One long, unseasonably warm fall, I teach a class called “Man’s Best Friend” every af ternoon in the prison library. We read dog stories as a way to explore the relationship between humans and dogs; my hope is that it will help the inmates take the next step and think about how they connect with their own emotions. On sunny days, I open the small, barred window so we can smell the soft, autumnal air and hear the shouts and laughter of inmates in the exercise yard.
I know that some of my students would rather be out there shooting hoops, walking laps or relaxing on benches instead of clustered around library tables reading books with me. But they are here because they love dogs. Reading about them cannot substitute for being with them, but it is the best we can do. Many have left pets on the outside and pine for them. This devoted group attends what’s become known around the facility as “Dog Class.”
One day, I am sitting in the library supply closet, which I have converted into an office with just enough room for my computer, a table to put it on and a rolling chair. My phone sits on an upended box, and there is no ventilation. I’m doing some last-minute preparation when Paul, one of my students, comes to the closet door and drops a sheet of paper on the edge of my computer table. “Here, I wrote this about my dog. You can have it.” He sits down at a table in the reading area to wait for class to begin.
It is a poem about Willy, his failing old Boxer back home. In the poem, he calls him “my boy” and muses about what it will be like when Willy dies. I read it and fight the urge to cry. Paul cannot see me, but I call out in a tight voice, “Paul, this is very good. A real tearjerker. Thank you for letting me read it.”
A moment later, Larry, my new library assistant, comes over with a thick book of poems and says, “If you like sad poems, try the one on page 89.” Larry functions on the border of things, never entering into a conversation unless invited. He has only recently begun opening up by suggesting titles of books he’d like me to order. A week earlier, he asked for anything by D.H. Lawrence or Jane Austen.
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The poem is “A Dog’s Death,” by John Updike. I am quickly reduced to tears. “Larry, that is really something,” I say thickly. “Show Paul; he might want to read it too.” He takes the book and sets it in front of Paul, who hunches over it intently. When I walk into the reading area, Paul is wiping tears from his face.
“Should we read this one in class sometime?” I ask. “And yours Paul, can I make copies and pass them around for the guys to read?” He nods okay, still choked up by Updike’s poem.
In this class, we read books about lost dogs, sled dogs, farm dogs and dogs of the American frontier. We scan articles about doggie issues, which I clip from newspapers. We read funny poems and letters to editors that point fingers at dog abusers, and discuss the pros and cons of leash laws. I pass out cartoons and thoughtful quotes related to canines, and invite people who work with dogs to visit our class. Each brings along a real live dog.
In a high-security prison, where touch is forbidden, a tail-wagging visitor can make even the most sullen inmate drop his war face and reach out to make contact. The stories we read in class are vehicles to explore emotional connection and compassion, but dog visitors are the carrots that reel inmates into the class. And because this is an English class, I make them think about vocabulary, too, often putting lists of tricky words from the reading on the whiteboard to discuss.
James Herriot’s short stories about being a vet in England during the 1930s and ’40s are time capsules of British rural life, a culture totally alien to these men, and many of the words are unfamiliar to them. We pick out trundle, perfunctory, vivisection and chauvinistic, and we make up sentences.
Harold was just let out of The Hole. He’d been sent there for making hooch in his cell. I ask him to use vivisection in a sentence. He stares at me from behind his dark glasses and says, “I hate vivisection.”
“Can you tell me more, Harold?” I say. “That simple sentence doesn’t give us any clue about what the word means.”
“Okay. Dogs hate vivisection and I like dogs, so I hate it too,” he offers. Luis, a good-looking Latino who sold heroin on the street, volunteers to use chauvinistic and trundle in a sentence. In his heavy accent, he says, “I am chauvinistic about my home of Puerto Rico. I would like to trundle back there.”
Not to be outdone, Stanley, who sits next to Luis, adds, “They served us bad chow today in a perfunctory manner.”
Stanley obsesses about chow, and complains daily about taste, content and portion size. A barrel-shaped man in his late 50s, he is short, grizzled and universally recognized among staff and inmates as a malcontent. Most inmates have a nickname, and Stanley has three: Stumpy, Grumpy and Toad.
Today, we are finishing a book about a man’s team of sled dogs and his love for his favorite lead dog, who is slowing down with age. We talk about foreshadowing, and how the discussion of her decline is most likely leading to the part about her death. Luis read ahead the night before, and announces matter-of-factly, “I already know what happens. The dog dies.”
“Shit, now you ruined it for the rest of us,” says Stanley. “I hate that. Why should we even bother to finish it?”
“Nah, let’s just read it,” says Ralph, a large, loud lumberjack of a man who dislikes Stanley. “Don’t listen to him,” he says, pointing to Stanley. “Who cares what the goddamn ending is, anyway? It’s a good story.”
It is my practice to do a lot of the reading aloud, and I choose to push through to the end of the book today so we can start Old Yeller tomorrow. They follow along in their own copies, and it is dead quiet as they listen, except for the occasional shouts that float in the window from the yard.
But no one hears them because we are in Minnesota, where it is white cold. We see the old sled dog as she stands in a snowy field at the spot where her owner used to put her in harness. The bitter wind whips her coat as she waits patiently for him to come. But her sledpulling days are over and the dog team is long gone. Her human walks out to the field to gently urge her back in the warm house. In the swirling snow, she leans against his leg and stares ahead at where the old sled trails used to be. My voice cracks. I know where this story is going. I stumble on for a few more sentences, then put the book down.
“I can’t read any more. Who wants to continue where I left off?” The men stare at me in silence. We hear the muffled voices from the yard through the window. Someone curses, followed by a loud guffaw. “I’ll try,” says Stanley gruffly. The man they call Grumpy lowers half-moon reading glasses onto his nose and begins He gets through one page before his gravel voice quavers. He puts the book down and takes off the glasses to wipe his eyes. “That’s it for me. I can’t finish it,” he says. “Somebody else take over.”
“I’ll do it,” says Paul quietly. The paperback book shakes in his hand as he brings us to the sad end that we knew was coming but hoped would not make us feel so bad. He gets through it just fine, but his eyes are red, and there is an awkward silence when he closes the book. They look around at one another and at me, wondering who will say something to break the uncomfortable moment.
Loud Ralph points at me. “Lookit you,” he says. “You’re all pink and weteyed.” They stare, relieved to focus on me instead of their feelings. “And your neck has red splotches,” he adds. They snicker, and examine my eyes and my neck and my weakness instead of their connection to the story.
“Thank you for pointing that out, Ralph,” I say. “But get used to it. I always cry over sad animal stories. And when we get to Old Yeller, you may be the one with the splotchy neck.”
I walk to the filing cabinet where there’s a fat roll of toilet paper for guys who need to blow their noses, and unwind a few sheets for myself. “Who wants a tissue?”
“I’ll take some of that,” says Paul.
“Yeah, gimme some too,” demands Stanley. “But make sure you give me enough. This state toilet paper is flimsy crap.” The three of us blow our noses and I hear a couple of secretive sniffs around the room.
“Tomorrow we start Old Yeller,” I say. “But I think we’ve had enough for today. Why don’t you all go out to the yard and get some fresh air.” They leave, and when I am alone, I blow my nose again, loudly and in private.