This 75-page compilation brings together excerpts I previously posted individually from the childhood sections of my unpublished memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh. The first excerpt goes back to when I was five or six. The next series relates my boarding school experiences, and after that, my involvement in England’s first integration of partially sighted students into a “normal” school. The last series covers my first year in the United States. Most names are changed.
- The Pit
Note: This incident occurred at a school in London whose grimy main building was so tall that even with my head tilted back, I couldn’t make out the details of the roof beyond some protrusions that I fancied were turrets. I was five or six.
In the playground, I found the children’s activities incomprehensible. They clustered together, talked and shouted, laughed and cried, urgent and suddenly indifferent, like volcanos bursting and just as abruptly subsiding.
The playground was ruled over by Maurice, the only West Indian boy in the school, and “the Gang,” which he led. When the mood came over him, he and the Gang would chase and taunt me. It was one of those brute facts of life.
One day the Gang gathered at the railing fence around “the pit.” Originally a loading bay, the pit was perhaps five feet deep and set against the school’s front wall. Even though there was nothing down there except concrete walls, it was enticing. This play time a railing had disappeared, leaving a gap wide enough for a boy to squeeze through. I ventured over, sensing the Gang wouldn’t torment me because the pit had their attention.
Somehow the decision was made to go in, one at a time. A boy jumped down, ran a circle and hoisted himself back up. A second followed while the rest of us stood around and shielded them from view. Another went down, then another.
“Boys!” came the dread voice of a lady supervisor from a door to the building. “Miss Reed wants to see you.”
Miss Reed, the headmistress, as old and grim as her building, was a shadowy figure lurking in the background. I’d never been in her office before. I stood alone on her right while the other boys faced me across her large room.
She said, “I happened to look down from the window and saw one of you go into the pit.” We hadn’t thought about detection from above. “As you know, it is a caning offense. I’m going to ask each of you if you broke the rule.”
She turned to me, and my name hung in the air.
Had I gone down? I couldn’t remember. Maybe I had, maybe not. Maybe I’d gone down only in my imagination. But didn’t that amount to the same thing? I’d only been waiting my turn.
“He didn’t,” Maurice said.
“Dismissed,” Miss Reed said to me.
I edged out of the room and slunk toward my teacher’s classroom at the far end of the empty playground. Why had Maurice, the bully, protected me? All I knew was he’d shown he was a better boy than me.
- Mr. Frasier
Notes: In 1964, we moved from London to Sheffield, where I joined the Partially Sighted (P.S.) Unit at a school called Bents Green. My teacher was a man I call Mr. Frasier, the most formative teacher in my childhood. His P.S. class consisted of a dozen students, our ages ranging between ten (me and one other) and sixteen. He taught geography, history and other subjects that we learned together, despite the gaps in our ages, and he explained everything from how post-war smokeless zoning laws had put an end to fog in Sheffield to how soap acted on water.
This brief excerpt describes how Mr. Frasier brought about my first tangible academic achievement, although the initial consequence was nothing short of disastrous.
After the Christmas break, Mr. Frasier urged me to prepare for the eleven-plus examination, the results of which determined whether an eleven-year-old went to university-bound grammar school or trade-bound secondary modern school. During winter play times, he sat at the next desk in the empty classroom and coached me. He went over problems, explained, tested my memory, prodded and corrected.
He gave me a weighty volume of general knowledge with a blue cross on the cover that I carried everywhere I went, in and out of school. I absorbed scientific formulae and the names of capital cities, grammatical rules and algebraic laws. In outpatient waiting rooms, Mum and I tested each other on gaggles of geese, schools of whales, coveys of quail and the collective nouns for other animals I hadn’t even heard of, never mind known what they were called collectively. I came to know the book with the blue cross as thoroughly as the statistics in that year’s cricket handbook.
I passed the exam. My reward was to be sent to a boarding school named Exhall Grange.
- Beyond the Gate
Notes: Exhall Grange, in Coventry, eighty miles from my Sheffield home, was established for children with academic prospects who had either physical or vision limitations, but who weren’t paralyzed or blind. The school still exists, but today it describes itself as “specialist.”
