I chat with Becky as her puppy, Nala, rolls on the ground between us, that round little body savoring every position it can get into: left, right, head up, head down, on back, on stomach, nose to tail, tail to nose, up on all fours, strutting, tumbling, squirming, panting.
Becky adopts and trains Golden Retrievers, and at any given time has three or four of them. Some of them are bright and happy; others led hard lives before she took them in and have only slowly learned how to move through the world.
"Tango," she points to the shaded kennel behind us, "is still so afraid of people. Of course. That's what being locked in a tiny shed for the first year of your life will do to you. For the longest time she couldn't even extend her legs. She didn't even know how to run. How do you forgive people that? Is it any wonder she's afraid to look you in the eye?"
We were sitting at the edge of a park in Maybell, Colorado, surrounded by dogs running, racing. Some of these too, I knew, had come from unhappy pasts. But now they were pouncing with joy.
Nala, the puppy, was one of the lucky ones. She'd found a good home right from the beginning. She was still lolling on the ground in front of us, chewing my shoelaces.
When Becky isn't running with her dogs, she teaches special needs children. I ask her how her year has gone, and if she's teaching summer school.
"No," she shakes her head. "I love my kids. But I need a rest, too. It can be . . . intense."
Then, without my asking, she begins to tell me a story. As if it's so important, now that I've asked about her work, she has to tell it. It's the story of an eleven-year-old boy, Ellis.*
"At the beginning of every school year," she says, "I ask my students what they would like their goal for that year to be. What they want to accomplish. What they would like me to help them with. And Ellis, he raised his hand, and he said,
"'I want to walk.'"
It didn't seem a realistic goal, just then. Ellis had spent most of his young life locked in a small closet. His muscles, not allowed to move, had never grown or elongated properly. He had never been able to walk. He'd only recently been rescued and placed in a foster home--a wonderful and loving foster home, thank goodness. Now he wanted to learn how to walk. But he didn't want his family to know he was going to learn to walk, he told his teacher. He wanted to surprise them. That was the goal.
It didn't seem something that could be done in nine months, but Becky told Ellis: "Okay. If that's what you want to do, that's what we'll do."
And then she marshaled his other helpers, his therapists and his fellow students, and every school day they took time out from class to go out in the hallway and begin teaching Ellis how to walk.
Sometimes, in writing this blog, I am startled by the simple beauty of what people tell me.
As the months of the school year passed, Ellis made progress. First he could stand, aided. Then he could take steps, aided. Then he could walk a bit down the hall, aided. Then he could walk all the way down the hall, aided. Then he could walk from wall to wall, grabbing on. Then he could walk down the hall with spotters beside him.
As May drew closer, Ellis told his teacher he was ready to spring his surprise. He wanted to surprise his foster mother on Mother's Day. Even now the goal seemed uncertain, but Becky agreed it would be done. At this point Becky enlisted the help of Ellis' two foster brothers, who were let in on the plan. On Mother's Day, May 9, 2010, Ellis asked them to call their mother into the living room and sit down. She had no idea why. She sat down.
Ellis' two foster brothers then went and stood on either side of his chair. As they spotted him, Ellis got up and walked across the room to hug his weeping foster mom.
I'll mention in passing that most of the people I meet who train dogs are stoic, tough, and completely unflappable. Becky, with her closely cropped hair, strong legs and arms, determined chin and steady eyes, is no exception.
Her story over, she wiped her eyes quickly and stood up to get Tango out and run him.
"When I first met Tango, she couldn't do anything. Now look at her. Let's go, girl! Let's go go go."
*Ellis is not his real name.