I saw her a couple of times across the convention center lobby. She wasn’t deliberately calling attention to herself. With her flowing blonde hair and elegant bearing, she couldn’t help standing out in a room full of people.
I smiled at first glimpse of her: A service dog.
And such a beautiful one.
I suppressed the urge to go over to her, knowing that service dogs are on duty. I briefly wondered if the man she accompanied had impaired vision or special medical needs and whether this throng of humans had the animal on heightened alert.
Instead I focused on my upcoming break-out session. For the second year, my colleague and I were sharing the effects of my school’s Harry Potter club with attendees of the North Carolina Reading Association. It’s a fun and meaningful presentation centering on the sense of identity that develops among diverse learners in third to fifth grades; many students find it such a place of belonging that they ask to be in the club semester after semester, even if we are reading the same stories and making the same crafts.
The best part is how excited teachers are to attend this session at the conference. Never underestimate the power of Potter . . . as my colleague and I set up the slideshow, the room filled quickly with participants and an air of festive expectancy.
Then—in strolled the service dog! Her person took a seat near the front (he wasn’t vision-impaired; he read the welcome slide and made eye contact in conversation with others). The dog immediately lay on the floor alongside his chair, flat on her side, utterly still. Her gleaming dark eyes gazed toward the front of the room.
What a gentle face. I looked back at those sweet eyes for a lingering second, my curiosity thoroughly piqued with regard to her service role, as my own role of presenter began.
—Here’s hoping you like Harry Potter, little canine friend.
There she lay throughout, even at the conclusion when teachers came to the front of the room to select materials for making a craft like the club kids do: A clear ornament filled with strips cut from pages of an unsalvageable, falling-apart copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a feather pen, a pencil broom, a flying key.
The dog’s person chose to make a flying key. When I went to check on his progress, he introduced me to his canine companion:
“This is Palmer.”
Her big eyes considered me benignly.
“Hi, Palmer. You’re a beautiful dog!” I desperately wanted to stroke her lustrous yellow-white fur.
“Want to see what she can do?” asked Palmer’s person.
She does tricks, then? Do service dogs actually DO tricks?
I had no idea what to expect.
Couldn’t have predicted . . . .
Her person stood. Palmer instantly stood before him. Her person produced cards with words on them. As he displayed them one by one, Palmer did exactly what the words on the cards said. Sit, lie, stand . . . her trainer—as that’s clearly what he was, now—even shuffled the cards behind his back, held them up again, and Palmer still enacted the word on each card. Accurately.
At this point the entire room was agog: “The dog’s reading the cards!”
Her trainer smiled. “Palmer helps kids at my school learn to read. Especially first graders with sight words.”
I blinked back a sudden welling of tears, envisioning the children with this dog in the classroom, the joy of it. “How wonderful.”
—”Want to take a picture with her?”
I recovered myself: “Oh—absolutely! I’d be honored!”
So Palmer posed beside me at a table, her paws resting on top. Her trainer held out his newly-made winged key: “Hold it, Palmer.”
And she took it, ever so gently, in her mouth. She held it for all the photos.
Which, to me, holds great significance.
I always think of the winged key as a symbol for unlocking problematic doors in reaching an important goal, as it did in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I think of it as a metaphor for inspiration, as in flying above and beyond learning obstacles, especially with regard to challenges that some of our Potter club kids have faced.
And here is Palmer, herself a symbol of meeting social-emotional needs, for I have since learned that she goes above and beyond motivating young children who are learning to read. She also helps children at her school attain their behavioral and academic goals. If they need extra encouragement while working on math, or the comfort of a warm, benevolent, stabilizing presence close by, Palmer is there for them. She is a key to overcoming whatever challenges they face.
—I can think of few things more magical and inspiring.