The Loss of [Wo]man’s Best Friend

I will start this post by offering only this caution: If you are not a dog lover, you will probably not be able to understand what follows. It may be best if you do not read on.

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I have never loved anything as much as I loved my dog.

A week ago, my family and I made a decision that I have been praying for over a year and a half we wouldn’t have to: to euthanize our beloved collie, Teddy.  In October 2011, Teddy experienced a collapse that was linked to a heart condition, and in February 2012, he went into heart failure. At that time, we were told he would likely only live an additional three to six months, and understandably, we were devastated. However, at subsequent check-ups with his cardiologist at the incredible Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, his heart condition continuously did not worsen.  We were overjoyed with each positive report, but sadly, Teddy seemed to have developed a neurological condition that affected his ability to walk. When this condition suddenly worsened over the weekend to such a point that he could not stand, much less walk, leaving the only option of performing an MRI for which the sedation may kill him due to his heart or to catheterize him at home, we knew it was time.

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Sleeping next to my bed

An empty darkness now hangs in the house, a kind of impenetrable silence that is almost deafening.  We promptly disposed of his bed, food, toys, etc, but his infamous tumbleweeds of fur still lurk in corners and under chairs. The backyard seems to no longer have a purpose, as it was Teddy’s domain. My tiny bedroom looks so much bigger without his bed on the floor next to my own, and gone are the days of him crying at 6 am to be fed.  But as sad as I am, I try to remind myself that we were lucky enough to experience so much more time with him than even the best doctors in the region thought we would.  And as weird as it may sound, a part of me just had a feeling that this was going to happen this summer, that time was running out, that we couldn’t be that lucky for that long. Two days before he died, I woke up to let him out and he was having a particularly hard time walking. After falling several times, I just sat down with him on the front lawn and started crying.  He seemed to not be trying any more, and there was a certain emptiness in his gaze.  As bad as some of his weak spells had been, never before did I get an overwhelming sense that the end really was near.  But as that day wore on, he seemed to get a little bit better, making it appear as though I had overreacted, but that strange sense still hung around me. Thus, when my brother texted me on Monday to tell me they were taking Teddy to the vet, I was not that surprised and feared that this would be the last of such trips.  Nevertheless, the decision to put him down was the most awful experience of my life and I really do feel that my life will never quite be the same.

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My brother and me with Teddy, Easter 2013

Some may wonder why the loss of a dog is so painful, and as odd as it may sound, Teddy was more than just a dog to me; he was truly a friend who through his every move taught me so much about how to best live life. We got Teddy when I was in sixth grade. Since Day 1, he taught me about responsibility and how to have fun in the purest senses. From those same early days, Teddy showed that his health would always prove problematic, for he developed epilepsy before he was even a year old. The seizures were seldom frequent, usually occurring once every six to eight weeks due to certain triggers.  They were difficult to watch, as his body tensed and convulsed and he held his breath, and they even made me cry, for I so loved this dog that it killed me to see him in such discomfort. While some may have euthanized him then, my family and I knew that it was a condition we could manage with a little more caution and control of his environment, and he had several stretches of six month periods or longer without any seizures. Managing that condition required such a patience and love that has never been required of me before.

Having had him for nearly half of my life, Teddy was one constant source of comfort through some truly difficult periods.  I cannot tell you how many tears of mine the fluffy white fur around his neck held, as I would usually curl up next to him and bury my face in his fur when something bad sent me into such a state. He would usually sit and let me hug him or pet him until I calmed down.  Sometimes, if I cried by myself, he would come up to me and either lick the tears off my cheeks or just lean against me.  Other times, he brought a toy to me in an attempt to distract me and get at least a small smile to spread across my face.  Teddy added so much joy to my life, as we ventured on walks in the neighborhood and played in the backyard.  He always greeted me with so much joy when the bus dropped me off around the corner in middle and high school and when I returned from being away at college.  Teddy was a master of just being a silly dog who through wanting all the attention I had always brought some amount of joy to my days.  Road trips down to Long Beach Island, NJ meant it was just him and I chilling in the back seat of my mother’s Santa Fe for five hours, when on the way there he was an excited ball of energy and on the way back he usually snuggled up against my side as we both snoozed, exhausted from the fun in the sand.  It was this constant companionship, even in the toughest of times, that taught me what true love and loyalty is.

