Black & White…or Gray.

This essay is an attempt to make sense of the conflicting perspectives I’ve encountered regarding the events surrounding law enforcement and people of color. The names have been changed where necessary to protect the perspectives of my current and former students who have entered into this conversation with me.


“Mr. Nentrup, did you see the Ferguson story last night?”

“Yes. It was horrible.”

“Man. That mob.”

This is when I knew this conversation with one of my students wasn’t going to be small talk. “That mob,” is when I knew it wasn’t going to be two people agreeing. Curtis is a good kid. A good, white, rural, Christian kid. And that’s what was now the lens through which I was seeing him. Yes, I was aware of my emerging mild prejudice towards a kid that was very similar to me at his age. Good, white, (semi)rural, Christian. So, of course, I feel a sense of mission to clearly establish our differences at this point. This seemed necessary because he didn’t see we had polar opposite reactions to the story. He innocently presumed we’d both be shaking our heads at those crazy black people in Ferguson. Or nodding in agreement that Darren Wilson was acting proportionally to Michael Brown’s assault by killing him in the street, and that the entire systemic meltdown that followed was the fault of no one but a dead, teenage, Michael Brown. Then this:

“Is that the name of the guy who punched the cop?” Curtis asks me.

In a heartbeat, I think of when I taught in the city and how every former student — every last one — would’ve used a different question to clarify a name they hadn’t caught yet, like:

“Wait…Is that the kid from Ferguson?”

“Is that the kid the cop shot?”

“Is that the kid they left in the street for four hours?”

“Is that the kid the cop killed?”

“IS THAT THE KID?”

The guy who punched the cop. Even though Michael Brown did resist arrest, did struggle with and punch Darren Wilson, I don’t think there’s anyone who should use that descriptor of Michael Brown. He wasn’t faultless. But he was a kid. A black male kid living in a construct where he was at the most severe risk for confrontation with police; the most at risk to incarceration or to being shot in public by a law enforcement officer. Michael Brown was the worst kind of statistic. And now for millions of Americans, Darren Wilson’s bruised or birthmarked face represents a corrupt power that can do whatever the hell it wants.

Curtis continues saying, “The way I see it, the cop was just doing his job.”

Now, I appreciate the courtesy of a disclaimer, but it is also a very damning prelude. “This is the way I see it” is precisely the entire issue here. The “I” becomes a “we” who don’t comprehend the difficulties and challenges with which young black males are fraught. The hard thing to own up to (for White America) is just how unfair a unspoken notion can be when you write it down:

“The way we see it, young black men are a threat to the way we want the world to be and a militarized police force becomes essential for keeping it in check if not contained.”

So when a big kid like Mike Brown furrows his brow and starts swinging, his fists are deadly weapons and his entire demeanor is reduced to being a “thug”. Being a monster. Or as Darren Wilson described Brown’s face, “it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

As many who are focused upon the bigger picture are discussing, such talk is dehumanizing. It’s an attempt to make the grand jury’s verdict more palatable. But it’s an insult to our intelligence, and a tell of a much bigger problem in our still as of yet unsolved race relations around the fringes of any urban cop’s beat. White cops with kevlar and guns vs. black kids tired of being approached by such officers. Please don’t hear me saying I want police officers taking unnecessary risks with their own lives in the line of duty. It’s no different than supporting our troops abroad but condemning the choices of those in Washington sending those troops into unnecessary battle. Many officers of the law deserve respect and the support of the community to not put undue burden on their keeping of the peace. But law enforcement academy graduates are entering a broken system where the gap between the peace and keeping it is just too broad. Fixing that institution will take at least a generation. That’s unfortunate.

It’s universally understood that the rioting and vandalism isn’t what inspires that sort of cultural shift between institutions or people groups. Likewise, there have been plenty of memes pointing out the hypocrisy of other riotous outbreaks involving pro sports victories, and something with a pumpkin fest not getting the sort of attention from the right wing media as the destruction in Ferguson. We get it. Both sides are amped up. This too, is unfortunate and something I don’t see changing soon.

