I was sitting on the couch drinking tea, curling my cold toes on 50 pounds of warm dog, when a homework binder flew past me. It landed on the rug with a seismic thump, spewing papers from every pocket. My furry footstool, an Australian shepherd named Scout, merely twitched. But I cringed as if I had been swatted with a rolled-up copy of the middle-school academic policy.
Jaren, my sixth-grader, dropped to the floor and started rummaging through the debris. “I forgot something.”
My fingers clenched the mug. We had already spent hours agonizing over metric conversions, and it was nearly bedtime. I was just planning to lower the shades and press the power button on my e-reader.
He pulled out a paper. “I have to finish my poem.”
Now my teeth were clenched as well. “No, not poetry. I can’t help you.” Even when I wasn’t feeling disoriented by deciliters, poetry was a code I couldn’t break, a language I couldn’t speak.
I was good at school, probably could have gone pro. In junior high, if I hadn’t infiltrated the library and altered my checkout history, I would have won my school’s prize for reading the most books (and, by the standards of my peers, having the most pathetic life). But my understanding of poetry had never progressed beyond the poodles and noodles in “Fox in Socks.” I was no more likely to offer my son useful help than, say, Scout, who was at that moment stirring restlessly at my feet, chasing bunnies through her dreams.
Jaren allowed himself a little smirk. “I don’t need help. It’s easy.” He held up his paper and began to read.
“Tree, tree, tree, tree ... mountain, mountain, mountain ...”
I leaned over his shoulder and saw that he had used words to form the shape of a landscape, not very different from that outside our house. Finally, a poem I could understand.
“Bird, bird, bird ...”
At this, Scout lifted her head from the carpet and looked around, sniffing loudly. Birds must be flushed and scattered.
“Deer, deer ...”
Scout sprang to her feet, ears up, and gave a little woof, sending a ripple through her patchwork fur. Deer must be pursued.
“ ... deer, deer, deer.”
With a growl, Scout ran to the windows and trotted back and forth, looking out over those low sills preferred by many architects and most pets. Using her superior canine senses, she scanned the night for evidence of her least favorite herbivores, some of which had the gall to actually chase dogs. She let out a glass-rattling bark.
“I think Scout likes your poem,” I told Jaren. “She gets it.”
He grabbed his pencil and started adding more words to his drawing. “Bone, bone, bone ... ” Scout abandoned her noisy surveillance and started rooting under the couch.
While Scout scrabbled after her bone, I read the instructions for Jaren’s assignment and learned that he was creating a simple version of a “concrete” poem. Well, no wonder. For nonhumans, dogs are fairly competent with concrete human language. With training, I have read, they can learn the meaning of more than 150 words.
Scout probably qualifies as a high-achiever in this area (though her grammar is terrible). In conversation, her expressive face reflects an intense effort to communicate and understand. Those who know Scout can easily imagine her parked in front of a computer with a pair of headphones and a language-instruction DVD.
Jaren finished his assignment and I joined him on the floor to help write another “poem” just for Scout. We skipped the drawing and simply made a list of things she found interesting – bone, walk, squirrel, etc. – and repeated each word several times. As I read the list, Scout watched my face intently, a wrinkle in her sensitive brow, and cast a few sideways glances at my hands or out the window. Snack? Leash? Intruder?
Then I reached her favorite part, “Bird, bird, bird ... deer, deer, deer ...”
Scout woofed softly and looked into my eyes, just checking. Are you serious? More deer?
And maybe it was even poetic, the way amber eyes met blue and then stared out at the night, dog and human sharing a moment of almost perfect understanding, thinking of deer and birds rising from the darkened fields.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t. I will have to ask my son’s English teacher. Or possibly my dog.