I first wrote this piece towards the end of 2009, but somehow never got around to posting it. Now is as good a time as ever.
Last Wednesday was my first official DOGS day. DOGS stands for Dads Of Great Students and it is an initiative spreading throughout elementary schools across the country and just recently adopted by my son’s school. It’s a volunteer program where dad’s devote an entire day at his son or daughters school, performing a variety of activities. It includes everything from walking the school perimeter keeping an eye out for strangers on campus, helping the teachers in the classroom with one on one instruction, monitoring the lunchroom and recess periods, and assisting with the loading and unloading of buses. Although the program kicked off in early October, last week was my first opportunity to participate. It sounded like a great idea and my son Boo was excited to have me sign up.
The two of us arrived at school at 7:30 and while Boo ate breakfast in the cafeteria, I went through orientation. I was given an hourly schedule, a walkie-talkie in case I needed to communicate with the principal, and a shiny vest identifying me as DOGS dad of the day. Right away, I felt more authoritative with the walkie-talkie clipped to my belt. I walked around campus taking slow, measured, commanding strides. I even caught myself giving a pair of teachers a two-finger salute as we passed in the hall, after which I shook my head and muttered “Dufus” under my breath.
The first duty of the morning is to monitor and help direct the fiasco they call the morning drop off. The best way to describe this organized chaos is a combination of NASCAR and an old video game called Frogger. Being a relative newbie to the morning activities I made the mistake of wandering into the “express lane” and almost wound up as a hood ornament on a SUV. Most of the mom’s (and a smattering of dad’s) slowed down just enough to eject their children from their vehicle so they wouldn’t lose their spot in the procession. The ones who were dropping off Kindergarteners parked their cars wherever they found an opening and walked the little tikes to their classroom. The other drivers used these parked cars as slalom markers to navigate skillfully in and around, making sure not to spill a single drop of their morning latte.
The morning rush had pretty much come and gone and I was just about to move onto my next assignment when a beat up ford minivan swerved to the curb, cutting off another car trying to pull away, and then jerked to a stop. The van looked as if it hadn’t been washed, EVER, and exhaust fumes hung in the air all the way back to where the van had turned off Peabody Street. The side door slid back and five children of varying ages spilled out onto the walkway. There were three boys and two girls. The youngest (girl) looked to be around six years old and the oldest (boy) was probably nine or ten. Only one of them was wearing a jacket despite the morning chill hovering just above the freezing mark. One of the boys was wearing camouflage crocs, with no socks. The hair on all of them was unkempt. Arriving a tad late, they all scattered and hurriedly headed in different directions towards their respective classes, the oldest boy towing the youngest girl behind him as she fought to turn around and wave goodbye to the occupant of the van. Somebody inside the van slid the door shut and the vehicle was driving off before the door had even locked into place. I continued to stare at it as it turned the corner and disappeared from sight.
I already knew a good many of Boo’s classmates from coaching various sports teams and most sought me out on the playground or in the cafeteria. It was fun to interact with them in a setting where I wasn’t trying to teach them a skill. This was their world and I was the fish out of water, and they enjoyed showing me the ropes.
I have to say that the childhood obesity problem that the U.S. is apparently in the midst of is not the fault of the school lunch system. Boo and I both ate the school provided lunch and I ended up stealing food from other kid’s trays when they turned their heads. There was a grill cheese sandwich that was as stale as a crouton, vegetable soup that was 98% water, 1% vegetables, and 1% mystery meat, sliced apples with caramel dip (the best part), and some corn bread that must have been held together by magic because as soon as I took my first bite it dissolved into a pile of flakes in my lap. Mid way through the meal I stole a look to where the teachers were sitting and noticed all of them had brought a lunch from home. That was definitely something they cold have warned us up front when we signed up, BRING YOUR OWN LUNCH!
I sat in on four different classes during the day and witnessed a wide assortment of teaching philosophies. Everything from the uber-strict (“everyone pick up your pencil now”) to the more relaxed freestyle approach. I could tell that some teachers were glad to have me with them for a brief while and had thought out what they wanted me to do, but I also got the feeling from some that I was an annoyance. Nevertheless, in every case the students were thrilled to have me there and fell over themselves to try to impress me with their knowledge.
The highlight of the day came in the afternoon when the 2nd graders were just about to be released for recess. I was walking through a common area towards the playgrounds when I spotted a large brown dog about 60 yards away in a breezeway between the common area and the rear parking lot. I remember thinking to myself, “who would bring a dog that size to school?” Then I noticed a second dog, this one black and approximately the same size as the first. Both dogs were unattended and wandering through the campus. The brown dog turned and heading towards me and the black dog went the opposite direction, towards the parking lot. I began walking towards the brown dog to corral it before the kids emptied out of the classrooms, and as I drew closer, I could make out its breed. It was a pit bull! Two choices quickly raced through my mind as the dog approached, 1) I could run to the closest bathroom and do something about what I had just deposited in my shorts, or 2) I could intercept the dog and do my best to keep it away from the children. Suddenly the bell rang and a flood of kids started spilling out into the common area, but they hadn’t yet caught sight of the dog. When I was 5 feet away from the dog I opened my hands, crouched down on my haunches, and whistled. Luckily the pit bull was completely friendly. By then the kids had caught site of me with the dog and rushed over to see it. Dogs, even normal dogs, can get extremely nervous when surrounded by a bunch of strangers. But this was a pit bull, which added an instability factor of a zillion. I calmly instructed the kids to back away and go play. Most of them listened to me, but a few decided they weren’t going anywhere. A teacher must have seen my predicament because the principal showed up shortly thereafter and we managed to lock the dog up in a fenced area around the compressors. Animal control was called and then we walked the perimeter in search of the black dog, but it was nowhere to be seen.
At the end of the day, I had a renewed respect for teachers, admiration for whoever had thought up the Watch DOGS program, high regard for our school administrators who thought enough about the program to implement in my son’s school, and gratitude to my employer for allowing me to partake in it without having to take a vacation day. It was a day well spent. I have two more days scheduled this school year and I am already looking forward to them.