Especially when other cases go through their preliminary hearings, grand juries, and trials and result in more situations where the institutions are favored over the individuals. Just today, it was Eric Garner, who’s officer wasn’t indicted, even though a bystander recorded the Garner who resisted arrest, and then subdued by a choke-hold, and died on the sidewalk. Though pleading for relief because Eric was an asthma sufferer, and couldn’t breathe, the officers kept the applying lethal pressure. Speaking of Eric’s another former student of mine posted on Facebook as I was editing this essay that he’d been pulled over tonight. He’s black. That’s all. I don’t know what to do about that.

But what’s more unfortunate to me and is something I CAN start to influence is default perspective for so many that an officer or soldier must be doing their job, like what Curtis shared with me this morning. Again, he’s a great student. He’ll likely never be in a confrontation with the law beyond a speeding ticket. And I have plenty of friends who are fantastic officers, able to discern the best way to handle a dangerous situation.

The problem is how this repeated incident is further reinforcing stereotypes that both parties are contributing to upholding in mutual and escalating distrust. It’s just that one of these stereotypes — the white police officer working in a black neighborhood — is an organized and institutionalized force. It escalates to the point the National Guard is deployed, like in Ferguson, with the only operational difference between the two forces being the color of their uniform. Color. How ironic is that? To be clear, that’s a police force and National Guard with their rifles and riot shields pointed inward, not outward.

So people have taken to the streets. They’ve shut down major roads with their protesting, interrupted ball games and Christmas tree lightings. Some get belligerent and take advantage of the situation, no doubt. But a growing number are saying enough is enough and following a path of civil disobedience to get their message across. Why, in 2014 should we make them work so hard to convince the rest of us that things aren’t the way they should be? It’s really confusing because it seems so obvious.

I can tell you this. My boys at the urban charter school were also tough to convince. It’s really hard for them to believe that today that their lives amount to much in the world. Yeah, A few have the innate optimism to keep on going in school and life no matter what, but many would see the grand jury’s verdicts for the officers that confronted Michael Brown and Eric Garner that black lives don’t matter. That Kajieme Powell, Tamir Rice, John Crawford were expendables in the line of duty. Or that such mistakes are the collateral for the world we’ve all created. So, couple that message with the looming forecast from a portion of White America that the cops are always right and just doing their job and where do they turn for help?

So, yes. I’m saying the grand jury decisions to not indict officers who’ve done wrong is making the world a more difficult place in a number of ways. But what I feel is how a teacher’s job gets even harder for those who work with black boys. These incidents kill hopes. They instigate rebellion against the system. Because the suburban public responds by watching the fires and angry protests and aren’t actually listening to the message, the pessimism spreads on both sides. I’m telling you. One side can’t afford to give up any more ground than it already has.

I’m worried for the parents and teachers of today’s black teens. If we can’t get this chasm to start closing up, if we can’t fulfill the agreement we made so many years ago to be a better society committed to civil rights for all, then what are we doing?  Too many of my former students won’t think they have a chance when they get older, they’ll think they have a death sentence.

Oye Como Va

Reading @RabeckaKrill’s recent post for @SchoolKeep, I got to thinking about the need for  all involved in today’s education system to be able to speak with fluency, both online and face-to-face modalities of teaching and learning.

For today’s online instructors and program managers, what’s most important now, but will eventually dissipate, is the challenge of straddling two paradigms: face-to-face and virtual. Synchronous and asynchronous.

Both are still functional and each has their strong suits. We’re in the “Spanglish” era of education, which is a fitting metaphor, really. At 38, I can remember hearing my parents counseled that if I were to focus on learning a foreign language during high school and college, I’d be more competitive in the job search than a candidate who only knew English. And yet, I have only rarely used my Spanish while on the job. It’s never gotten me a gig. Others can tell a much different story, however.

Similarly, both teachers and students accommodating the shift from wholly face-to-face instruction to having some if not a lot of experience in online learning might find the experiences valuable upon occasion. For others, it’s the difference between being able to squeeze in the time to earn an entire degree or accommodating a learning style that’s better suited in one environment or the other.

If you listen to a child of a household with both Spanish and English being spoken, they can switch from one to the other without any cognitive dissonance or fatigue. The same is becoming true for today’s learners switching from classes that meet IRL and those that meet only online. We can teach and learn in either. We need both. At least for now!