On arriving at the school, I was forced to change into clothes and shoes provided by the school and my own were put in storage. Each morning we foraged for shoes in the room where our housemaster, Mr. Rodney, kept them and hoped the pair we found fit. No child was supposed to be better off than any other, although with my then club feet, ill-fitting shoes left me worse off.
After dinner, mandatory evening recreation on the big field lasted two hours. As I walked around, staring out at children playing cricket and doing gymnastics, the shoes I’d picked out that morning dug into my feet. In lieu of my book and a radio, which we weren’t allowed to bring with us, I played back songs in my head. The anguished guitar work in the Beatles’ “No Reply” became the nerve endings of my knowledge that I had no way to make telephone calls.
A fat and greasy-looking boy introduced himself. “Where are you from?” he said.
He introduced himself as Pete. He lived in Lancaster, one of the three other boys’ houses besides mine, which was Canterbury. He said he was fourteen.
“I wish I could go out on weekends like you,” I said. “Where do you go?”
“The fish and chips shop, places like that.”
“How do you get there? We seem so far from anywhere.”
“You take a right out from the school to the main road. From there you can go all the way to the city center, but it’s a long way.”
“What do you expect? Shops, offices, flats.”
“A train station?”
I coaxed more directions out of him before he got suspicious. “Why do you want to know?”
“I like to know where I am. I’m interested in maps. I don’t have one of Coventry, so I’m trying to make one up in my head.”
“For what good it will do you.”
As we’d been walking, I’d noticed a gate at the far end of the field. That would be the school’s right end, the direction Pete had just told me to take for the main road.
The next evening, I happened on the gate when no one was nearby. Knowing it would be a rare opportunity, I opened the gate and ran. Pete’s directions proved correct, and soon I was on the road to the city center.
I walked through the gray evening, conscious of being an eleven-year-old out alone at a late hour. The road turned into a main street lined by shops. Each time I passed people, I expected to be stopped and questioned. Remembering Second World War resistance biographies, I told myself not to panic and run.
After a few hours, I worried I might reach the station too late to catch a train. I decided to risk taking a bus, even though I hadn’t so much as a penny to pay the fare. My only possessions were the clothes I was wearing, my watch and the Biggles paperback I’d smuggled out. (“Biggles” was the pilot adventurer hero in many novels that W.E. Johns wrote for young boys.) At the next stop, I waited for a bus displaying the city center as its destination.
From my seat on the half-full bus, I watched the woman conductor edge down the aisle and turn from side to side as she took fares from other passengers. At last she stood before me and asked where I was going.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any money.”
“How could you go out without any money?”
“I walked farther than I meant to.”
“That wasn’t a good idea.”
“You won’t do it again, will you?”
“I’ve learned my lesson.”
She smiled and moved on for the next fare.
Night was falling when I stepped off the bus. I looked around to find an area dominated by a large, well-lit building that had to be the station and crossed the street to it. Pushing through a door, I found myself in a huge hall. On one side was a line of what might be ticket windows, but no lines of people. There were people passing through the hall, but I couldn’t tell where they were going. Maybe it was an indoor shortcut between streets. I circled the hall. No trains, no platforms, not even a corridor leading to platforms. It was 10:30.
Along one wall was a bank of telephones. I dialed the operator and asked her to reverse the charges to my parents.
I was heartened to hear Dad’s ever curious greeting.
“Tiger, where are you? We’ve been worried.”
“Dad, I want to come home. I’m at the Coventry station, but I can’t see any platforms or trains. Are there two buildings? Maybe this one is for buying tickets, and there’s another for boarding trains?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been to Coventry by train. Tell me about your surroundings, what you see.”
I told him, and he drew out more details. I asked again if there could be two buildings. As we debated that possibility, I worried about leaving the warmth of the hall for the night outside. Where would I go? Would the next person I asked get suspicious?
Dad’s voice was soothing. Maybe Mum and he were beginning to understand that I was right to want to leave Exhall Grange.
I felt a touch on my shoulder. Turning, I found myself looking into steady, gray-blue eyes. Into the phone I said, “Mr. Rodney’s here.” In my ear, Dad explained that while we’d been talking, Mum had gone next door to call the school.
