In the previous excerpt from my memoir, I wrote about my discomfort on receiving an award I didn’t deserve. (See “Meg; The Bowling Prize”, which is mostly about my one stint at Oak Hill, Connecticut’s school for the blind.) In the current five-page excerpt, I remain the first and only blind student at Middlesex Junior High. The year is 1969, I’m in ninth grade, I turn fifteen in April, and the personal computer is, if anything, a figment of science fiction. Miss Friss makes a return appearance: she was the teacher who introduced me to braille the year before, as described in “Transition.”
Miss Friss said, “You’re using people.”
We were sitting across the table from each other in the second-floor room the school set aside for us after hours. I stayed silent as she transcribed that day’s French test into braille. Until then, she’d had me dictate my answers. Now she said, “Do you want to write your answers in braille?” Phrasing a command as a question was euphemistic teacherspeak in America.
She watched over me as I read the questions she’d just brailled and I wrote my answers on the braillewriter. Then I sat around as she transcribed my answers into print. She couldn’t read braille by touch; only with her eyes. That was easy. Who was she to give me a hard time?
The test and two rounds of transcription took hours, and I’d already sat idly through test time in class. If I was using people, so be it. The least they could do was help.
Then I thought about all the students who read for me, the teachers and administrators who went out of their way for me. Maybe I didn’t appreciate them enough.
Then there was home. If Mum made a mistake or didn’t read something the way I needed, I “glared,” as Dad and she called my look when I was so angry or frustrated that words failed me.
My brother cornered me and said, “You’re being terrible to Mum.”
Some speech, coming from him. At best, he was surly with her.
I had no defense, but could neither explain nor see my way to doing anything about it. I glared at him.
But Miss Friss was right. I didn’t do enough for myself, and I was unfair to everyone. Not that I’d admit it to her.
She made me promise to shift from dictating essays to writing them on a regular typewriter, though I was sure it would make no practical difference. I’d make typos without knowing, which meant I’d have to get my parents to read back my drafts and write in revisions. They might as well take my dictation. It proved worse. Essays came out blank because the ribbon had slipped or run dry. That drew groans of sympathetic frustration from Mum and Dad that amplified my own and became the target of my annoyance. “It’s not a problem. The paper’s in my head. I’ll rewrite it if you’ll help me get the ribbon on right.”
Getting books prerecorded on tape also saved work for Mum and Dad. However, readers on tape narrated slowly in the misguided belief that it helped comprehension. All it did was cause my mind to wander. To counter this slow trickle of sentences and ideas, I’d put my index finger in a gap in the large spool and speed the tape through the heads. The voice wavered and squawked, making words unintelligible and my finger ache with effort. Lacking time to wind back and forth through tapes to retrieve specific passages, I relied on what stayed in my head after a single reading, then wrote a single draft on my Olivetti.
I was still hard at work till midnight and beyond. At 6:30 in the morning I’d recoil from Mum’s “Time to get up,” as she yanked open my bedroom curtains.
But Miss Friss was vindicated. Even with the typos and occasional blank pages, I needed much less of my parents’ time. It also spared me from cross-examining Mum to confirm she’d made a correction or pretending I’d understood Dad to escape his disdain. The occasional blank page was worth it.
My single-draft compositions made favorable impressions on my teachers, and a post-apocalyptic story of mine won honorable mention in a statewide competition.
* * *
Despite my resolution at Oak Hill to get around on my own, at Middlesex Junior High I couldn’t stand the thought of being watched blundering down the wrong corridor or into the wrong classroom. But during the lunch break, while the hallways were empty, I’d walk on my own from the guidance counselors’ area, past the main entrance to the stairs, climb to the second floor, count off the doors on the left, open the fourth, and squeeze into the chair permanently affixed to the closest desk.
French would begin in half an hour or so. As I took my seat in the silly desk-bound chair, Mrs. Latham, the French teacher, would murmur a preoccupied greeting from the room’s opposite corner. She’d return to correcting tests, and I’d look over the French textbook that the Connecticut Braille Association had transcribed for me.
She was that rare teacher, a popular disciplinarian. One day, as she handed out a test to the class, she announced that anyone who wrote answers in pencil would get a zero. As usual, I had to sit idly as the others wrote their answers and take the test with Miss Friss after school. I assumed Miss Friss, such a stickler for form, wrote in pen. But next day Mrs. Latham gave me a zero because Miss Friss had transcribed my answers in pencil. When I told Miss Friss after school, she dashed out to get my grade changed, but returned to report that Mrs. Latham wouldn’t back down. I had to suppress a smile. Mrs. Latham would never give me a bowling prize out of charity. Then again, nor would Miss Friss.
At last Mrs. Latham would stop correcting papers and come over to talk. I’d put the textbook back in my bag, and she’d sit on the desk I’d just cleared. This woman, with the big, authoritative voice, fit easily on its tiny surface. Here was what I’d walked upstairs for.
“You’ve never been to France?” she said.
“No. We went all over England, but never crossed the Channel.”
“You have to drive hundreds of miles to see something new in America,” she said, anticipating one of those opinions I’d coopted from my parents. “I wish you’d gone. I love Paris. Such a cliché, right? But I did. I wasn’t sure how well I’d speak French, but all those years studying in high school and college paid off.”
She’d tell me about incidents during her trips to France, then her teacher training. She’d talk about her hometown in Pennsylvania and, in time, her marriage. She’d been teaching for only three years.
“It’s so hard. Some mornings I wake up and find my pillow damp with tears.”
Who would have thought it?
“You have such a commanding presence in the classroom,” I said.
“Thank you. I value your judgment.”
How often I’d been told something similar since losing my vision. But I hadn’t felt this happy with a woman since talking to the nurses in England. Her legs swung back and forth, and I was an adult again. Until the bell rang.
Note: To read all my memoir excerpts, along with other recent posts, please go here, to the blog page of my website.