On A Positive Note.

Considering the devolution of Facebook commentary into polarizing topics that never yield meaningful debate, I’m curious about what we can do to use that space for interaction as an incubator of good things. Is it possible we can stay connected with each other in the present and NOT talk about such topics, yet do so without shying away from the issues that need to be discussed? How do you grapple with the tough issues without sliding down the slope toward offense?

Certainly we’re capable of it. Certainly we can be courteous and still discuss things like religion and politics’s impact on our society without it being an empty showing of rhetoric.

I’m not sure how to do it though.

What I am sure about is the changes I’ve made in my ideologies over the past decade. I feel as though they have been significant—on par with razing the structure to the ground and starting over on an entirely different foundation. This impacts my sense of identity along with my priorities for shaping my decisions. I’m in by no way interested in evangelizing others to see things my way; just offering my perspective to further conversation as we do this entire thing together.

If there’s anything I’d like to convey specifically, it’s that as forever growing and learning creatures, I believe we can allow evidence to change us fundamentally and when that occurs, to share those experiences in a way that provokes a conversation for testing those conclusions, comparing to other conclusions, and ultimately enjoying the process of evolving our perspectives over our relatively short lives.

I’m certain this is threatening to some, and that there’s something to be said for staying the course on certain issues, in spite of the changing tide of public opinion. However, there are at least as many coin flips that indicate the need to continue to look for a better way than the current or traditional one, if we’re ever going to make the progress necessary.

And so I’m eager to put that forward as a bit of a credo for governing my own sharing with others, particularly in the vacuum of posting things online. Thoughts?

Airguns Don’t Kill, Confused People Do.

Crosman M4-177 Air Rifle. Yes. It’s a pellet gun.

I know these posts from me aren’t appealing. But I mentioned some weeks back that nearby at the Southport, IN Meijer, Kim and I found a Crosman air rifle VERY similar to the MK-177 model, “open box” at knee high height. If you recall, I brought up to nearby sales clerk that this wasn’t safe for kids (not that I imagine many are carrying .177 pellets or BBs in their pockets these days) or anyone in the vicinity. The clerk would NOT engage me no matter how gently I raised the concern. Not sure if he thought I was just an anti-gun zealot or what. Wouldn’t respond to me saying a tool that tosses a projectile of lead at 600+ feet per second could be a bit silly without being packaged.

I mean, I had a Daisy pellet gun that was much less convincing facsimile of my favorite rifle as a kid, the Ruger Mini 14. Please get that I “get this” fascination with a pellet gun looking real. The thing is, the 2014 Crosman models are MUCH closer in profile and size to their .223 and .308 centerfire assault rifles.

A story breaks Thursday about a young man in a Walmart less than 2 hours from that Meijer near my home, who had an ever so slightly different version of the exact same air rifle in the aisle.

The MK-177 John Crawford was holding in a Dayton-area Walmart

Not two damn hours away, this guy is shot and killed by the police who saw this guy as a threat to public safety. Was he? Not sure. I wasn’t there. He could’ve been acting a fool and completely unaware at 22 years old that his skin color could just MAYBE clouding judgment and thus inadvertently justifying lethal force. But 4 weeks back, and 2 hours away in Indianapolis, nobody thought THIS white guy, ME, picking up a Crosman M4-177 in the Meijer was about to wreak havoc.

We have a hell of a problem with gun culture in this country.

Just. Tell. Me. I’m. Wrong.

Otherwise, put down YOUR guns and demand these vendors QUIT mimicking the military tools that keep our country and its interests safe in order to sell plastic plinkers to boys.

Here’s Crosman on Twitter: @crosmancorp

Tell ‘em I sent you.

Sample Tweets:

  • BB guns are a rite of passage, but they don’t have to cause these sorts of problems.
  • Profiting off of warmongering isn’t very becoming of @crosmancorp
  • Military tools keep the nation safe. BB guns teach boys responsibility. Don’t blur lines.
  • Please quit making airguns that glorify war.
  • Crosman should have a better reputation than @Halliburton
  • We have a gun culture problem and we need @crosmancorp to solve it, not make it worse.