Later I discovered I’d left the Biggles paperback in the telephone booth. I’d had only ten pages to go. I looked for months in libraries, but never found another copy.
- Riding the Rails
The school assigned Pete, the fat boy, to watch me during evening recreation. Whenever I strayed near the gate, he stood there, grinning. “You wouldn’t be planning on doing it again, would you?”
One evening on the field, an older Canterbury boy with a shock of white hair introduced himself as Robert Moseby.
“Oh, you must be Mose,” I said. I’d heard his name mentioned. From the sly way other boys spoke about him, he was a figure of fun. I didn’t know why. He was fifteen and, like the other older Canterbury boys, lived downstairs.
“I admire what you did the other night,” he said, in an offhand way, not quite looking at me. “I’ve been wanting to get out of here for a long time.”
“So it’s not just me.”
When I asked where he came from, he said Maidstone, a town in Kent, southeast of London. He turned his gaze on me. “Have you thought about how you’d do it if you got a second chance?”
“You aren’t going to tell Rodney, are you?” Mr. Rodney was our housemaster.
“I might want to join you, if you didn’t mind.”
Was he lying? I didn’t think so. Though I’d thought about a plan, I couldn’t work out the details. It would help to discuss them with someone.
I said, “Well, I have thought about it.”
“Tell me. I might have some ideas.”
I hesitated one last time, and then committed myself. “I couldn’t do it during recreation again. They’ve got some boy shadowing me.”
“Pete. I waited till he got distracted before coming over. Even when he isn’t watching you, he’s got an eye on that gate you got through.”
“So it would have to be early in the morning, before anyone’s up.”
Mose put his hand under his chin. “That’s good. The front door isn’t locked from inside.”
“I’d wondered about that. Thanks.”
“How would you go from there?” This was one of the details I hadn’t worked out, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “You couldn’t take the road into Coventry because that’s where they’d be looking for you. There’s a railway crossing not far from here. If I were you, I’d go there and walk along the tracks to the next crossing. Then maybe you could get back onto the road and hitch a ride to a train station in a different town. They’d never think of that.”
“That’s clever, Mose.”
“I told you, you got me thinking. Now, what about money?”
Here was another detail. The school didn’t allow us to keep any cash. They maintained a ledger for the pocket money our parents sent us. On Saturday mornings we could buy “tuck,” the school word for candy, from Mr. Rodney, with the price applied against our ledger balance. Even the older boys were given money only when they went out on weekends.
I said, “When I went into Coventry, I talked my way out of paying the fare on a bus.”
“Using your wits. That’s what it takes.”
Another day I found myself alone in the dorm room with Dave, whose bed was opposite mine. He said, “Do you think you’ll try again? Escape, I mean.”
I turned “escape” over in my mind. It had the air of a World War II adventure, but there was nothing glamorous about what I’d done.
Aloud, I said, “Who knows.”
“I live in Rotherham,” he said. It was a town near Sheffield. “If there’s a next time, I’d like to go with you.”
Our roommate, John, sauntered in. “I hear two birds tweeting. What’s up?” He shuffled to his bed in the corner, next to Dave’s.
Dave said, “I was saying I’d like to join in if he, you know, takes off again.”
I was horrified. Dave had correctly inferred that I planned another escape, and now all Canterbury, if not the school, would know.
“Count me in, too,” John said.
I relaxed. A fellow conspirator would surely keep silent.
So now there were four. Mose had confirmed his interest. We never met as a group, and I did all the communicating.
I was doubtful about John’s following through. He liked to act grown-up, which made it unlikely he’d break the rules when the moment came. Besides, he lived in the south, the opposite direction from Sheffield and Rotherham. I could see Dave taking risks. But I felt most confident about Mose, even though he also lived south. He’d been the one who helped formulate the plan.
As it turned out, I was right about John. He dropped out the day before the attempt. His excuses were lame, but no more so than his reasons for joining.
At five on Monday morning, having kept myself awake all night, I got up, dressed and crossed the room. “Dave,” I whispered.
“Are you still on?”
