CHICAGO -- It's not easy to imagine a better messenger of compassion than a pup named Rudolph. Especially when the recipients of the message are elementary-age children. They're young enough to respond to floppy ears and a soft coat, and old enough to understand the life lessons they are receiving.
Rudolph is not an ordinary dog, and Marcia Fishman knew this when she decided to take him in. She already had one dachshund, named Gunther, and wanted another one. That's when an online search led Marcia to a small fawn-colored dachshund she would call Rudolph.
|VIDEO: Rudolph the dog leads way to learning|
Not only was his coloring a result of over-breeding, so too were his inability to see or hear. Marcia's favorite hobby is training dogs, but this would present a unique challenge -- how to care for a dog that is blind and deaf? She decided to find out.
He was skittish at first. No wonder. In addition to his sensory challenges, Rudolph had spent the first year of his life in a cage at a puppy mill, then in four different homes. Now in a permanent and nurturing home with Marcia and his canine brother Gunther, Rudolph burrows and hides under blankets, as dachshunds like to do. When Marcia comes home, she can call out to Gunther.
But not Rudolph. Marcia jokes: "People ask, do you call him Rudy? I say, I don't call him!" He wouldn't hear her if she did.
It's no coincidence that this dog that lives in darkness shares a name with an unlikely reindeer hero who was able to navigate through darkness too. Canine Rudolph's nose is also his guide.
That gave Marcia an idea, and she decided to write a short story coloring book with a lesson. The title: Rudolph's Nose Knows, starring a certain dachshund who was teased by other dogs. When a little chick that is too young to fly falls into a deep dark hole, it is only the dachshund named Rudolph who can save it. He is then received by the other dogs with kindness rather than taunts.
Marcia Fishman introduces her dog Rudolph to children in a Michigan classroom.
The message is tolerance and acceptance of differences. It's a message Marcia delivers compassionately to young children. And she decided to do this with Rudolph's help.
"The kids think he's darling. They just seem to want to embrace him," she said.
To date, she has already spoken to more than 2,000 young students throughout schools in southeast Michigan. Using the book as a springboard for discussion, Marcia explains that Rudolph is a happy dog, and they should not feel sorry for him. They need not treat him differently because he is blind or deaf. The real message: Give people a chance. You could be missing out on a beautiful friendship.
Recently, Marcia and Rudolph visited Conant Elementary in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In teacher Marnie Diem's 4th grade classroom, there is already a strong theme of "Attitude is Everything." Signs circle the room with words like "Commitment," "Tolerance," "Respect," and "Curiosity."
A student takes a close look at Rudolph's eyes
After introducing the children to Rudolph and reading her story, Marcia talked with them about the need to reach out to people who may not be like us. Equally important: don't underestimate someone else's potential.
She explained that when you don't give people a chance, they'll be left to think they are unable to achieve. Marcia told the class how Rudolph is just as much fun as her other dog, how he's learning to play with toys, and that he's got a lot of love to give.
And then she translates that into an applicable life question for them: "Why am I not reaching out to people with differences? I think I'm missing out on adventures with potential new friends."
Rudolph surrounded by children in a Michigan classroom
The students were inquisitive, thinking and asking questions about Rudolph, and ultimately reflecting on what they learned from Marcia's and Rudolph's visit. Their teacher Ms. Diem asked them to write about the experience and their observations. Among them:
1. Rudolph taught me that you don't have to be like everyone else. You can just be yourself.
2. Just because someone's different, you don't have to treat them differently.
3. Rudolph just learns in a different way.
4. Count people in even though they're different. Let them play with you. Make them fit in.
5. Rudolph is different, but I wish I could have a dog like that.
|VIDEO: A can-do canine named Rudolph|
In the words of Ms. Diem, "It gives the children an amazing experience of actually seeing a unique way of looking at tolerance and diversity. You're looking at people for who they are and what they can do, not for what they can't do."
For Marcia Fishman, these visits are not work. This is all voluntary, and she makes time for it on top of her very full-time job as Executive Director of the Screen Actors Guild for the Detroit/Philadelphia branch. Her belief in the importance of volunteerism runs deep.
"I think that the world has a lot of broken pieces to it, and I don't think it's all that difficult to fix little pieces of it. And if everyone took a little crack and fixed it, I think our world would certainly be a better place. I believe that somehow we can find the time for that."
For more information about Rudolph, please visit http://www.rudolphsnoseknows.com.
All photos by Stephanie Himango