Containing Olive: Restraining a Dog’s Wild Heart and the Plight of Student Nature

I am sitting on my couch preparing to go yell at the dog because she is barking. I sit here thinking maybe today’s the day she finally gets out. I want to share my feelings of constant exasperation and trepidation containing Olive because I think she is helping me understand my growth as an educator.

This is Olive bossing around a Great Dane mainly because she thinks she can.

When we first moved to this house we are presently renting, Ally and I noticed that Olive spent most of her energy running beneath the backyard’s porch. The possibilities of rabbits and the dangers of spiders were too problematic. A trip to Home Depot and some not-so-fancy lumber now lines the porch to only occasionally prevent Olive from the subterranean hunt.

A week later I heard Olive barking outside and I made the trek downstairs to shush her only to find that she was no longer in our yard but in our neighbor’s. We extended our fence upwards and we have blocked off all crevices with cinder blocks. Yes, our fifteen pound beast clears four and five foot fences and can hop onto our counter if the proper morsel entices.

Next, Olive was slowly digging her way out of the front of the yard. More cinder blocks were purchased to line yet another fence.

One day I was sitting on the couch writing, much as I am now, when my phone rang and a woman’s voice asked if I had a dog named Olive.

“Uh, yeah, is there a problem?”

“No, no problem, she’s here with me.”

And that’s when I found out that the gate in our backyard had been jostled open. And the purchase of a MasterLock was added to the tally of costs required to contain Olive.

It’s not that Olive is unhappy here. I re-read this opening description and realize it sounds like maybe I’m a less-than-stellar dog owner and Olive is trying to get away. That’s not it. Olive’s nature drives her to do this. It is who she is.

Olive is a hunter and a jumper and a digger. This is how she learns. When she hears danger: dogs fighting, cars honking, people yelling, Olive runs towards the origin. There is no flight for Olive, only fight. Actually, let me clarify, there is only flight when Olive senses she is being chased. Because her favorite game aside from “Get Out of Captivity and Explore” is “Stay Just Out Of Reach of My Pursuers.”

What efforts and folly have I invested in containing this spirit that wants to run freely and recklessly for rabbits and birds and elusive fun? I think of that line: “blame it on my wild heart.” Olive needing to escape is irreparable because it’s not something that’s “broken” to begin with. And then I think about how much bending and repartitioning and locking and proverbial cinder-blocking we focus on within schools. It makes me worried that something like the achievement gap isn’t broken; it is inherent in how we have programmed the conglomeration of schools and geography and sociopolitical contexts of learning.

And I think about a student, David, from my first year of teaching. The first student I felt like I truly failed to connect with and then failed to keep track of once he dropped out. I felt like I couldn’t contain David within the walls of school and the meticulously crafted curriculum I was staying up late to develop. I remember using my conference period to cross the street to the gas station where I knew I would find David loitering and talking to him about why he was missed in class. I remember figuring out the phone number for the pay phone next to where David loitered and then calling that number when he wasn’t in class. And then having him hang up when he realized his English teacher was hounding him at a pay phone. And then having his name dropped from my and the school’s roster shortly after.

Not that what I was doing that first year was what I would call “highly effective” but I also felt like, as a schooling system, we were trying to contain and control a student like David in ways that were inevitably going to fail.

Last week, I spent forty minutes outside of a dog park trying to wrangle Olive back into human captivity.  She saw a squirrel and decided that it was way more interesting than any of the mutts she was stuck with and, on her second try, cleared the dog park fence and was free.

And then the next day, personifying Einstein’s definition of insanity, Ally and I took Olive back to the same dog park. Upon seeing another squirrel, Olive did the same thing again.

I understand Olive’s nature. It irks me to no end. It challenges me and I realize that my efforts to thwart Olive’s escape attempts are efforts to make her behavior conform to my own. It is convenient for me to have her stay in our backyard (and highly, highly inconvenient to have her running freely). When working with youth in classrooms, such calls for convenience and “domestication” are much more problematic. How have others worked toward dismantling the blocks and locks and timber that are set in place to restrain student nature?


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