Sunday, February 28, 2010

Welcome To High School, Now Go Directly To College!

The New York Times announced a new initiative in American education where students take an exam at the end of tenth grade that would allow them to skip the last two years of high school and go directly to community college. The plan is “modeled largely on systems in high-performing nations including Denmark, England, Finland, France and Singapore,” according to reporter Sam Dillon. The program is the brainchild of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

Here is how the system would work. Sophomore students take an exam at the conclusion of their second year. Those with a passing score on the exam have the option of moving on to community college, or they could elect to remain for the final two years of high school.

Those not scoring well on the exam would be required to stay, but could retake the test at the end of eleventh and twelfth grades. The test would include major core subjects like English, math, science and history.

It is also interesting to note who is behind the movement. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided the money: $1.5 million. The federal stimulus money earmarked for improving public school testing would also be used, to the tune of $350 million. Those supporting the issue are the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Education Association, “the nation’s largest teachers’ union,” according to Dillon.

He goes on to quote Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s commissioner of education: “We’ve been tied to seat time for 100 years,” he says, citing American education’s insistence on a kindergarten through twelfth grade system. “This would allow an approach based on subject mastery—a system based around move-on-when-ready.”

Other supporters of the measure “say the new system would reduce the need for community colleges to offer remedial courses because the passing score for the 10th-grade tests would be set at the level necessary to succeed in first-year college courses.”

Howard T. Everson, professor of educational psychology at the City University of New York and co-chair of the advisory committee had this to say: “Our hope is that this board exam system can prepare students to move on to careers, to higher ed and technical colleges and the workplace, sooner rather than later.”

Yes, because there are so many jobs left unfilled out there in the American workplace these days, what with double digit unemployment. Could it be that the sooner these kids get off the books at the local public high school the sooner school districts can stop worrying about paying for their education?

On its surface, this may not seem to be a bad idea, and it is certainly not a new proposal. Kids have been graduating from high school early for a long time. The highly motivated and intelligent student can take summer classes, go to a community college, or double up on academic requirements and compile enough credits to forego senior year. Many colleges offer programs for such gifted students allowing them to finish their senior year requirements on the college campus while beginning their university studies.

It does make sense. Why shouldn’t a highly motivated and gifted student be allowed to move forward at an accelerated pace? If a kid wants the challenge and is mature enough to handle the situation, he should not be held back by a “seat time” requirement, as Mr. Holliday suggests.

However, there is more to this situation.

In many ways, we have a failing education system in middle and high school. Students graduating from the local public school often are not prepared for college. Here in California, many students cannot pass the state’s exit exam. We have diluted standards, cut classes and programs, and offer little to challenge our students to learn and achieve at the highest level. So pushing them out of high school and on to the workplace and college makes sense, right?

Well, with the budget cuts in state governments, especially steep here in California, community colleges are cutting classes. Many of my students who used to take college courses during their junior and senior years, can no longer find open classes. At my school, we are looking at offering some of these courses on our campus and increasing the senior school day because they cannot get what they need from the community colleges.

So to summarize: the good students might be able to take and pass the exam, but are community colleges ready to handle the increased number of students? Students who cannot pass the exam will remain on the high school campus trapped in a failing system. Teachers will face more layoffs and furloughs because there will be fewer students on campus. We are, in effect, canceling the last two years of high school and herding people into the job market or into community colleges, all in the middle of a major recession-depression with double-digit unemployment.

Let us also not forget the psychological impact of this program. Sophomores are not equipped to handle the college environment. They will be attending classes with people at least four to six years older. In the dynamics of a classroom, this could result in intimidation and bullying as well as create social issues that a fifteen year old is not yet equipped to handle. There is a reason why high school is four years. Students not only learn academic subjects; they mature socially and physically. To thrust them into an adult environment accelerates this process, and I can guarantee some students are not prepared for the kind of responsibility, judgment, and insight this brave new world of college might require.

We need to stop cutting corners, and get back to offering a challenging academic and social program to high school students. Let’s stop wasting their time in courses with weak, ineffectual teaching and a diluted curriculum. Make the classes harder; offer them more opportunities to explore their talents in technical training, academics, sports, and the arts. Yes, this will cost money, but this is our future we are talking about, and we need to stop being shortsighted. Do what we have to do, but we cannot cut education. More importantly, we need to make sure our school districts cut the fat from the budget: fewer administrators, bureaucrats, red-tape, and idiotic expenditures that have nothing to do with the classroom.

