Blind Sight 2: For Blind Eyes Only
It was Sunday night around 8:00pm I believe and I was sitting in the living room of my home. The only way I knew what time it was was because I had heard the clock chime eight times. When I tell you what I was doing you’ll think it’s crazy, but I was learning the alphabet. My dog, Ringlet, lay beside me, her head on my thigh. Ringlet is no ordinary dog. She is my seeing-eye dog. Just like the alphabet I was learning was no ordinary alphabet. It was the Braille alphabet.
Since I did have sight at one point, I have not always had Ringlet. A girl named Christa Howard gave her to me just this past summer. For the first four years of my life I was an ordinary everyday child. Right before I started kindergarten, I got my first pair of glasses. Big deal, so I didn’t have perfect eyesight. Lots of kids had glasses. Every year when I got my eyes checked my lenses had to be changed to a stronger prescription. By the time I turned fourteen, I felt as if I were looking through a couple of coke bottles. My father didn’t think a person my age would have such poor eyesight. He decided to take me to an eye specialist. The ophthalmologist’s name was Melanie Cross. Dr. Cross asked me some questions about my vision and ran some tests as well as doing a regular eye exam. About two hours later, she came out and asked to speak to my father. He came back twenty minutes later, but he didn’t say anything until we were home. I knew something was wrong even though I wasn’t sure what. It wasn’t like my dad to be quiet. Dr. Cross had told him my retina had not fully developed and my already weak optic nerves had been severely damaged from all the stress being put on them.
“Well, how long until they get better?” I asked. “They will get better, won’t they, Dad? My eyes will be okay again.”
“The doctor thinks they are going to get worse,” Dad replied. “I’m sorry, darling, but you are gradually going to loose your sight. It may not be today or tomorrow, but you’ll only be able to see for about four more months at most.“
That was in March.
I was speechless. I am going to loose my sight and all he can say is, “I’m sorry?” Now if I had an eye disease or had been in an accident maybe I would have understood a little better than I did. What had I ever done to deserve this?
For the next four months, I lived in fear of waking up and never being able to see again. With each passing day, my sight seemed to diminish. Finally on July 10th I couldn’t even see the brightest light anymore.
“I can’t see! I can’t see! It’s dark! I’m scared!” My throat closed up and it felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I had seen my last fireworks, my last colors and my last stars. The Fourth of July had always been my favorite holiday except for my birthday, of course. I would be turning fifteen in September and had been looking forward to getting my driver’s permit.
For the first couple of weeks, I was not going to accept the fact that my sight was gone. “This is only temporary,” I kept telling myself. I even kept wearing my glasses. After a few weeks of running into walls, falling up, not mention down the stairs, I settled down. I felt like I was a burden to my dad and I hated it. He kept trying to tell me it wasn’t true, but I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t sit on the couch for the rest of my life. There was nothing left for me to see.
“Oh, forget this! I am never going to learn it!” I threw my Braille book and heard it hit the floor.
“Micki?” I knew it was Rita who had said my name. I knew the sound of her voice. Rita Winters is our housekeeper. She came to us soon after my mother died. She is like a mother to me and I love her dearly.
“Sorry, Rita, but I can’t learn this. It’s too hard.”
“Now, Mick, nothing has ever been too hard for you.”
“Yeah, but that’s when I could see,” I mumbled.
“Sight has nothing to do with it.”
“But it does, Rita. You don’t know how…”
“You may think you’re fooling some people, but I don’t buy your sad story for a moment. Now you know as well as I do you can learn this and you will, but not tonight. Come on, it’s almost 10:00pm. You have a big day tomorrow.”
Tomorrow I would be leaving for Southport, Iowa where I would attend a school for the visually impaired. Since July, I had started studying with another impaired person named Tori, who has a seeing-eye dog of her own named Jake. She was helping me learn how to use Ringlet. I had been taking classes at The Seeing Eye every morning. They were teaching me how to use Ringlet as a guide.
Tori had also started to teach me some Braille. Tori said there was only so much she and The Seeing Eye could do for me. I needed to attend a school for the visually impaired. The people there would be more equipped to help me. Tori said I had to learn to do for myself if I was ever going to have any kind of a life. My condition was called acquired-total educational-blindness, which meant I wasn’t born blind. I couldn’t see light or dark and I couldn’t continue school the way I had been. At first, I had begged Dad not to send me.
“Don't send me away. I don't want people looking at me, feeling sorry for me. Please, let me stay, Dad!”
He said he was sending me there because he loved me.
As Ringlet led me upstairs to my bedroom, I felt some butterflies in my stomach.
The first thing I felt was something gently shaking me. Then I heard Rita’s voice.
“Wake up, Micki. Rise and shine!”
I didn’t bother to open my eyes because I knew the all too familiar darkness would be staring back at me. I can’t help hoping one day when I open my eyes, I will be able to see again and this will all have been a bad dream. I can still remember the light lavender color of my walls. My favorite color was purple. Now it didn’t matter to me any more. My room could have been the color of puke green for all I cared. I groaned and tried to turn over.
“What time is it?” I mumbled.
“Six,” Rita replied cheerfully. “We need to be at the airport by 10:30am because your plane leaves at noon.”
“But we have four hours,” I complained. I have never been much of a morning person even when I could see the sun shining through my window.
“Only four hours. Four hours to eat, double check your suitcases and pack the rest of Ringlet’s things.”
I sighed. “Ringlet?” I sat up.
Ringlet, hearing her name, jumped up on my bed. Rita handed me Ringlet’s harness and helped me fasten it to her collar. Then I felt for the edge of my bed, touched my feet to the floor and let Ringlet lead me down the hall to the bathroom. We go through the same routine every morning. Ringlet knows when I get up she is supposed to take me to the bathroom and then lead me back to my bedroom. I think she does it without really thinking about it. It must be like second nature to her now.
“What do you want to wear today?” Rita called to me.
“Um, is my orange button down shirt and skirt packed?” I asked.
“Yes, it is. How about wearing your peach blouse and overall shorts?”
“Okay,” I said. As Ringlet led me back to my bedroom I couldn’t help but think, “This is bad. I can’t even remember what clothes I have in my own closet.”
After I was dressed, I brushed my light brown hair and Rita pulled it back into a ponytail. Then Ringlet slowly led me down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“Pancakes?” I guessed.
“I know they’re your favorite.”
“Dad? What are you doing home?”
“I thought the MPL could get along without me for a couple of hours.” Dad is the personnel director at the Morristown Power and Light Company.
Rita helped me eat by cutting up my pancake and then guiding my hand around the plate.
After I had finished eating, Ringlet led me back upstairs so I could brush my teeth. Rita put everything I had needed that morning in my suitcase and then helped me pack Ringlet. Ringlet has her very own dog suitcase. It contains everything she needs in order to lead me around safely.
“Micki, we need to get going,” Dad called.
“Okay,” I answered.
I felt my way on to the floor and pulled on my shoes. Rita made sure they were double knotted so I wouldn’t have to worry about them coming untied. Then Ringlet led me back downstairs and to the garage. I have to have a great deal of trust in Ringlet; trusting she will take me to the right place. I don’t think my dad would have helped me choose Ringlet if he didn’t think it was safe.
Rita helped me into the car and when I heard a click, I knew she had fastened my seatbelt. Then I heard her open the door for Ringlet and when I heard the door close; I knew she was also in the car. Even though I won’t be able to drive, I knew what was going on. When Dad stopped the car, I figured we were either at a stop sign or a red light. I knew when we were turning because I could hear the turn signal. I could also feel the motion of the car shift. When Dad said, “Here we are,” I knew we had arrived at the airport.
Ringlet led me inside and Rita and I waited while Dad went to check in my suitcases. Even though the airport was a new place to Ringlet, she knew she was supposed to follow Dad. Dad also told me what was in front of me so I wouldn’t be taken by surprise. The first thing we came to was a flat escalator. Next, we came to the security counter where they make sure you don’t have any weapons on you. Ringlet’s harness set off the metal detector. The person there made me go back and walk through again without Ringlet. I felt for sure I was going to run into something. When we had gotten to the right gate, Rita and I sat down while Dad went to check on my plane. The airport was filled with many different sounds. Since there were so many, I wasn’t able to tell them apart. Then I heard a voice real near me say, “I’m Tammy. I am going to be your flight attendant. Is this your dog?”
Since I was probably the only one with a dog in the airport I guessed she was talking to me.
“Yes, that’s Ringlet,” I responded. “I’m Michelle Maxwell.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Tammy.
Dad told me my plane was scheduled to leave on time. Then I heard a voice over the loud speaker say: “Flight 1463 to Southport, Iowa, rows one through three, you may begin boarding now.” When they finally called for any remaining passengers, Tammy said, “Well, that’s us.”
I could feel Dad looking into my clear blue eyes that couldn’t see him.
“I know you will do just great. Try and have some fun while you are there.” He gave me hug and Rita gave me a kiss on the cheek. Then Tammy helped Ringlet and me to the plane.
“We’ll be sitting near the back, Michelle,” Tammy said. I stood there wondering if I should tell Tammy about my nickname.
I don’t think Tammy was used to leading someone around who had vision problems because she didn’t tell me anything that was in front of me. When I tripped, all she said was, “Oops, watch your step,” and then, “Your seat is the farthest one on the left.”
. My seat must have been a window seat. A lot of good that would do me. Tammy said she would have Ringlet sit between my feet. Then I heard a click and felt something tighten around my waist and I knew Tammy had fastened my seatbelt.
As the plane started down the runway, I could feel Ringlet’s sense of nervousness. I gently pressed my calves around her. As the plane started to pick up speed, I gripped the arms of my seat tighter. I knew I wasn’t going to fall, but it sure felt like it. I listened to the flight attendants give all the instructions of what to do incase of an emergency. We hadn’t been in the air for more than ten minutes before I heard someone ask, “Would you like something to drink?” When I didn’t hear anyone else answer, I assumed she was talking to me.
“Ginger Ale?” I tried to think of something she would have.
“Here you go,” she said and handed me a cup and a can.
I ran my fingers over the top of the can. It was sealed. I sighed and put the can and cup in my lap and felt for the little table on the back of the seat in front of me.
“Looks like you could use some help,” Tammy said.
She unfastened the table. Then I heard her open the can and pour some soda into the cup and handed it to me. As I drank, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself. I couldn’t even open something as simple as a stupid can of soda.
Later on, I had another problem. I had to go to the bathroom. It would be too embarrassing to ask Tammy so I thought I could find it myself. My seat was toward the back of the plane anyway. I started to get up. I felt something cold and wet on my lap. I had forgotten the table was still down. I had spilled Ginger Ale on me. I sighed, pushed the table up, took hold of Ringlet’s harness and slowly felt my way into the aisle. I hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps before I tripped and toppled into something.
“I’m so sorry.” There was nothing else I could say.
“You must be the one with Tammy, right?” It must have been another flight attendant.
“Is it that obvious?”
“Tammy, I think your passenger could use some help.”
Tammy came to me and asked me what I needed. I whispered it to her. I had a feeling she was kind of laughing at me for thinking I could make it to the bathroom by myself. When I was back in my seat, I felt a little relieved. Then I heard the captain’s voice saying we had reached our destination and thanked us for flying with them. As I felt the plane start to descend, I began to worry. The more it descended, the more worried I became. When I felt a jolt, I knew we had landed. A few minutes later, I heard a lot of movement around me. I stayed in my seat until I felt someone, I assumed it was Tammy, take my arm and help me into the aisle and off the plane.
“Who is supposed to pick me up?” I asked.
“I believe a taxi driver is supposed to meet us here.”
Then I heard a man in a loud voice say, “Are you Terri?”
Tammy answered back. I guessed the man had come over and he must be the taxi driver. He had probably just forgotten her name.
“Oh yeah, I knew that. I’m Bart. I’m supposed to take someone named Melinda to the school for the blind.”
“My name is Michelle,” I answered. “I’m the one who’s going to the school.”
“I see,” replied Bart. Then he laughed. “Get it? ‘I see?’ ”
I was not at all amused. Tammy said good-bye and I was a little sorry she was gone. I told Bart he would have to hold on to Ringlet’s harness and help her lead me through the airport. I felt it was a pretty safe assumption Bart had never had a visually impaired person as a customer before. I figured we would go to the baggage claim area first.
“What do your bags look like?” Bart asked me very loudly. He must have thought I was deaf and blind.
“My name will be on the front,” I answered.
A few minutes later, we were moving again. I knew when we arrived outside because I felt a blanket of hot air hit my face. I heard Bart open a door for me and left me to feel my own way into his taxi. I heard him open something else, which I thought to be the trunk. I heard him slam it and then come around a shut my door. Before I could start searching for my seatbelt, he started talking again.
“So are you excited?”
“I am a little nervous.” I had been taught not to judge a book by its cover so I thought I shouldn’t judge someone by the way he sounded, either.
“Well, I was excited when I started school…got me away from my parents.”
I wished I were home with Dad and Rita. As we continued to ride, Bart ended up telling me his life story.
When Bart stopped the car for more than just a couple of minutes, I guessed we had arrived at the school. I knew I was right because I heard him get out of the taxi and come around and open my door. Just like at the airport, he left me to feel my own way out while he went to get my bags out of the trunk. I heard him set them down on the ground and say,” Well, looky here. They even have a welcoming committee.” He didn’t even wait for me to thank him for the ride before I heard the taxi drive away.
Bart had said there was a welcoming committee so I hoped he meant there were people standing outside. I heard footsteps coming toward me. Then I heard a man’s voice.
“Hello, I’m Gordon Marshall. I am the owner of the Southport School for the Blind.”
“I’m Michelle Maxwell,” I replied.
“Yes, Michelle. We’ve been expecting you. May I shake your hand?”
I nodded not knowing why he had asked.
“We try and tell our students what to expect so they won’t be taken by surprise. Now we are going to go inside. There are three steps leading up to the front porch.”
I was grateful to know what was coming up, but then Mr. Marshall was probably used to dealing with impaired people.
Once we were inside Mr. Marshall said,” You can sit on the couch while I go and get your registration papers.”
I ran my hand along one of the couch cushions. It had a soft feeling. Then I heard another set of footsteps. They sounded like they were coming from a different direction.
“I am looking for a Michelle Maxwell,” I heard another man’s voice say.
“I’m Michelle,” I answered. Maybe I was not the only person in the room, but I didn’t hear anyone else.
“My name is Keith LaHaye. I am going to be your instructor.”
Oh, good, Keith. I see you have met your student.” Mr. Marshall had returned. “Well, I’ll turn things over to you then.”
“Yes, sir,” Keith replied. “Well, come on,” he said to me. “ I’ll take you to your room, so you can get settled. Do you like to be called Michelle or do you have another name you go by?”
“I go by Micki.”
“Very well.” We walked for a couple of minutes in silence. “So…I see you have yourself a seeing- eye dog. Are you totally blind?”
“What?” I couldn’t believe he had asked me such a question.
I guess he could tell what the answer was by the shock in my voice because he said, “I was just double checking. We have students here who are totally blind, like you and others are legally or half blind, like me.”
“I’m blind, but only in one eye.”
I had figured my teacher would have been sighted, but knowing Keith was only half impaired made me feel worse than if he were fully sighted. At least he could still see. What I wouldn’t give again to be able to see, even if it was just out of one eye.
Keith opened the door and Ringlet led me inside.
“There is a table to your right and the bed is to your left. The closet is across from the foot of your bed. I will be back in a while with your dinner. You will start by eating in your room with me.”
“What am I supposed to do until then?”
“Unpack,” he replied simply.
“Of course. You are here to learn; you might as well start now. You have to learn how to do things on your own. It’s part of your education.” Then he left.
It felt like he had asked me to jump in the deep end of the pool when he knew I couldn’t swim. Ringlet tugged on her harness. Since I wasn’t planning on leaving my room that night, I unhooked her. I could tell she was tired. I reached down and felt the handle of my suitcase. I picked it up and with one hand stretched out in front of me; I shuffled toward the direction Keith said my bed would be. I walked until I felt something touch my legs. I lifted the suitcase on to the bed. Dad had special ordered me some suitcases that could be opened by pressing a button. The latches popped open. I felt pleased I had been able to open my suitcase all by myself. I put my hand inside and felt something flat and hard. I guessed it to be one of my Braille books. I must have been right because I felt two more exactly like it underneath.
Next, I decided to try and hang up my clothes. I found out Rita had packed my clothes with the hangers still in them. I don’t think I got the first shirt hung up because every time I let go, I heard it hit the floor.
Then I heard a knock at my door. I assumed it would be Keith with my dinner. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he left. Even though I was not in the mood to eat I said, “Come in.”
“I see you have been unpacking,” Keith said. “Well, dinner’s here. I’m over at the table. You know where it is.” He continued to talk. “Sorry, I’m late. We had a little incident in the kitchen. The students do most of the cooking here. Someone got the cinnamon mixed up with the cayenne pepper, but that’s all straightened out. You could say we have the hottest apple pies in the county.”
I was not in the mood to laugh. After I shuffled to the table he said, “Now, the food is arranged clockwise on the plate. Chicken at twelve o‘clock, green beans at three, applesauce at six and a roll at nine.”
“I don’t like green beans.”
“Well, I am not too fond of them, either, but I eat them and so can you.”
I scowled. I didn’t want to eat with Keith or at all for that matter. I reached down and picked up a piece of chicken. Maybe if I ate, Keith would leave.
“Use your fork. Just because you are blind doesn‘t mean you have to eat like an animal.”
I did not want to use my fork. I ignored Keith and took another bite.
“I said use your fork.”
I just sat there. He was not my father. He could not tell me what to do.
“If you are going to make me say everything twice this is going to take a really long time and I haven’t had my dinner yet.”
I knocked my plate off the table and heard it hit the floor.
“There,” I said. “Now I can’t eat even if I wanted to.”
Keith sighed and picked up my plate.
“You will find towels in the closet. This is your room for as long as you are here. You make a mess; you clean it up. We will try this again tomorrow and see if we can eat dinner without throwing it.”
“Get out!” I screamed. “Get out, get out, get out.” I started to cry.
Keith got up from the table, opened the door and left. I stumbled toward the direction of my bed, tripped and fell on to it. I basically cried myself to sleep. I didn’t even bother to change my clothes. I probably couldn’t find my pajamas anyway. I tossed and turned for most of the night. I am not sure how much sleep I actually got.
I thought I might as well change my clothes before Keith came to get me. I was awake anyway. I felt kind of bad for yelling at him at dinner. I slid down the side of my bed and on to the floor. I crawled until I felt where some of my clothes had fallen. I put on the first things I felt and crawled back in the direction of my bed. I must have been sleeping because the next thing I heard was a knock at my door. I sat up and said come in.
“Good morning. I see you are already dressed,” Keith said. “I brought you some breakfast.”
I’ll admit I was hungry. I stood up and slowly shuffled my way over to the table. I bumped into the chair before I was able to sit down. I found out what Keith brought me was some toast. I guess he figured I could eat that with my fingers. After breakfast, Keith told me we were going downstairs to one of the classrooms.
“I might want to suggest you change your clothes first,” he said.
“Well, unless you want to go downstairs looking like a walking Easter egg. You have on a bright pink shirt and purple pants.”
“I…” I could feel my face turned bright red. I buried my face in my hands.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll work something out, so you can tell which clothes are what color.” I didn’t know how. “For now, I’ll get you a pair that won’t clash. Where are your clothes?”
I pointed to the floor. I figured Keith might say something about my clothes being on the floor instead of hung up in the closet, but he didn’t.
“After you get changed, meet me in the hallway.”
I got changed and crawled around the floor until I found Ringlet’s harness. I clipped it on her collar and stood up. I didn’t feel Ringlet move.
“Come on, Ringlet,” I said. “Let’s go.” I felt for the doorknob. “Keith?” I asked.
“Ringlet doesn’t know her way around yet. She doesn’t know where to go.”
“Well, she’ll have to learn her way around just like you will.”
“You’re going to have to learn your way around here sometime. Having Ringlet is just a luxury. You can’t be relying on her all the time.”
When Ringlet stopped moving, I assumed we had arrived at the classroom. Keith took Ringlet away and I heard him move around the room.
“Walk toward my voice.”
I stood there.
“Walk toward my voice,” Keith repeated.
“I don’t want to.” Keith sighed. I knew he was trying to be patient with me. I wasn’t making it any easier.
“Walk toward my voice.”
“What for? What is the point of walking across the room when there is nothing to see when you get there? Who cares about all this?”
“I care,” Keith said, his voice low. “I care because it is my job to teach you and if I don’t teach you, I don’t get paid. Walk toward my voice.”
Surprisingly, I started to shuffle.
“Pick up your feet. It looks helpless and sounds awful.”
Keith was sure asking a lot for the first day. When I did pick up my foot, I felt very unsteady.
“Just take it slow.”
I took a couple of steps and stopped.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t want people staring at me.”
“Then walk with confidence.”
Keith had me do this every day for the next few weeks. Each day I was getting a little steadier on my feet because I was getting more familiar with the classroom. I still didn’t want to cooperate, but Keith had a way of making me understand I had no choice in the matter.
“Ready to go?” he asked one morning.
“Can we do something different today?” I asked.
“Why are you getting bored?”
I didn’t want to admit it, but I was.
“All right,” Keith replied. “I’ll give in to you today.”
I raised my head. That was a first.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You tell me when we get there.”
When Ringlet stopped moving, I heard different sounds.
“A music room?”
“Very good,” Keith said.
As Ringlet led me across the room, I heard a new voice say, “Hi, Keith. Hi, lady.”
“Hi, Janie,” Keith replied and then I heard something hobble away.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“That was Janie. She’s another one of the students here. She’s also totally blind, like you.”
“But she called you Keith. How did she know I was a girl?”
“You’re wearing a skirt, aren’t you?”
I didn’t understand what that had to do with it.
“She heard your footsteps and the rustle of your skirt.”
“Oh.” I had never thought about that before. “Her walk sounded strange.”
“Janie has one leg shorter than the other.”
I nodded. “I’ll be sure to know her next time.”
“Just make sure you say something. She can’t hear you smile. Do you play an instrument?”
“I used to play the piano, but that was years ago.”
“Would you like to learn again?”
Keith led me over and had me sit down. He took my hand and placed it on the keys.
“Braille?” I asked.
“The names of the keys.”
“But I don’t know Braille.”
“That will come with time.”
“Let me ask you a question,” he said one day after I listened to high and low pitched sounds. “Which would you rather be…deaf or blind?”
“How can you ask me that?”
“Deaf, of course,” I answered. Nothing could be worse than not being able to see.
“Very well,” said Keith. “Today you are going to be deaf. You are going to wear earplugs and you are not allowed to talk since most deaf people have to be taught how to speak.”
It turned out to be one of the longest days of my life. Not only could I not see anything in front of me, I couldn’t hear anything coming toward me. Any sound I could hear was muffled so I had a hard time trying to figure out what it was. Finally, when Keith brought me my dinner, he let me take out my earplugs.
“So,” he said. “How did your day go?”
“How do you think it went? I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t see.”
“And what did you learn from this exercise?”
“You don’t realize how important something is until you don’t have it anymore.”
“I’ve found people rely so much on their sight, they forget they have four other senses. Just look how much you missed your hearing and you weren’t without it for more than a few hours.”
“Yeah. You know, I think my hearing has gotten better.”
“No,” said Keith. “You’re just more observant of it now. It’s telling you about what you can’t see.”
“I guess I never realized how important hearing can be.”
“Congratulations. You just passed your first test.”
Keith said the next thing I had to learn was how to use my sense of smell and taste. I didn’t mind it when the things turned out to be something I liked such as, oranges, garlic or cinnamon. But when he had me taste a lemon and a lime, they were so sour I felt tears come to my eyes. He also had me tasting things that were sweet, bitter and salty. When he brought me dinner or breakfast, he wouldn’t let me eat until I had smelled and told him what I thought it was before he let me taste it.
The next sense I had to learn how to use was my sense of touch. Keith said I had already been using this without realizing it. He would place something in my hands and make me tell him what it was. Keith said in order for me to pass this part, I would have to know what something was without having to guess. I could tell this was going to take a long time.
“Today,” Keith said, “I want you to write a letter to your family.”
“How?” I had been asking that question a lot lately. This whole touch thing had started to get frustrating. “Even when I could see…”
“That’s all you ever think about, isn’t it?” I had never heard Keith raise his voice before. “Being blind. You are not special. You are just as normal as everyone else, you just can’t see with your eyes. When are you going to start living?”
“That’s easy for you to say, you don’t understand what it’s like. You can see!”
“Oh, so that’s what this is all about. I guess it is partly my fault. Maybe I should have told you from the beginning.” Keith sat down next to me.
“When I was nineteen, I was in a chemical explosion. Afterwards I heard about an optometrist, who was experimenting with different techniques to try and restore sight. He said he wasn’t sure, but with my permission, I could be a test subject. I figured I had nothing to loose so I agreed. He performed surgery, but only on my right eye. My left eye was a little more ‘infected’ you might say. After the surgery, my sight came back, but only partially. I can see outlines of people and colors if they are bright.”
