Zeke was a bad dog. The first time I saw him, he was streaking across a campus quad, ears flying in the wind, leash dragging behind him, while his owner followed on a bike, screaming his name. “Zeke! ZEKE! Bad dog!” He lived across the street from me my last year of college, and I watched him, surreptitiously, from my porch. Sometimes I stopped on my way home to pet him. My dog had died the year before and my mom had gotten herself a new dog, but the dog your family gets when you are 21 and in school is not the same as the one they get when you are ten and lonely. I patted Zeke on the head, gingerly, because his dull brown fur was sticky and dusted with dandruff. He had amber eyes and a stump for a tail and an extreme arthritic limp that didn’t prevent him from running away every chance he got. It became routine: Zeke ran away and his owner chased him on his bike, screaming and cursing. “Bad, bad dog!”
Sometimes I saw the man go after Zeke with a stick, yelling and hitting him. Once I tried to talk to him about it, asking if it was really necessary to hit the dog. “Oh yes,” he said. “He is a very bad dog. How else will he learn?” Politeness and fear trapped me in silence, and I shrugged unhappily. “In this country, you treat your dogs better than people,” he said. “In my country, dogs are for working.”
I told myself it was a cultural difference and not my place to interfere. Still, I flinched whenever I saw the man hitting Zeke. Even if he was a bad dog.
Eventually I graduated, moved across town, and began student teaching in a seventh grade classroom. The ten year difference between them and me felt like nothing. Trent Kidder sat in the last row of my last class of the day, and he was a problem from the first. “Oh, Trent Kidder,” the other teachers said knowingly. “He’s a bad kid.”
The other teachers told me that I needed to be harsh with Trent, to show him who was boss. They told me never to smile. They told me to send him to the principal right off the bat, to establish my dominance. I followed their advice, but Trent just got worse and worse. After school every day I went back to campus where I attended methods classes and wrote research papers and thought about how to tone Trent down and spice up my lessons so the rest of my students would care about class.
One Thursday afternoon in early September, the man showed up at my door with Zeke. It was an emergency, he said. He had to go out of town for the weekend and there wasn’t anyone else. Could I please take the dog, just until Sunday night?
“I’m sorry,” I said. I couldn’t do it; my landlord had a very strict policy against dogs.
“Please,” the man said. “You’re the only one.”
I looked down. Zeke was wearing an ill-fitting red harness that cut under his legs and across his neck. He looked uncomfortable. “Oh, all right. Just until Sunday.”
When he was gone, I looked at Zeke. “I guess you’re stuck with me, buddy.” Zeke wagged his stump.
In my family, we’d always left the dog food out all day, and the dogs would eat when they were hungry. I put out a bowl of food for Zeke and he gobbled it as if he didn’t know when he’d see his next meal. Taken aback, I filled his bowl again, and he immediately finished it. “Hey,” I said. “I’ll feed you every day. I promise.” I washed him and brushed him but my family was not impressed. “What a dirty old dog,” they said. “He’s so old! He probably won’t live through the weekend.”
“He’s not dirty,” I said.
On Sunday, I waited for Zeke’s owner. I read a book, and Zeke slept at my feet. The minutes ticked by. I read another book. The man didn’t come. Finally at ten o’clock he called me and said he wasn’t going to make it. He was in Atlanta. “What am I supposed to do?” I demanded. “I can’t keep him!” The man begged me. Just one week. Please. Next Sunday. He promised.
What could I do? I said fine and hung up. Zeke wagged his stump and went back to sleep.
I spent the week sneaking around, trying to keep him hidden. I left him in the basement during the day and took him to campus with me when I could, letting him curl up at my feet in the curriculum library after everyone else had gone home for the night. He panicked when I left, and broke out of every kind of barrier I could make. When I was home, he stayed close to me, winding himself between my legs as I walked through the house and sneaking under the covers at night, like he thought I would leave if he let me out of his sight.
His owner called again Sunday night. From New York this time. No, he couldn’t come get him. Maybe next week.
I took Zeke to the vet and got him glucosamine, and he stopped limping. I brushed him every day and fed him eggs to make his coat soft and shiny brown. I talked to the people who knew his owner, followed a trail through his past to learn as much as I could about him. In the last year, the man had already left Zeke with three other families.
The next week, he didn’t come back, and he didn’t call.
