In 1968 I attended a six-week summer session at Oak Hill, Connecticut’s residential school for the blind, my only stint at such an institution. At fourteen, after immigrating from England the previous January, I was about to enter ninth grade in a regular junior high school in Darien, Connecticut. (I’d already spent the last five weeks of eighth grade there.) Having lost my vision in March, I was at Oak Hill to get a jump start on mobility, braille and touch typing.
This seven-page chapter follows “Transition” in a series of excerpts from my unpublished memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh. Here, the focus is on an Oak Hill girl I call Meg. I end with our family vacation later that summer.
One evening a week we played housey-housey, the school’s name for bingo, in the assembly hall. Calling out numbers, talking, yelling, clowning, stamping feet, scraping chairs, the school of thirty students and a couple of teachers clustered around folding tables. Another evening each week we rehearsed a play to put on for visitors from town. In the play the villain tied a hapless heroine to railroad tracks.
Otherwise, evenings were set aside for recreation, when we sat at tables around the lawn as some of the boys played with a beeping ball. It came out that I could play draughts. Well, checkers, that American word that sounded wrong for the game I’d grown up with. Meg Renman, confined to a wheelchair as well as blind, asked me to teach her. The board someone produced had alternating raised black and lowered white squares, and the tops of the black pieces had more shape than those of the flat white pieces.
As we made the first moves, Meg told me that at the age of twenty-one she was going into ninth grade. She had a bell-clear laugh. I could imagine Judy Collins laughing like that.
Boys and girls were allowed to mix only in class and during recreational periods, and only under supervision. “Last year we couldn’t sit at the same table,” Meg told me. “But next semester boys will be allowed to walk the girls back to the dorms and talk for a half hour.”
An Oak Hill girl named Dawn, who was one of Meg’s friends, had a pleasing voice and a confident way. I worked questions about her appearance into my checkers lessons with Meg. But to disguise my real interest, I began by asking about some other girl. What color hair did that girl have? Girls at Oak Hill knew the color of their hair even if they’d never seen. Meg told me.
“What color are her eyes?” Oak Hill girls were equally proud of their eye color.
“You like to know what girls look like, don’t you? Are there any others you want to know about?”
That Oak Hill generosity again.
“How about Dawn?”
“I think Dawn has dark brown hair.”
“I’ll find out.”
“And her eye color? And anything else – how tall she is, for example.”
Students at Oak Hill talked about how tall girls were. Sighted people could look at others and notice all sorts of interesting things, but you could get into trouble for putting most of them into words. At Oak Hill height was a permissible subject. At Middlesex Junior High, I wouldn’t even bring up height. Only someone blind would ask such a goofy question.
One night, when the other guys left my friend Al’s room, I risked a question about Dawn. He answered vaguely. Then, as if it were an afterthought, he said, “I think she’s going out with Tommy Jackson. Have you met Tommy?” Behind the spoken words I heard, “Stay away.” He’d been searching for a way to spare my pride.
Over another checkers game with Meg, I complained about Oak Hill’s regimentation: the bells decreeing when to get up, go down to breakfast, go to dinner; the schedule for when girls and boys could be together; and the restrictions on what we could do when together.
“When the Oak Hill staff makes rules up, it’s for our own good,” Meg said.
“You’re all so sheltered.”
“Not really. We mix with regular school kids.”
“Not while I’ve been here.”
“I’m a member of the French club. Last year we invited students from a local high school to a meeting, and the girls and I baked cookies. In the fall I’m going to join the school newspaper and I’ll be reporting on the activities of the clubs and interview certain people.”
Speech at this school could be so stilted. “Certain people outside Oak Hill?”
“They haven’t told me who yet.”
I sat back to take in what she’d said. She was studying French, acting the hostess, making connections. And yet I couldn’t imagine her being accepted in a public school. It was hard enough being blind. Added to that, she was seven years older than the usual ninth grader and confined to a wheelchair. So it seemed unfair to press her about the way Oak Hill sheltered its students. But wasn’t holding back dishonest?
“It’s your move, Meg,” I said.
I concentrated on her presence across from me to shake off the argument festering in my mind. She was leaning forward so that her voice came from the edge of the board. Did she keep an elbow on the flat metal arm of the wheelchair or rest it on the table? There always seemed to be a smile in her voice. Did she ever stop smiling? I guessed her hair was short. Her physical requirements were taken care of by the Oak Hill matrons, and I couldn’t imagine them dealing with long hair. Beyond that, I wondered about her eyes. The way she spoke, they must sparkle. But she’d never seen, so what could be there? What did she wear? Were her legs marred by braces, as mine once had been? The questions couldn’t be spoken, and the thoughts shouldn’t be thinkable. I refocused on the beeping ball on the field to my right and the breeze curling through the heavy evening air.
