On December 24th, 1994 at 7:30 AM, my fate was sealed. I left our acreage in Tipton, Iowa and made the four hour trip into Illinois to scout out a litter of Golden Retriever puppies. I’ve always been a dog person and hunted as a small boy growing up in NW Iowa. Although Jill and I had a couple of dogs before Jake, he was special in that way you can’t describe to others, and our growth together taught me a valuable lesson in the hiring process and a commitment to the professional relationship we owe to one another.
After a quick Christmas lie to the kids I was on my with Chris, the high school principal. When we arrived my heart sunk. Imagine the 1994 version of Hoarders: Buried Alive. Surely this could not be the home of the dog I dreamt about sharing countless sunrises and sunsets with in the field chasing ducks, geese and pheasants! After a quick double-check of the address this was indeed the place. Upon entering the house, the foul odor of dog urine and feces filled the air. My heart was in my stomach. How did I get myself into this mess? Was this another impulsive move gone wrong? As we meandered through the filth, we came to the entrance of the bathroom door. The owner, (I’ll call her Attila!) opened up the pet gate and out rushed five beautiful Golden Retriever puppies. I was back on track and feeling good. After a few minutes of playing with the pups I was about ready to pick a particularly frisky male when the owner mentioned a pup was missing. There should have been six. Attila frantically began looking around the house but being the nosy guy I am, I peaked deeper into the bathroom. There, sitting patiently behind the stool, was another male pup with soft eyes and with a look pleading for salvation from his current hell. As the smallest pup in the litter Jake was, according to Attila, picked on and neglected by the others.
When picking a pup for hunting purposes, high energy and bright eyes are tell-tale signs of a potential master field dog. But with Jake there was something different. Here I saw a dog that said, ‘Give me a chance. I won’t disappoint you.” So I did. Atilla gleefully took my $175 and unceremoniously kicked us out of the house. I guess McDonalds was having a 2-for-1 special on Big Macs and she was NOT going to miss out.
Two years passed before I started Jake’s formal training. That’s when we moved to Spencer, Iowa for my new job at Spencer Middle School. I had hooked up with two guys that lived across the street from the little house we rented and soon became great friends and steady hunting partners. Since Jake was the only dog around, he was dubbed ‘our’ dog BUT soon became the butt of our jokes for his HORRENDOUS retrieves, unruly conduct in the field and peeing on every living and non-living thing. Maybe I should have left him behind the toilet I often thought to myself but there was an ‘It’ factor I couldn’t deny. Then, one day, things changed. Jake began to settle down, my training days became more consistent, and soon both of us were more focused on what we needed from each other. While in the field together, I left school stress at home and he left chewing up my golf clubs there as well. We were becoming one and our bond and relationship was forever cemented on one particular retrieve in the fall of 1997.
Jake and I were hunting a wide open slough near a creek. He was working tight like he should and I was proud of him. Suddenly, Jake began to get “birdy” and before I knew it a rooster pheasant broke from cover. I downed it with one shot and Jake was off to retrieve him but for some reason he couldn’t find the bird. He and I both looked for a good 20 minutes but with no luck. Suddenly, Jake again got birdy and it was either the rooster I shot or a different bird. Either was fine by me. Without warning Jake broke and started heading straight for the winding creek that separated us from 300 acres of CRP land. Despite my calls to “back”, Jake would not come and to add insult to injury, two more fat roosters busted out of range. In a fit, I launched a shot over his head to get his attention. It didn’t work. Jake kept running. A split second later Jake was over the creek bank and out of my line of sight.
Frustrated. Cold. A lost bird. An undisciplined dog. Back to square one with training and his much hated check-cord. With the sun setting in the west, Jake suddenly came bounding up from the creek, soaking wet and as proud as a newly crowned Olympian. There he stood, in all of his glory, with the first rooster we, no I, couldn’t find firmly clamped in his mouth! He knew all along what he needed to do but I didn’t trust his training but even more embarrassing his own instincts. Shame on me.
My old superintendent Glen once said to me, “Steve, I’d rather hunt with a great dog for one year than an average dog for 15 years.” Sorry Glen, but in this instance I have to disagree. While our collective skills weren’t as polished as some, we shared a unique bond in having chosen each other that Christmas Eve Day in 1994. Back then my training skills and knowledge were not where they are today. Jake received from me exactly what it was I was able to give him and he was a product of great intentions with limited skills. How could I penalize HIM for things I couldn’t accurately teach or communicate to him? Given his disposition, I can only imagine how much further along he’d be if we could repeat our time together.
I think a lot about that saying when I’m in the midst of the hiring process. What I’m looking for from a new teacher and what they will need from me begins when I offer them the position. I hope that single gesture tells them that I see in them what we will need to be a better school and what I will gain from them is another valued perspective on how to get the job done. Through the good times and the rough spots, the tie that binds us together is the belief that we need each other in order to be at our best.
It’s Better in the Middle!