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Teddy and Kassy

I suspect that my family and I will grieve for a long, long time. But I consider myself to be one of the luckiest individuals in the world to have been blessed with a dog that served as a best friend for nearly twelve years of my life.  So much of my life and the life of my family centered around being dog owners, and to suddenly have that stripped away is causing a bit of an identity crisis.  In the days since, people keep telling me that they know how much I loved him and how much he meant to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever received a more meaningful compliment.  To have it be widely known how much love I had for one creature speaks volumes, and if that is a trait that people easily equate with me, then I could not be more honored, and it makes me rest a little easier knowing that Teddy must have known how much I loved him, too.  Sitting here, sadness overwhelms me, but while the end was not peaceful like they say it’s supposed to be, the deepest parts of my soul tell me it was time to let him go.

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Rest in Peace, Teddy. I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.
August 24, 2001 – June 24, 2013

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The First Days

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

These words were first uttered to me by the man I will always refer to as my mentor teacher, the one most responsible for me ever wanting to be a history teacher in the first place.  As I confessed nervousness and disbelief that student teaching was actually beginning, he said these somewhat cliche yet nonetheless true words.  I was embarking on the journey to becoming a licensed history teacher, a goal that I had been pursuing for years.

But this week really felt like it was the beginning of the rest of my life.  As I created syllabi, reviewed class lists, came up with desk arrangements, and bought over a hundred dollars worth of desk supplies at Staples, I realized that life was only just beginning.  For the past few months I had been so focused on how sad I was to graduate and leave a school that had meant so much to me, that had become a home, and had made me into a person I am proud to say that I love.  But in starting teaching this week, I realized that I’m going to be ok.  I will always have my friends from college and memories to last a lifetime.  But I’ll make more friends and more memories that will become just as cherished.  I will start to cultivate young minds and try my hardest to inspire at the very least a respect, if not a love, for the study of history.  I vow to let no student of mine leave my classroom and one day make a college writing tutor think, “How sad! They clearly never learned how to write.”  There is so much to do, and in a way, I am excited that I’m only just beginning.

So yes, these are the first days of the rest of my life.  It’s all about the baby steps – maybe my syllabus could have been clearer, so I’ll make it so next year.  That seating arrangement didn’t work like I thought it would, so I’ll move a few people.  It is all sure to be a learning process, but I’m ready.  Bring it.

Your Friends Make Your World

Join me for a frappucino at Starbucks sometime; you’ll notice I do something strange with my straw wrappers.  After unwrapping the straw, I tie the crinkly paper wrapper into a knot and pull it until it breaks. Two of my dear friends from home taught me years ago that if the paper breaks perfectly so that the knot comes undone, then someone is thinking about you. If there is a knot in either side, well, then you are out of luck.

One of our yearly summer adventures

Now, I am not a particularly superstitious person, but I always follow this one little gesture through, although its not about whether or not someone is thinking of me (however, I will confess that I sometimes giggle at the broken knot if I’ve been thinking of someone, hoping that they are thinking of me too).  Each time the paper breaks, I feel like I am back with the three friends who always follow this trick, no matter where we are at the present moment.  In pulling that straw wrapper tight, I am transported back to when we were 16 and 17, meeting at Friendly’s for ice cream dates to stress over finals and AP exams, prom dresses and college applications. I can picture Jen’s scrunched up face as she concentrates on thinking of one of us in order to make the knot break (with minimal effectiveness), or remember the random restaurants from our yearly beach trips where all four of us have tied our straw wrappers at the same time to see who the lucky lady would be.

As the years have passed and life has grown all the more complicated,  reunions with these girls become tougher and more difficult to plan, so this single, mechanical action is like a reunion in memory, lasting just a few seconds, but bringing a small smile nonetheless.  One is currently completing an internship hundreds of miles away in Washington DC, another is seriously contemplating a move to New York City to pursue her dream writing career, and the last returned from Alabama last month from Basic Training in the Air Force and will be leaving to begin her study at medical school in less than a week, a step she has been planning go take since the days of those Friendly’s ice cream dates.

