Another Letter to Students

Dear Students,

Each of my twenty-seven years teaching, I have written a letter to my students as an introduction and a welcome. It is important for us to get to know one another well so that we can build a healthy and happy working relationship. After all, for most of the next ten months, we will become a family of sorts—a community of learners, endeavoring to stretch our minds, to take learning risks in the pursuit of increased understanding, and to open ourselves to what school and life has to offer.

Normally, the tone of my letter would be cheerful, upbeat, and optimistic, and I would tell you with excitement about everything I had done over the summer to enjoy the time away from school and what I had done to prepare for our year together. Then I would regale you with stories of my family, particularly my fur family, and the funniest and most endearing tales would be those that starred my dogs. I may still do a bit of that, but this letter is somewhat more reflective than usual because after sixteen months of surgeries and chemotherapy to slow his cancer, my beloved fourteen-year-old dog, Toby, a Golden Retriever mix, died two weeks ago. Until that time, Toby had been central to my life, as it was mere months after our marriage that Bob and I rescued Toby, adopting him from the local animal shelter, and in that one seemingly minor act, permanently enriching our lives in ways we could have never imagined.

Perhaps some of you know John Greene’s book, The Fault in Our Stars, or have seen the eponymous movie. In that novel, one of the characters, Gus, tells the girl he loves “Grief does not change you…It reveals you.” I believe this is true. The palpably immense absence of my daily, exuberant canine companion causes me to reflect on my life before, during, and after our time together, and what I’ve learned is this: Dogs have a lot to teach humans, and I am at my best when I’m most like my dog.

Toby drank in each moment with an open heart, greeting every new day with unbridled exuberance and delight, knowing new adventures would emerge. He exhibited a willingness to be dazzled by the smallest, most ordinary things—a walk in the yard, fresh snow, the arrival of mail, a place to sit on the couch, a drink of water from the fountain, a dappled spot of shade on a hot day. He understood the value of doing what needed to be done, even when it didn’t seem fun—baths were a prime example: Toby hated baths, but took them willingly, jumping into the tub when I called, “Bath time,” and delighting in the end result, prancing about the house to show Nola—his eight-year-old sister dog—and the three cats his shiny, clean coat. As Toby grew old, had his right rear leg amputated to eradicate bone cancer in that limb, and dealt with the side effects of both the disease and its treatment, he taught me about resilience—optimism and acceptance in the face of adversity, always maintaining his vibrant spirit and his irrepressible zest for life. He taught me about friendship and selflessness, illustrating how the best friendships work, free from strife, petty gripes, vying for position, betrayal, or meanness. Above all, though, Toby taught me the value of unwavering and unconditional love. He gave of himself without fear of being hurt or looking silly, or not having friendship and love returned. Every person he met he greeted as one with potential for greatness and joy.

Contemplating how grief reveals and how dogs teach brings me to another truth about myself. I want to grab hold of this one wild and precious life and live it to its fullest. I want to be mindful. I want to do the things that need to be done and to do them well, not in some begrudging way, metaphorically dragging my feet, but with an open mind and spirit, daring to be amazed and fulfilled. I want to awaken each day with a heart brimming with joy, anticipating with a smile and a sense of humor the challenges and adventures that await me. Most importantly, I want to cherish every person I meet, withholding judgment and seeing within each human being a wealth of potential. I know I will not always succeed in these endeavors, but I know that like Toby, I am both optimistic and resilient, and so any failures I have will serve as lessons to help me continue, better informed, on my path.

How does this relate to you? Well, it means that I greet you each day, seeing you as filled with potential, as capable young adults, and I expect you to strive to meet the potential that lies within you. You won’t always appreciate this in the moment. Some days it will be hard work. Buck Rodgers, former MLB catcher, manager, and coach says, “There are countless ways of achieving greatness, but any road to achieving one’s maximum potential must be built on a bedrock of respect for the individual, a commitment to excellence, and a rejection of mediocrity.” This will be your road to realizing your potential as well.

Such respect for the individual, commitment to excellence, and rejection of mediocrity requires all of us to be mindful and accountable as we venture forth together on our learning journey. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality, freeing us from distractions and allowing us to focus intentionally on what is most important at any given time. Reaching to attain our fullest potential also requires accountability—a personal willingness, after the fact, to answer for the results of our behaviors and actions. Being mindful and accountable won’t always be easy, and some days, we may not succeed in working to our potential, but each obstacle, even if it is of our own creation, will inform our progress together in some way. Henry Ford believed that “there is no man living who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can,” and Thomas Edison said that “if we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” Let’s do more than we think we can. Let’s astound ourselves and each other.

I hope I haven’t scared you too much. I do want you to know that I expect you to work hard this year, perhaps harder than you’ve ever been expected to work before, and I will hold you accountable and require you to be mindful, but you will not be alone. We are in this together. I will never ask you to do something I am not willing to do myself. We will learn from one another, and the many different minds engaged in our classroom will undoubtedly expose myriad everyday wonderlands previously hidden before our eyes. We are all connected, and although I do not ask that you like every person, I do require that you take care when you interact with one another, always treating each individual with respect and dignity. We are like a gossamer spider web in the morning dew, each drop of moisture delicately embellishing the strength and fragility of the whole.

In fact, all of life is like that dewdrop, ephemeral, yet glistening. Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Take care lest your actions diminish it and you. Our time together this year is short, but together we can make it one grand learning adventure—one filled with joy, laughter, personal and group achievement, friendship, and enhanced understanding of ourselves and the world. I am eager to join you as we begin our new adventure!