 

This Uncharted Desert Isle.

Islands often conjure images of blissful vacation. The sand. The water. The coconuts. An envious isolation from the toils of the mainland. However, islands just as often lack any semblance to a quintessential tropical paradise. Instead, they are the rocky prisons of the wayward and shipwrecked.

Over the past two years, the Indiana Department of Education has taken great strides to break free from the collective momentum found elsewhere in the United States. We are a state adrift in some sort of reverse Pangea, where with increasing isolation, the infrastructure of our education system is gravely suspect. Our current governor has, across his platform, touted the strength of the state over the nation—an odd move for a politician with such obvious aspirations beyond the gubernatorial. Though elected the same November evening as the Superintendent for Public Instruction, Glenda Ritz, they have been nothing but adversarial. Their efforts have not been collaborative, but divisive and separatist. During State Board of Education meetings, Pence appointees have broken form of the typically benign gatherings and been so accusatory to Ritz that the arguments made headlines. Both sides have moved to now have lawyers present for conferring during the SBOE meetings. Some of these moves haven’t been efforts in keeping form with Pence’s emphasis on statehood prominence, but some moves have, such as exiting the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. This was a very heavy domino and its falling has created some concerns that are every bit as political, but more so, have some very real dollars attached to them.

The latest terrible island to emerge in this chain has to do with the state’s compliance with federal law. Indiana is a week away from losing $200M federal dollars for failing to meet a deadline in maintaining a waiver from complying with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act of 2001. How this severely flawed legislation hasn’t been repealed is beyond the scope of this post. NCLB still holds court, and if Indiana doesn’t correct the nine of 18 measures cited by the federal DOE as unacceptable, it will cost the state direly. This is on top of the millions we’ve wasted in implementing the Common Core (admittedly, not well spent) only to repeal it, the looming unknown cost of extending our $95M contract with CTB-McGraw Hill for updating standardized testing to reflect the new but shoddy and CCSS-plagiarized Indiana Academic Standards, let alone the cost of inserting yet another standardized test during the 9th grade year of an Indiana student’s career.

Prior to this, the governor joined in the education-island-development business and developed an alternative SBOE, the "Center for Education and Career Innovation" or "CECI". CECI along with the island known as the Education Roundtable have seemingly created such a distraction for Ritz that her administration can’t afford transparency to even friendly SBOE board members. Among them, Dr. Brad Oliver of Indiana Wesleyan University has responsibly requested for details about how Ritz intends to meet compliance. She said no in a meeting just a week-and-a-half out from the deadline, desiring that Oliver simply trust her competence. Stay off her island.

Why are we so willing to risk the $200M affordances of the waiver by going it alone in so many areas of our education system? There’s an emerging trend in our breaking free and going it alone: that it only limits our options. It’s like a reverse pyramid scheme where we see how many stakeholders we can obviate. Teachers, parents, the various boards and committees. I suppose it all started by voting Tony Bennett off the island in November, 2012. Then, Ritz tipped her hand a week later at the 2012 CELL Conference that Indiana’s PARCC commitment was on the chopping block. With that, came our eventual exit from the Common Core State Standards—likely the most over-politicized education policy issue in state history. The departure was purely political. It was a Guinness World Record-size red herring.

Ritz’s detractors can just as easily criticize her for moving too slowly and for fragmenting the system as her predecessors’ blamed Bennett for moving too quickly and congealing too much momentum. And it’s entirely ironic that these political personalities are the polar opposites of the parties each represents—at least on other issues.

Since both sides can argue in favor of doing what’s right by students, I’ll posit another approach. Who is going to suffer such from this recklessness? Teachers. 62,000+ teachers in Indiana are going to lose critical time waiting for the resources necessary to plan standards-aligned lessons. These teachers are going to lose precious days with doing things they know to work with their students because they’re in a "pilot phase" yet again preparing for new standardized tests. And these teachers are getting their morale stomped on by the bickering, the politicking, and the usurping of their professional capacity as pedagogical experts by people unable to fulfill the demands of their office. Lastly, 62,000 teachers are going to have to dig even deeper into their pockets to buy materials for their now overcrowded classrooms that can’t be covered by their administrators (who also just let go some teachers their slice of the $200M would have afforded).

