I was a 13-year-old girl, and it was a chilly fall morning over 40 years ago. It was my very first day of high school! At the state school in Indiana, I had been one of the smartest students in a small class, accustomed to residential living in a dorm with a few girls my age and several younger girls. It was so comfortable, easy. My braille skills were excellent, and I traveled well with my white cane. I was an ordinary kid with a loving family who wanted opportunities for me to develop my fullest potential. That's why public school became the chosen educational path. I was excited as preparations were made, the picture of self-confidence. I had sighted friends from church and Girl Scouts and had no worries. I was ready for a bigger world out there because I had skipped fifth grade in order to be challenged academically.
Entering into a large, public high school as a totally blind student involved exceptional parent advocates, cooperative school administrators, and a leap of faith. I smiled happily; this would be an adventure! The atmosphere was noisy and chaotic, full of chatter and laughter, smelling of gum and perfume. I had arrived in my first classroom earlier than the other kids to avoid any embarrassing encounters or even possible collisions with clueless students. A blind girl in their midst! I held my head high, in my brand-new outfit and fresh hairdo. My mother was always on top of the latest fashion trends.
Things went extremely smoothly. I was politely approached by kids and teachers those first few weeks, eager to ask about braille, my slate and stylus, how I selected my clothes, etc. In classes, teachers called on me frequently to answer questions and offer opinions related to reading materials, which I had read in braille or on tape from Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. Also, my mother would always serve as a reading resource. Other kids walked with me from class to class, and I even started folding up my cane. Kathy befriended me, and we ate lunch together every day. All my teachers seemed helpful, and it was all good!
Soon there was a school dance arranged for all freshmen. Undaunted with innocent fearlessness, I went to the event with Kathy and milled around with other girls. None of us had dates. After the live band began playing, boys with varying voice pitches asked me to dance, one after another. I felt flushed and nervous, but also graceful and attractive. I was thrilled that evening, as the boys seemed to be so friendly and interested in me. This was a beautiful bubble of reality!
Primarily into academics, I didn't focus on my social life, but I quickly realized that none of those boys ever spoke to me again after the dance. Still I coasted in optimism, drifting on a cloud of popularity. Later that autumn, I was elected freshman basketball queen, a social victory! I wore the crown proudly, touching the glitter which rapidly flaked off on my fingers. I didn't care then. When photographs were taken at that event, two older boys posed on either side of me, holding my hands. Wow!
I didn't know then that they had been drafted for the occasion. I also didn't know then that all the boys who danced with me earlier that fall were not volunteers. Adult chaperones of the dance had whispered to them, asking them to invite the blind girl to dance. I did understand back then that momentum was shifting, and instead of smiling and feeling smug and self- satisfied, I was crying and becoming bewildered. In the classroom I was alone; between classes and after school, I walked alone.
"What is wrong?" my mother asked after school one day as I moped in my room. "I feel left out now at school," was my forlorn response. "Oh, honey," she lightly dismissed my concern. "You've gained a little bit of weight; maybe that's it!" A chubby self-image was created in my mind. Years later, when friends and I compared and contrasted our parents, playing the blame game, I always remembered and resented my mother's comment, interpreting it as flippant, cruel, and insensitive.
The novelty of the amazing blind student dissipated and was replaced by other phenomena -- an accomplished athlete in the school, a hot new boy-girl relationship, a teacher's mysterious resignation. "Oh, hi, Allie" (my nickname) was often a hasty greeting as someone passed by. Kathy suddenly had a boyfriend who took up all her time. I felt truly abandoned, and puzzled. Bitterness washed over me, and disappointment constricted my spirit. I don't know how new insight started to penetrate my despair, helping me overcome dreary self-centered thinking. I had been allowing blindness to be my primary identifier so that people noticed it above everything else about me, and I thrived on the fleeting recognition. This emphasis was so limiting in my interactions with others. To be singled out and labeled as the blind girl hurt my capacity to develop as a normal adolescent. I struggled to reinvent my damaged identity which required reaching out, taking more interest in others, and reducing some visibility connected to being blind.
However, I remained confused for years, sorting through feelings and messages, defining and trying to take responsibility for my attitudes and resulting behavior. I wanted to minimize any association with blindness or blind people. Maybe I didn't need any special attention because I believed it was false and based in pity or a strange temporary fascination.
Yet the questions wouldn't go away. Did I like being an inspiration, or did I just want to blend in? Why did I suddenly shun blindness and other disabilities, preferring sighted companions? Why did I feel I always had to excel to be noticed, to be worthy? Did the fact that I was blind determine my choices in every situation? Could blindness be the cause of success or failure in relationships and work? Ongoing experiences triggered these questions, and answers fluctuated. I could never deny that some special treatment made my life easier, like being moved to the front of a long line and having the privilege of touching a rare object in a museum, behind ropes which kept the regular folks at a distance. Yet other special treatment, such as a train conductor refusing to take my ticket because I was blind or being excused from a school assignment just because I was blind, was demeaning and conveyed the wrong message about my capabilities. How could blindness imprison me one day and offer unique freedoms and opportunities the next day?
The only way to minimize conflict and quiet my tormented musings was to accept blindness as a characteristic among others like height, weight, or skin color. I had to acknowledge public attitudes and expectations and then make conscious choices regarding my actions and reactions. I wouldn't always be happy about everything, and psychological struggle would continue to be my style. Living with and untangling contradictions and dilemmas can be a constructive approach to survival. I describe this process as critical examination, although some might label it as mere overthinking. So it goes, and seconds tick away, relentlessly.
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