Alan Jackson, Professor and Academic Dean, Rockdale

 

Three Dog Nights

 

 

            For a few years in the late-nineties, I invited my classes to an end of semester party at my house, which was only ten minutes from the Dunwoody Campus.  Sometimes, my students would turn in their take-home finals; other times, they would read their own poetry or play their own music.  No matter the planned activity for the party, we would always have dinner, a potluck meal that ended the semester with students feeling good about the college and themselves.  And, it usually gave them a glimpse of their professor–my many books, my eclectic music collection, and my dog Indy.

            In those days, Indy was a young dog, not yet the 140-pound adult that causes many people to compare her to a bear; still she was bigger than most fully-grown black Labrador retrievers and insisted upon greeting every visitor as if she was the hostess of the party.  She was friendly and eager to please, usually moving from one guest to another to let each pet her–to her, every person needs to pet a dog.  And–to the surprise of my guests, but not me–she was polite, never once eating off the table or someone’s plate, and only eating once everyone else was served.  So, Indy made herself the center of attention and she made me more human to my students.  The parties proved to be an enduring and endearing part of my and my students’ experience with Georgia Perimeter College.

            Those parties were special for many reasons: students who flashed potential in poetry or music; classes who sealed their camaraderie in conversation in my living room; and students who gained a new perspective on the academic life.  For me, they were also special because Indy played a part in three of my most memorable nights.

            When students learned that I held an end of semester party, nearly everyone was excited, but as the time grew near, a few who learned that Indy would be in attendance became anxious because of an innate fear of dogs.  One such student, Sharon, approached me about her fears.  I understood and offered her two choices: one, that she only needed to drop her final off that day; two, that I would keep Indy away so she could be with her classmates.  Instead, she decided to face her fears and come to the party.  While I was genuinely pleased that she wanted to come to the party, I was also relieved that she had not picked choice number two.  Indy, as I learned from experience, not only knew how to turn doorknobs, she also knew how to manipulate people to get what she wanted.  And there was no way that I could have a room full of students in her house without Indy smack in the middle–she would cry, she would howl, she would scratch at the door, and she would get her way.

            By the time Sharon arrived, my students and I had a plan in place.  Whenever Indy sought to spread her cheer to Sharon, someone would intervene by calling her to play.  It was simple but sensible.  And I planned to help by holding tight to Indy when she greeted Sharon at the door.

            Sharon did not seem frightened when first seeing Indy as she entered my home, which eased my mind.  Sharon smiled and patted Indy’s head.  Then, it happened.  Suddenly, Sharon screamed and bolted towards my kitchen, her green bean casserole in tow.  I flinched just long enough for Indy to break my grip and pursue the screaming girl.  I scrambled to the dining room, which adjoined the kitchen in hopes of cutting Indy off, but my students had already done so.  Sharon, clutching her casserole, stood behind the dining table with her classmates blocking Indy’s path and trying to divert her from the screaming girl.  But Indy found Sharon too much fun.  One of Indy’s favorite games was Chase, where she would pursue a person until she caught them by mock-biting his or her hand.  I’m certain that Indy thought here was someone who knew how to play and who had cast off all decorum to have some real fun.

            After a few seconds, I managed to pull Indy into the kitchen and out onto the deck.  Almost as quickly as she lost her composure, Sharon seemed to regain it.  In fact, about ten minutes later, she asked me to let Indy back into the house.  I must admit that I was surprised by her request and gained a great deal of admiration for her, as she did want to overcome her fear.  And now that her fear was real and present–embodied in an eighty pound black lab sharing the same living room–her determination was quite remarkable.

            To ensure some control over Indy, she returned on a leash.  And soon enough, the original plan worked, as each time she wandered towards Sharon, a student called her.  But, Indy is smart and willful and she wanted to spend some time with Sharon, who she still thought far more interesting than anyone else in the room.  So, she would lay in the middle of the living room floor and crawl, as inconspicuously as she could, towards Sharon, in hopes that we would be too engrossed in our discussion not to notice her stealthy approach.

            Somehow, with lots of effort and cooperation from my students, we managed to keep Indy and Sharon separated for over an hour.  Then, just as the party began to breakup, Sharon invited Indy over.  Sensing the importance of the moment, the whole class watched as Indy and Sharon finally and formally met.  Not surprising, it was uneasy; Sharon twitched as she patted Indy’s head and Indy fidgeted at the restrictions of the leash, the students sitting beside Sharon, and her innate politeness.  Somehow, it all worked out, as Sharon faced her fears and patted Indy’s head and shook her paw, and Indy licked Sharon’s hand and made another friend.

 

            But not every student proved to be a friend. 