As a result, teachers will enter into the first day of school less prepared for their new students. Teachers will teach to the test yet again. And competent teachers will leave the profession to go make a living in another field because their vocation was stolen from them by bureaucratic incompetence.

For those who do, I hope they take time to squeeze in a vacation somewhere tropical. Maybe at an all-inclusive resort with beachside service. They’d certainly deserve it after getting tossed by the waves of the brewing tempest at the Indiana Department of Education. By all appearances, the Ritz administration looks like it’s headed for the rocks, but don’t be misdirected. It’s teachers who are being marooned on a desert island.

The Fordham Institute Throws in the Towel on the Common Core.

…or so you might think.

Just to prove that my indignation about the Indiana State Legislature’s decision to upend our investment in academic higher standards isn’t me being an erratic firebrand, I encourage you to read the article posted by The Fordham Institute, On Common Core, We Cry Uncle. It’s tone is a bit of a departure from other documents and reports we’ve grown accustomed to reading from this trusted organization.

As an English teacher who enjoys encouraging the writing of others, and as a practitioner of guiding students towards mastering the Common Core State Standards, below you’ll find the constructive academic feedback I left the writers. I draw my conclusions based upon the standards in the Writing and Language strands, respectively :

Never in my years as an English teacher have I seen such sophisticated use of satire and reverse psychology.

Michael and Tommy, on this collaborative assignment, I recognize your mastery of:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.1.A – Your intro was very compelling and perfectly framed the coming content.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.1.B – Your inventive inclusion of counterarguments was natural and avoided the awkwardness of including it just for the sake of doing so.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.1.C – Through snarky phrasings, your cohesion throughout the piece was seamless. 

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.1.E – Your brief conclusion was the final nail in the coffin of this argument. Way to stick the landing.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.4 – Your consideration of the audience and purpose of steeling their resolve was accomplished.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.1 – A grammatically and mechanically flawless piece of efficient command of the English language.

Areas of Refinement:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.1.D – on a future assignment for another audience, let’s work on developing our objective tone.

 

Summary:

This is a brilliant piece of argumentative writing with a satirical tone. Don’t be alarmed however, if people comment in the “troll” vernacular, thinking that your satire was either to be interpreted literally (e.g., like an alarmingly many do the books in the Holy Bible), or a deliberate attempt to pawn them on this *sacrilege* of a “holiday”, April Fool’s Day. Don’t let their lower thinking and spiteful rhetoric discourage you. I think you may have a career in this genre.

As I’ve been talking about, the institution and subsequent repeal of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is the perfect example of a sensible conversation that is completely derailed by misinformation for purely political gain. There are others, but this one I have a bit of a corner on, as a practitioner of curriculum design aiming for these academic targets. The lies I’ve heard are rampant. Let me explain. Teachers were/are involved. The classroom perspective was included. From the onset, there wasn’t a political agenda in creating a list of academic targets–in fact, how could there be? Algebra is algebra. Standard English is Standard English. The motivation in the initiative reflected the dearth of achievement, the growing gap for our most struggling schools and learners, and a fairly realistic way to address PART of it. If the establishment responds by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, they demonstrate a lack of many of the critical thinking skills the CCSS itself can help impart (through the locally designed curriculum of artisan teachers). I routinely tell my students that nothing is written—only rewritten (wish I knew the source for that truth).

That those of us who are in the profession—but above the simpleton tactics being employed in ousting the CCSS in Indiana—wouldn’t have noticed this approach, is an insult to our intelligence and mastery of the content we teach. I’m reminded of my nephew, who as a toddler, brought a water gun into the house, concealing it as he entered. I watched as my own mother asked him what her grandson had behind his back. He first lied that he didn’t have anything, then when confronted, pretended in earnest he didn’t know he had it in his hand. Behind his back.

The Common Core in and of itself should guide teachers towards creating curriculum that enabled students a clear path towards presenting much more valid arguments than what this faction has accomplished through fear and misappropriation. If I sound angry, it’s because I couldn’t have fathomed such egregious behavior would have made it to a bill, let alone out of committee, any more than I could’ve figured that my nephew would’ve been able to sneak that water gun into the house after being appropriately questioned.

