Today is the first day of school. A triumphal day. An iconic day. A day filled with promise and hope and bright, shining faces. A day to open brand new boxes of crayons, each color in its proper order, each with identically sharpened points. A day to don the new school duds and charge into the intellectual pursuits which prepare us for life.
And a day which, to me at least, reminded me of my dog. Not just my dog, but a specific day with my dog, sometime ago, in the veterinarian’s office.
I inherited Zack — who really belongs much more to my wife and my children than to me — from a now-retired teacher, Janelle Hearnen. I’m still not entirely sure how that happened as I’m not really a pet person. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate dogs, and I certainly recognize the many positive attributes of dogs.
In fact, when Zack came to my house, it became instantly apparent that the rest of my family absolutely loved him. Noticing the contrast between their devotion and mine, I turned to St. Bernard, whose feast day probably not coincidentally is today, and tried to live up to his maxim: “Love me, love my dog.” I’ve done my best to appreciate Zack. But I have to admit I don’t love Zack to the extent the rest of the family does. In case you missed it the first time, they really love Zack.
(In fact, in some of my darker moments, I’ve imagined Zack and I in a boat with the rest of my family when suddenly the dog and I fall out. The waters are swirling, their dark currents threatening to pull us under. We can’t last long and my family, in this scenario, can only rescue one of us. I’m not sure they’d save Zack over me but, truthfully, his poll numbers are usually higher than mine.)
In any case, Zack has something called Addison’s disease, a glandular condition which requires monthly shots to keep him alive and healthy. (If the name of that disease rings a bell, it might be because it can also affect humans and one of the most famous people so afflicted was JFK.) His disease also means that when Zack has some other illness, you have to address it quickly or it can combine with the maladies of Addison’s and threaten his health and even life.
Which brings us back to the vet. Zack is ill and my wife is out of town, so I call her to ask where to take him. She tells me but then goes on to discuss at length the illness and her concerns over poor Zack. She apparently also contacted my children as well because suddenly calls and emails and texts are pouring in, inquiring about poor “Zack-ie.”
At risk of sounding redundant, Zack is a good dog and I like him and I take care of him, but my family cares for him to a degree I’ve never been able to manifest for a pet.
It is after the 40th text message from my kids, though, that something dawns on me. If this dog doesn’t make it, my poll numbers are going in the tank and they are staying there for a very long time.
I can just hear family members years from now standing over my open coffin at the wake service whispering to one another, “Yes, he was a good father and a decent educator, but do you think he really did everything he could for dear old Zack?”
Which is why, when I’m holding on to his leash in the vet’s office, ready to pass him off to his health care professional, I’m scanning the wall for her degree. What do I really know about this person? Does she understand just how much this curly, black familiar has wormed himself into the hearts of my wife and children? And how much my health care in extreme old age, when the kids are making the decisions, might depend upon the outcome? Can I trust this person with Zack?
Now dogs are very important to many of us. But I can also assert quite confidently that dogs are dramatically less important to us than are children. For parents, our children are more important than anything. They are what we value above all else. Above our homes and cars, above our worldly possessions, above our pets. Above our very lives.
Thus, when a parent brings their child to school, they are making a rather dramatic statement. They trust us. They trust us with what they value more -- infinitely more -- than anything else. This gives educators a grave responsibility, a trust to fulfill, a truly sacred obligation.
To the parents who brought their children to the Mitchell Schools this day, please know that we take that obligation very seriously. We know, in fact, that you have brought to us your very best.
I promise you we will do the same.