My mother the social worker said Zeke reminded her of the foster children she’d worked with over the years. She put him in her car to take him on a play date and said he looked like a foster kid, resigned to the fact that she would leave him again, that no one wanted to be his forever family.
After six weeks, we got an envelope in the mail with Zeke’s medical records and a note from one of Zeke’s previous foster homes. Congratulations on your new dog! the note said. “I thought you were dog-sitting him,” my mother said.
I looked down at Zeke, who stood leaning against my legs. He wagged his stump at me. “I guess not.”
A few weeks after that, a friend of mine yelled at him as a joke. “Bad dog!” he yelled, and Zeke cowered in fear, whimpering. I nearly kicked my friend out of the house. “Don’t you ever yell at my dog again.” I knelt down with Zeke and wrapped my arms around him, shushing him. “You’re safe,” I told him. “You’ll always be safe with me. I promise you.”
I fed him every day and though he always ate with relish, he lost that haunted look that said he didn’t know when he’d get his next meal. Our family vet helped perfect his glucosamine dosage until his limp disappeared altogether. I walked him every day and let him sleep next to me with his head on the pillow at night. Night after night I watched him fall asleep, marveling that an animal who had been abused and neglected could ever feel safe enough to fall asleep with someone watching.
Zeke became a very good dog.
Little kids could hit him on the head and he’d just stand there, smiling his doggy smile and wagging his stump. I took him to visit my elderly relatives and saw decades drop from their faces as they stroked his soft ears. He was my co-pilot, my hiking buddy, my muse, my partner in crime, my entertainment when I was bored, my relief after a long day at school. My best friend.
Trent, on the other hand, got worse and worse. He interrupted my class at every opportunity, and started to rally the other kids to his cause, until I worried about mutiny. One day I watched him running around the field at lunch, and thought of the first time I saw Zeke, of his unfettered glee as he flew across the quad. The advice of the other teachers suddenly reminded me of what the man had told me about Zeke. “How else will he learn?” I thought about the light that came into Zeke’s eyes, slowly, after months of care and love. Hitting him with a stick made him bad. Treating him with gentle care made him good.
So I forgot the advice of the veteran teachers and followed a hunch instead. Rather than showing Trent who was boss by punishing him, I waited until a day when he was less obnoxious than usual and pounced. “You did such a great job today!” I told him. “You’re a leader in the class, and the other kids look up to you.”
I saw a tiny light appear in Trent’s eyes. “Really?”
“Absolutely,” I said, and smiled at him.
By the end of the semester, Trent was a model student – but only in my class. The other teachers still complained about him and asked me what my secret was. “I just told him he was a good person, and he bloomed.” Maybe that’s all any of us needs, really: someone to pat us on the back and tell us we’re doing a good job.
Nine months after he left, the man reappeared and tried to reclaim Zeke, acting as if that was the plan all along. Though I’m the least confrontational person in the world, I stood my ground, refusing to give the dog back, then threatening to file a restraining order when he didn’t leave me alone. I was only 23, but I was discovering my inner Mama Bear, the part of me that would fight to protect my charges at any cost.
For the next five years, I kept a picture of Zeke on my desk at school to remind me to focus not on punishing the worst in kids, but on bringing out their best. Zeke taught me how to use laughter and kindness to make my classroom a safe place for students, where they could grow into the best versions of themselves. The kids loved to hear stories about him, and instead of giving me the usual mugs and trinkets that teachers get, they gave me tennis balls and bones for Zeke. In class, we diagrammed sentences about him chasing squirrels and eating cheese. They came back from the high school to visit me and asked about him before anything else.
Zeke was a wonderful dog. I promised him I’d take care of him for as long as he lived, and when his time here was up, the vet came to our house and I lay on the floor with my head on the pillow of his dog bed, stroking his soft ears and whispering to him. “You’re a good dog,” I told him. “You’re my best dog.” The whole family gathered around us, crying and petting him, but in the end it was just me and my best dog with our faces together, and I watched him close his eyes for the last time, knowing that he was perfectly safe and perfectly loved.
A few weeks after Zeke died, Trent Kidder graduated from high school. I heard that he grew up to be a serious, studious young man who argued passionately for his beliefs. I thought about him a lot during Zeke’s last days. As a teacher, I often wished I could keep my students safe, as I kept Zeke, for their entire lives. Still, a year is better than nothing, and I’m grateful to the dog who taught me spend what little time I get with students teaching them that they’re good people, they’re safe, and they’re loved.