Saturday, September 6, 2008
I woke up this morning with a bad taste in my mouth. The familiar aftertaste of a recurring dream that won't leave me alone. It has dogged me all my life, pardon the pun. I'm back in school, lost in a maze of institutional-grey hallways. I enter a classroom, only to realize that an exam is underway. Of course, I haven't prepared for it, and since I had skipped most of the classes, I don't stand a chance of passing what amounts to a matter of life and death.
I'm aware that this dream is as common as hen's teeth, shared by most of the population of the world, but still...it's my dream, filled as it is with the anxiety of not measuring up, of failing at something critical to one's survival. And I'd really rather not revisit those agonizing moments spent staring out of countless windows and dreaming I'm on the other side of them.
No doubt this dream was pulled from my dream repository because it's the first week of school. As I lay in bed, the covers pulled up to my chin, a memory flooded back, complete with all the sights and sounds I'd managed to store away...deep in the coffers where all bad memories molder. I'm standing in the schoolyard, outside the kindergarten class, holding onto my mother's hand. It's the first day of school, the first day I'd ever been away from my mother's comforting presence. I'm rooted to the spot, my brand spanking new Mary Janes and pastel green Sunday best dress not providing the usual solace.
I stare fixedly at the door, as if waiting for the train to make its way down the tracks at High Noon. An odd cage-like area attached to the classroom reminds me of the neighbour's dog pen. I want my mom to go in with me, but since that's clearly not in the cards, I settle for Blackie, our gangling black Labrador retriever. I imagine him fitting his paw through my arm and escorting me into the classroom, like a gentleman from a bygone era escorting a lady in to dinner.
It would have been nice, as the class sat on the floor in a semicircle, to lean into Blackie, allowing him to take the weight of my anxiety. I knew enough not to ask. Dogs weren't allowed anywhere, least of all in the hallowed halls of a public school.
Later, as I read of the families battling for the rights of their autistic children, I thought of how Blackie could have helped me over the initial hurdle of the dreaded first day, and how service dogs are able to ease children with autism into potentially stressful situations, relieving their fears and providing a safe harbour.
My golden retriever nudges me with his nose as I sit at the keyboard. I should have named him Nana, like the Newfoundland dog in Peter Pan, for he fills all the requirements of a nurse. I can see why golden retrievers are a popular choice for dog services such as Autism Dog Services and National Service Dogs. The dogs undergo rigorous training, and at the end of the day, are more than a companion for children with autism and other special needs. The dogs have a calming effect, and allow the children to connect with people. Some children become more verbal, sleep through the night for the first time in years, and, more importantly, achieve a sense of belonging. The dogs are an endless font of unconditional love, a safe haven in a world that is not always accepting of who you are.
Call it 'magic', if you like, but the fact remains: service dogs help to "build bridges...a pathway to inclusion for persons with intellectual disability", through a mysterious connection with their charges.
They clearly have a powerful impact on the lives of thousands of children. Even as some school boards are banning service dogs from school premises, there are stories of dogs accompanying families on trips to the grocery store, and one dog went along for the ride when a family visited Disney World.
A little magic goes a long way. So for the sake of those children who find it easier to navigate through life with a Nana by their side, let's open all the doors in our communities. Bob Dylan said it best: "The slow one now will later be fast...and the first one now will later be last. For the times they are a-changin'."