry extra baggage. In spring, summer, and fall, I must replenish my office and bring in all the graded final assignments. As I trace the familiar path past the library and through Starbucks, I sag under the weight of several canvas bags filled with tea, travel mugs, books, air fresheners, and other teaching essentials. Generally I bear the bulk of this gear on the left so that my right hand and arm can manipulate the white cane.

But this fall, my hands serve different purposes: the left wraps around a square harness handle and the right is poised to handle the leather leash. My teaching gear has been crammed into a purple floral backpack, and my fabric lunchbox dangles from my right wrist. Under my right arm, I carry a tightly rolled rectangular carpet – a new necessity. An outside pocket on my backpack holds other items not needed in previous semesters: a collapsable water bowl, a pet first aid kit, a well-loved plastic bone, and several crumpled grocery bags. An inner pocket protects a tupperware container filled with kibbles.

New habits accompany the items in my bag. Now, while I walk, I carry on a quiet conversation with the pup at my side – giving directions and praise as he learns my preferred routes on campus. I stop when he stops, move forward when he moves, and adjust the leash when he buries his nose in the hedges. I receive many more greetings and prepare answers for the three most common questions: “Can I pet him?” “How old is he?” “Is he a full Lab?”

At my office, I ask York to sit while I find the electronic key. I unlock the door, usher him inside, and take off his harness. I clip one end of his tie-down around the leg of my desk and attach the other clip to his training collar. Then I gently push him out of the way so I can set up his space.

I unroll the small rug and tuck it into the far right corner of my office. I lure York to his new spot with a toy, but he doesn’t stay there long. While I unpack my backpack, he crawls under my desk to rest his head on my feet. He watches as I stash his lunch in a lower desk drawer, out of his reach. He sticks his nose in the trash can, noisily searching for my apple core.

Throughout the morning, York and I complete several errands – picking up photocopies, placing my lunch in the breakroom fridge, meeting with colleagues. I consolidate these trips so I won’t have to take York’s harness on and off several thousand times. I want him to have harness-free time in my office, and I have to consider the errands that York needs: busy breaks, water breaks, and meal time. I arrange these activities around my teaching schedule, mentally planning which paths we’ll take to get to each class.

On the way to my first class, I decide to introduce York to the staircase outside my office building. He has already learned the inside hallways I travel most; he can predict when to turn left or right as we walk. Once outside, I tell York “Over right, find the steps,” and he takes me to the staircase, stopping just short of the first step. I place my right foot on the step’s edge, reach for the rail, praise him, and say, “Forward down.”

We slowly descend with York a few steps ahead of me. The harness handle sways as he walks down, and he pauses every few steps to let me catch up. On the landing, he guides me around to the next railing, but he doesn’t step down until I give the command.

At the bottom, we round a corner and find a small triangle of grass. I take York’s harness off and give him time to explore. While York takes his break, a harried student asks me for directions. I answer the student’s questions as York wanders back to me, tail wagging. I slip the harness on and we walk to our first class.

Inside the bright classroom, several students are already seated. York and I enter through the door at the front, striding across the classroom to the large teacher’s desk. I ask York to sit and clip his leash around the desk leg. I present him with another of his favorite toys; hopefully he’ll settle down and chew away while I talk to the class.

The atmosphere changes as I unpack my bag and York snuffles around under the desk. Some students lean forward, whispering excitedly. One student asks Question #2, and I respond, “He’s 18 months, which is young for a guide dog.” I feel myself smiling as I answer – I’ve got the New Parent Glow, the face that says, “Yes, I’m perfectly willing to talk about all my pup’s accomplishments for several hours.”

When the classroom is full, I welcome students to the course. I introduce myself, adding, “And you may have noticed my teaching assistant under the desk.” I explain that York is a working guide dog, that they shouldn’t talk to him or try to pet him while he’s wearing the harness. While I present this solemn speech, York rolls on the floor – snorting, jingling his harness, and kicking his legs. I sigh, “It’s his first semester teaching.” The students laugh, and I promise that York will be free to play if they come by my office.