But she hadn’t finished. “I admit some courses here are a waste of time. The course I took last year that I thought was a waste of time was Speech. I didn’t like it because I feel you can discuss topics of interest in English.”
I didn’t follow. I fell back on a simple question. “What else did you take?”
She reeled off the list without hesitating. “French, music, typing, home economics, science, math and history. Shall I tell you the marks I got? I got four G’s for ‘good,’ one F for ‘fair’ and two U’s for ‘unsatisfactory.’ Are you unhappy with me?”
Who was I to be unhappy with her, least of all over her grades? I said, “You worked hard.”
“I was disappointed to get only an ‘F’ in English. When the teacher handed out our grades, she said we were very bright and if we intended to go to college we couldn’t get away with that kind of junk.”
“I don’t think you want to put that piece there. Look what I have ahead and to the left.”
Her fingers touched mine as she examined the position. “Oh my. You don’t mind my taking it back?”
She had more to say about her English teacher. “She told us that some of the people who leave Oak Hill and go to public school get good grades because of sympathy or because the teachers give in to what the students think they deserve.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“Didn’t you say you got a higher mark in science than you expected? That goes to show that the teacher gives the student the mark because of sympathy. The standards are so superior here that the teachers will be sure that you learn all you can.”
“Teachers here aren’t superior,” I said, though I’d just told myself not to argue. How could she compare any Oak Hill teacher to Mr. Knox, my English teacher at Middlesex Junior High?
The next time we spent recreation time together, she said, “Remember me talking about Billy Epstein? I might have given you the impression I like him, but I don’t really. It started last May when the school took us on an outing to Harkness Memorial State Park for a whole weekend. We had a dance and a hay ride. They also played a game called choo choo.”
I caught myself parsing her phrasing. “We” had a dance and a hay ride. “They” played this choo choo game. Surely she couldn’t dance. Perhaps she’d been there to share in the activities of her friends. Or maybe she’d been able to join in even from a wheelchair.
I said, “What’s choo choo?”
“The boys and girls line up. The person who is at the head of the line kisses the person in back of him. Then the person in back turns around and slaps his face. Then the second time the one at the head of the line turns around and kisses the person in front of him.” Her Judy Collins laugh pealed out.
I was surprised the school allowed students this outlet for pent-up urges. If it meant you got to kiss a girl, I’d want to play.
She said, “I thought it was a good idea to go to the dance because I didn’t want to become bored this summer. So my friend Laura asked me if I liked Billy. I told her I liked him. But he asked to take her to the dance instead. I didn’t care but it meant I had to go with somebody that was much older than I was. Billy spoke to me yesterday.”
“Did he say he was sorry?”
“I told him if he liked Laura better he could have her. I told him that you were more my type. He asked me if you were going to be my boyfriend and I said as far as I was concerned I would rather have you.”
We continued with the game. It seemed I didn’t need to respond.
Another night she said, “I think Al is a very intelligent boy, and I want to talk to him but I don’t know if he likes me. I hope you will tell him.”
We were playing what was to be our last game of checkers when she said, “I’m going to walk tomorrow.”
“Walk?” I thought of her going to the dance and not dancing. Would this be walking but not walking?
“My first time. It will be at the recreation lawn. Will you come?”
At one the next afternoon, I arrived to find teachers and staff surrounding her. I called out, “Hi, Meg.” With all the fuss going on, she didn’t reply. A teacher showed me to a chair several yards away. I was annoyed to be kept at a distance, but held it in for Meg’s sake.
“Up!” a teacher standing by Meg commanded. At the edge of my seat, I listened through the noises of effort and movement for clues to ways I might encourage her. I couldn’t tell if she was standing or still trying to. The teachers didn’t report what was happening. Then her grunts, sounding male from effort, and the cheers of the staff told me she’d managed to stand. They were followed by a thud, a clatter and Meg’s cry. She’d collapsed back. Then her laugh pealed out. It had been for a moment, but she’d done it.
I pushed through the teachers and attendants to offer congratulations. She gasped, “Thanks,” too spent to say more.
* * *
As the summer waned, Dad drove us for a week’s vacation to a cabin resort a hundred miles north of Toronto. In the evening, a woman played guitar as she led the campers in sing-alongs around a fire. Ignorant of the words, I hummed the tunes.
Dad prevailed on me to try the bowling alley. Even with sight, I’d never got the hang of bowling. When I’d released the ball, it had rolled down the alley at a stately pace. Now, despite Dad’s guidance, the ball kept rolling into one or other gutter. My highest score was in the forties. I felt torn between hatred of doing something badly and wanting to do something with Dad.
I chose to believe the other vacationers were discreetly ignoring us. But at the end of the week, they awarded me the bowling prize. I was crushed. From now on would I be judged for how much I tried, not for how well I did, just as Meg had claimed?