The Kenilworth kindergartners squealed with delight when Whitney led me into their school wearing snow boots. “That‘s our special guest Mrs. Fink,” their teacher announced. “And that’s Hanni, the dog from the book, too!”
We’d arrived late (our commuter train had been delayed in Chicago due to weather) and our opening assembly had to be cut back to 15 minutes. After that, Whit and I gave separate fifteen-minute sessions for all the kindergarten and first grade classes at Joseph Sears Elementary School.
Fifteen minutes was not enough time to explain that Hanni, the star of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound had retired, that this was a new dog, I’d had to decide when it was time for Hanni to retire, I could have kept Hanni as a pet or brought her back to the Seeing eye but I decided to find friends to adopt her, that she’s doing fine and is living an enviable retirement in Urbana, that I had another dog after that, his name was Harper, he retired, and now, this new dog is Whitney, and she’s a ball of energy.
And so, I did what I had to do. I referred to the dog at my feet generically. She was “my Seeing Eye dog.” Ick snay on it-whey ee-nay. The questions during the classroom visits reflected what the kindergartners and first-graders are learning to do in school:
- How do you put on your shoes?
- How can you print your name if you can’t see the paper?
- How do you read those green signs that tell you what street it is?
- How do you get dressed?
- Can you tell time?
- Does your dog really know right from left?
I had to be honest with the little girl who asked that last question. I really wasn’t sure. “We say the word ‘left’ when we want our dogs to turn left,” I told her. I went on, then, explaining how Seeing Eye trainers teach us to point to the left and face our shoulders left, too, at the same time we give the “left” command. “So I don’t know if my Seeing Eye dog understands the word ‘left’ or she sees my body language… .” I could hear the kids starting to fidget. I was losing my audience. Gee whiz, Beth. Stop talking! Just show them how it works
In the real world, out on the street, a blind person memorizes or knows the route before leaving home. The pair gets themselves situated on the sidewalk and faces the direction they’ll start. The blind person commands “Forward!” and the dog guides them safely to the curb. When the dog stops, the person stops. That’s how a blind person using a guide dog knows they have arrived at an intersection.
If the person wants to turn right or left at that corner, the person commands the direction, simultaneously turning their upper body in that direction and pointing in that direction, too. The dog turns, and the blind companion follows the dog’s lead.
Back in the school classroom, I wake up the dog sleeping at my feet and lift the harness off her back. And then, uh-oh, it dawns on me. These kids all think this dog is Hanni.
Dog is my co-pilot. I offer a quick prayer. “Please, Whitney, go along with the ruse.” I point both shoulders and my right finger left and command, “Hanni, left!”
My dog heads left with more exuberance than usual. She’s on to the fake. I give her another command. “Hanni, outside!” She leads me to the door.
Dear Sears School kids who are reading this: I’m sorry I lied.
Dear Safe & Sound blog readers: any of you have a phone number for a dog psychiatrist that specializes in identity issues?