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. “Can you see me?” I asked softly.
“I can make out your outline.”
“All I know is your voice.”
“Look at me then.”
“Look at me.”
“But…” Keith took my hand and placed it on his face.
“Let your hands be your eyes.”
I slowly let my hand run over his face. I touched his forehead, his eyelids, his nose and his lips.
“What color are your eyes?” I asked.
“And your hair?”
“Sandy blonde. Micki, I have never seen you, either. Can I look at you?”
“I guess it’s only fair.”
I felt Keith’s skilled hands skim over my face. He was a lot more used to using his hands than I was. His movements were smooth while mine had been shaky.
“So what color are your eyes and hair?” he asked after his survey of my face was complete.
“Blue and light brown.”
“I hope you mean your eyes are blue and not your hair.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. It was the first time I had really laughed in a long while.
I stopped trying to make myself not learn. I figured Keith wouldn’t ask me to do something that wasn’t possible, even if I couldn’t understand it at first. I had tried to refrain from asking the questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’. Each time I completed a task he gave me and I did it perfectly he would say, “Perfect. Now, do it again.” He said repetition was one of the best ways to learn.
“Today,” Keith said, “I want you to write a letter to your parents.”
“How?” Sometimes, I just couldn’t help myself.
Keith placed something long and round in my hand. It had a point at one end and a rubbery feeling at the other. I was pretty sure I knew what it was.
“Is it a pencil?” I asked.
“I think so.”
“I don’t want you to think. I want you to know.”
“Yes, it is a pencil.”
Keith placed something else in front of me. I figured he was not going to tell me what it was. He was turning this whole letter writing into a feeling exercise. What he had placed in front of me was long and flat.
“It’s a ruler.”
“I am glad you put two and two together. You don’t always have to guess. Sometimes, it just takes common sense.” Keith sounded like he was smiling.
He came around behind me and told me to pick up my pencil. Keith took my left hand and placed it on the ruler.
“Feel the top of the ruler?” he asked.
“Just write along the edge and your lines will be straight.”
It took me a while to get used to using the ruler method. Keith helped me by letting me know when I got to the end, so I could move the ruler down. After I had finished, Keith had me address the envelope the same way. Then he handed me something small and square that was sticky on one side. The only thing left to do was put a stamp on it. I sighed with contentment.
“Yeah, you wrote one letter,” Keith said. Boy, he sure had a way of bursting my bubble. “The next thing you have to do is learn to read what you write.”
I made a face. I had been trying to learn some Braille even before coming here and it hadn’t been going to well.
“Although Braille is not an actual language, you still need to learn the basics. Braille is a jumble of dots called cells. Each cell consists of six dots. A full cell contains two parallel rows, each row having three dots, three high and two wide. This positioning means that sixty-three different characters can be formed. The dots represent letters, numbers, punctuation and entire words. ”
This was turning out to be more complicated than I had thought. Keith set something down in front of me.
“Before I start teaching you letters and words, I just want you to get used to the feeling of Braille.”
After feeling around five pages of dots, which were meaningless to me, Keith put his hand on top of mine and moved it to the top of the next page.
“This is the letter A,” he said. “This is B, C and D.” He moved my hand back. “Now, what is this letter?”
I thought for a moment. “C,” I answered.
“You have a good memory,” Keith replied. “Were you a good student?”
“Well, reading always was my best subject.”
“And it will be again.”
When Keith thought I was ready to move on, he would teach me four more letters. After every four letters, he would move my hand back and ask me, which letter it was. He did this every day, always starting with A and then gradually adding more letters.
One day, I heard a knock at my door.
“Come in,” I said. “Hi, Keith.”
“It’s Mr. Marshall, Michelle.”
“Oh, sorry. I just assumed it would be Keith.”
“It’s all right. I have someone here I want you to meet.”
“Hello, there,” I heard a new voice say.
“Hi,” I answered back a little bewildered.
“This is Gloria Pembrook. She enrolled here a couple of weeks ago. She’s going to be your roommate.”
“Roommate?” I had never expected to get a roommate. “It’ll be nice to actually have someone else to talk to, besides Ringlet.”
“Yes, well, I’ll leave you two to get better acquainted,” Mr. Marshall said.
“What did he say your name was?” I asked the new girl.
“Gloria,” she replied, “but call me Glory. Everyone else does. Mama always said I was given to her by the glory of God. Your name’s Michelle, right?”
“Micki,” I replied. “Where are you from? I notice you have a little bit of an accent.”
Glory chuckled. “I’m from North Carolina. Where’s your home?”
“Morristown, New Jersey. Um, I know we just met and everything, but can I ask you a personal question?”
“What do you look like?”
“Well, I’m five feet three inches tall. My hair is the color of the sunlight and my eyes are the color of the ocean.”
“Are you, um, totally or half…”
“I’m considered legally blind. I can see colors and words, if they are in big enough print. Now can I ask you a question?”
“Oh,” I laughed. “Ringlet’s my seeing-eye dog. She’s a golden Labrador Retriever.”
I knew Glory and I were going to get along just fine.
“So can you go places by yourself?”
“Sometimes, but I always have Mimi with me.”
“Is she your seeing-eye dog?”
“No,“ Glory replied. “I use a cane. Everything else has a name so I felt like she should, too. I could show you sometime. Maybe you could show me how to use Ringlet.”
Glory was always so chipper and positive, she started to rub off on me. Whenever I was down, she had a way of cheering me up. Once, I felt like I was the only one here who was totally impaired. I had met a lot of half or legally impaired people.
Glory said, “Well, wouldn’t you rather be a cute, little skunk then a big ugly wildebeest and have perfect eye sight?”
“I would rather be an owl.”
“Then you would be up all night.”
“What’s the difference? Every where I go is dark.”
Glory also had her own way of looking at things. I thought nothing could be worse than not being able to see, but the way Glory talked about it, it didn’t seem quite so bad.
“Let me tell you something one of my teachers told me. Being blind is just part of who you are and you have to learn to live with it.”
“Unfortunately.” My attitude had gotten better, but I still had my days.
“The trick is not to let it take over your life. One of my favorite sayings is: No matter how bad you think you have it, someone else always has it worse.”
“You know something, Micki, I am not sorry for you.”
“How can you even say something like that to me?”
“You look at life through rose colored glasses. Now you have to learn to see past the thorns.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You forget about all the good things you have in your life. The only person feeling sorry for you is you.”
I hate to admit it, but Glory was right. I guess I was hoping if I felt sorry for myself other people would, too.
“Whenever I was feeling bad, my mother would always say: You just be the best Glory you can be and then she would make me stand there and list all my good points.”
“You aren’t going to make me do that, are you?”
“Yes, I am. Now, go on. Try it.”
I sighed. “Well, I’m pretty good at school. I have a lot of friends. I am nice to animals. I was the only freshman cheerleader, who could do a back handspring. I have great taste in clothes.”
Keith greeted me one day, “Well, you’ll be happy to know I have figured out a system so you will know what color your clothes are.”
“That should make Glory happy,” I replied. Every morning I would hold up a piece of clothing and ask Glory what color it was to make sure I didn’t clash.
“I have made up a chart of all the clothes in the closet and I also made labels for your dresser drawers. Even though you don’t know all the letters yet, you should be able to figure out what piece of clothing it is with the letters you know. I am also going to pin all the shirts that are the same color together. You‘ll have a multi-hanger for your pants. All you have to remember is which color comes first on the chart and to keep your clothes in the same order. It may take a little time to get used to, but eventually you’ll be picking out your own clothes.”
“If you say so.”
“So, how are you and Glory getting along?”
“Great,” I replied. “Did you know she uses a cane? She said she could teach me how to use it, if I wanted.”
“You know, that’s not a bad idea,” Keith said thoughtfully.
Keith talked to Glory and she said she’d be more than happy to teach me how to use a cane. With her teaching me, it would give Keith a break at least one day a week.
“Now, start with your left foot and move the cane to your right. It’s like testing the waters before you jump in. Move the cane to the left when you step off with your right foot,” Glory said.
At first it seemed like I was never going to get the hang of using a cane. I remembered I felt the same way when I had to learn how to use Ringlet. At least her cane didn’t have a mind of it’s own. Ringlet was pretty well behaved most of the time especially when she knew she had to work, but once in a while she could be stubborn.
“Ringlet’s main job is to keep her master safe,” I explained. The first time Glory gave Ringlet a command, Ringlet didn’t respond. “Tell her again and if she doesn’t do it, try and physically make her move. You can tell if there would be something harmful in front of you.”
“Not if I close my eyes,” Glory said.
“Why would you close your eyes?”
“I want to get the full experience.”
Glory never ceases to amaze me.
After a while, Glory and I started going for walks every evening after dinner. Starting out, I would use her cane and she would use Ringlet and on the way back we would switch. These walks had actually been Keith’s idea. The more practice I got with a cane, the better off I would be. Being able to use a cane and Ringlet was like being able to drive an automatic and a standard transmission. Walking around the school and the grounds helped me get more used to my surroundings.
One night, Glory wasn’t feeling well, but she said for me to go ahead and go on a walk. I was a little nervous about going on a walk by myself. At first, I wanted to take Ringlet with me. I was more used to using her. By doing that, it would be like I was using Ringlet as my security blanket. I started out slowly, but as I began to feel a little more comfortable, I picked up the pace. I turned the corner on my way back and my foot caught on something. I tripped and fell into something.
“Whoa.” I heard an unfamiliar male voice say.
I couldn’t believe it. I had actual fallen into a person.
“Oh my gosh, I am so sorry. Are you okay?”
“I’ll live. You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, except my face is probably as red as an apple by now.”
“Now that would be something worth seeing.”
I gave a little laugh. “I’m Micki.”
“Ben Jump,” he replied.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Seven and half months.”
“Oh, I’ve only been here for three months.”
“It’s not such a bad place, once you get used to it.”
“Nothing,” I replied. “I just miss my family.”
“Been a while since you’ve seen them, huh?”
“More than a while.”
Ben laughed. “Hey, that’s a pretty good joke.”
I hadn’t meant it as a joke, but I understood how Ben could take it that way.
“Well, I had better get going. I have to meet Deanna.”
Ben laughed again. “My teacher.”
“Oh.” Boy, did I feel stupid.
“So, I guess I won’t be seeing you later.”
“It’d be kind of hard since I’m totally blind, but I might talk to you again.”
“Okay.” I hoped he could hear the smile in my voice.
I listened to him walk away. It was like I was starting after him with my ears. I found myself wondering what he looked like. I hadn’t felt comfortable asking someone I barely knew such a personnel question especially a boy. I had better get my head out of the clouds, so I could concentrate on getting back to my room. I couldn’t wait to tell Glory.
“Glory,” I said when I had finally made it back. “Guess what? I met this guy named Ben and he can’t see a single thing!”
“You should be one to talk. I never thought you would be this happy about someone else’s blindness.”
“Oh, I don’t mean it like that. I mean he’s just like me. There is actually someone here who’s dealing with the same thing I am.”
“I told you there would be,” Glory answered.
As I lay in bed that night, I found myself fantasizing about what Ben might look like. I pictured him with blonde hair and blue eyes. I hoped he was taller than me. I wondered how we would get along with both of us having the same condition. If Glory could understand being impaired in a positive way and Ben could make jokes about it there may be some hope for me yet.
Once I had learned all the letters in the Braille alphabet, Keith said it was time I started putting the letters together and forming words and sentences. At first he just had me doing random words and broken sentences. He said he would have me gradually work up to longer and more complex ones. He was also teaching me to use a Braillewriter. It was an oblong piece of steel, in a steel frame with a narrow steel band across it. The band was cut into several rows of open squares that could slide up and down. Attached to the writer was a writing utensil called a stylus. I would slide a piece of thick paper on top and underneath the slate. With the stylus I pressed here and there in the corners of the open squares. Where ever the stylus had pressed there was a tiny bump that could be felt easily with the fingers.
I practiced by reading my clothing chart. I also read my regular Braille books. Since they were basically all textbooks, I was getting pretty bored reading the same thing over and over again. When Keith felt I was ready to move on to an actual book, he started me out with kiddie books like, ‘See Spot run. Run, run, run’. I felt kind of stupid being fifteen years old and reading a book meant for a kindergartener. When I had mastered that, Keith started me on longer and harder books, like Peter Rabbit and The Berenstain Bear books. By Christmas time, I had advanced to short chapter books.
One night when I was getting ready for bed, Glory said, “Hold out your hands, Micki. I want to see something.”
“All right.” I just shrugged my shoulders.
“Micki, you’re fingertips are bleeding.”
I immediately stuck one of my fingers in my mouth and sucked on it.
“I don’t remember poking or cutting myself,” I said. “How did this happen?”
“How many books have you read this week?” Glory asked.
“Probably two. Why?”
“Are they at least a hundred pages or better?”
“I think you have been reading so much, you have read your fingertips raw.”
When I asked Keith about it he said, “You have only been reading Braille for a little while. Your fingertips are still sensitive. Once your fingers get used to reading Braille on a regular basis, they won’t bleed anymore.”
Since my reading was improving, Keith told me it was time I started putting words to paper. Now my assignments would concentrate more on writing than reading.
“All the high schools in the area are doing a project called, “Imagine The Future.” Everyone is writing as essay on what they would like to be. We should be able to do anything they can do so that will be your next assignment,” Keith said.
“Does it have to be a certain number of pages?” I asked dubiously.
“Well, it should have an introduction, body and conclusion,” Keith replied. “I also want you to write it using your Braille writer. All the students are going to be involved in this project. After everyone finishes we are going to pass the papers around so everyone gets a chance to read someone else’s paper.”
At first, I thought this assignment wouldn’t be that bad. Then I realized, I hadn’t thought about my future since July. The last thing I had wanted to be was an elementary school teacher.
“Everything I have wanted to be, I can’t do now,” I told Keith.
“This project is called “Imagine The Future.” I bet there are some kids here who are totally blind and are writing about flying an airplane. What did you want to do before you went blind?”
“I wanted to be a teacher, but now…”
“What do you think I am?”
“Well, you’re a … was that a trick question?”
Everyone’s paper I read, talked about what they wanted to do, not what they couldn’t do. All I had thought about was what I couldn’t do anymore.
Since it was Christmas time, Keith said most of my lessons were going to be associated with the season. The first class had us making beaded jewelry. A sighted person puts different colored beads in bins and then tells us which color is in which bin. They also had us making ornaments for the school Christmas tree. Wire had been bent into shapes of candy canes, wreaths and stars. Obviously the candy canes were made of red and white beads and the stars were made from gold or silver ones, but we could choose whatever colors we wanted for the wreaths.
Another class had us making Christmas cookies. I started out by helping roll the dough into balls and placing them on a cookie sheet. All the measuring cups had Braille numbers on the handles. I could dip the cup into the correct ingredient and brush my finger across the top to make sure it was level. When it came to adding liquid contents it was a little different. I would place my finger over the top of the measuring cup and when I felt the milk or water touch my hand I knew I had enough. I was also allowed to dip my finger into the batter and make sure it tasted all right. I enjoyed this part very much.
One day we all went Christmas shopping in town. Glory said she wanted to go to a fabric store so she could find a fleece scarf and mittens for her sister. I liked this store since I could run my hand over many kinds of fabric. I felt my hand touch something light and smooth.
“Ooh, what’s this?” I asked.
“It’s feels like silk so I would bet it would be a silk handkerchief,” Glory replied.
“This would be perfect for my dad,” I said. I could tell by the feeling it was quality silk.
I enjoyed going shopping because I was tired of being cooped up when the weather got bad and I was also getting tired of just walking around the school grounds. I liked the feeling of the chilly air on my face.
“Oh my gosh.”
“What’s the matter?” Glory asked.
“It’s snowing,” I whispered. “I know it is. There’s no doubt about it.” It was like a revelation.
The next week, a fresh cut Christmas tree came. I knew it was a live one because I could smell the fresh pine scent. They put it in the lobby and one night, we all decorated it with the ornaments we had made. I would slide my hand down the branch. Then I would slide the ornament as far up as I could to make sure it wouldn’t fall. After the tree was decorated we sang Christmas carols. I was pleased when I heard them play, The Little Drummer Boy and Do You Hear What I Hear? my two favorites. Then Mr. Marshall said he was going to plug in the tree. I could feel the magic and intimacy of the moment.
“Keith?” I whispered.
“Tell me what it looks like.”
“There are red, white and green lights around it, along with the ornaments you all made. The garland is gold and silver and there are battery-powered candles on every fourth or fifth branch, all the way to the top. It is topped with an illuminated angel.”
“I brought you something,” Keith said after few days before Christmas. “Here.”
I heard something heavy hit the table. I knew it was heavy because it made a loud, deep thud. I walked over and ran my hand over the table until I found the object. It felt like a big thick book.
“Hey,” I said. “I know I have been getting better at reading, but I don’t think I’m ready for War and Peace.”
“If you couldn’t read yet, I might let that assumption slide, but you can read so you should have found out what this was before you started jumping to conclusions.”
Keith was right. He was indicating that some parts of my life didn’t have to be a guessing game. I ran my fingers over the cover and found out what he had brought me was the Holy Bible.
“Every year we have students read the Christmas story at the Christmas Eve service. I marked the verses I want you to read.”
On Christmas Eve, I met with the other people who had been chosen to read. We told each other the numbers of the verses so we could get in the correct order. As it turned out Ben was reading the verse right after mine. After each verse was read, we would sing a song associated with the verse.
“Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be to all people,” I read in a loud clear voice. “For…” My fingers stopped moving. I let my hands fall to my side. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is, Christ the Lord.”
Before the end of the service, Ben leaned over and asked, “What are you wearing?” I told him and he replied, “You sound pretty, so I can only imagine you look as pretty as you sound.” I could feel myself blush.
“You did a good job reading,” Glory said when we had gotten back to our room. “Now, sit down. I have something for you.” She placed a square box in my hands. “Merry Christmas.”
“But it’s not Christmas morning yet,” I protested.
“In my family, we always opened at least one present on Christmas Eve. Open it. You might be able to use it.”
“All right,” I sighed.
Inside, I felt something that resembled felt.
“What is it?”
Come on, Micki. It’s not rocket science.”
“You’re worse than Keith about making me figure stuff out for myself. It’s a stocking.”
“I thought we could hang them from the dresser. Maybe Santa will leave you something nice. The majority of it is hunter green and the top is red.”
“I feel something along the top,” I said. I traced my fingers over it and found it was the letters of my name.
“I used puff paint so you could feel it,” Glory explained.
“Well, now you have to open my present. I hope you like it.”
“I’m sure I will. You can‘t go wrong with jewelry.” I had made her a beaded bracelet. “I love it. Pink is one of my favorite colors.”
“I wasn’t sure, but you sounded like a pink person.”
“Well, your ears are very observant.”
On Christmas morning I found all the presents I received had something that appealed to one of my four senses. I was touched. Rita had sent me a care package with my favorites cookies and her world famous fudge. Dad had special ordered me a couple of new books to read. For Christmas dinner, we had glazed ham, sweet potatoes, peas and spiced apples. Even though I was enjoying myself, I couldn’t help thinking what Dad and Rita were doing at that very moment.
After New Years, Keith said the real lessons were going to start. Real lessons? If what I had been doing so far had been just pre-lessons, I hated to see what real lessons would be. I had learned all the basics. Now the focus would be on helping me to lead a normal life. I had to learn and understand I could travel, play sports and have a job just like sighted people. The most important thing I had to learn first was how to live on my own.
“You don’t want to live at home the rest of your life, do you?” he asked.
“I guess not,” I said even though the thought of living with Dad and Rita the rest of my life crossed my mind.
The first thing Keith taught me was how to eat. Here at the school our food was always arranged clockwise on our plates and was served to us. What was I supposed to do when I would eventually start to cook and serve myself? Keith said I would have to start by eating in my room again. First, he had me set the table. That wasn’t very hard because everyone knows the plate goes in the middle, the fork goes on the left and the knife and spoon go on the right. The placement of the glass was determined by whether you were left or right handed. The trick to the food placement was always to keep it in the same order: main dish, side dishes, seasonings and condiments. Keith made a point of bringing me food that required me to use seasonings and condiments. To spread butter on bread, I first used my knife to find out how much butter was on the plate. I did this by sliding my knife along the top of it. Then I spread the butter from the center of the bread to the edges. When I wanted to use salt or pepper, I would shake it into my hand. When it came to ketchup and mustard, I put that directly on my plate, instead of on my food. If I was eating salad, the salad dressing was put in a separate dish and I put it on with a spoon. I had to learn to cut my meat. I located the edge of my meat with my knife and then placed the fork about and half inch above from the edge. Then I would cut a small semi-circle around my fork. I would eat that piece before cutting another one. Keith told me these methods would help me when I went out to eat.
One day, Keith brought me an envelope filled with money. He said this was going to be part of my next assignment. First, I had to learn how to identify the money. I could identify coins by the size, edge and thickness. The smallest coin was the dime and the largest was the half dollar. The penny and the nickel both had smooth edges, while the dime, quarter and half dollar had milled or ridged edges. The nickel was the thickest of all the coins. When it came to identifying bills, I had to remember, which bill was folded which way. One dollar bills were left unfolded while a five dollar bill was folded lengthwise, ten dollars, widthwise, twenty dollars, lengthwise by widthwise or I could always keep the twenties in a different part of my billfold, away from the other money.
After I had gotten a pretty good amount of practice at identifying money, Keith handed me a book and said, “Here is your next assignment.”
This time I ran my fingers along the title before I said anything. It turned out to be a cookbook.
“You are not going to make me cook something, are you?”
“In fact, you and Glory are going to make dinner for everyone tomorrow night.”
“So are you ready for this?” I asked Glory the next night.
In the kitchen all the cupboards have labels on them. We had to remember to keep the items that were used together, near each other and on the same shelf. After we had used an ingredient, we had to remember to put it back in the same place so other people could find it. Keith said I would need to do the same thing when I lived on my own. Keith had assigned us chicken and cornbread.
“Do you mind if we don’t eat the skin on the chicken?” I asked. Keith had said we could prepare the chicken however we wanted.
“I actually prefer grilled myself,” Glory answered.
Glory got a pair of tongs and we played tug of war with each chicken leg. Glory mixed some sauce that consisted of butter, vegetable oil, paprika and salt. While the chicken soaked, we started on the cornbread. I ran my finger over the list of ingredients in the cookbook.
“What?” Glory asked.
“This recipe calls for buttermilk. I know we don’t have that.”
“Don’t get yourself all riled up,” Glory said and she opened the refrigerator door. “Here, use this.” She thrust something small, round and plastic into my hands.
“What is it?”
“Banana yogurt. It’s sort of sour so it might work.”
While the chicken and cornbread cooked, Glory set one side of the dining room table and I set the other. The timer buzzed. Glory pricked the cornbread and stabbed the chicken to make sure it was done.
Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck when it was time to eat. Keith was there and so was Mr. Marshall. He usually ate with us at least once or twice a week. Tonight just happened to be the night. I think Keith purposely chose the night Mr. Marshall would be here. I held my breath as the chicken and the cornbread was passed around. Keith was the first one to say something.
“The cornbread is very good.”
“Just like my mother used to make,” Mr. Marshall replied.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe they couldn’t taste the banana yogurt.
“The chicken is tender, but a little dry.”
Well, nothing was perfect. Glory and I received an A- on our meal. All in all, I was pretty pleased with that grade.
As for learning how to tell time, there were Braille watches. The number twelve was identified using three vertical dots. The three and nine were two horizontal dots while the six was two vertical dots. All the other numbers were identified with one dot. I could also feel the direction of the hands.
When it came to using the telephone, I placed three fingers on the second row, where the numbers 4,5 and 6 were located. This made it easier to locate the other numbers. I thought they should make a phone with Braille numbers. I also learned a sighted person could help me program numbers and I could access it by only pressing two or three buttons. The first number I had to learn to dial was 911.
Finally one day Keith told me it was time I learned how to use public transportation. I had been dreading this. I still had no idea how I could accomplish it. Keith told me he was not going to be the one teaching me this. He knew I could have an attitude and if I thought something was impossible it was hard to convince me otherwise. He thought it would be better if I understood how someone like me could actually do it.
On Thursday he said we were going to take another field trip. We walked a couple of blocks. When we stopped, I heard a beep and then a new voice say, “Hello?”
“It’s Keith, Evelyn.”
“Okay, I’ll buzz you up.”
“Who was that?” I asked.
Ringlet led me down a hallway and up two short flights of six stairs. When she stopped, Keith knocked on a door. I heard footsteps and then the door opened.
“Hello, Evelyn. It’s nice to see you again. There is someone here I want you to meet.”
“Please, come in.”
“Evelyn, this is Micki Maxwell. She is attending the school. Micki, this is Evelyn Nam.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Micki,” she replied.
“It’s nice to meet you, too.” I replied quietly. I had become a little weary of meeting new people. When I could see, first impressions usually gave me a good idea of what kind of person they were. Now I had to rely on my ears. Evelyn sounded like a very cheerful person. I wondered why Keith had brought me here.
“Micki, I want you to spend the day here. Talk to Evelyn. Listen to her. I hope she’ll make you understand living blind is possible.”
“I’ll do my best, “ she replied
“I’ll be back at 4:30pm to pick you up,” Keith said and then he left.
I stood there not sure what to do or say. It was like Keith had abandoned me. I had felt the same way when I had first arrived at the school.
“Come and sit down, Micki. Just make yourself at home.”
“Oh, you have a dog,” Evelyn exclaimed. “I love animals. What’s its name?”
“Ringlet. She’s a golden Labrador Retriever.”
“Can I pet her?”
“It’s okay, Ringlet,” I said as I reached down to stroke her head.
Evelyn took my hand and led me to a place to sit. Ringlet lay down next to my feet and Evelyn sat down beside me.
“Are you from around here?” she asked. My ears told me Evelyn was a very talkative person.
“I live in New Jersey.”
“Never been there, but I hear it’s nice.”
“I like it,” I replied. “I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, but by any chance are you Japanese or Chinese?”
“My parents are Korean, but I was born in the United States.”
She must have dark hair and dark eyes. The more Evelyn talked, the more comfortable I became.
“So how long have you been blind?” she asked.
“Only since last July,” I replied. “What about you?”
“I had a very serious illness when I was young. I lost my sight soon after I turned two.”
“You should feel lucky.”
“Since you were so young, you really don’t know what you are missing out on.”
“Micki, if anyone should be envious it should be me.”
“At least you can close your eyes and remember what things looked like. I have never seen a tree, a flower or a sunset. Now don’t get me wrong, I can feel the leaves and the petals, but I can’t hear, taste or feel a sunset.”
“And I thought nobody suffered, but me,” I whispered. I finally understood what Keith was trying to do.
“Would you like something to drink? I only have water and milk. I don’t have any pop since I just drank the last can yesterday and I haven’t been out shopping yet. I wasn’t expecting visitors.”
“Water’s fine, “ I said and I listened to Evelyn move around. When she handed me a glass I asked, “How do you know what to do and where everything is?”
“Practice. I assume you know your room back at the school like the back of your hand.”
“And you probably know your way around the school, too, right?”
“Well, the same is true with an apartment. Once you get used to the layout, you won’t even think about where you want to go, you just go. There are a couple of things you have to remember. When you are done using something, put it back right away so you don’t forget about it and then aren’t able to find it. And put away anything you might trip over. Keep chairs pushed in and closet and cupboard doors fully closed. When you do laundry, it helps to either pin your socks together or put them all in a mesh bag. You’ll also want to fold you clothes promptly and properly, so they won’t wrinkle. What some people don‘t understand is sighted and blind people are a lot alike. When you try new food, you have to taste it before you know whether you like it or not, right? When you take a bath or a shower, you have to test the water to feel if it is hot or cold enough. Sighted or blind, it doesn‘t matter.”
“I feel like I should be taking notes.”
“Don’t worry. It will all come in time. Are you hungry?”
“Let‘s go out for lunch. My treat. “
“How are we going to get there?”
“The bus,” Evelyn answered, simply. “Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you can’t go out to eat. A social life is important whether you can see or not.”
As Ringlet led me down the sidewalk, Evelyn told me the best way to get around was to wear comfortable shoes and plan my route before I left. Don’t be afraid to ask a person for directions. Ringlet could lead me across the street safely, but I had to cross in crosswalks just like anyone else.
When we had reached the bus stop, Evelyn said, “A while back they passed a law saying public services had to be accommodating to everyone. They placed Braille information underneath all the written words. I’ll show you. It says here the next bus will be here at 12:35pm.”
I felt the Braille watch Keith had given me. “That means we have ten minutes left.”
The bus stop also had speakers outside for bus identification and the bus driver would announce what streets we stopped at. Evelyn also told me it wasn’t a bad idea to double check to make sure the bus driver didn’t forget. When the bus pulled up and we had gotten on she said, “Please let me know when we get to South Street.”
“We’ll do,” the bus driver said.
When the announcement was made, Evelyn thanked the driver and we got off.
“Do the restaurants have Braille menu’s, too?” I asked.
“Some do, but other times it just takes common sense. We are at a pizza place so just order the kind of pizza you like.” Evelyn sure made it sound simple.
I ordered a personnel pan pizza with cheese and pepperoni and a medium diet Pepsi while Evelyn ordered a large Hawaiian pizza. “Always pays to have leftovers,” she said.
She also asked what her total was so she could produce the correct amount of money.
“Have you ever gotten scammed or taken advantage of when it comes to paying for something?”
“Only once or twice. Most people are pretty nice about it, but the thing is don’t let it stop you from going places. Some people are just jerks and you’re going to have that anywhere you go.”
When we finally had made it back to her apartment, it was almost time for Keith to pick me up.
“Would it be all right if I came back to visit you again?” I asked.
“You’d better. I really enjoyed meeting you, Micki.”
I’ll admit I had a good time. I really liked Evelyn. It was also nice to meet someone outside of the school. The only people I had associated with were Glory, Keith and sometimes Ben. Evelyn had made me understand just because I couldn’t see, didn’t mean I had to live like a hermit.
After meeting Evelyn and understanding I could go places, I started to notice I didn’t want to spend all my free time in my room anymore. For a while, I never wanted to leave my room because in there I knew where everything was and it made me feel safe. In order for me to be independent, I was going to have to force myself outside of my comfort zone.
Just like everything else I had learned, Keith said the way to get more comfortable with going places was to practice. At least once sometimes twice a week, my assignment was to take someone out for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I could take whomever I wanted, but it was very important I was the one who read the bus schedule and made sure we would arrive at the right place. It wasn’t so bad since I had begun to memorize the bus schedule and knew about what time the next bus would arrive. I also tried to sit toward the front of the bus so it would be easier for me to get on and off.
One day, it rained. It just happened to be the day I was supposed to go out to lunch with someone. I wasn’t really upset about it. I used to not like the rain, but now I found I liked to listen to it beat on the roof. I liked the feel of the mist on my face if I was standing on the front porch. I also like listening to the rumble of the thunder.
It was the middle of April when Keith told me I was going to pick up another extra circular activity.
“I think you are going to actually like this one,” Keith said. “Every year the school has an annual dance. Everyone is expected to participate. Have you ever taken any dance lessons before or been in the marching band?”
“I took tap when I was four and then two years of ballet when I was seven, but that’s it. I think I should also warn you I have two left feet and I am not the most coordinated person in the world.”
“Listen, Micki, if you want to, you can learn to dance. And I am not talking the Jitterbug. Just a couple of relatively simple steps, starting with the waltz.”
Keith placed my left hand on his shoulder, took my right hand in his, put his other hand at the small of my back and started talking me through the steps. At first, I was tripping over myself as well as him. Finally, he told me to stand on his feet so I could get a feeling of what it was supposed to feel like. I felt like a little girl who was dancing with her daddy for the first time. When Keith wanted me to turn, he would push against my right hand in the direction he wanted me to go. He pushed and pulled me in the right direction.
I decided to ask Evelyn if she knew how to dance. Talking with Evelyn had helped me immensely. She had made me understand things in a whole new light. If anyone could convince me I could dance, it would be her.
“If I was giving the opportunity to dance, I would jump at the chance. I’ve always wanted to learn how to salsa,” Evelyn said.
“Sure. And I definitely plan on dancing at my wedding next July.”
I had planned on wearing the same dress I had worn on Christmas Eve to the dance, but Glory finally convinced me every girl needs as least one little black dress. She described one dress as having spaghetti straps, a pleated front and a whimsical skirt. When I tried it on, I felt it come right above my knee so I felt I could pull it off. It was also on sale.
Needless to say, I was pretty nervous on the day of the dance.
“What if I forget the steps?”
“Don’t worry about it. No one expects you be Ginger Rogers. Beside when they play slow dances all you have to do is stand there and sway back and forth,” Glory reassured me.
The dance was being held in the dining room. Glory said all the tables had been cleared out and there were blue and white streamers draped across the walls. Keith told me a banquet table had been set up at one end and had hamburgers, hot dogs, potato and macaroni salad, baked beans, fruit salad and several different kinds of soda. They also had cake and ice cream for dessert. The reason he told me all this was because it was not an assignment. I was supposed to enjoy myself.
For a while I just sat. After a while, I felt comfortable enough to sway in place and sometimes clap my hands along to the music. I recognized when they played The Chicken Dance and The Hokey Pokey. I danced along to those on the side.
One boy asked Glory to dance. I was beginning to feel like a wallflower when I heard someone ask, “Would you like to dance, Micki?”
I knew it was Ben. I wasn’t sure how he had found me. He must have asked someone.
“Okay, sure.” I hoped I didn’t sound too anxious.
I reached out until I felt his hand. Luckily, it was slow song. I was pretty timid when I placed my hands on his shoulders, like I was almost afraid to touch him. I felt his hands at my waist.
“So, what are wearing tonight?” he asked
When I told him, Ben replied, “Oh, man, I wish I could see you.”
I felt shivers run up my spine.
“Look at me, then.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Look at me.” I took his hands and placed them on my face. His hands softly skimmed over my forehead, nose and mouth.
“What do you look like? “ I asked.
I found out he had an oval face and a square jaw. His nose was short and straight and I felt just a little bit if peach fuzz on the side of his face.
“I still think your pretty, even if I can’t see you with my eyes,” he whispered.
We danced the rest of the slow songs together. Ben liked me, as a person, not because of what I did or in our case, didn’t look like.
“I’ll Be Waving As You Drive Away.”
There were quite a lot to do to get ready for Parent’s Day. It was going to be held in the big reception hall since the room had a stage they could use for the presentation. Some of the teachers said they had gone out and bought streamers, balloons, Japanese lanterns and other decorations we were in charge of. Then we split into six groups and each group was assigned to create a display for something we had done that year. It was kind of like a scrap booking. My group was giving the dance. Glory said she had taken a picture of Ben and me dancing. I said I’d kill her if she put that up. I was able to put glue or tape on the back of pictures while someone else put them on poster board.
We also had to clean our rooms as well as the rest of the school. Mr. Marshall mowed the grass and bought flowers for us to plant along the sidewalk and the fence. I liked this part since I could smell and feel the softness of the flowers.
As far as the menu was concerned, each of us was told to make our parents’ favorite foods. We were going to be in charge of serving our parents. All the food was going to be prepared the day before and the morning of so it would be fresh. I decided to make shish kabobs and I wanted to make a carrot cake for Rita. The school ordered trays of cold cuts, veggies and cheeses that would be delivered. We were also told we were going to make fruit salad that was going to be presented in a watermelon rind basket that someone had carved.
I helped Keith put plastic table clothes and vases of flowers on all the tables. When we were finished, I asked, “Is something wrong? You don’t sound like yourself.”
“I guess you would have found out, eventually. It used to be I could hide my feelings from you, but your ears have become so observant, it’s harder. I won’t be coming back next year.”
“What do you mean you’re not coming back?” He had totally caught me off guard.
“I’ve been selected to start another blind school out in Denver, Colorado. In order to do that, I have to move.”
“But who’s going to be my teacher?”
“Any of the teachers here are more than qualified. It just happened at the time you came, I was available to take on another student. You could have easily gotten someone else. I am just one of the many teachers here.”
“No, you’re not. You’re my teacher. The world is a big, dark and scary place with hidden obstacles and strange sounds, voices coming from faceless people. I need you to help me. It‘s easy here.”
“You don’t need my help. I have taught you all the basics. All you have to do is build on them.”
My heart was slowly breaking. It was not because I had any romantic feelings for Keith. There are those certain people, who make a difference in your life and Keith was that person for me. He had towed me to shore when I was stuck up the river without a paddle.
Parent’s Day arrived. I had finished making up the shish kabobs that morning. It turned out to be pretty easy. I made the shish kabobs, just like I had made the bracelets, by remembering where the certain items were. Meat, tomatoes, pineapple and so on
I had decided to wear my orange button down shirt and orange-yellow skirt. I was sitting on the couch in the lobby waiting for Dad and Rita to arrive. I couldn’t sit still. I hadn’t seen them since coming here. Every time I heard the door open, I would hold my breath. I had to keep reminding myself everyone else’s parents were coming here also.
Finally, I heard, “Micki?”
Rita wrapped her arms around and me and hugged me so hard I squeaked.
“I love you. I have missed you so much,“ I said.
“Well, if I am not going to get a hug, then I am going to leave.”
“Dad!” I started to walk toward his voice when I felt him grab me by the shoulders and pull me to him. “It’s so good to hear your voice again.”
“It’s so wonderful to see…hear your voice, too,” Dad said. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” I reached up to feel his face. I was tickled to death when I felt he needed a shave. “It’s great to see you, too. There’s someone here I want you to meet.” Keith had been waiting with me. “This is Keith LaHaye, the most wonderful teacher in the world.”
“Mr. LaHaye,” Dad answered.
“Please, it’s Keith.”
“I hope my daughter hasn’t been too hard on you. She can be handful.”
“You won’t get any argument from me on that.”
“Where’s Ringlet?” Dad asked.
“Upstairs, “ I replied. “Come on, I want to show you my room. I’ll lead the way. You can get lost around this place. I made a big lunch for later. I hope you are hungry.” They remembered me as the helpless little girl I had been. It was time I showed them the new and improved Michelle Emily Maxwell.
“I remember me begging you not to send me here. Thank you so much for not listening to me.” I gave Dad a hug.
“It really did hurt me to send you away.”
“I thought I was burden and you just didn’t want me under foot. All I wanted was for you to feel sorry for me. But now, I realize in wanting everyone to feel sorry for me, the only person I was feeling sorry for was myself.”
The rest of the day seemed to fly by. I introduced Dad and Rita to Glory and Ben. Rita said she thought Glory was very nice and was happy I had some friends here. Dad said Ben was a striking young lad. At lunchtime, everyone complimented how nice the reception hall looked. Dad said the shish kabobs were the best he had ever tasted. Rita said the carrot cake was just perfect.
After lunch all the teachers gave short speeches and everyone received a certificate saying we had complete a year at the Southport School for the Blind. It was like a mini graduation.
“Well, what did you think?” Keith came over afterwards.
“It’s truly amazing,” Dad replied. “If you had told me this last summer, I would have never believed it. It’s like this whole thing never happened. We are going home and it will be like nothing’s changed.”
“But things do change,” I said. “That’s what I want to talk to you about.” I heard Keith to start walking away. “Wait, Keith. I want you to hear this, too. Since last July, I hadn’t thought or even considered the fact of what I might want to do in the future. Now that I know I can have one I have decided what I want to do. After I finish school I want to go to college and become a teacher for the blind just like Keith. I have always wanted to do something to help other people and by knowing exactly what these kids are going through, I could help them that much more. I’ll teach them what Keith taught me…that all things are possible. It was a dream of mine I made myself forget. Now it‘s coming true.”
“Don’t cry, Rita.”
“No, I’m really terribly thrilled.”
“I couldn’t think of anything better.”
“ You never cease to astonish me. Your future students will be lucky to have a teacher like you.”
“You really think so?”
“I know so.”
The next day there was so much I wanted to do before I left. I had exchanged addresses with Glory and Ben so we could keep in touch over the summer. Dad asked me why I didn’t just write my letters the normal way when he saw I had packed my Braillewriter. Rita told him maybe my letters were private. I knew what she was hinting at. I was just finishing packing when I heard a knock at my door.
“I see you are almost ready to go,” Keith said. “I just wanted to stop and say good-bye and good luck. You will be okay, Micki, you know that.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s funny how things change. I hated it when I came here and then I never wanted to leave. Now, it’s a whole new life. You won’t forget me will you?”
“You are definitely one of a kind.”
I walked over and wrapped my arms around his neck and gave him a brief, but fierce hug. “Thank you for everything.”
“My pleasure. I’ll be waving as you drive away.”
“Come on, Ringlet. Let’s go home.”
I would be coming back to the school in the fall. After all, I still had a lot to learn as well as anything they would have taught me in high school. I used to wonder why God would take away the sight of a fourteen-year-old girl. Now I know the reason. It was like He was sending me a message. Start your life over again, Michelle. Find out what it is like to not be so blessed. And this I now do. I am learning the disappointments in the life. I am finding the good days increasingly outnumber the bad ones. My smiles come more naturally. My longing to see again, while it remains, is less acute. I am learning life doesn’t give you everything. You have to create your own future, your own opportunities. There are new things in life that are probably good things I am just starting to discover.
As the taxi pulled away, I shifted around and waved.