In today’s ten-page installment of my memoir, I am introduced to braille and the cane, among other devices. I also begin school in America. This excerpt follows “Arrival in America.”
As background, I had my final eye operation in March of 1968 at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City, after which I had no usable vision. In April my parents bought a house in Darien, Connecticut, and so we moved from the New Jersey house that colleagues of Dad, whom I call the Skiptons, had lent us.
A few days after my fourteenth birthday, Miss Friss, the “itinerant teacher” for the visually impaired students of Fairfield County, drove down to teach me braille. Mum set up the card table in the living room, and Miss Friss and I sat across from each other. Spring air eased in from open windows and drifted through our new Connecticut home.
“Have you ever seen braille?” she said.
“When I was in hospital.”
“We call each braille symbol a cell. Each cell consists of three dots high and two across. I’ll show you.” She made crunching noises on her machine, ratcheted out a piece of paper and laid it down before me. “Look at this,” she said. “You’re right-handed, I think. Run your right forefinger over those dots.”
I moved my fingertip over and around the mound she’d created on the paper. When I made out what she’d described, there were three vertical dots and then a second column of three dots standing next to it. I hadn’t taken in even this simple pattern when I’d peered at Sister’s braille wheel in Moorfields Hospital.
Miss Friss went on. “Now, if I type that top left dot all by itself, it stands for ‘a.’” She did so, and we went through the alphabet.
“I remember this from the hospital,” I said when we reached the letter “p.” It had a three-dot vertical stem and, across the top, a lone dot on the right. “It looks like a P.”
“You think so?” she said, indifferently.
When she returned the next day, she tested me. Motivated after eight months’ inactivity and with my mind rested, I’d memorized all the letters. She gave me a list of what she called “contractions,” a series of abbreviations standard to braille. “Otherwise braille books would be too big,” she said. It intrigued me that in braille “acr” would always be “across” and “td” today.
“Why doesn’t print use contractions?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be more efficient?” What else, I thought, would “td” mean but “today”?
“You’d think so,” she said, flatly.
Thinking about print pulled me back to the time I could see, which meant to England and my first months in America. Miss Friss’s lack of interest in anything outside her braille lesson told me to keep all that to myself.
In the wake of Miss Friss, a talking book player arrived in the mail. Dad plugged it in on my night table and I dove into novels and nonfiction, anything the Library for the Blind in Hartford sent. I no longer had to rely on the radio and TV game shows for distraction. I also got a braille watch, freeing me from radio chime time. Double dots marked the quarter hours and single dots the hours between. Because a watch had always been a cherished possession of mine, opening the face to read the dots felt sacrilegious. One more ingrained belief to get past.
Then came Mr. Virgil to teach “mobility and orientation,” the art of getting around. I’d never known anyone who talked so much. But amid a stream of reflections on bad drivers, the wonder of lightning and his days as orientation instructor at the Veterans Administration, he taught me the mechanics and passed along occasional nuggets of wisdom.
In our new home, I’d been stepping cautiously from chair to sideboard to wall to stairs. If I misjudged the distance and my hand encountered only air, I froze. The next step might have me walking into the edge of a door. Greater than pain was mortification at making a mistake. I recalled Eric, a blind patient in England, gracefully negotiating the ward, but also how the other patients had watched and praised him. When we had company at our Darien home, remembering the patients’ crude, though well-intentioned curiosity, I sat for hours, feigning interest rather than getting up to go and having a guest say, “He does that so well.” You only said that about someone who was blind.
Mr. Virgil showed me how to avoid bumping into doors and walls by walking with my arm held a foot in front of my chest. For going outside, he demonstrated how to walk with another person by taking their arm just above the elbow.
“Now Dad and I will be able to go out together,” I said.
When we’d gone to the shops one Saturday morning back in New Jersey, Dad had said, “This looks a bit funny.”
How else could I have gone out with him except by taking his hand? I couldn’t risk a fall, and he wouldn’t let me walk on my own. But after the hand-holding remark, we stopped going out together.
Mr. Virgil stayed on subject. “This way you can keep talking when you walk with someone. Just tell them to approach steps straight on. If they go at an angle, you could step off a curb without knowing it was coming.”
On his second visit he introduced me to the cane. The idea was to tap it in an arc from side to side, so that the tip was to my left when I stepped forward with my right foot, then to the right as I stepped forward with my left. I’d land on the spot my cane had just touched and found safe. How clever. But struggling for the rhythm got me tangled up and off-balance. We stood and practiced the arc in the middle of Pine Street, the dead-end, unpaved road on which we lived.
The next time, we turned onto the sidewalks of Noroton Avenue. It was a main street, and yet like the Skiptons’ neighborhood in New Jersey and so unlike the streets of English towns, it was empty of people. Residential Darien was a ghost town, another echo of the Wild West.
A psychologist administered an IQ test at the school board’s offices. “A trick cyclist,” Mum chortled, using England’s derogatory rhyming slang for “psychologist.” But for an examiner, he was friendly.
Midway through the test, he asked the distance between New York and Chicago. I caught his hesitation before he said, “That’s an unfair question.” He didn’t know about my fascination with the Rand McNally atlas Dad had brought home from America before our move.
“A thousand miles,” I said. Close enough, it turned out.
Eighth grade, the American school year for a fourteen-year-old, was near an end. I’d missed all but the first three weeks, back in England last September. It was decided I’d take eighth grade classes the remaining five weeks for my teachers and I to get acquainted. I’d start over in the fall. But I resolved to advance to ninth grade.
I began Middlesex Junior High School on the first Friday in May. The school said I’d need a weekend to recover. “Why?” I wanted to know.
“They think it’s best,” Mum said.
She steered the car into the school driveway and pulled to a stop. We stayed seated, talking about this and that. Getting out, I closed the door so carefully that it clicked.
She showed me to the guidance counselors’ offices and said she’d be back at 2:30.
Alone on the waiting area couch, I tried to visualize my surroundings. I’d just come through the entrance ahead and to my left. A funnel of noise suggested a corridor going off to the right. Around me there’d be doors, closed or partly open, maybe all the way open, though a buffered feeling told me they weren’t. There was a sea of voices in the lobby, but they gave me no information. How stupid to be cut off from faces and antics and the signs of who was friends with whom. Blindness was a curtain that I ought to be able to part. I just couldn’t find the string to pull.
I saw myself dashing across a meadow under a blue sky and high clouds with a river nearby. I’d been somewhere like that, hadn’t I?
“Hi. I’m Mr. Sobel.”
The man appeared from an office on my left. Shaking free of my reverie, I rose and shook his hand.
“No need to stand on ceremony,” he said, sitting down.
I’d been told Mr. Sobel was the head guidance counselor, another American job title that had that suspect connotation of “trick cyclist.”
He said, “Students have volunteered to show you to each of your classes and through the lunch line.”
His gravelly gentility reassured me, and he had none of the remoteness of English school officials. But a feeling that a mistake had been made kept stirring in my mind. I hadn’t left England, I hadn’t lost my vision. The sense of unreality that had settled on me my first weeks in America was back.
Mr. Sobel spoke past the unreality. “If you need me, ask someone to get me or to show you back here. Okay?”
“Yes,” I said. The honest answer would have been that I didn’t know how I was going to stand up again from this couch, never mind walk to my first class. I felt excruciatingly self-conscious about every movement.
“Let’s go,” he said.
* * *
I took his arm and we walked down the corridor that I’d correctly surmised led to the right. When we entered the classroom, the crowd hushed. Mr. Sobel said, “Anywhere you’d like to sit?”
I wanted to say, how would I know? I didn’t reply.
He said, “How about here, by the door?” I thanked him and lowered myself into the chair. Whispering, “Good luck,” though surely the whole room heard, he left.
The silence implied everyone was looking at me. Maybe over the shoulder, maybe sideways, but they were looking at someone who felt even stranger inside than he looked.
The silence broke and the students resumed their animated chatter. At the back of the room and figuring they weren’t looking any more, I determined I was sitting in a narrow desk chair before a small table. The teacher arrived, and the rabble changed into something resembling a class. They kept talking, inconceivable in an English classroom, but quietly enough for the teacher to be heard. As the hour went by, I listened eagerly to everything and took in nothing.