“Look, I’ve been thinking. I’d like to join you, but there are some —”
“I understand,” I said. I couldn’t afford to wait for him to finish rationalizing.
“Good luck,” he whispered.
Had the other boys heard? Would John decide to play hero and denounce the scheme?
I walked in stockinged feet to the landing and down the stairs. The picture window ahead of me was filled with bright yellow streaks of sunrise. It was the first dawn I’d seen except in photographs and on black-and-white television.
Mose emerged from a shadow when I reached the ground floor, and we went straight to the shoe room. The pair I picked out was too small, but with no time to dawdle, I forced them on. We hurried across the recreation field to the gate where Pete had reveled in barring my way during evening recreation.
Mose led the way to the railway crossing, where I followed him onto the tracks. We stepped with exaggerated strides from tie to tie for a mile or two or more of rural railway. Everywhere around us was still, except for the dawn unfolding, and the air was fresh and clear. I crimped my toes inside my shoes, and my long paces got easier as I fell into a rhythm, so different from a train’s clackety-clack. No trains came.
Just short of the next crossing, a man yelled out from a signal box. We ran off down a road, which suited Mose’s plan just fine. We were headed for Nuneaton, a town I’d never heard of before, and we hitched a ride with a man who was in no more of a mood to talk than we.
Pacing up and down the empty street in front of the Nuneaton Station, we debated. We had to buy train tickets even to gain admission to the platform. Later we’d need to present the tickets to inspectors on the train and again to yet more inspectors when we arrived at our destination. With no money to buy them, that was three obstacles to overcome. But we could solve only one problem at a time, and right now that was how to get onto the Nuneaton platform.
Mose suggested we go out of view of the station, work our way back along the tracks and climb onto the platform.
“But what if a train comes in at that moment?” I said.
“Okay, we’ll have to brazen our way past the ticket office. I’ll come up with a story.”
Entering the station, we found ourselves in a narrow corridor. It had all the makings of a trap, but turning back would have looked suspicious to anyone watching. After the corridor took a left turn, the ticket office loomed ahead of us. No one was on duty. The open-air platform was also empty. We hadn’t needed to make up a story after all.
Mose planned on going with me to Sheffield, though far out of his way, then turning around at the station for London and onto his sister’s place in Maidstone. I studied the timetable posted on the wall.
“I don’t see any train to Sheffield,” I said. “Do you?”
Mose’s pink eyes gazed at the poster. “Hmm.”
I pointed to the line for the next train. “How about Rugby?”
He turned to me in delight. “We can go anywhere from Rugby. What time did you say it arrives?”
It had never occurred to me that Mose couldn’t read. How strange for someone in a school for the brightest handicapped children. Or perhaps he couldn’t see the timetable. I hadn’t thought his vision was that bad, but I’d had no way of knowing.
Our train arrived in less than half an hour. On board, I worried about ticket inspectors, but no one, official or otherwise, spoke to us.
Once again a timetable on a wall at the Rugby Station posted no trains to Sheffield. I read other destinations aloud, and we tried to guess which would lead us to a line that did stop in Sheffield. Unlike the tiny, open-air station at Nuneaton, this one was a huge, enclosed building with several platforms. As we talked through our options, we walked around, hoping to appear something between purposeful and leisurely to avoid attracting the interest of the railway police.
At another part of the station we passed a notice board with a different timetable, and I discovered it was for a second station in Rugby. It listed a 4:30 p.m. train to Sheffield.
The change of stations meant passing through the ticket barrier, where inspectors were waiting. We concocted a story that we’d come to say goodbye to a relative and, building on our experience at Nuneaton, that to our surprise we’d found no one on duty at the barrier.
“I’ll go first,” Mose said.
“We should do it together. They’ll wonder when they see me waiting to follow.”
“No. We might both get caught.”
I was frightened enough to be persuaded. As he went alone to the ticket barrier, I pretended to study a timetable. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him talking to an official. Under his shock of white hair, he looked at ease. Then he waved me over, and we passed through the barrier together.
It was mid-morning as we entered the streets of Rugby.
“We shouldn’t go there right away,” I said. “Someone will notice if we’re waiting around for hours.”
“I want to make sure we know where it is,” Mose said, for once insistent.
We made it there easily, thanks to the directions we got from incurious passersby. I figured they viewed the pair of us as a grown boy escorting a youngster to an appointment.
It was a tiny, sleepy station in a setting of grass banks. We got on the platform by telling the ticket collector we were trainspotters. As it happened, only long and tedious freight trains came through.
Two or three hours later there must have been a change of ticket collectors because a man shouted at us. We dashed onto the tracks and ran to the nearby road, which we strolled up and down to pass the time and shake off nerves.
“We’re never going to get past this bloke,” Mose said.
“So what do you suggest, young man?”
“We have no choice but to do what you said at Nuneaton.”
Five minutes before the train was due, we ran back along the tracks and clambered onto the platform. No one shouted at us, and the train came on time.
It was a more imposing train than the one we’d taken earlier, with compartments and a corridor. No compartment was empty, so we chose one occupied by a man buried in a newspaper. He looked up at our arrival and offered a few pleasantries before returning to his paper.
On the alert, Mose saw the ticket inspector entering the carriage. As soon as he went inside the first compartment, we fled to the Gents, even though the man with the newspaper was bound to tell the inspector about us and the toilet was an obvious hiding place. Afraid to risk making a sound by moving and breathing shallowly against the fetid air, we stood in the cramped space and waited. No one knocked.
Mose whispered, “We can’t stay here. Someone’s going to want to use it.”
I opened the door and stepped out. No sign of the inspector. This time we found an empty compartment, which freed us to finalize our plan.
“Do you know your way home from the station?” Mose said.
“Yes. But really, Mose, we haven’t eaten since last night. You must come home with me. Mum will make dinner for us and then bring you back to the station.”
“Of course. Mum would never let anyone go hungry.”
I even had a notion that my parents would give him money for a ticket. In my single-minded state, I believed what I was saying.
The train reached Sheffield’s Midland Station and once again we looked across at a row of ticket inspectors. At a busy station late in rush-hour, we wouldn’t get away with pretending we’d gone on the platform when no one was on duty.
“I’ll go talk to them,” Mose said.
“No,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about how we got past the inspectors at Rugby. You did a fantastic job, but I have a feeling they took pity on us.”
“I don’t want you to get in trouble if something goes wrong.”
“You’re being really great, Mose, but I bet they’ve already seen us. I think we have to go through together. I’ll do my best.”
We approached the barrier and the intimidating inspectors’ uniforms and got on line.
“Tickets?” said the woman inspector at the head of our line.
“We came to see someone off,” Mose said.
“But you had to buy a ticket for platform admission.” She was pleasant but firm.
I spoke up. “We didn’t realize that. An inspector let us through. Maybe he was being nice to us.”
The inspector looked from one to the other of us. “All right,” she said. “But next time remember.”
Then we were strolling in the still bright evening on the crescent road in front of the Midland Station. I knew exactly where to catch the bus.
“Don’t run,” Mose said, out of the side of his mouth.
“I’m trying not to.”
“Excuse me,” a woman shouted behind us.
Mose said softly, “Don’t turn around.”
The yell came again, closer this time. We kept walking, but I was picking up my pace and Mose was keeping up with me. Did our lack of curiosity itself proclaim our guilt?
The woman proved to be the ticket inspector. She caught up and planted herself before us. “Look, I’ve thought it over. I’m sure I didn’t see you on my rounds.”
“Maybe we were in the toilets,” I said.
“I must ask you to come back with me.”
Questioned on my own by two policemen in a back office, I envisioned a jail cell waiting for me deep under the Midland Station and told the truth. They asked how we’d made it to each of our destinations and through ticket barriers. They were sternly skeptical, and I felt bad for the ticket collectors and inspectors we’d encountered and, at Nuneaton, not encountered.
I was relieved when the police said they’d call my parents to drive us home. Mum did give Mose dinner, but in the morning a man came to drive him back to Exhall Grange. I was allowed to stay home for two more days.
My memoir goes on to detail the strangely vindictive ways the school’s teachers and administrators treated me after this episode. However, the school’s headmaster was different, and his kindness helped me tolerate my remaining months there. What follows was my first encounter with him. My parents had just driven me back to the school:
It was late when Mum and Dad left. I ate a meal by myself in the Canterbury dining hall. As I finished, the headmaster, Mr. Marshall, came in and sat across from me. We were alone in the large room. I braced myself.
He said, “I know it’s difficult, away from home, new routines, new people. It’s hard to adjust.”
I looked at him in surprise. If anyone should be angry, it was him. He’d founded Exhall Grange, or at any rate I’d been told it was his idea.
He had a brown moustache that made him seem old despite his youthful cheeks and piercing eyes. I’d always found a moustache disturbing. It occurred to me that I could get used to it on him.
“I’d like the school to work out for you,” he said. “Do you think you can give it a chance?”
“Tomorrow’s a new day.” He stood, squeezed my shoulder and strode to the exit.
While walking past Canterbury one afternoon several weeks later, I noticed an open door that had always been closed. I glanced inside to see a familiar shock of white hair.
“Hello, Mose,” I said, quietly.
He looked up from his task, mopping the floor, and smiled. “How goes it?”
“I’m managing. How about you?”
I hoped it wasn’t a cruel question. The school was making him do chores as punishment and denying him the privileges of his age, such as going out on weekends.
“Great,” he said, his smile changing from welcoming to forced.
We said nothing else. He’d been forbidden to speak to me, and I didn’t want to get him into more trouble. It already felt unfair that I wasn’t being punished like him, not officially.
Since our day together I’d heard he had a history of shoplifting and truancy. They also said he came from a broken home. But I remembered he’d planned on going to Maidstone because his sister lived there, and he’d spoken as gently about her as he’d treated me.
I raised my hand in a half wave of goodbye, but he’d turned away.
Note: I call Mr. Marshall, Exhall Grange’s headmaster, by his real name because he was the one adult there who didn’t take my unhappiness personally. The Wikipedia entry about him is informative. It seems he was the first to act on the recognition that partially sighted and physically handicapped children could handle a relatively demanding school.
- The Walking Race
The school’s four boys’ houses were to compete against each other at the annual sports day, for which Mr. Rodney entered me as Canterbury’s representative in the P.H. walking race.
The year before, at Bents Green, my previous school for partially sighted children who were not physically handicapped, I’d been entered in the one hundred yard dash on sports day. The moment the whistle blew, I’d found myself looking at the backs of my competitors. Pushing my legs and rotating my arms like feeble pistons, I thought of the machines Dad had explained to me at the Kensington Science Museum. Parents cheered along the edge of the track, their enthusiasm rising as the leaders ran toward them, then subsiding to a conversational hum after they’d passed by. That was when I appeared, glad to feel unnoticed. Railing against the refusal of my limbs to cooperate with my will, I wondered why I’d been made to participate. The old saying, “It’s the effort that counts,” came to mind like a poor joke. I picked out Mum’s happy face in the crowd. What was there to smile about? But as I lumbered across the finish line, I bathed in her welcome.
In preparation for the Exhall Grange walking race, a ruggedly handsome fourteen-year-old housemate named Ted agreed to coach me. He had me practice nightly on the oval quarter-mile track where the event was to take place.
“Don’t run,” he admonished. It seemed that when I walked fast, it looked like running. “Keep your legs straight.” He also exhorted, “Don’t burn yourself out early. Start slow.”
The idea of a walking race sounded silly to me, but Ted took it seriously. I was the only Canterbury entrant, and he went on furtive expeditions to spy on the competition and returned with detailed reports. “Yes,” he said, after one such mission, “I do believe you have a chance.”
Sports day arrived, then the walking race, and we competitors met for the first time at the starting line. I was hoping for the inside lane, but was assigned a place four or five spots farther out. I acted as if loitering around, but stayed right at my spot.
At last the official came to our side. “Get ready.”
Ted had emphasized the importance of starting precisely when the whistle blew, not a moment before, not a moment after. Eagerness pushing against willed restraint, I felt as though I’d fall flat on my face.
