People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they’ll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love––the deepest kind of love. (Wilson Rawls)
I was terrified of you throughout most of the third grade and as the end of the year approached I'd find myself whispering into my pillow, hoping God would hear me, or under my breath as I entered the building at the start of the school day, passing your classroom across from the library, praying that my name would not be on your fourth grade roster at the start of the next school year. And who could blame me? You were a stern figure with a tight and set face, a mop of dark hair cut short and curling in the remnants of a beehive. Your posture was purely military, straight and rigid with your fists clenched as tight as baseballs at your side. No one wanted to be in your class because the older kids whispered rumors to us on the playground, telling us how strict and unyielding you were, what a monster you could be when angered or provoked.
But then it happened. That fall, as my mother held my hand outside the building where the classroom assignments were taped to the brick, we read my name on your roster and I thought I was going to vomit. I remember trembling and trying so hard just to walk as we took Casey to her first grade class before turning and moving down the long hallway to your room. It was with fearful steps that I crossed your threshold and scanned the desks for my name before taking my seat. I remembered Jimmy Little on his first day of third grade, entering Mrs. Ashton's classroom, crying hysterically and vomiting all over the oblong carpet at the front of the room. The moment it happened I knew that we would forever remember Jimmy, taller than the rest of us, yellow-haired and impossibly thin, like a piece of straw. He was forever set in our minds, retching and sputtering, tears streaming down his face, flailing and screaming. And years later, when he played football for the rival high school, I kept that image in my mind and told the few football player friends I had that beneath it all he was just a frightened, puking child. I refused to be a Jimmy Little, refused to spill my guts on the floor or even let my mother know how terrified I was. I watched her slip away and turned to the friends from the previous year who'd also had the misfortune to be assigned to you.
Of course you were everything that had been reported to us by the survivors of your classroom, but you were also so much more and I had no idea that to this day you would become the teacher I most miss, the one I still yearn to find and thank. That was the year Paul Hunt, the chubby kid from Manitoba, was my best friend, the year I had an insane crush on Marlies Rowe, the pretty red-headed girl, the year I learned the difference between there, their and they're, the year I first read Where the Red Fern Grows, and the year I learned to write.
We had weekly writing assignments and while my classmates––Todd Bell, who would go on to become the all-state wrestling champ, Brandon Carter, a talented artist who would squander it on drugs and booze by the 8th grade, and David Davis, who we knew was gay before we knew what gay was––dreaded the chore, I loved it and they loved my love of it. At the end of the week we had to read our stories aloud standing at our desks, but you always asked the class whose story they wanted to hear first. Mine, inevitably, was always chosen. I remember writing about an Excedrin headache even though I didn't know what one was. At Thanksgiving there was a story about Squanto and the pilgrims that had the class laughing. At Christmas before you got sick and left us I read a story about two toothbrushes falling in love and though I had grown use to the approval of my classmates it was your smile and laughter I most sought.
And then you were gone. You explained that you were sick and would be taking some time away from us. Mrs. Hegstead, the daughter of my neighbor, took over the class for the rest of the year, and although she was warm and wonderful, short and pink-cheeked, fun in every way, she was not you. In desperation I remember hunting for your name in the phone book and being shocked to find it. I called you to read you a story, apologized for disturbing you but you assured me I could call and read to you any time I liked. And so I did, checking in with you every few weeks, feeling more and more at ease with each conversation. I read and reread Where the Red Fern Grows because it was your favorite book. And at the end of the year, when you came to our party and told us you'd be moving to Boulder, Colorado to live with your son, I was heartbroken that I would not see you again. But as the final bell rang and the classroom emptied, you slipped me a card with a note that read, "Curt, you must promise me you will never stop writing, that you will always strive to bring a smile to the faces of others as you have done with your classmates and with me." I have it still. Thirty years later.
Today, walking Duncan in the warm rain, the sky dark but somehow golden above us, I saw a solitary figure on the far side of the park, a woman with a dark maroon coat and a concrete posture, standing and watching Roo run through the drops before throwing himself for a roll in the wet grass. I tensed and thought of you, filling up with the kind of love that only the fondest of memories can bring. And then almost immediately I knew it wasn't you, couldn't be, because certainly after all this time you wouldn't be here any more. But those memories were pleasant and warm and I thought of all the things I'd tell you if I could, that I still write every day, that that book you read to us––all except the last chapter which you asked me to read because Billy burying Old Dan and Little Ann always made you cry––shaped my life, and that his love for his dogs has carried over into my own life and had a profound impact on me. I wanted you to know that without your presence that year, and your encouragement, I would not be the person I am.
Thank you, Margo Coons, for helping shape the man I have become and the love I have for this dog who calls me his own.
It’s strange indeed how memories can lie dormant in a man’s mind for so many years.
Yet those memories can be awakened and brought forth fresh and new,
just by something you’ve seen, or something you’ve heard, or the sight of an old familiar face.
(Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows)