Part One in a three part series about what happens when dogs bite because humans make stupid mistakes. I wrote myself into a corner with this first post and finally decided that the only way to get out of it would be to turn it into a series of three blog posts. Start here and come back soon for Part Two.
Nineteen years ago, I bit my son. I only bit him that one time. It was a deliberate bite on his forearm. As I remember, I broke the skin, leaving a visible tooth mark in his flesh. I bit him on a weekday. It had been a stressful morning for both of us. He had climbed up into the tree in our front yard almost two hours before I bit him because he was absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to school that day.
Which the school knew because I’d called the main office as I watched him climb into the branches, to tell them that as soon as I could convince him to come down, I’d drive him to school.
He wasn’t physically sick so there was no reasonable excuse for him to miss school. Except for the fact that he was completely overwhelmed by everything that involved going to school. The school bus was a tsunami of noise that he drowned in every day. After a few screaming episodes (his) on the corner, as the bus pulled up in front of us, when my son physically fought being put on the bus, taking the school bus out of the morning school day routine made getting to school easier. Most days.
This was not one of those days.
I don’t have the exact sequence of steps that happened after he climbed out of the tree to when I bit him. I’m pretty sure that he karate-chopped my throat less than five seconds before I bit him because my decision to bite him came out of my own panic of not being able to breathe; of needing to instinctively lash out at what had cut off my air supply.
My “attacker” was my eight year old son.
I pulled his arm toward my mouth and bit down. My son’s uncontrollable sobbing abruptly stopped. Nether one of us said a word as we settled into the car and headed off for school. As I watched the skin around my bite turn red and begin to bruise, I knew I needed to let the school officials know what I’d done. My son, on the other hand, didn’t want anyone to know.
I parked the car in the school parking lot, got both of us out of the car and walking towards the entrance that led to the nurse’s office. Unannounced, we walked into that office and as the school nurse looked up from her desk, I said, “You need to know that I bite A this morning.” We weren’t strangers, this woman and I. This was my son’s fourth year as a student, and from the very beginning, with an IEP program and a proactive parenting style that included having professional counseling for my son, she knew we were plugged into supportive therapies. Still, she looked a bit concerned as she swiped my son’s forearm with alcohol and decided not to apply a band aid.
Leaving the nurse’s office, we headed down the hallway to my son’s classroom. His teacher, already alerted to the fact that we’d be arriving late, was expecting us. As she opened the classroom door, I looked her calmly in the eye and said, “You need to know that I bit A. this morning.” She was as familiar with our family history as the nurse. “Oh, you guys!” she said, cheerfully sweeping aside the dire implications of my words. And, with that, she graciously ushered A. into her classroom.
I continued on my way, stopping in to see Ms. C., the resource teacher that my son worked with. She was alone in her classroom when I popped in and said, “You need to know that I bit A this morning.” I filled her in, making sure to let her know that both the school nurse and A’s teacher knew what kind of a morning we’d had. And then I went home.
Two days later, I got a phone call from the director of Social Services at the school. “I wondered how long it would take you to call me,” I said after she identified herself.
“Well,” she replied, “I wanted you to know that we did have to report this. Because we know so much about your family, our recommendation: that you seek professional counseling, is something you’re already doing. The fact that you went out of your way to tell three of our staff about this was greatly appreciated. When we shared all of this with the reporting welfare agency, they agreed with us; that, as a family, you were doing everything you could to work with your son. Their recommendation was the same as ours.”
We ended our conversation with assurances to each other that we’d keep the lines of communication open; that hopefully, things would get better. And, they have.
Getting better didn’t happen overnight. As a family, we added one more rule to our list of house rules. Up until I’d bit my son, we’d only needed the two: 1. Always tell the truth and 2. If you’re going to be late coming home, call. Our third rule became: 3. It’s okay to be angry but you can not touch anyone when you’re mad. To which we added some language with teeth: “I am not angry at you but I am really angry with your behavior!”
What I learned is that if everyone who has a stake in the outcome comes from a place of what’s the best solution for the victim, it’s possible to reach loving decisions that do no harm. In my case, the question became, “What’s the best solution for my son, A ?”
The minute I decided to bite my son, I crossed over that invisible line that society draws around children to protect them. I didn’t ignore that line in the aftermath. I stepped over it to get back to the moral side of “do no harm” and embraced society’s safety net that exists to protect all children. And, I think I was lucky that the professional folks who were a part of that net: the school nurse, my son’s classroom teacher, the resource teacher and the social worker who called me, weren’t strangers; they knew me well enough to trust my truth.
Trust your own truth: trust what you know. If you find yourself on the other side of the line, make sure that when you come back, you do no harm; that your safety net is strong enough to hold mistakes.
Now, ask yourself this: what if a dog is the victim?