The whistle blew. I strode forward, checked to my left, saw the walkers on that side had already fallen behind, and angled for the inside lane. I made it at the first turn. Though recalling Ted’s warning about burnout, I felt too strong to slow down. At the next turn, I looked back and saw I was already far ahead.
Halfway around the circuit, away from the spectators, a boy from Lancaster House ran up and yelled, “You’re disqualified! You’re disqualified!”
I stopped and asked, “Why?”
How could it be? With Ted’s warnings in mind, I’d kept my legs as rigid as possible.
I decided to finish anyway. Legs straighter than ever, I marched around the last two turns and down the home stretch. From the buzzing crowd I made out Ted cheering me on. Perhaps I hadn’t been disqualified after all. I picked up speed. When I crossed the finish line, I’d set the school record for the event: two minutes and nineteen seconds, which I later worked out was just over six miles an hour.
Ted came over to congratulate me. Between deep breaths, I said, “A boy from Lancaster said I was disqualified.”
“I wondered why you stopped out there. He was trying to con you.”
But my euphoria soon evaporated. My so-called competitors had lost only because they had more difficulty walking. Six miles an hour hardly justified my classification as physically handicapped, and yet Bents Green had demonstrated I couldn’t compete against “normal” boys. All my victory showed was that I didn’t belong in either camp.
- The Unhurried River
The portly Scotsman who had stopped me from taking a book to recreation supervised Canterbury several evenings a week. His jocularity drew boys to his big armchair in the lounge, which I had to pass through between the recreation field and the stairs to my dorm room. Each time I appeared, he inquired, “Are you planning an escape today?” and his fan club snickered.
The children understood I was fair game. When I lined up for meals, shoes, morning services or Saturday morning tuck, one boy or another would sidle up and ask, “Is there someone in front of you?” then push me back, saying, “There is now.” Other boys and girls put their faces in mine and sneered, “Are you the one who escaped?” in a tone befitting, “Are you the murderer?”
* * *
I had a new plan. I’d get such bad marks that Exhall Grange would have to expel me. Instead of writing compositions or multiplying numbers, I drew pictures and scribbled nonsense on scraps of paper that I crumpled up and deposited inside my desk. I purposely daydreamed to prevent myself from listening to Mrs. Pennington, our teacher, as she lectured to us.
The day before the midterm break, the school administered its own eleven-plus. When Mrs. Pennington told us to start, I sat at my back desk and stared at the first page of questions. One way to fail the exam would be to fill in the wrong answer every time I knew the right one. But I hated to be wrong, even for a good cause. Another was to keep staring, but Mrs. Pennington was bound to notice.
Then I thought of the scraps of scribble I’d buried inside my desk and set about drawing decorations next to the questions. When the other children turned pages, I turned mine.
At last Mrs. Pennington, who had been busily writing, looked up and announced that time was up and instructed us to bring the papers to her desk. I joined the crowd and placed mine under someone else’s so she wouldn’t see what I’d done before I left the room.
* * *
Dad and I drove through the summer evening. We stopped at a bridge and got out to gaze at an unhurried river, its surface glistening in the waning light. Leaning on the stone wall and directing my voice to the river, I talked about the Scottish teacher’s taunts, the ill-fitting shoes, the empty hours on the recreation field. I didn’t mention how I’d arranged to fail the school’s eleven-plus. Dad asked questions that showed he was taking in what I said. I stole a glance at him and saw concern in his expression.
On Tuesday, when I was expected back at Exhall Grange, Dad and I drove, instead, to my old school, Bents Green. He left me in the car for a conference about my fate while I studied the main building’s unkempt, ivy-tufted wall.
Later in the week Mum and Dad attended a second conference at Sheffield’s Education Office while I sat in the waiting room. Because the walls didn’t meet the ceiling, I overheard one of the two woman administrators say, “We have decided that it would be in everyone’s best interests for your son to return to Mr. Frasier’s class in September.” It happened that Mr. Frasier and the older P.S. children were moving to a regular school. “Sheffield is going to conduct the country’s first experiment in the integration of partially sighted children,” she said.
“However,” the other administrator said, “your son must finish out the term at Exhall Grange.”