It’s not that the governor has failed us teachers in this measure (among others such as the guns-in-school-parking-lots-decriminalization), it’s that he has betrayed teachers and students by forcing us to take a lesser route to achieving our goals, and thinking we wouldn’t notice that it’s either for political gain or due to a complete lack of capacity for problem-solving and critical thinking that isn’t at the behest of some constituency that has the same cognitive dysfunction.

Harsh? Perhaps. But I have real work to do because my OWN cognitive dysfunction manifests like this: I believe that if I don’t create a sense of urgency for my teenage students that reading with the utmost of comprehension and writing with the utmost of clarity is the most important thing to accomplish right now, I’m putting their very lives at risk. Yes, as whack as it sounds, I believe that it is my mission is to save the lives of teenagers by teaching them how to read and write, and in doing so, they achieve the ability to think critically.

It’s a befuddling thing isn’t it? And I’d be extremely self-conscious about it if I thought I might be the only teacher who thinks this way.

But I’m not.

Misguided War on the Common Core? At VERY least.

I think Bloomberg’s David Shipley does an excellent post-mortem on the completely political “state overreach” by Governor Mike Pence and State Senator Scott Schneider in repealing Indiana’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Based upon the draft of the *new* Indiana College & Career Readiness Standards (which for better or worse, THIS English teacher would call blatant plagiarism of the CCSS, minus the helpful organization of sequence and scope inherent in the CCSS but absent in this draft) along with The College Board’s subsequent announcement that the SAT is being realigned to the CCSS, I think this will be one of those “misguided” efforts that blows up on the Tea Party fear-mongering faction of the Indiana State Government.

I’m very open to hearing the debates. I’ve considered every perspective a CCSS opponent has thoughtfully shared with me, and can’t find any validity in the passage of this repeal as it appears to only create MORE work for our already overstressed education workforce. Not that implementing the CCSS is easy, but for us to go it alone? After 3+ years of building curriculum, considering a testing schema, and dumping hundreds of thousands of manhours statewide into getting ready for such a seismic shift? That’s foolhardy in ways that defy reason and as Shipley says, can only be determined as political (and thus self-serving to both Pence, Schneider, and those who voted for it ).

As I’ve said before, you would actually have to have mastery of several of the standards in the CCSS to successfully refute something like a set of common sense standards. Just because you bark at more things doesn’t mean you’re a better dog. I’m not advocating that the CCSS is perfect. Not by a longshot according to curriculum developers much smarter than myself. However, the rabidly viral Badass Teacher’s Association (an organization that threw me out for suggesting we draft a 2.0 version if the 1.0 wasn’t worthy), never expressed interest in practicing any of the Four C’s: collaboration, communication, critical-thinking, and creativity. I had no idea my desire to suggest that was an offense. Maybe it was just too badass.

Though I’m a staunch supporter of us having a single set of core standards coast to coast (core, as in, not the entire apple), I’m not specifically brand loyal to the CCSS. I’m just fearful of what this and similar legislation coming out of this General Assembly Session foreshadows. What it’s about ultimately are politicians (and yes, also voters who are kowtowed into illogical fears) becoming all the more capable of doing things to restrict teachers and caring administrators from taking advantage of some of the best resources to come to the education market for helping our kids stay competitive for what comes next. Let me enumerate.

For non-education folks: Here are THREE key takeaways from the General Assembly:

  • We think the federal government is pulling a socialist takeover by saying that learning targets the National Governor’s Association came up with are an overreach.
  • We think decriminalizing having a gun in a school parking lot makes sense.
  • We think we need to stop and ponder for a year or several the idea that preschool is right for Hoosier tikes.

I’m not stretching the truth much if at all in my interpretation. And I’m not naïve the amount of horse-trading that goes on in the State Capitol Building’s hallways. But based on the voting record of these senators who made these three things Indiana law this past month and to think that with these choices, they represent the electorate’s best for our children’s education, maybe we all need to go back to school.

Hello, Baxter.

Stay tuned. This kid’s got chops.

Goodbye, Maddie.

