A crucial part of independence training for newly blinded people is mobility and orientation. In his unorthodox, roundabout way, my mobility teacher during high school, Mr. Virgil, not only taught his official subject, but also gave me some life lessons.
Theresa, mentioned in this excerpt from my Darien High School memoir, was the subject of an earlier episode that can be read here.
Every couple of weeks, Mr. Virgil drove down from his home near Hartford to give me mobility instruction. When we ventured out to Noroton Avenue on a spring or late summer afternoon, I’d feel shrunk to the texture of the pavement, the sultriness of tar-scented air, Mr. Virgil’s patient drone, his occasional warning touch on my wrist.
Noroton Avenue led directly from home to school, a distance of six-tenths of a mile. I could have walked it on my own. I’d fantasized about telling Mum I would do just that and that she needn’t drive me anymore. But I’d make mistakes, and there’d be so many people watching.
Horror at making a spectacle of myself wasn’t unfounded. Theresa’s mother and mine alternated between taking us to and from events. One evening after some meeting or other, Theresa and I were waiting on the sidewalk for my mother to appear when I heard some guy mutter, “What a pity,” and his woman companion shush him. It was obvious they were reacting to our white canes, a spontaneous expression of compassion that made me cringe. Neither Theresa nor I mentioned it afterwards, and I figured she hadn’t heard. It went with all the times a guy had said to me, “Well, I guess you can’t know that,” and a girl, gently, “It must be so hard.”
But yes, it could be difficult. It pained me that Noroton Avenue would never be as detailed for me as the streets of my childhood. I had verbal descriptions of the houses and yards, but I’d mostly forgotten even that much. They didn’t stick in my head the way sight imprinted images.
Then one afternoon, I toyed with the thought that my world was no longer confined to the fixed landscape of Noroton Avenue the way it was for sighted people. Ignoring Mr. Virgil, who blithely chatted away without need of any prompting from me, I let my imagination open wide and floated into the silent vista stretching out before me. Such a liberating sense of space, such boundless possibility.
Though self-conscious about the cane, I was becoming even more so about relying on others. In fact, I was using the cane more and more to get around school. I made few mistakes there, although going from one wing to another could be a challenge. The building’s cross-shape meant that between classes, everyone piled from four directions into a small intersection, pushing and shoving past each other to beat the bell.
Theresa’s casual example helped. Although a self-confessed indifferent cane user, she didn’t think the cane carried any stigma.
“Doesn’t bother me,” she said. It made sense. People mostly revealed their reactions to the cane visually rather than verbally, and blind since birth, she’d never seen people gape at the paraphernalia of disability. I knew I had to get past the memory of those troubled looks, but I wasn’t there yet.
Mr. Virgil always met me in the school library’s storage closet, which Administration had assigned to me so that my readers and I could work in peace and not disturb others. From time to time, a librarian came in to retrieve a book, usually without knocking, but otherwise it was my fiefdom. Sometimes Mr. Virgil got so lost in his monologues that we never left the closet to have me practice mobility techniques. Although acting as if wrapped up in his own head, he quietly nudged me in the direction of psychological independence, far harder for me than the physical skills he was paid to teach.
Formerly a trainer for veterans blinded in World War II, he told me about a waitress who had served clients of his in a restaurant. She asked them to keep an eye on the check while she went to get coffee to give them refills. When she returned, she saw an artificial eye staring up at her from the check. Twenty-five years later, Mr. Virgil shared my dismay for the waitress. Afterwards I wondered if he’d been trying to get me to make light of the embarrassments of blindness. But if I did, I thought people would feel even more sorry for me. Or else they’d laugh at my expense, which I wouldn’t like, either.
Before Theresa, I’d complained to him about how the girls at school saw me at most as a friend. He gave a small cough before saying, “Sighted women don’t become open to a relationship with a blind man until their late twenties.”
Mr. Virgil could have told me, “You’ll get there before you know it,” or some such bromide. Instead, he let my bleak echo go unanswered.
Any other guy would have found his assessment obvious. Why would any halfway attractive and intelligent girl commit herself to a boy who couldn’t see her and who wasn’t self-reliant?
Afterwards, at times when I felt depressed, I’d find Mr. Virgil’s words faintly comforting. They said I needn’t worry about appearance, gaucheness or the other torments of adolescence. For once, having blindness to blame was a consolation.
But those phases didn’t last. However irrational, however slim the odds, I’d refused to resign myself to such an interminable wait.
To read all my memoir excerpts to date, along with other recent posts, please go to the blog page of my website here.