At the beginning of this letter, I promised to regale you with at least a few lighter stories, some featuring my pets. So, here goes. I have many passions in life, and among them is my family—a husband, two dogs, three cats, two nephews, a brother and sister-in-law, a mother, and a father and stepmother. My husband, Bob, is my grounding force. When I am in zoom mode, going a million miles a millisecond with my thoughts and actions, he encourages me to find my way back to a calmer reality, focusing on the big picture. Bob works at McNear’s, and although for decades he worked nights, he is now working days, which means he can no longer drive on class field trips, but we see each other more often now that our schedules are aligned. Bob is very tall and quiet. He is a wonderful cook, which is a good thing because I’m not. He also has a fabulous sense of humor. Bob is an absolutely wonderful person—gentle, caring, generous, fun-loving, intelligent, creative, and filled with integrity. He is the kind of person I aspire to be.

Bob and I live in old east Petaluma in a little, white farmhouse that has an immense yard, which is full of roses, hydrangeas, cannas, gardenias, dahlias, water plants, and irises. Alas, the drought has taken its toll, so our lush garden isn’t nearly as colorful and vibrant as usual. Bob and I live, with our menagerie of pets, very close to the Petaluma Library and the Fairgrounds. We have three cats—Frida Calico, Sammo, and Meg—who are only vaguely pet-like. Frida is the mother of Sammo and Meg, and all three were abandoned in our school parking lot a year or two before you were born. I caught them and took them to the Animal Shelter so they could be adopted out, but because they were feral, they were not considered adoptable and would have been euthanized if I had left them. Instead, Bob and I adopted them. We couldn’t touch them at all for months, but now they all sleep on the bed with us, along with our remaining dog, Nola. It’s a good thing we have a king-sized bed! Frida is our most ferocious cat, but ever since she had a cancerous tumor removed from her third eyelid, she has become our only lap cat and also Nola’s new best friend. She is a calico—half of her face is orange, and half is black. She is the most stubborn of the cats, certain that the world revolves around her.Sammo is the original scaredy cat, and he is also diabetic. He is practically afraid of his own shadow, so you can imagine how much fun it is for me to inject him with insulin every morning and every evening. Let’s just say that on more than one occasion, I’ve inadvertently given myself a shot of insulin. Sammo’s best friend is his orange-striped, chubby sister, Meg, the friendliest of the cats. She alternately cuddles with Nola and teases her, trying to provoke Nola into taking flying leaps over furniture to give chase. Nola almost always obliges.

The dogs have always been near and dear to my heart. It is strange to only have one dog, Nola, now. She is an eight-year-old rescue dog, part miniature Australian Shepherd and part Golden Retriever. She is energetic, loving nothing better than racing round the house or yard in loops, tail tucked for added speed. I call her my Velcro dog because she sticks right beside Bob or me wherever we go. She used to literally attach herself to Toby when they ran together, and this was when she was at her happiest. Toby’s love shaped her in much the way it has shaped me.

One of my favorite dog stories is from a trip many years ago to Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Seattle, where Bob’s parents live. We visit this gorgeous place often, and there is so much wildlife to see, from otters frolicking in ocean waves, to bald eagles, to deer and raccoons, to live sand dollars and starfish, and even a few ospreys. Toby and Nola usually accompany us, and on this particular trip, we took a bunch of different hikes with the dogs. Toby’s favorite outing was to Battleground Park, where there were all sorts of animals around. There were bunnies hidden in the brambles, eating blackberries, and Toby loved bunnies—we had one as a pet for ten years. There was also a pond full of ducks. As I was walking Toby around the large pond, he decided he wanted a closer look at a nearby duck, which was below us in the water. Toby and Nola are both used to ducks and geese because they often accompanied me to school in the summer, and they spent time at Schollenberger Park, so I wasn’t concerned about drawing very near to the pond overhang’s edge with Toby on leash. All of a sudden, Toby took two running steps to go after the duck. I dropped the leash, watching in horror as he took a flying leap off the shore and into the pond below. He was under water for what seemed like forever; then his head popped up, topped with a lily pad cap, and he looked at me as if to say, “What have I done?” and then, “Oh, boy, am I in trouble now!” I think he must have forgotten himself because for several days prior to this, he and Nola had been running into the ocean after seagulls. Now, for those of you true animal lovers, let me just assure you that Toby had no desire to harm any of these animals he was eager to see up close. He simply wanted to give them big, slobbery, loving kisses with his enormous tongue. Nola wasn’t interested in licking any of these creatures, only in proving she was superior in all ways—quicker, more agile, and smarter. For her, it was a battle of wits; for Toby, it was about making interesting new friends.

That used to be my favorite story because seeing Toby emerge from that pond with green lily pad atop his head, tilted like some sort of jaunty organic beret, with his look of glee turning instantly to “yikes,” was one of the funniest things I’d ever witnessed. Now, I love the story because it is another illustration of Toby’s approach to life, saying “yes” to adventures, living and loving fully in each moment, and being “all in” without holding back. He knew like sixteenth century Japanese poet, Nandai, that “life is but melting snow.”

Now, for your first writing assignment, write a letter to me, telling me all about you. I can’t wait to read your letter so that I can get to know more about you.

Ms. McClure

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sammie(:
    Aug 25, 2014 @ 23:15:25

    Aww, Toby…..

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