At Maura’s graduation from BU this past May.

I miss them all terribly but no matter where life takes us, I know we will always be there for each other to share joy and sorrow. I recently got a job as a teacher, a dream I have consistently pursued since I was about 15 years old.  I wanted nothing more than to call a customary Panera date with these three to tell them all in person. These inspiring and talented young women have encouraged me every step of the way, and emit sincere “awwws” when I tell them a teaching story. I can always count on them to show true interest in my passions, just as I do for them. But we couldn’t all be together to share the big news, so I settled on a phone call ( as this was too big for a simple text!).  Tiff squealed with delight when I called her as she was making her way along the 9 hour trip back home from DC, while I received an ecstatic voicemail from Jen that night after a day of training in return for the one I left her about how I couldn’t wait to tell her the news until we were able to catch each other on the phone.  I’ve known all three of these women since we were in elementary school and after these years of our friendship, I recognized this moment as the step into adulthood.  We’re all college grads now, pursuing our dreams and passions, but I know that no matter where life takes us, we will always have each other.

The next few years are sure to be a bit tumultuous as all of my friends and I settle into careers and post-grad education, but I’ve accepted it. Distance doesn’t mean the friendships are any different, even if we are unable to be there in the way we previously have been for each other through literal physical presence.  But we’re still there.

In the days since graduation, I put a magnet on the large mirror in my bedroom that once found its place on the refrigerator of my senior year apartment.  It reads as follows: “Wherever you are, it is your friends who make your world (William James).”  So whether they are interning in DC, teaching in Kansas City or Connecticut, still living life as an undergrad in Worcester, completing a year of service in New Orleans, starting grad school in Providence or Pittsburgh, laying the foundations of their careers in the Boston area, or following a dream in New York, my world will always consist of my beautiful, supportive, one-of a-kind, gift-from-God friends.

Lessons from an Old Man to a Young Friend

The romantic inside of me grew about 10 sizes today. She’s been looking a little lean lately, since there hasn’t been much to feed her. Stories of bruised and broken hearts tend to wear away at her, diminishing her smile and sucking the rosiness from her cheeks. But today, she grew.

This is my second summer as an intern at a private museum, its contents owned by an elderly but still prominent local businessman with a true passion for American history that rivals my own. He seems to have done everything and met everyone, including starting his own nation-wide business, speaking to the United States Senate, building a hospital in Vietnam, opening a branch of his business in China, and orchestrating a million dollar fundraiser for a local food pantry. He is a bit demanding and it can be a challenge to fully follow his ideas, but over time he has come to call me his “lovely young friend,” even telling me once last summer that he regards me like a granddaughter. I thoroughly enjoy the one-on-one conversations that take place as he combs through the museum with me in tow, in search of a new project.  These encounters are rare, but I have come to crave the entertaining anecdotes and the irreplaceable wisdom that accompany them.  Today, as we came across an over-sized porfolio documenting his accomplishments with the hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he asked me, “Would you say that I’ve had an interesting life?”

“Absolutely!!” I exclaimed. By my age, this man had served in the Korean War and was on the path to starting his own business. “I feel like I learn something new and interesting about you every day!”

We began to walk back toward his office. “Well,” he said pensively, putting his hand on my shoulder. At this point, I expected to hear the secrets to great success and prepared myself to take copious mental notes. “I couldn’t have done it without a wonderful wife.”

“From everything I’ve heard, she sounds like a wonderful woman,” I said with a smile as my heart began to melt.

“It’s all her…without her, none of this would have been possible.”

We walked in silence and then he addressed his secretary, customarily signaling the end to our conversation. I returned to my desk, tears forming in my eyes over such a beautiful testimony of true, everlasting adoration for one’s spouse. From all accounts that I’ve heard, she has never failed to stand by him, through genuine trials and his grand successes, and he clearly gushes over her when she comes up in conversation.