 

            Once in awhile, a professor finds a student who is a contrarian on all things.  Greg was one of those.  From the first day of class, he objected to everything about my teaching: I did not have a clear syllabus; I did not provide lecture notes; I refused to tell him exactly what I expected for every essay.  And when he wasn’t voicing objections, he would express his contempt for me with sullen or bored stares during the entire class.  The saving grace for me was Greg’s general contempt for education.  Like too many eighteen-year old students, Greg thought that all opinions were equal, that an instructor’s comments on a paper or test were entirely subjective, and that, since education was of little value, all of a professor’s education provided him or her with no special knowledge–it was all just another opinion.  No matter what I said or what advice I gave him to be a better writer, Greg seemed not to hear a word.

            So, I endured Greg and chose not to engage his contrarian nature.  He was, after all, only one student in a wonderful class and could not detract from the lively discussions and the excellent work of his peers.  Much to my surprise, he endured as well.  I fully expected someone who had such a low opinion of education to withdraw or vanish; instead, he stayed around and suffered through average paper grades and happy classmates.

            Of course, Greg objected to the party and to the potluck demands that everyone bring something.  I told him that he did not have to come, but he did because he was suspicious that I would punish him for not attending, just as he believed I had punished him with Cs throughout the semester.  Once again, I refused to engage Greg in his ridiculous remarks, reminding myself that whatever contempt I had developed for Greg would fade away with the semester’s end.

            At first, nothing seemed odd that night.  Greg arrived on time with his two-liter bottle of Coke contribution to the potluck and plopped himself in a recliner.  Indy, as always, greeted everyone and cheerfully moved around the room.  Greg, for his part, chose not to loosen up and enjoy the party; in fact, I caught him glaring at me while I told a story about graduate school.  Otherwise, it looked to be another successful party.  Then, for the first and only time at one of the parties, she growled. 

            Everyone’s eyes went to the sound and saw Indy standing next to the recliner growling at Greg.  I admonished Indy and she moved away.  But when Greg arose to get food, Indy growled again.  Now, I knew the growling was just a warning, a sign of mistrust, not a worrisome threat–that would have come with her teeth-bared and pilated hair on the back of her neck; still, I did not want to afford Greg the chance to complain about me and my parties.  Fortunately, Indy was not consumed with Greg and quickly moved on.  Yet, each time Greg moved, even shifted in the chair, Indy glared and lowly growled at him; no matter where in the room she was, she reacted to him.  And Greg, for the only time all semester, neither registered a complaint nor glared at me again.

            I soon realized that Greg’s classmates loved Indy’s reaction to him, perhaps a reflection of their own feelings.  And so the party went–lively conversations, good food, pleasant feelings, and a hostess who occasionally made low growling sounds at one guest.  And, I admit, a professor secretly delighted to see that one student finally heard the truth.

 

            Every professor encounters students like Greg, whose reasons for such an ill temper may never be known.  And we meet lots of other students whose personal lives intrude into their studies.  Unlike the tales of Sharon and Greg, one student’s experience with Indy occurred away from classmates. 

            Just a day before a party, Brandi stopped by my office to tell me she would not attend the party.  Her dog, who she often spoke about, had died and she was not up to any social gathering.  For some reason, she changed her mind, because she showed up at my house with a bucket of chicken.  I suspect she needed some company, and classmates offered her the comfort she sought.  Those who teach know how powerful and important the relationship between classmates can be.  They are not exactly friends and may never see one another again, but they are more than acquaintances.  They share a bond akin to sports teammates–personal goals may be different but overcoming the demands of the subject and the professor build a special camaraderie. 

            Brandi was very much a bright light in that class, a good writer who willingly shared notes or advice to others and who fully engaged herself in every class discussion.  But on that night, Brandi sat among her classmates far from a bright light.  Her smile seemed forced, her comments limited, and her manner polite rather than friendly.  Yet, she was there to participate as best she could in the last gathering of the class.

            When the party turned to a poetry reading, Brandi quietly left the living room. After awhile, I thought she went home, no longer able to keep her spirits up, because she seemed eager only a week before to read her poetry.  Then, I noticed Indy was gone.  This was not too surprising, as Indy often would lie in the middle of the floor or wander to another room once the more formal part of the evening was underway.  With the party near its end, I went to my den to retrieve the research papers to hand back.  There, sitting on the floor was Brandi with Indy stretched alongside.  Brandi was stroking Indy over and over again, talking to her in sweet, hushed tones.  Though they saw me, neither moved.

            After returning the research papers, the party ended.  Brandi rejoined her classmates, thanked me for a good class and told me how much she enjoyed the party.  Then she smiled, the first genuine smile all night, knelt beside Indy and gave her a hug.

 

            For a number of reasons, I ended my class parties a number of years ago, but I still think of them as among my best efforts to encourage students to appreciate the academic life.  Yet, though I want to believe that my students gained insight into my world and that they fondly recall those parties, I realize that the only certainty is that they remember Indy.