In education, this is called getting down to basics. The classroom, the teacher, the student, the textbook: solid lessons without distractions and interruptions; high standards that are never compromised, and dedicated professionals who are less concerned about their union contract and more concerned about the education of the whole child.

Instead of looking for shortcuts, let’s take the long way home, and make it worthwhile for everyone.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My School Is Better Than Your School

I spent the days right before we broke for Christmas vacation huddled with several other English teachers and school administrators trying to devise a marketing plan for our school.

Yes, we teach English, and also work in advertising. We are the new “Madmen.”

The poor economy has caused a drop in enrollment at private schools like the one where I teach. This means cutting back, and layoffs for teachers and support personnel. We are forced, like so many other industries in these troubled times, to do more with less.

But the other reason why we lost students last year has nothing to do with the economy.

Parents now are shopping for better extra curricular activities, or additional sports teams, or more music, art and dance programs. The greatest interest, however, is in whatever school can guarantee their child’s acceptance into the college of their choice. In effect, they are school-hopping in a search of the Holy Grail of education: college admissions.

No school can guarantee college acceptance, and every school has its problems, its strengths and weaknesses. I should know; I’ve been at four schools in twenty-four years, and I have observed my wife’s experiences in six schools over the same time period. We are lifelong teachers, and we know the story. Schools can have tons of extra curricular activities, field all the sports including golf and lacrosse, have great programs before, during, and after school, topped off with the best academics in the world, but a good education is up to the student. The student must seize the day and excel, and good teaching and programs can only go so far. We cannot do it for the kid.

That does not stop parents from jumping ship if there is even the hint of a question about college acceptance, or a school offering one additional elective or sports team. Or what I find most frustrating, when one parent pulls his kid out of the school and four or five others follow suit just to “keep up with the Joneses.” Rumors start, and parents flock to the new school.

The kicker is that they often come back a year, or even a single semester later, discovering that what’s new really isn’t.

Time after time, admissions officials at major colleges and universities will tell you that the best preparation for college is a challenging academic program where a student puts forth his utmost effort and achieves at the highest level. Many schools, including mine, offer such a challenging program.

In the last year or so, I have seen participation in our school’s Advanced Placement program decline. When I ask students why they want to leave an AP class, they tell me they do not want to do the extra work required for challenging classes. What’s more, college counselors have told them that their grade point averages matter most. If they take an AP course and get a B, it would be more beneficial in the long run to take a standard class and get an A. For good students, playing it safe for the future is better than taking on challenging course work for the love of learning.

So does it pay to jump from school to school? No.

And what damage is done to the kid with school-hopping? It’s tough to adjust to new schools, new environments. Students need stability to do well, and shifting schools can be traumatic. A kid must start over trying to fit in and find his place in the school culture.

My school has one of the lowest tuition rates, offers many comparable programs and amenities of higher priced institutions, and we have a close-knit family atmosphere where teachers truly know their students and are accustomed to working with them across several years because we are a preschool through twelfth grade program. Do we have problems? Sure. No school is perfect. But a student can get a very good education at my school at a competitive rate.

Still, here we are, trying to sell ourselves to a fickle clientele looking for the sure thing. Ladies and gentlemen, the sure thing does not exist.

So on Saturday, the faculty and staff will gather on campus voluntarily to hold an Open House for perspective students and their parents. We will talk curricula, course offerings, sports teams, clubs, activities, and offer tours of the campus. Refreshments will be served.

Teachers and staff volunteering their time on a weekend says a lot about their belief in what they are doing. We are committed educators who want our students to achieve, to excel, to go on to become productive members of society who succeed in their chosen fields.

We are also, in these strange times, salesmen. We are selling a school, an education. It is not enough that we work fifteen to eighteen hour days, that we support, encourage, and advocate for our students. On Saturday at 11:00 AM, we will try to sell ourselves to the world. These are strange days, indeed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Rip In The Moral Fabric

I am pleased that Los Angeles schools Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines rediscovered his ethics at the end of last week. God knows we don’t need another school official demonstrating moral bankruptcy; students can see enough of that on the internet beginning with Tiger Woods’ robotic apology. (Is he sorry for his transgression or simply sorry he got caught?)

Superintendent Cortines is paid $250,000 a year by the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to the Los Angeles Times, “below average for a leader of a large school district.” I don’t feel too bad about that when I see how many teachers were laid off at the end of last year due to budget constraints.

