I knew he wanted me.
The man standing next to him blew marijuana smoke into his nose, and he licked his lips as he stared me down. The man said ...
“Sic ’em … Shhhh’ic ’em, Shhhh’ic ’em … Siiiic …”
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I bolted. He followed.
The industrial chain around his thick neck clapped with every stride. I climbed atop an old car’s hood, then the roof.
His chain rattled against the passenger door. Drool pooled on the concrete. I screamed, “Maaaaaamaaaaa!”
That was more than 20 years ago. And I’m still terrified of pit bulls.
This summer, our 13-year old son, Xman, decided to volunteer at the Orange County animal shelter in Chapel Hill. I was both excited and concerned.
If I also volunteered, I worried about how I’d escape an attacking dog in an enclosed area. On our first day Xman – that’s what we call him – walked into the dog kennel and said, “Let’s walk this one!”
Just as he learned in training, he put his hand out for the dog to sniff.
When I saw the dog’s humongous head, I yanked his hand away, “Oh, God! It’s a pit bull! Hurry up and shut the door!”
“What? What’s wrong, mama?”
“It’s. A. Pit. Bull. They are dangerous and can turn on you in a second without notice and attack you. It happened to me as a kid, and I don’t want you to get hurt!”
“But, mama he’s friendly. He was smelling my hand and wants to be walked.”
I insisted: “Don’t let him fool you. Those dogs can’t be trusted under any circumstance. He can smell fear and I’m terrified. Let’s find a better dog to walk.”
Instead, we walked a black, friendly looking Labrador retriever.
When we signed the dog walker’s log book, the first behavioral sheet was for the pit bull that I rejected. Volunteers wrote notes like, “Sweet, loving, nice, big baby, loves to be petted.”
Xman said: “See, I told you, Mama! It’s not fair to judge a dog by its breed.”
I asked if he’d like still to try walking the pit bull. He said: “No. I don’t want to risk it, since you’re scared. Another volunteer can walk him.”
That moment struck me deeply.
For days, I scrutinized what I had said, asking myself, “What if I replaced “pit bull” with any racial group? What would that sound like?
“Oh, God! A Caucasian person! Hurry up shut the door! ... Asians are dangerous and can turn on you and attack you... Every Native American person is alike, even if they’re kind. Latinos smell fear, and I’m terrified. Let’s find a better person.”
In an instant, I felt pain. What I had said was unfair. Damaging. And misplaced.
What I really took issue with was the dog owner from decades ago who behaved badly. Not the entire pit bull breed.
Immediately, I shared this discovery with our son.
“Buddy, I was wrong about the pit bulls. I apologize about teaching you to be prejudiced and to discriminate against pit bulls. I have some healing to do.”
Following a successful animal shelter adoption drive, we found only four dogs on our next visit.
One was named Mayla. She shivered with fear in her eyes and a tucked tail.
Refusing to walk, we picked Mayla up to take her outside. Mayla refused to walk, so I picked her up and went outside.
By the time we returned Mayla, she was licking us, wagging her tail, and tried to follow us out.
As we wrote chart notes, my heart skipped.
“Mayla was a pit bull! And I had her that close to my face carrying her.”
Xman said, “See, Mama. Mayla’s a good pit bull.”
That day we walked all four dogs. Three were pit bulls.
When you see someone or something you’ve had an unpleasant experience with, stop and notice. Are you carrying old wounds into generalizations about that thing or being?
Hindu tradition teaches one to “Step into the fire of self-discovery. This fire will not burn you, it will only burn what you are not.”
Anita Woodley is a health educator, performer and journalist. Learn more at www.anitawoodley.com
Anita Woodley will reveal her first large-scale art installation “Art Talk: Serving Social Justice on Four Tables” from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, at the Vegan Flava Cafe, 4125 Durham Chapel Hill Blvd. Free art talk. Arrive early to buy an entree.
Anita Woodley will be facilitating a “Portable Ancestral Altar Making Workshop” from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30 in Hillsborough. Art supplies provided. Bring personal and family mementos for your altar. Free. Donations accepted. To RSVP, get address/directions, and more info, email: DownYonderFarm@gmail.com