Reverb11: Surprise Teachers

Sometimes we find teachers in the most unexpected places. Who surprised you as a teacher this year, and what did you learn?

As with so many of the Reverb prompts, I find this one invites questions before answers. For example, in order to be a teacher, must one be aware that they are imparting a lesson of some kind? Is intention an intrinsic component to being a teacher? Or is someone a teacher simply because I learned something as a result of their existence and behavior? And would the lesson learned have to be a positive one? Or might we learn what we do not want to do?

Is being reminded of something one forgets the same as being “taught”? Is it still teaching if the lesson is reiterating “curriculum” from other sources?

I can’t say for everyone, but for me, let’s say that there doesn’t have to be intention to teach, and that being reminded is a form of being taught. Those ground rules being established, I am going to go with my sister’s pets as examples of teachers this year. How’s that for surprising?

Actually though, it isn’t that surprising. Animals often make us think or react in ways we otherwise would not. (So can people for that matter, and therefore I think anybody could teach me something, and I am not usually surprised at who becomes a teacher. But I’ll let that go for now.)

Earlier this month I was house sitting and pet sitting for my sister while she was out of town. She has one dog and two cats. Don’t ask me the breeds, because I am never good at remembering such things. Thankfully I am good at remembering that I am quite allergic to cats, and I brought a full supply of Allegra with me.

An animal person I am not. I think they can be fascinating, and great company in the right circumstances. While I am not a Vegan, I do believe that all animals should be treated humanely and with respect. Which I do. Most of the time. That is to say I put a great deal of effort into doing so. Yet depending on the animal, I will sometimes yell the occasional (and I realize, useless) “Shut up,” in their direction.

My sister is an animal person. She showers her pets with far more attention than I tend to shower upon animals. To be frank, I think her pets are pampered to a degree. Now they are her pets, she has a right to pamper them as much as she wants, don’t get me wrong. Yet it makes for an interesting situation when someone else is running the house in her absence.

One cat and the dog would have been content I think to be carried around by me as I made my way around the house all day. So insistent were they about sitting next to or on me when I was trying to eat, or read, or do anything other than acknowledge them that I spent a great deal of my time and energy keeping them somewhat at bay. I don’t usually like animals on me. Even animals I like. So this was one of the bigger adjustments.

They had to adjust as well. They have much freedom over the house, and while I didn’t deny them any freedom over their surroundings I did deny them freedom to touch me most of the time.

Yet they would not be denied my attention when it came time for meals and other routines. These animals are definite creatures of habit. When 5:00PM rolled around, no matter where I was, it would become clear that it was time to begin the feeding ritual. (And it very much was a multi-step ritual, believe me.) Lest I forget that it was time for said ceremony, every step I took during the appointed hour had to be a careful one, as animals were at my heels for every moment. (Except for the female cat, whom usually did not participate in all of the meal time ruckus of the other two pets. She, therefore, was my favorite all week.)

The dog also goes out at certain times, naturally. But he will only go out of certain doors at certain times. Most times, he goes out of the basement door into the back yard, barking at non-existent threats the entire time. But after the glorious meal time mentioned above, he expects to go out the door leading to the deck, from the living room. (The barking remains in place once he is outside.)

I had a print out, authored by my sister, explaining these intricacies. I was there for about three days before I had it down cold. And I did try to follow it to the best of my ability, even though I was dumbfounded that a dog that had to shit would refuse so to do if he was set free via a different door than that to which he was accustomed. (I tried it a few times.)

Now what does all of this have to do with being taught? In the process of keeping the animals literally out of my face, off of my lap, and nowhere near the guest room in which I slept, (they tried to invade that all the time before I closed the door behind me), I realized that it probably wasn’t easy for them either. Their idea of being inconvenienced is not the same as ours, but I feel certain they realized I was not the master, and that things were not proceeding as normal. I was determined therefore that since I couldn’t have them nuzzling me as they do my sister, to at least make the daily march of the immortals that was 5 o’clock in that house as normal for them as possible. Sort of to make up for my personal coldness.

What they taught me, (or as the case may be, reminded me) was that no matter how different certain environments are from what you are used to, once you find yourself in one there is only so much alteration you can expect to make. When in Rome (or Annapolis) do as the Romans (or the pets) do, to put it another way. One must try to be aware of which settings can be altered by their presence, and which cannot.

One should always be aware of personal limits. Just as I was when I was firm in keeping the animals out of my lap. It was not going to happen. Yet if I didn’t want total, barking, mewing, spitting, earth shattering, work interrupting, floor cleaning chaos, I needed to embrace the meal time expectations and the routines of “toilet” time. Not that I couldn’t have just ignored what they wanted and forced my will upon these animals. I could have. Yet I was not there to create a house in my own image. I was there to be the back-up quarterback who knows the playbook, and does his best to follow it. Had I not, I would have heard about it in loud, angry fashion, and I don’t mean from my sister or any other human.

It’s all rather Taoist, I guess. Once you step into a river, you are not going to change its course by any more than the tiny divergence the water makes around your body. Embrace that, learn to use it to your advantage, or stay out of the river.

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