Like I often do the night before a trip, I awoke early, without help from alarm clock. The clock read 5:00 on the dot, and I could feel a tremor on our bed. I figured it was Maddie, our Cocker Spaniel, chewing on her nails or the fur between her toes—a habit that has annoyed me for years. Mostly due to my inability to help curtail it with careful grooming and frequent discouragement. But there was enough of a difference in the movement that I didn’t do the typical maneuver where I shovel her over on top of my wife’s feet with my own. I grabbed my glasses and iPhone from the bedside charger and swiped open the flashlight app. I saw she was panting and causing the bed to shimmy. Panting. That was peculiar. The room was plenty cool. I  carried her to the living room. When I sat Maddie down on the floor, she had leaden feet, slogging her way towards the area rug—a very untypical behavior for this otherwise energetic pup (yes, even at 13, she’s always been a puppy to me; as naive and clueless in her latter years as she was at the beginning. Maddie never demonstrated much curiosity or cleverness besides getting into every trash can we ever owned).

This lack of energy was concerning to me, but I tried to frame it with our visit to our vet just this past Wednesday. Ironically, I was feeling puny that day, and had called in sick, and here I was, at my wife’s behest, taking the typically-healthy of our two dogs to the vet. Maddie had developed a bit of a cough that wasn’t going away on it’s own. The vet couldn’t tell me anything conclusive after the inspection, but only speculate about her pre-existing heart murmur. She couldn’t hear any labored breathing or the telltale gurgle of fluid buildup in the lungs. She was careful to remind me of the broad spectrum of ailments present in an older dog before ending on a higher note of a possible sinus infection. Two prescriptions and $75 later, I was out the door with Maddie. I even filmed a short clip to send to Kim to show that she was doing okay after the visit.

And so, I thought perhaps that this sinus infection had escalated into a more advanced case. I watched as she made her way to the back door I was holding open, then peed on the small pile of snow I had shoveled off of the deck these past few weeks, and made her way around her typical circuit. To forestall my own impatience at this turd-sniffing routine, I made coffee and ushered Glory, our two-years-older-and-much-more-decrepit Sheltie out the same back door. Minutes later, Glory yelped. Not the typical “all done” bark, but a yelp. One that means, “Hey, human. Something’s not quite right out here.” I grabbed my jacket, stepped into my mud boots and went to find Maddie. The freezing rain was now starting to come down with a bit of force, pattering audibly on the deck and hot tub cover as I swept the yard with a flashlight. She wasn’t anywhere around the fence sniffing for bunnies and squirrel scent. She was lying in the doghouse. In a freezing rain shower. I knew what this meant, but didn’t want to jump—couldn’t jump to that conclusion.

You see, this dog has been everything to my wife. I remember when Kim had mononucleosis over a decade ago. Maddie snuggled with her every day she was bedridden during that bout. Then again, there was the time Kim had her appendix out after a terrible misdiagnosis, which led to a shit show of a surgery which meant a terribly extended recovery time for Kim. Bedridden again, Maddie was her faithful canine-hot-water-bottle, bringing her comfort and company while I begrudgingly went to work for the very tiny boss I was betrothed to at the time. Two years ago, Kim was once again laid up, for what we hope to be the last time in a long time. The ordeal wasn’t just the typical physically draining one. Kim was as emotionally and mentally incapacitated as well. But her dog was by her side, while I continued to go to work.

You see, I’ve been oddly jealous of this dog. It sounds peculiar, but she has had more cumulative time snuggling with Kim than I have. It’s just the way our lives have unfolded, and in some ways, being Kim’s “snuggle buddy” was her entire bailiwick. Generally, Maddie was better at it than the frenetic redhead Kim married a couple years before we adopted Maddie from Megan, Kim’s sister. And because of this, I am genuinely concerned for my wife. Maddie was my surrogate for her on trips like this very one that I had to leave for. She kept Kim from worrying about noises that went bump in the night (mainly because that dog was the majority source for said noises as she made midnight prowls for forgotten snack plates, and tasties discarded in the trash). In short, Maddie kept Kim from feeling like a travel-widow on so many occasions she deserves a presidential medal of honor for her proficiency at the task.

