SPUTNIK THE DOG AND THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE USA

Posted by: on June 11, 2017

 

Did you ever see such a cute little dog? Meet our dearly departed Sputnik, who passed away of old age and a number of physical ailments on March 2, 2017. A shelter dog rescued from abandonment on the streets of NYC, Sputnik made every day exciting with his enormous personality. He was a highly intelligent, sensitive, consummately friendly jack russell terrier- chihuahua mix with a keen interest in the world all around him. He liked children and was very fond of long walks around the neighborhood. He loved us and we loved him. In spite of his many marvelous qualities, however, we guessed that he had been adopted from shelters more than once before someone dumped him on a city street to fend for himself (to be rescued by a shelter once again).  Why would anyone treat this charming little fellow in such a way?  We might guess that his life was chaotic and unpredictable from the start, making him an anxious dog with some incredibly difficult behavior problems. As we soon discovered ourselves, Sputnik was not always easy to love! We were amazed at how challenging he was, but we never gave up on him. It made us happy to give a chance to a lucky dog whose life could easily have ended in disaster.

 

Let’s start with the fact that Sputnik was terrified of thunder and lightning. If we could medicate him soon enough before a storm with a sedative combined with an anti-anxiety drug, he might remain relatively calm. However, as hard as we tried, we were often taken by surprise with sudden storms. Sputnik went into a complete and immediate panic and, before the drugs finally kicked in, would try to climb on us so he could bite and scratch our heads. Our escape with the first clap of thunder was a quick leap onto the kitchen counter, with Sputnik in hot pursuit. We would clutch each other in fear as Sputnik jumped high enough to get in close range – poised for attack. This entire situation made it necessary for us to keep a small bag of his medications attached to our refrigerator, so we could reach them as quickly as possible. Luckily, Sputnik could not resist cheese, so we could toss him some cheese with the drugs inside. Everyone needed a nap when the harried weather episode finally ended.

 

Rain was an issue as well. Sputnik absolutely hated walking in the rain. One night, when we finally got him out the door while it was raining, he suddenly resisted, pulled away, and managed to get one of his paws stuck in his harness. Sound like an easy problem to solve? Not so! In his ordinary life and interactions with others, Sputnik was never aggressive. Once in pain or panicked, however, Sputnik would bite. A huge set of razor-sharp teeth would somehow emerge from that small little mouth, placing the person trying to help him at high risk. The solution that night? We managed with the help of huge chunks of cheese to get him into his crate, and drove for about 30 minutes to the nearest emergency veterinary hospital. Somehow the doctors managed to sedate him and free his paw.

 

Speaking of veterinarians, Sputnik was a veterinary celebrity. Our fantastic regular vet (duly warned) was cautious – an assistant would restrain Sputnik carefully as he did his best to relieve our vet of a chunk of his arm.  After any treatment, the medical team would back away and Sputnik would calmly allow us to lift him from the examining table to the floor.  One night, I got home from work to find Sputnik badly injured on the floor. Apparently, he had panicked during a storm, destroyed the contents of an entire set of boxes on a closet floor, and then possibly taken a backward tumble down the nearby set of stairs. To make a long story short, he had a back injury so serious that the emergency vets could not get him out of pain –even with morphine. We had to choose between letting him go or agreeing to an operation to repair his spine. Unable to say goodbye to our dear little pal, we agreed to the surgery.

 

Soon after the operation, the nice emergency vet called and asked me to come get him earlier than expected. Sputnik was apparently trying to bite everyone in the hospital. When I acknowledged that Sputnik was “a bit of a problem” the vet humorously replied “…he is a holy terror.”  Did Sputnik recover well? Yes, he did. So well in fact that, when he returned to the hospital for post-surgical check, he escaped from the treatment area and engaged the medical team in a high-speed chase around the waiting room. The emergency vet later suggested that we skip the second follow-up visit, as it seemed unnecessary. “Why put him through that again,” he asked, “and why put all of us through that again?” The story of Sputnik’s full recovery at home is too long to tell—but he made it through and spent a few more happy and healthy years with us.

 

There was just one more visit to the emergency veterinary hospital late one night last fall. Sputnik was aging, and his breathing problems and coughing, we discovered, were due to pneumonia, a heart murmur, and several other medical problems. After a night in the hospital on oxygen, we took good care of him at home until he made the decision to let go – he refused his medicine and food and lay quietly in his bed. When we sadly brought him to his caring regular vet, assuming he would be put to sleep, we all instead decided to give an injection of antibiotics and steroids that had helped in the past one more try. After our exciting life with Sputnik, we wanted to be sure that our powerful, wonderful little fighter was truly ready to leave us. Alas, nothing worked, and a few days later we said a sad good-bye to our little Sputty (as everyone called him). He was calm as his life was close to ending, and he seemed to approach each of us to thank us for taking such good care of him.

 

Our regular vet once told us, “When this dog found you, he won the lottery.”  Sputnik’s rescue from the streets and his unlikely adoption by patient people who loved him enough (and had the resources) to support him through his challenges resulted in a miracle – a long and happy life with many admiring friends (animal and human) all over his neighborhood. His caregivers adored him, and the place where we boarded him once actually honored him as “Dog of the Month.”* Sputnik was a dog no one could ever forget! He had a unique strut and style wherever he went. As a neighbor once said, “He is a little dog who doesn’t know he is little.”

 

What’s the connection to the future of public education? Sputnik was not the first dog we adopted who had experienced abandonment, hunger, and fear. We have had other dogs who came to us from shelters with the need to be patiently loved and nurtured before they were able to show us just how wonderful they really were. They needed acceptance, respect, understanding, and a real commitment on the part of those who cared for them.

 

While I want to be clear that I am not equating dogs with children, I must acknowledge that there are many, many children in the United States whose young lives have also been characterized by difficult if not traumatic early experiences. Poverty, violence, discrimination, lack of resources, and other kinds of social neglect take their emotional and developmental toll. These children can truly make great strides in public schools in which they are accepted, respected, and supported by a determined institutional stance of humane warmth and understanding. All too often, in my experience, many of these children instead attend under-resourced schools with a stance of punishment, suspension, and expulsion – even for children in preschool and early grades!

 

These are the children who need a chance! Please don’t be fooled with words like “school choice.” There may be many people who would apparently like to profit economically from constructing privatized schools that provide enhanced opportunities for some children, but it is highly unlikely that many of them are truly seeking to admit, support, and cherish the many children in the USA who are in the most desperate need of intensive and caring intervention. These are children who need a high-quality public-school system with a heart. As a nation, we have the moral imperative to embrace the “choice” of actively meeting the mandates and intentions of the Brown decision of 1954! We have the “choice “of protecting, sustaining, and improving a national system of public schools reflecting a commitment to all our children. We have the “choice” to address child poverty, to fight against prejudice, bias, and discrimination, and to equalize public school resources. The difference that this “choice” would make for children in need is beyond measure and description. Our poorest or most troubled children would indeed “win the lottery” – because the love, care, and commitment they received in well-resourced schools would light the way to a future of less suffering and much more hope, true opportunity, and ultimate happiness.

*This was Sputnik’s “Dog of the Month” photo taken by the Dog Stop of Pittsburgh East End

Written  by Beatrice S. Fennimore a teacher educator focused on advocacy and social justice for all children.

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