Learning Lessons by Saying Goodbye

This past weekend was one that I’d like to forget.

My wife and I had just returned last Sunday from an amazing 17 day trip to Rome and Southern Italy where we rented an apartment, living like locals, eating, exploring, and eating some more. One experience was better than the next, and we had the opportunity to share this with several close family members who had never been to Italy before. Exposing them to the wonders, both culinary and historic, of this special country and culture was right up our traveling alley. We came home energized, relaxed (despite all that we fit into the trip), and ready to take on the new school year.

Then we walked through our front door.

Our six year old boxer dog, Olive, was ready to greet us. We couldn’t wait to see her. We don’t have children of our own, so this dog, she’s our life. As we entered the house, we immediately knew something was off. She wasn’t as energetic as we expected. My wife and I both noticed it, but in the excitement of arriving home to our extended family and friends waiting for us, we said nothing to anyone, including each other. Overnight our fears were intensified. Olive drank what seemed like gallons of water and couldn’t seem to hydrate. I immediately called the vet Monday morning and brought her in. A few hours after our visit the doctor confirmed that Olive was indeed sick. She had developed lymphoma and had multiple tumors in her chest and digestive tract. The cancer had also caused her kidneys to function abnormally, but this was potentially reversible. To say we were devastated at this news is an understatement. We jumped into action.

Over the course of last week we were told that, while not curable in dogs, lymphoma was very treatable with chemotherapy and steroids. We would be able to buy her six to eight more months with us, and while we were saddened by the prospect of losing her so soon we could at least take solace in the fact that we could make her comfortable and would have time to say goodbye properly. “How lucky we are to be in a position to pay for treatment”, we thought.

As you have probably guessed by the title of this post, Olive never recovered. She spent five days in the vet clinic, very well-cared for, but unwilling to eat with kidneys that wouldn’t respond to treatment. We visited her every day, and finally on Friday we decided that barring a miracle we would have to make the most difficult decision to end her beautiful life to prevent more suffering. Unfortunately that miracle never came, and, with broken hearts, we sent our little girl over the Rainbow Bridge on Saturday afternoon, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

As I thought about the injustice of this situation and navigated the roller coaster of emotions over the course of the week, I considered how hard it was for me to be truly “on” at work as we prepare for the start of school, and I thought about how tough it would be to sit in my office today without crying because our home is so empty.

Then I thought about our students. There are approximately 700 6th through 8th graders in my building. Many come to school with baggage, some unimaginable, on a daily basis. I thought about how I was reacting to my co-workers around me out of grief, and how they couldn’t really understand my pain. Or perhaps, I thought, I should be embarrassed because, after all, this is a dog and not a person. If I am an adult who is thinking this way, imagine what our kids think when confronted with challenging life circumstances.

How often do we take the time to truly talk to our students about what is going on their lives? How often do we demand their attention, their courtesy, without understanding what is happening at home or (even worse) DESPITE what is happening at home? How often do we demand it when we don’t give it in return because of something trying that is occurring in our own lives?

As we start a new school year in September here in Upstate New York, I know that I will be considering these questions much more regularly as I interact with students in my building. Relationships matter more than anything else in our line of work. Taking the time to listen, to get to know our students, and to check in with them privately when they seem out-of-sorts might be the magic wand that keeps them believing that school is where they need to be. Build relationships first and curriculum second. Build relationships first and common assessments second. Build relationships first and gather data second. Ultimately it is an investment worth making early.

I learned so much about myself over the six years that Olive owned me, and, it turns out, that even in saying goodbye she was able to teach me one more thing.

Ol