John Grindrod: Going Back in Time with Thurber’s Dog
A while back I read an article written by Holly Zachariah of the Columbus Dispatch that made me smile and for more than one reason. It was a human interest story, the type that’s supposed to cheer us up and make us forget about the depressing issues of COVID and the rigidly partisan politics where nothing ever seems to be done that satisfies everyone.
The title of the story (“Thurber Dog Muggs Receives Its Due”) immediately brought me back to my teaching days and one of the anthologies provided to me to teach a program that included the greatest writers. from our country to my juniors.
On the back of this anthology was a print of one of the best works of Ohio-born and raised James Thurber, his autobiography, “My Life and Hard Times,” which chronicles his childhood in Columbus. While some writers were more difficult to teach, I was still extremely excited to teach this comedic nine-chapter memory of Thurber’s early years. For my money, this is the finest example of 20th century American humor ever written. Each chapter is its own separate vignette, reading like a short story, including the tale about Muggs, titled “The Dog That Bites People”.
Zachariah’s report concerned a long-delayed Muggs monument and sculpture that was placed last summer in the Thurber family plot at Green Lawn Cemetery, a private historic Columbus cemetery. The memorial to the irascible Airedale terrier that was loved by Thurber’s mother for the dog’s 11 years of life, possibly because she was the only one the dog didn’t bite at one point or another, made a posthumous wish of Agnes Mary “Mame” Thurber to be remembered for the dog in perpetuity.
Well, this human interest story certainly stimulated my hippocampus, flooding the part of the brain that stores our memories, with teaching memories from this book. Due to the stand-alone nature of each chapter, each telling their own somewhat exaggerated story, it was easy enough, even for my most difficult-to-pay teens, to stay with the plots of the brief tales.
Perhaps the most vivid memory of teaching this book is my favorite in my 32 years of teaching.
As I read the story of Muggs finally getting his due, I thought of a memorable alumnus who has made a name for himself for many years now at my alma mater, the University of Miami. Dr Thomas Poetter has been a full professor there for several years and specializes in curriculum development. He is a multi-edition author in addition to chairing the school’s educational leadership department.
But once upon a time in 1980, long before his undergraduate degree at Heidelberg College, his MA at Princeton, or his doctoral work at Indiana University, Poetter was just Tom, one of my juniors who excelled. both in the classroom, on the baseball field and especially on the basketball court, where the playmaker was terrific in setting up future University of Dayton star Damon Goodwin with some great assists decisive in the pocket and just as formidable on the foul line.
My recollection of Tom was from a day when we had just finished a discussion on one of the chapters in Thurber’s memoir and, as I often did, I gave the class the last 15 minutes to start reading. of the next assigned chapter. As the class settled in and silence reigned, I returned to my last pile of papers to note on the large desk at the front of the room. Then, I heard it, a snort, a sure sign of one of the things teachers dread most, suppressed laughter at inappropriate times.
For a teacher, a suppressed laugh can only be a sign of two things, either his fly is down or shenanigans are brewing. Now, since I had already sat down, I knew it couldn’t be the first, so I assumed the second.
When I looked up I saw Tom, his eyes still on the page, trying so hard to tap into the smoldering, unconscious laughter from the puzzled looks of his peers staring at him.
When Tom’s laughter finally broke out and he realized the distraction he was causing, he immediately stood up and trotted out of the classroom and into the hall to pull himself together.
In a career filled with largely pleasant memories with my young people, this is my golden moment. You see, Tom wasn’t the type to draw undue attention to himself, so his laughter came from an authentic place and was the manifestation of what I wanted my students to experience, the sheer joy of reading.
Thank you, Holly Zachariah of the Columbus Dispatch, for writing this story about Muggs finally getting his due, a story that reminded me of a wonderful time in my past as a teacher.
And, of course, thank you, Dr Thomas Poetter of the University of Miami, for, in the early spring of 1980, starting with a sneer that turned into a snort that spawned a belly laugh in room 16 of the first. Memorial High School, the one that no longer blocks the view of the West South Street football stadium in St. Marys.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor, and the author of two books. Contact him at [email protected]