Throughout this internship, I’ve learned so much about American history. It’s a history major’s dream after all, to be paid to conduct historical research and write about it on a daily basis. Watching my boss’s business, I’ve learned the importance of networking and utilizing one’s connections. But today I came to realize that I’ve learned a lot more from watching the man behind it all, removed from the business and the museum. For you are never too successful, too old, too powerful, or too well-connected to not owe your success to those who support you. You are never above showing your gratitude for them. You must pursue your passions in every way possible, no matter how lofty such a goal may be. And you must always, always give back to the community who produced you and molded you into the person you are today. While the little romantic within me grew today, so did the woman she hides behind in really appreciating these lessons.

What My Students Taught Me

So when I started this blog back in January, I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to share all the things I learn about myself during student teaching!” Well, big surprise, student teaching turned out to be so time-consuming, that I hardly had the time to talk

My amazing and inspiring supervising practitioner – I couldn’t have done this without her!

to friends about the day-to-day lessons, never mind write about them here.  But in order to wrap it all up, I’m going to compile the whole 12-weeks of planning, grading, laughter, tears, hours of driving, chipping ice off of my car, professional wardrobe issues, and self-discovery into a top 10 list.

1) You can never plan every little detail…

Throughout my education, I hated the idea of giving a presentation without having my material planned out word for word.  Whenever I tried to rely on simple bullet points, I inevitably left out key details and felt like I gave a confusing and jumbled presentation.  Boy, was I in for a shock! There is simply  no way a teacher can anticipate everything that he or she will say in the course of the day.  From discussions about my brother’s dating life during my first official observation by my education professor, to questions about whether or not grinding occurs at college dances, there were many moments where I had to give answers to tough questions.  As the semester progressed and I had my complete load of three classes, it became even more difficult to feel like I had thoroughly planned the day.  But I dealt with it, and came to realize that I really WAS capable of delivering content without a word-for-word presentation.

2) It’s ok to say “I don’t know”

Anyone who knows me well would definitely describe me as a history nerd.  I embrace the title – if there was a crown or a sash to go along with it, I would wear it (though I think I would prefer a sceptre…it’s very historically royal).  But as any historian would tell you, it is simply impossible to know everything about history.  High schoolers can be very curious, and sometimes they ask very tough and specific questions, like when a certain canon was invented or what the population of Alaska is. (I legitimately heard these questions asked, no lie).  But it’s ok to say I don’t know.  But with that, a teacher must encourage that curiosity – it’s healthy to the development of a student.

3) It can always get worse

Day 12. I have an awesome lesson planned about the Tiananmen Square Massacre for my honors-level juniors, complete with a stellar powerpoint that has maps, images, and thought-provoking quotes from my friend’s parents who are Chinese immigrants and left China just a few years before the Massacre.  I was stoked.  But when I put my flashdrive in that morning to open it, the powerpoint is not there.  The corresponding note sheet is not there.  “Maybe the drive just isn’t working” I think, blaming it on the used, school-loaned computer.  I hand it over to my cooperating teacher, panic setting in.  Nope, not there – the computer isn’t even registering that there is a flashdrive plugged into it.  Anyone can imagine the thoughts – and expletives – running through my head.  But I had to teach.  There was no time to cry, no time to freak out.  I had to pull something together within an hour and a half before 3rd period waltzed in.

And that’s when the tiny voice said, “It could be worse.”

It could have been.  I could have lost everything.  I could have forgotten all of the material, or deleted the email with those quotes that served as a great discussion starter. I luckily had an older version of the powerpoint saved on my personal laptop back at Assumption, and my life-saver of a roommate was able to send it to me.  The lesson I delivered that day wasn’t as good as it would  have been.  But it was good.  It had depth.  Sure, the images weren’t as great, but I did my job and kept it together for the sake of my students.

4)   Don’t forget someone else’s perspective

History teachers are always aware of perspective.  We must teach the victory in the Pacific theater of World War II very differently from the U.S. perspective in a U.S. history class from when we must show the horrors of the atomic bomb when we teach the Japanese perspective.  But students have perspective too.  Even though being a teenager feels like a lifetime ago sometimes, I realized that I can’t forget what it’s like and how complex life can be.  I had some students dealing with tough stuff – health problems, friend drama, family dynamics.  They are very multi-faceted individuals outside of my history classroom.  So sometimes you have to work with that.  And you must take the time to check in, to wish them well on that health test.  At weekend mass, I prayed for my students.  Sometimes life can really suck, and as a teacher who sees her students on a daily basis, I must act as a support and a comfort, not an antagonist who could care less about a student’s life like some teachers can be faulted for doing.