In addition to his regular salary, Scholastic Inc. paid him more than $150,000 to sit on their board. That company “received more than $16 million over the last five years from contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District,” again according to the Los Angeles Times. Of course, Cortines did not come to his mea culpa on his own; his moral transgression became public knowledge when the Los Angeles Times reported it in a recent article. A few days after the story broke, Cortines resigned from the board. According to the paper, “Cortines said he stepped down ‘to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest as I carry out my duties as superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school district and to reaffirm my commitment to our students, parents, teachers, and administrators.’”

Scholastic Inc. released a statement by their Chief Executive Richard Robinson: “We will miss [Cortines’] wise counsel and his deep understanding of the critical issues we face as a nation in our efforts to improve the quality of education for all children.” I am sure they are also worried about continuing to win contracts from L.A. Unified without the superintendent in their pocket.

Being a teacher is not just about knowing a subject. To be a teacher requires that one model the life of a moral, learned person. The obligation to model moral behavior is just as important as knowing the subject matter.

Over the years, I have encountered many teachers who haven’t a clue about being a role model for their students. I have had to tell teachers in departments I have supervised to stop tutoring their own students for a fee. They either could not understand, or feigned ignorance that this instruction for money could be construed as a bribe to raise a child’s grade. The worst case of this was the teacher who told me, “Of course I make these kids pay me for tutoring. How do you think you can make a decent living as a teacher?”

Others tried to put me off with the defense that they would never compromise their objectivity and grading for the students they were also tutoring. I have no doubt that many of them were not giving preferential treatment to their tutoring clients, but it is the appearance of an ethical breach that must be considered. This they could not understand. Appearances count for something, and teachers must avoid even the appearance of an ethical error.

As for Cortines, I have never met the man, but I know from experience that many administrators lack an understanding of what happens in the classroom, even if they used to be teachers. They are politicians, trying to please everybody and pacify their constituencies. My biggest problem with this is that decisions within a school should be made in the best interest of the child. That is the only criteria.

In a private school, it is easy to adopt the attitude of keeping the customer happy. Schools are not businesses, and students and their parents are not customers in the same way supermarket shoppers are. Parents pay tuition for their children to be educated, challenged, and encouraged to achieve at the highest level of their capability. Often that is a contentious process requiring that the teacher be demanding and uncompromising with his expectations. To weaken and pander is to undermine the education of the student, and that is exactly what administrators often do.

I have had administrators who could not understand that allowing one student to participate in a sports program with deficient grades because of special circumstances is an affront to all the other students who are doing what they are supposed to do, as well as those who were penalized for similar problems. In education, one cannot give preferential treatment to a student, nor can a single student’s situation be given precedence over the other students in the class. To paraphrase the cliché, the education and well-being of the majority of students outweigh the special treatment of a single student. Sometimes, we must remove a student from a class, suspend her from a team, or not allow her to attend a dance when she has fallen below acceptable academic and behavioral standards. To make an exception destroys credibility, and that is what many people in education do not understand. We must embrace our role as moral educators no matter what subject we teach.

In his position as school superintendent, Ruben C. Cortines should use his office to model the proper behavior of an educator with ethics and morals. He has failed in that regard, and apologizing for his mistake after he was caught is disingenuous and unprofessional. Like Tiger Woods and a host of other public figures lately, these ethical and moral violations only serve to demonstrate that the rip in the moral fabric of our society is a poor example for our kids, and further evidence of the corrupt nature of those who take advantage of their position with blatant disregard for the message they send.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Stone’s ashes arrived yesterday via UPS. It seems they need an adult, 21 years or older, to sign for them, and since we were both teaching, the delivery attempt was a failure. So, at eight o’clock at night we went to the ass-end of Van Nuys to stand in line behind a guy complaining he didn’t get his television from QVC to retrieve our dog’s remains. Plain, brown box with a weight of four pounds. A ninety-pound dog reduced to four pounds of ashes.

The house is empty. Here in Los Angeles, the highs are hovering in the eighty degree range with clear, blue skies. It feels like April or May, but it is still the dead of winter. Most nights we sit in front of the television eating our dinner and watching the Winter Olympics.

I have discovered that I have distracted myself from some very difficult times with the Winter Olympics over the years.

In 1994, we had a large earthquake that nearly took down our apartment building, and did in fact close the school where we were teaching for a while. I remember watching the games through aftershocks, listening to the walls heave and crack, while the skiers raced downhill and the figure skaters landed triple Lutz jumps and twirled away in camel spins. The games were in Lillehammer, Norway that year.

Salt Lake City hosted the games in 2002. This came right after my wife’s grandfather passed away in a nursing home and America was still recovering from 9-11. Her grandfather, Miguel, an incredible mechanic who could fix almost anything, tried to teach me how to work on an engine when times were better. I once tightened a bolt on an engine so securely that it took him two days with a hacksaw to cut it off. I was terror with a wrench. There we were on the couch, watching the luge and mourning him.

My mother passed on January 2, 2006. The games that winter were in Turin, Italy. I vaguely remember swirling forms, flames, and figures in mostly white flying down mountains in a faraway country famous for its Burial Shroud of Christ. I do not think I prayed much.

And now it is 2010 in Vancouver. Why did they pick an area with so little snow? Vancouver is a city of rain it seems. Again, we have the stories of the skier with the brother suffering from cerebral palsy, the snowboarder who went to Africa with skateboards, and for a dash of eccentricity, the figure skater who gets death threats for having fur-trimmed costumes. Tragedy, victory, stunning losses and evenings in the glowing half-light of the den. It must be winter again.

Today I gave my students a journal topic to write based on a John Milton poem called, “On His Blindness.” Here is the poem:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

I asked my students to write about their most valuable possession, and what they would do if they lost it. The possession could be an object, a person, or something more abstract like a memory. I got some great writing from them, especially the seniors who wrote about friendship, family memories, photographs. Other popular subjects were free speech and freedom, baby books, and specific family members like grandparents, brothers and sisters.

Living is about losing things, sometimes piece by piece, taken from us by that decider of mortality: time. Our only recourse is to hold on, cling to the memories, the moments we shared. Religion may comfort us, friends and loved ones may help heal the pain, but in the end, we must simply live on without.

Sometimes, all our best efforts, our love and concern, our desire to hang on to what we care about the most, all boil down to a four-pound box of ashes in a dirty parking lot on a warm winter’s night. We all, as the broadcasters remind us each night on the Olympic telecast, must face our destiny in our search for what is right and true, flying down the hill, the slippery slope of our dreams.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

We Die Of Heartbreak

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”William Shakespeare
Hamlet Act IV, Sc. 5

In the midst of a number of significant crises last week, Stone died. His back legs were nearly useless, but his personality and intelligence remained untouched until the end. He slipped away as I held him in my arms on the floor of an exam room at our vet’s office. He was ten years old.

I used to think the teacher was the guy who knew all the answers. Over time, I have learned that the questions are far more important. Stone’s death made me realize how much I do not know about this life, and how much I may never understand. How can such a gentle creature suffer so much? Where is he now, and is he alone? And how do we live in a world where we are destined to die? The teacher should be the one who asks the questions and is willing to follow those questions into the darkest parts of human existence to find the answers and bring them back to enlighten others.

So, I will continue to search for answers. Who are we? Why are we here? What does this life mean?

As I have watched friends and loved ones die, stood over the body of my mother, looked into the eyes of the sick, I realize I know nothing. I understand and comprehend only a fraction of what it means to truly live. I am left with tears, regrets and bitterness, but so little wisdom. And it is wisdom that I need right now.

I do not make friends easily. I use humor to attempt to diffuse my inadequacies, my awkwardness. People have told me I am a loner, someone more comfortable in solitude than with others. This is difficult for my wife; she enjoys family and friends. She likes being with others. For me, comfort resides in books, ideas, observations, anonymity. Outside of the classroom, I could be quiet forever. I push people away many times, holding them to impossible standards as I am hyper-critical of myself and my actions. Nothing is ever good enough. I do not think I deserve success or love or friendship.

That is why I connected so strongly with Stone. Dogs love unconditionally. They live in the moment. He was always happy to see us when we came home and was never happier than at dinner time or snoring soundly through the dark of night at the foot of our bed. He never growled or threatened; he loved people and brought peace and comfort to my life.

Our long walks, often late at night, taught me the importance of the moment. And whatever he had to endure with his myriad health problems, he did so without complaint. He had the highest pain threshold of any creature—human or animal—that I have ever encountered. No yelping, no whining, and he rarely barked. He was reserved, quiet, dignified in a way I have rarely seen in humans. I have had many dogs in my life, but Stone was the best. He was also with me for the shortest duration, and I am thankful I had him for the time I did, but I will always wish for more.

For me, mid-life is fraught with uncertainty: aging parents, difficult work, a poor economy, my own health issues, and my questions about what this life means. Ultimately, where do we go after? If all we are granted on this earth is seventy-five years, what does this brief flame of human existence mean in the scheme of time?

I will reexamine every work of literature. I will continue to study history, philosophy, science, and every other subject to find the answers. When the time comes, I want to understand our place in the world. I want to know death, and if possible, gather at least some wisdom about where we go when we die. Man should not fear death. He should fear the realization that coming to the end of his life he has not lived.

So I will live looking for the truth, endeavoring to understand the mysteries. I know that loss is inevitable. We bury those we love—parents, grandparents, children, friends. Pain and suffering are part of this existence, and nearly every religion devotes a portion of its sacred texts to a discussion of the darkness inherent in life. I will return to those texts yet again to search for answers. And if I find that we simply exist, than so be it. I am ready to confront whatever truth I find.

Stone resides in memory now, and even though his physicality is gone, his essence remains like an echo through my days. Those echoes will haunt me and leave me restless in sleep. I hear them still, and I hope I always will.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Buried in the Avalanche

Two things happened last week to remind me that our depressed economy continues.

I went to see my tax lady. This year, I thought she looked a little grimmer than usual. “How bad was it for you guys this year?” she asked as we sat down at her desk.

We told her about the cuts at school, teachers laid off, belt-tightening all around. “But it seems like we might be pulling out of it,” I offered.

She shook her head. “People are desperate. Unemployment. Underemployment. Not enough taxes taken out because everyone tries to stretch their dollars. Then they come in here and find out they owe a ton.” She grimaced. “If this country doesn’t get some industry going, we are not going to recover.”

Granted, she is not an economist, but she has always been dead on with her financial advice to me, and many years she has saved me a lot of money, so I trust her. She also sees a nice cross-section of people filing through her office at tax time.

The second thing that happened was more telling. I ran an ad on one of the teacher employment websites for an English teacher. It is that time of year when we begin gathering resumes for possible openings for next year. I placed the ad at 10:30 at night before logging off to go to bed. Stone delayed me a bit, and when I went back to shut down the computer at eleven, I had ten resumes parked in my email box. The deluge continued overnight, and in the first twenty-four hours I averaged roughly three to five applicants an hour. Now, they come so fast that I must check my email several times a day to keep up with the flow. I put together a quick note to reply to the applicants stating that I received their materials and should we wish to schedule an interview, we would be in touch. I got replies to my reply.

As I began to cull the results of my ad, I was surprised at the breadth of the responses. I received resumes from people with an astonishing variety of degrees. Many had Masters and post-graduate diplomas. Of course, English and education were overwhelmingly represented. But I also received material from people with degrees in astronomy, aeronautics, sociology, journalism, philosophy, psychology, and geology.

The most popular current occupation was tutoring. Some were substitute teachers, and a few were laid off last year by their former schools, both public and private. As has been the case for several years, the occupations of writer, novelist, screenwriter, and poet had representation. There were also some different job histories: an airline maintenance technician, inventory control technician, surf instructor, and a number of advertising executives and copywriters. One person worked most of his adult life as a school janitor. He thought it was time to make the jump to the classroom. He had an English degree and a teaching credential completed while cleaning school bathrooms, God bless him.

Since the applicants were shooting for a position teaching English, I was interested in their writing skills. Scary, to say the least. “Peole’s” for people’s; “Thier" for their; “May” for my. Shouldn’t you proofread carefully before submitting?

How about these sentences? “My forte lies with…writing and composition.” Or, “I then help the student become more comfortable with writing by using a comprehensible teaching style.” One guy claimed to have an “infectious [my emphasis] and enthusiastic passion for literature and creative writing.”

Another applicant asked for twenty-four hour notice before scheduling an interview so he could make the four hour drive to Los Angeles: from Oregon! Maybe he has one of those new hybrids that defy the space-time continuum.

The salutations on the cover letters also proved interesting. Most were addressed to me, or “To Whom It May Concern.” Others were addressed to people I had never heard of, or organizations not affiliated with the school. “My cover letter was intended for a school in NYC so please discard the address,” one said. Obviously, the applicant had forgotten to readdress the letter after the last submission. I chuckled to myself when I opened one email that began: “Respected Paul Martin.”

The shortest cover letter simply said, “I saw the add [sic] for an English teacher and am interested in interviewing for the position.”

I’ll spend the next several weeks sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of people’s lives to find a short list of applicants to interview. The message is clear: lots of people need work, and many will take anything they can get.