When I went to get Maddie out of the doghouse, she wouldn’t move. She didn’t resist, but she didn’t have any desire to comply. I pulled her out with a gentle tug of the collar, and she unwillingly stepped down, and I honored that by scooping her up and carrying her in. She started panting again. When I put her on the floor, she stayed where I left her for several minutes as I went about my morning routine, preparing for my trip. It was like she was missing her cues. “Maddie, I’m about to leave, and I need you to clock in and take care of Kim while I’m gone, ‘kay?”

“Right, Dad. I know. I want to. I just don’t think I’m feeling so great.”

About the third time I whisked past her and saw her literal hang-dog expression, I scooped her up again and put her on the couch, where she laid down her head, but continued to pant. And shiver.

“Maddie, you know I’m counting on you, right? I need you to keep Kim company. I can’t always be there for her.”

“I know. Yes, Dad.” she somehow communicates back shifting her big brown eyes to me while keeping her chin on the pillow, her hindquarters shivering.

And I then realized, for the first time and for the first time considered what it meant. My god, Maddie. You won’t always be here either.

I wasn’t comfortable with heading to the airport with Kim finding her like that. But I was also not eager to wake Kim up to tell her I was concerned. As though she sensed something, Kim awoke and came into the living room so quietly I didn’t notice.

“Maddie’s not doing well, babe,” I told her. And then I repeated to her what I’d seen. Like Maddie had done thousands of times, Kim returned the favor of gently snuggling up against her on the couch, asking her what was wrong. I couldn’t even watch.

Fifteen minutes later, I was out the door, like a coward, off to the airport, a thousand some odd miles away from this…decision.

I arrived at my gate and the phone rang. It was Kim calling to tell me she was at the nearby pet emergency facility. The doctor had told her that the x-ray revealed an enlarged heart and that the prognosis wasn’t good. They advised we put Maddie to sleep. As Kim relayed the information, I started denying that it was time for this ultimatum, bartering for second opinions and the like. I hadn’t realized that Kim wasn’t asking me for advice—asking me to be strong for her where she was weak. She was already at a place of decision; one that demonstrated her strength.

And as I type this, crying like a baby in front of a bunch of other travel-weary midwesterners at O’Hare International, I’m worried about my wife. I don’t know what this loss is going to do to her. But I worry without a certain empathy I’ll likely never be able to achieve. I’m referring to that capacity to fully realize what this other person, my wife, is capable of in feats of strength. Whether it’s one of the many illnesses she’s battled, or the ultimate betrayal of an inept employer, a financial hardship, or complete and utter ideological meltdown resulting in us both quite literally losing our religion, I’m convinced she handles them all with so much more poise and with the stability of a slab of granite than I could ever muster.

Of course there’s a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy I’m attempting to conjure with that statement. There’s a sliver of hope I’m trying to manufacture on a day when it feels like we lost one of our human relatives. And I hope I can be forgiven for resorting to such a coping mechanism. Because, that’s exactly what that is to me—a coping mechanism. I need it not just to mourn a dog that drove me apeshit most every day with the messes she made, the midnight moments she made me stand on the deck in my boxers signaling in at least three different languages how in earnest I yearned for her to come in immediately so I could go to bed, and all other sorts of idiosyncrasies…I need to end on a hopeful note because I’m away from my wife for the next week and for the first time, she won’t have Maddie next to her in my stead. That breaks my heart and unnerves me like I never anticipated. So forgive me that schmaltz, that codependence, that weakness. Or not. But at very least forgive me for needing to write about the death of a dog, a family member, a sort of colleague and put this out there for my own selfish and mesmerizingly debilitating reaction to this loss.

That need I’ve had is one I’ve never really taken notice of until now. That need I had for Maddie to simply be there for Kim. I took that entirely for granted. And that’s why it hurts so bad. I can’t say thank you to this creature for her faithfulness nor can I fill that void. All I can do is be grateful she left this world as quietly as she burglarized all those boxes of crackers, half-eaten cookies, and roast chickens left to close to the edge of the kitchen island. Even in that final act, one I know in one in which she had no choice, just a heart that was giving out, at least she spared Kim a drawn out decline.

Maddie took care of Kim one final time.