Then Mr. Sobel’s plan unfolded. A student named Margot came up to say she’d volunteered to escort me to my next class. I explained I’d take her arm, and we set off down the hall. As we walked, her lush, flowing hair swung against my hand, contact that made me aware how much I’d missed girls. She must be thinking how dependent I was on her, but I cast out that notion before it could immobilize me. After my second class, a guy took me to the third. A student helped me through the self-service lunch line, and others volunteered to read to me during free periods.
After a day of metal chairs, cramped desks, new people, strange accents, classes going quiet when I entered, ascending noise, teachers struggling for attention, I went home and lay down on the living room couch. Mum had more questions than I remembered her ever asking.
* * *
In the weeks to come, I learned it was true: Americans were phenomenally outgoing and generous. My disability, which in England and even New Jersey would have had me shunted aside in a school for the blind, instead became a rallying point. I was the school’s first blind student, apparently the first blind person anyone had met, and the entire school seemed united in a determination to make it work.
I was the first blind student I, too, had met, and I was at least as ignorant and confused as everyone else. My English sensibility didn’t help.
Almost everyone asked, often the first time they met me, “How did it happen?” I couldn’t imagine being asked such a question in England. For Darienites, I formulated a brief response: “Oh, a detached retina. A condition I was born with that got worse.”
“So it wasn’t an accident?”
With blindness unique to me at this school, it was personal. Like acne, I didn’t want anyone to bring it up. Like a diary, I didn’t want anyone peeking in. Miss Friss’s indifference to my past had chastened me, but now I actively wanted to suppress it because talking about the time I’d had sight inevitably led to how I’d lost it. It meant concealing almost everything: Nigel’s solemn rector, bike rides into the park in the valley below our old home, my English nurses, the sun glinting on Long Island Sound.
Instead, I drew out the students who approached me, partly out of sincere curiosity, but also to avoid talking about myself. I still imagined them going back to their friends and families and saying, “My problems are nothing compared to his.”
In truth, without visual signals, my difficulties were vexing. Gone was the invitation in a glance, the warning in a frown, the promise of a smile. My first awareness of someone would be their greeting me. “Hey, how’s it going?” I would answer, “Very well, thanks.” Very English, and therefore quaint, I was to realize. I had difficulty recognizing voices and so avoided saying names, even if pretty sure I knew who had spoken. Some people had the good sense to identify themselves. Otherwise, I waited for them to mention a subject, a teacher or something that had occurred yesterday, and then matched the information with my growing recognition of their voice.
Physical space presented all kinds of difficulties. I followed Mr. Sobel’s lead and sat near each classroom’s door, usually at the back but sometimes at the front, and never drew attention to myself by exploring a room’s shape and look. I told myself it didn’t matter. Yet if I could only confirm, say, that the door was a step and a half over there, I’d feel grounded. Confirmation needed only a short probe with my cane. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Uncertain about my distance from the teacher at the front of the class, denied signals from people’s expressions, encumbered with formality, I never volunteered and hated to be called on.
In most classes, “cool,” “you know” and “gross” littered student responses to questions, but teachers showed no sign of minding. The care with language insisted on in English schools rendered me still more quaint. Mr. Knox, who taught English, was the one teacher who made a point of correct speech, for which the students deemed him “elitist,” a new concept to me.
His voice and bearing suggested middle-age, but he had the energy of a young man. I had little difficulty following his instruction. Other teachers would write on the blackboard and point back to their chalk handiwork without explaining, and much of my concentration went into guessing what they’d written. Mr. Knox said aloud what he wrote on the blackboard.
“Okay,” he said one morning to the class, “when I say ‘sword’ when I mean ‘war,’ or ‘sweat’ for ‘hard work,’ or ‘the White House’ when I’m talking about the government, what figure of speech am I using?” He said my name, and I felt caught in a spotlight.
“Metonymy,” I said, unsure my voice had traveled even three inches.
“Good,” Mr. Knox said.
The idea of a small thing standing for something bigger, metonymy, had meant something to me as I’d studied the list of terms. A sword represented war the way a cane embodied blindness. That was why I hid my cane close to my side, exaggerating Mr. Virgil’s directions on how to carry it while walking with a companion.
Mr. Knox’s spotlight turned to someone else, and I realized my heart was racing. Karen, the student who escorted me from English to my next class, her voice smiling, said, “Do you realize you blush every time he calls on you?”