In all our self-assured narcissism, our troubles are still with us. We are an empire at a crossroads, a culture struggling with its own entropy. Will this be the year we pull ourselves out of the doldrums and get the ship-of-state back on course? The more important question is, do we have the strength, leadership, and self-discipline to find the answers? Uncertainty is all we have right now, and it is anything but reassuring.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stone In Winter

Stone the Weimaraner is not doing well these days.

Last week, his chronically weak back legs began to fail him. I would have to wrap a sheet around his hind quarters and lift him up the two steps into the house. If he went up or down the steps on his own, he would fall, or careen wildly around trying to keep his balance.

Then, the worst became a reality. He began to fall when urinating, usually right into the puddle of fresh pee. He would look up at me as I tried to help him, his face a tight mask of embarrassment. Yes, my dog gets embarrassed. I’d gently wipe him down, take the bed sheet, and help him back into the house.

By the end of the week, his back paws were dragging as we walked. He looked like he might be partially paralyzed.

It took a Herculean effort to get him into the car and to the vet’s office. Once there, I worked with two large vet techs to lift him out of our vehicle and carry him into the exam room where he promptly collapsed on the floor. As I knelt beside him, he lost control of his bowels.

The vet hospitalized him for the day, sedated him, and loaded him up with intravenous anti-inflammatory steroids. We were able to take him home in the evening with numerous vials of pills. The cost was 700 dollars; Stone barely made it home with four people assisting him.

Saturday, he was nearly comatose on the floor of my study, his eyes rolled up in his head, breathing heavily. I called the vet, and she told me that if he was not better by Monday, “we needed to think about Stone’s quality of life.”

I knew what that meant.

When Stone came to live with us more than two years ago, I did not anticipate how much time a ten year old dog with Irritable Bowel Disease, allergies, and a host of other physical weaknesses would take from my life. Many times when I am struggling to write one more coherent sentence, or grade that last paper, Stone is scratching at the back door to go out.

We must boil him a fresh batch of chicken and rice every few days, make sure he has a dollop of plain yogurt in his dish to aid digestion, and feed him three small meals a day so his system does not get overloaded. I must scrutinize his bowel movements for blood, and sometimes he has voluminous diarrhea that kills the grass like Agent Orange.

He takes his sweet time on walks. Usually, on the last walk of the evening at midnight or later, all I want to do is get him outside, let him pee, and get back to shower and get some sleep. Inevitably, he smells every inch of every lawn. Sometimes, he stands and contemplates the silent universe of the neighborhood, staring off into the darkness at God knows what, or up into the heavens at the foggy pearl of the moon. Stone loves the organic beauty of the night, and no one will rush him through his reverie. I tug gently on his leash. “Come on, buddy. Let’s go.” He won’t even look at me. This is his time, his meditation. I feel the desperation rising—it has been a long day with an even longer tomorrow. Stone does not care, and I imagine him telling me that this moment, staring up at the night sky, is the best moment of the day. The dog is the teacher.

I was in pieces this weekend. I cursed myself: why did I take on this dog when I knew that I would have to one day say goodbye. I love him, but now I must face the pain of losing him. Often, when I am loading the dishwasher or working in my study, Stone will move through the house looking for me. When he finds me, he sighs in relief and throws himself on the floor nearby. Only then can he doze a little, secure that he knows where I am.

I imagine him in the afterlife of dogs, arriving and looking for me. I won’t be there, and he will not be able to find me. This is a dog who was attacked by his brother, had his side ripped open, and was left for dead at the local animal shelter. He was rescued by Friends For Pets. They paid to have him sutured up, and then put him in a cage for two years until we adopted him. I do not want him to be alone, or in pain, or suffer ever again.

But there are certainties in life: the impermanence of all things and the existence of suffering. These are conditions that must be accepted, and to hold out the futile hope that somehow one can move through this existence without turmoil and suffering is to surrender all wisdom for idiocy.

Stone has the answer: live in the moment.

Monday, Stone was up and about, still stiff-legged and hesitant, but moving and walking. I can tell he is in pain at times, and his atrophied hind quarters will probably never come back. I let him guide our walks by how he feels and what he instinctively knows he can do.

We walk together in the “certain slant of light” of the winter afternoon. Stone stops and raises his head to catch the breeze, eyes closed, feeling the last of the sun’s meager warmth. I feel it too, the dampness in the air, the smell of rain approaching. I will continue to trust the wisdom of my dog.

I lean down and whisper into his gray flannel ear. “Stay with me a while longer, Old Man.” Stone stares into the future, listening.