Two days later, York and I are traveling the same hallway, ready for our second class meeting of the term. York walks calmly beside me, undisturbed by the people rushing on either side. His head doesn’t even turn when a female student coos, “Ooohh he’s so handsome!” He’s aloof, work-focused. I feel a soft breeze across the fingers of my left hand – produced by York’s wagging tail. His tail swings up and out, keeping time with our feet; it’s something I’ve just started to notice when we walk together.

Halfway down the hall, the harness handle jerks upward, and I can feel York leaping in the air. I pull down hard on the handle and grab the leash in my right hand: “Easy, easy!” York halts beside me, panting, while I search for the distraction that got him so riled up. I hear laughing and cooing to my left.

“It’s us,” calls a woman from behind a folding table. “We’re from the Counseling Center. We’re handing out stress balls.”

“Oh, that explains it; he loves balls.” Beside me, York’s tail agrees. Though he is standing still, his whole body leans towards the table. Another woman at the table offers me a ball, and I shake my head. “He would tear it up.”

The table voices chorus: “Awwwww.”

As the workday ends, York and I walk downstairs and take the outdoor route around Starbucks and past the library. Near the sign that proclaims, “Brown Rice Sushi” in huge bubbly letters, York stops for some intense sniffing – something he shouldn’t do while he’s guiding me. I correct him, but he won’t pick his head up. This likely means that he’s found something to eat.

Again, I correct him, and he lifts his head. I reach for his mouth and tell him to “leave it,” – though, at this point, I don’t know what “it” is. Without complaint, York lets me run my fingers over his mouth, and I find his jaws clenched around something round and squishy. As I pry the squishy thing out of his mouth, I repeat, “York, drop it,” just for good measure. He doesn’t fight me, and once I’ve got the thing in my hand, I recognize it: a stress ball. I relieve some stress by throwing it away.

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10 Comments

  1. Stacey

     /  August 30, 2014

    Em,

    The moment I read that he jumped up, I knew it had to be a ball. Only his mommy being out of his sight produces that much of a reaction. It’s wonderful to know that York is your focused assistant. I remember all the milestones we had to overcome. Professor York, your big brother Hank is very proud of you and your travels.

    Stacey & Big Hank

    Reply
  2. Walking around with you and York is fun. I’m glad the mysterious object was just a stress ball not sushi!

    Reply
  3. Lois Gray

     /  September 13, 2014

    Just returned from a trip to Sicily (which was fine, except that the heavy emphasis on pasta at every meal is not conducive to healthy eating) . But I must say I enjoyed your blog about your first days of the new semester will your new TA every bit as delightful as seeing Greek/Roman ruins and myriad Byzantine churches. You and York are becoming a wonderfully supportive couple for one another and that’s so happy to know. It seems York adds not only more independence and a different way of navigating your world to your life now, but he is also lots of fun to be with and still a little challenging to handle. Many happy years together to you both. Lois

    Reply
    • That sounds like a wonderful trip, Lois! To think that my adventures compare to Old World ruins!

      York is a dream and a challenge, which is just what I like. Thanks for your kind words.

      Reply
  4. Hi!

    This story is so amusing and yet demonstrates all of the good and the bad about working guide dogs all at once!!!

    I am also blind and have worked a guide dog! I am currently owner training (that is, training myself from scratch) a poodle to be a guide dog.

    I thought I would extend a hand (virtually, of course). I love meeting new people and talking about guides is always fun!!!

    There is a national organization of guide dog users called NAGDU (National Association of Guide Dog Users) and we’d love to have you join our e-mail list!

    Our website where you can find more information on joining the list (you don’t have to be a member of the organization to participate on the list) is:

    http://www.nagdu.org

    We also blog on wordpress at:

    http://www.harnessup.wordpress.com

    Even if you choose not to join us, I’ll plan to follow you (because seeing others write about their guides is so awesome!!!)

    Best,

    Amber

    PS: I’m blogging about my owner training experiences. You can follow me there if you’re curious at:

    http://www.thetravelertraining.wordpress.com

    Reply
    • Hi Amber, and thanks for the kind words and links! I’m excited to read your work, and I joined the NAGDU email list a few days ago.

      Reply
  5. Hi!! Oh, this post is beautifully written!!!!

    Reply

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