My schedule had the period between July 10 and August 6 reserved to go to Southeastern Guide Dog School just across the Skyway Bridge in Manatee County. Instead, early in June, I received a phone call from Rita, the Southeastern person in charge of student affairs, in which she asked if I could arrive the following day. A couple of hours later I returned her call and said I would arrive the following afternoon. Thus, I fell into a near total anxiety attack, took a couple of colonapine and worried myself to sleep.
The next day, Wednesday June 7, sedated by various prescription psychiatric medications, I hopped into the Toyota and my lovely wife Susan drove me to the guide dog school. There, a young woman approached me, handed me a leather strap and a harness and said, “Let’s pretend I am your dog.”
While I thought she a bit aggressive, I couldn’t turn down this kind of kink so I grabbed hold and played along. After we walked around some concrete paths, she asked me to yank hard on the leash. I complied. Then, she gave me the leather strap and told me that I had become the proud owner of a new guide dog leash. I wondered what sort of weird fetish this person dug but agreed to follow along.
A whirlwind of very nice and highly competent staff people helped Susan and I bring my things to my room and, after an hour or so, I settled in and Sue returned home to St. Petersburg. Having nothing to do, I sat in my room and started to worry. Another sedative helped my neurotic self calm down a bit.
A loud knock at my door followed by the statement, “Hey Chris, its Rick,”” jarred me out of my semi-nap. I yelled “come in” and Rick, the Southeastern Director of Training, accompanied by a yellow lab entered my room. He introduced the dog as “Xcellerator” (pronounced ex cellerator) and told me that he (the dog) and I would become a team. He suggested I try to bond with the animal and left us in the room together.
At home, we have a 20 pound Corgi/Yorki mix. Xcellerator weighs just over 75 pounds and seemed to feel as much anxiety as I did. “Great,” I thought, “I’m locked in a small room with a neurotic dog and can’t find a way to calm myself.”
I played a bit with the dog until Rick returned and brought me to an office where he would show me how to put a harness on the animal. We practiced this a bit and I returned to my room and put the harness away.
I got to meet the other students at the 3:00 pm feeding time. They had only had their dogs for a day longer than me but it seemed an enormous advantage at the time. They also generally seemed to know each others’ names and the names of the staff. I did my best to introduce myself while trying to heed the requests of the trainers to keep my dog under control. This didn’t turn out to be a simple task but got better over time.
My next encounter with the other students came at the 5:00 pm human feeding time. Someone told me to tell my dog to “go down and under.” Having no idea what this meant, I asked the woman to my right who would be my table mate for the rest of the month. She, a three time guide dog user, told me what to do. The explanation came simply; the action did not. Finally a trainer told me how to keep the X-Dog under control and I was able to free up my right hand to eat as much of the dinner as I could.
The entire meal, as would be the case for all meals while I was there, had a high volume narration from a loud mouth redneck who felt it incumbent upon himself to speak constantly at the highest volume his voice could support. The loud mouth redneck (LMR) would provide a continuous level of annoyance for the rest of the students for most of the month. The mere presence of the LMR, however, caused the rest of our highly diverse group to bond more tightly than we might otherwise have as we shared a common irritation.
After dinner, we brought the dogs out to do their business (the X-Dog negotiated a very complex intellectual property contract with a goldador named Shatzi) and we students returned to the day room to watch television.
The combination of assigned seats during meals, following a strict schedule of training and lectures and sitting around a day room with the others made the place feel a bit like a cross between a detox/psychiatric facility and Riker’s Island.
As most of our regular readers know, I am a highly neurotic sort. I, therefore, felt extreme anxiety, fear, doubt and insecurity upon arriving which took some time to fade. I have trouble trusting people so finding myself thrust into a group of unfamiliar blinks supervised by a team of unfamiliar sighties scared the poop out of me. I do not have the vocabulary to express my gratitude strongly enough to the Southeastern staff and most of the other students for helping me climb down off of the ceiling, relax a bit and calm myself enough to learn to work with a guide dog and make a lot of new friends. I know, this paragraph is borderline melodrama but I truly feel a tremendous level of thanks to the people at SGD and my fellow classmates.
My generally neurotic self led me, at the beginning, to behave in my totally pompous, self important manner for quite some time before I felt I could grow comfortable with the others, even a little. Thus, I found that I had talked my way into becoming the assistive technology technical support guy, a role which, at first, helped boost my ego but, soon, caused a high level of discomfort as the LMR would pound on my door asking questions about which JAWS keystrokes do what. I finally got to the point where I would only respond by saying, “Read the f**king help file!”
Of course, the role I fell into came as the result of my own know-it-all behavior. Mike Calvo came for a visit the following week and I did my best to hand off the LMR to him as I felt the redneck would do better using FB than JAWS and, although Mike is a good friend, I would have to sacrifice a couple of hours of his sanity to protect my own. Mike did a great job convincing the blinks new to computing that FB would work far better for them than JAWS and I think he probably made about a half dozen sales out of a population of 11 students.
My introduction to the guide dog school caused me to rethink quite a number of things. I had never, in my entire life, lived in such a structured environment (even detox and county jail had fewer restrictions). I learned that not all blinks care about JAWS or other AT products and some would prefer to avoid computers altogether. I learned, once again, that I can, when afraid, turn into a pompous asshole. Finally, I learned just how hard the people at such schools work and wondered why I get paid such big bucks to sit around in a comfortable, air conditioned environment, thinking up cool ideas and writing them down while these truly heroic individuals toil in the Florida heat, put up with highly diverse groups of whining blinks, deal with the health care of dogs and humans alike, clean up poop, vomit and doggie phlegm, work 25 hour shifts and manage to do so smiling and with an enthusiasm I don’t think I’ve ever felt in the corporate world. My work, as it tends toward the theoretical, may never see the light of day; the trainers and staff of SGD send people home with a guide dog and, if the blink works the animal properly, they will have a tool that they can employ to greatly improve their independence as well as a loving friend. Maybe we should declare a guide dog school employee appreciation day or some other way to acknowledge all of these hard working people who toil away in relative anonymity.