Toward the end of eighth grade, when kids turn fourteen, a girl I’ll call Delia volunteered to visit my home one afternoon a week to read class assignments to me. I was new to America and to blindness. During our reading sessions, work gave way to conversation, and I fell in love. I thought we were becoming at least friends. Then the summer arrived, along with the end of term, and I never spoke to her again. But I hadn’t lost interest in her.
Our school, Middlesex Junior High in Darien, Connecticut, covered seventh through ninth grades, and we were both in the same year. Here are four paragraphs I’ve deleted from my memoir as not central to its themes, whatever they may be:
* * *
My reading arrangement with Delia had lasted my five weeks in eighth grade. In ninth grade, she never acknowledged me in the halls. I heard she’d taken to rolling up her skirts on her way to school. That told me she was seeking the kind of visual attention I couldn’t give her, much as I wished I could.
“Is it me?” I asked Brad, one of my new friends.
“If she doesn’t like you, it says more about her than you.”
Another of those questionable Darien clichés. Whatever it said about Delia, it still said a lot about me.
* * *
Brad’s answer to my plaintive question, “Is it me?” could have been, “Well, she clearly doesn’t find you attractive.” Or he might have addressed the elephant in the room: “She probably doesn’t want to get too involved with a blind guy.”
Instead, a true diplomat, he came up with a moral assessment: “If she doesn’t like you, it says more about her than you.” That is, or so I inferred, even if blindness did scare her, she ought to overcome her prejudice.
Such lines from my Darien friends were euphemisms meant to make me feel better about myself. What I chose not to recognize was that I encouraged this resort to euphemisms. Surely, I wouldn’t have asked, “Is it me?” if I’d anticipated a response such as: “Yes, you, Herman Munster!”
Because of hospitalization, I’d missed most of eighth grade, having spent just three weeks of the equivalent level as a sighted boy in England. Girls’ attitudes toward me during those first three weeks had been sharply different: a little mutual flirtation, occasional hostility, and lots of ho-hum. In Darien, there were no flirtations other than on my side, but also no apparent hostility. I can’t even say girls’ reactions were “Ho-hum” because I clearly intrigued them. Or rather, blindness did. The differences weren’t between nationalities, but between me with and without sight.
Many Darien students did their level best to embrace me, figuratively, between reading for me and gestures of friendship. The source of my inadequacy was nature. Nature, not my friends, limited me in what I could do. I could rarely go up to someone to initiate conversation. At the time, I could rarely get anywhere on my own. In Delia’s case, I couldn’t give her confirmation of her visual appeal. It wouldn’t have been enough to say, “I think you’re beautiful.” The response, open or implicit, would have been “If you can’t see, how can you say that?” at which point we would have plummeted into one of those euphemism-laden discourses on how beauty resides within, etc.
A disabled heterosexual teenage boy can hardly be unaffected by implicit disqualification from dating. He might withdraw out of a sense of futility—the saddest reaction. Or he might carry a load of anger, possibly targeted at girls. Not only would he damage his reputation, he’d also alienate the very people he hoped to win over. I had to find it in me to handle frustration with at least some grace.
At the same time, nondisabled teenagers go through their own turmoil. Adolescence may well be a time of self-involvement, but, paradoxically, it’s also when we become increasingly aware of other people and their needs. The two tracks, self-involvement and idealism, set up an emotional opposition that surely contributes to teenage agitation. Teenage girls might feel for disabled boys and show it in their actions, but even more, they want to succeed socially. I can imagine a blind teenage boy making a splash in a school theatrical event. But beyond the exception here and there, a boy’s romantic success has a lot to do with sight, whether as a football player, a fashion leader or simply as owning a car and the license to drive it. A teenage girl might wish she could feel more for a boy denied such advantages, but you can’t manufacture feelings, and inability to live up to ideals can be jarring.
You can’t write rules around such scenarios. As disabled and nondisabled teenagers, we had to live them and find our way, each on our own.
Euphemisms got me over a hump. Too much truth might have been unbearable. Worse than that, too much seeming truth can set limits. If I’d believed in limits, I wouldn’t have got far.
As junior high turned into high school, some of my tentative Darien friendships evolved into genuine friendships. I even experienced a little romance.