5)  Be silly

I definitely tend to be nervous when I want to do my best.  And I have always wanted to be a great teacher.  As tense as I were those first few weeks, I learned that I had to loosen up in order to create the kind of classroom I wanted to.  One moment that stands out to me is one of my first history jokes.  We were studying reform movements and key figures.  As students listed key figures from the reforms, they mentioned Horace Mann, whom many regard as the father of public education in America.  I love him.  He’s a Massachusetts guy and teachers today owe a lot to him.  As I wrote his name on the board, I giggled, “Horace Mann – he’s the MAN” and laughed at myself.  One girl, who was not the strongest in the class, laughed loudly and proclaimed, “Ms. Murphy, that was REALLY funny.”  It made my day.

In Central Park with a statue of Alexander Hamilton (I said I was a history nerd…)

6) SMILE

This should go without saying, but when you’re nervous, stressed, overtired, and trying to prepare yourself for the next class while you’re in the middle of teaching another one, it’s hard to remember that.  By the second week, I realized I had to take the advice of classroom management guru, Dr. Diane Myers, at Assumption and stand outside the class, every day, and welcome the students.  I noticed a difference immediately.  It was simple – smile, say hi, ask how each is doing, compliment a cute Vera bag or a team spirit outfit.  People will respect you all the more for it.

7) Be yourself

When you feel like your students are a little to close to your age for comfort, you want to be as professional as possible. But you have to be yourself too.  Some of my girls in one of my freshmen classes loved when I had different nail polish on (one of my favorite quotes: “OhMyGod, CRACKLE!!!).  Others asked about college.  You still have to be professional, but you have to show them that you’re a real person too.

8) It’s all about community
I had the awesome privilege of completing my student teaching at the same high school I graduated from 4 years ago.  I owe so much to the education I received there, and I still do a double take whenever I see a high school-age person wearing maroon and gold, thinking it could be someone from my high school.  Throughout college, I’ve really committed to giving back to the community, and going back to “the Reg” to teach was an extension of that.  Take the time to go back to those people and places that made you who you are and do something for them.

My education roommates with some of the wonderful faculty of Assumption’s Education Department who prepared us to do this!

9) Even though it’s the 21st Century, it can still be tough to be a woman

He never stopped challenging me, especially when the principal was observing me teach.  My supervising practitioner told me she thought it was a female teacher thing, since she had the same struggles with this student. But it still sucked.  It was hard to keep calm.  And it was frustrating knowing that somewhere along the line, this young male had had it ingrained in him that it was ok to be disrespectful to women.  But it could have been worse – he just challenged me about the content and sometimes my methods, nothing else.  I think you all know what I’m alluding to here.  And maybe I will deal with that in the classroom.  But I will do everything I can to create a culture of respect in my classroom, regardless of any personal qualifier.

10) Mentors are THE BEST

The AP US history teacher who is the one most responsible for me becoming the kind of teacher I want to be.  The supervising practitioner whose love for history and dedication to teaching others how to teach made a lasting impact on me as I grew as a teacher.  The college supervisor whose constant advice and support and lessons in teaching history were invaluable to my success.  The content advisor who showed true pride when he observed me teach, sharing with me the life-long goal that he had helped me prepare for since he became my academic advisor freshman year. The thesis advisor who took the time to ask about teaching and offer wisdom applicable to educators at all levels.  The roommates who supported me through the challenges and laughed with me at the faux pas.  The girlfriends back home who’ve known me since elementary school, who shared my joy in doing what I’ve always wanted to. The friends who calmed me down the night before my first lesson, checked in regularly, and supported me and loved me even when the extreme stress made me not always act like myself.  No matter how old, how experienced, or how overwhelmed, mentors are the best resource anyone can ever have.

I have a job. I have a Massachusetts Educator License.  In August, I will begin my teaching career and finally living out my passion. Thank you to everyone who supported me, everyone who cared, and everyone who helped me to get here.  I will always try to make you proud!