I sent telepathic messages to my parents to demand I be released from Exhall Grange immediately. What was the point of my going back? But telepathy was science fiction.
* * *
Mrs. Pennington stood in front of the class and jeered at me in the back. She’d seen my eleven-plus artwork and discovered the crumpled scraps of scribble in my desk. I didn’t deserve the honor of inclusion in such a fine school. I hadn’t given it a chance. The accusations came like a swarm of wasps, humming, appraising, darting in for the sting. All the while I was aware of fifteen other children listening. In vain I searched for a daydream to escape into.
With an end to Exhall Grange in view, I was ready to learn again, but her anger didn’t relent. One day I got stuck on a long division problem and stepped forward to her desk to ask my question.
She looked up. “No wonder you couldn’t pass the eleven-plus.”
She had to know I’d passed it back in Sheffield, but unfairness was an Exhall Grange punishment. Summoning the passivity Exhall Grange had taught me, I retreated without a word.
Another afternoon of silent study, she summoned me forward. For an exercise in English, I’d written a poem about Sheffield’s parks.
“What parks?” she said, staring up from her chair as I stood before her. Her voice, though pitched low, resonated around the room.
“Sheffield has lots of parks. There’s one at the bottom of the hill where I live.” I was glad my voice sounded even.
“I’ve visited Sheffield,” she said, “and it’s all industry and smog.”
“When was that?”
“Just before the war.”
“Oh, but it’s all changed now. During the war Sheffield got bombed just like Coventry. It was all rebuilt. Then they passed smokeless zone laws, and it was cleaned up. There’s still a lot of industry, but no one I know lives in those parts.”
“We’re talking about two different places,” she said, and waved me away.
* * *
With a boarding school’s lack of division between classroom and dorm, there was no avoiding my outcast status, night or day.
One Saturday morning I was wide awake with an hour to go before we were allowed to get up. So was Joe, a boy with a silly smile and unruly hair in the next bed. He’d been the only roommate to show any signs of warmth after my “escape.” To pass the time, we drummed out rhythms on our metal bedsteads.
“Recognize that song?” I whispered.
He listened before saying, “Uh-uh.”
“You try,” I said.
“I don’t do songs,” he said, resuming a complicated rhythm.
The door opened and Joe stopped. The blonde housemother appeared. “Who’s making that racket?”
Joe said, “Him,” and pointed. His voice oozed indignation.
She stepped forward to glare at me, then smacked me on the temple. She stalked out, her rigid back conveying just as much fury as her face had.
* * *
It was the morning of the end-of-term awards assembly. Although I’d earned a certificate for swimming twenty yards, I worried the school would snub me and send it through the post. Or else they’d inflict one last public humiliation, the biggest one of all: not in a classroom or my dorm, but in front of the entire school.
As the other children filed into the assembly hall, I wandered around the grounds. This time three months before, I’d been on the train from Nuneaton to Rugby. Now I absorbed the too-perfect arrangement of buildings and plant life. Dew weighed on leaves and soaked window sills. I recalled Dad’s admiration of the school’s tractor mower. To me, the impeccable grounds were the pretty veneer with which the school won over parents. They said, how could any child be unhappy in such a place?
When I finally entered the assembly hall, Mr. Marshall was issuing certificates. I found a seat and braced myself for the worst. He called out my name, and I walked forward to the podium. Handing me a thick sheet of paper, he said, so softly that no one else could have heard, “Good luck in your future endeavors.”
The words and his expression were formal, but his tone sincere. Exhall Grange’s teachers had taken my unhappiness personally. Only he seemed to know better. I glanced one last time up at that face and moustache. He reached to the side for the next winner’s certificate, and I turned to walk back, head bowed to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze.
* * *
Then it was my last Saturday night. Term ended the following Friday. Saturday was when Canterbury’s older boys went out to buy fish and chips for the entire house. I sat by myself and devoured my favorite meal of the week. Pausing at my table on his tour of the dining hall, Mr. Rodney observed my appetite and remarked, “If only your parents could see you now.” He walked on.
I stared at the spot where he’d stopped. If my parents could see me now, I mouthed, they’d see I was alone.
On the report card that was to arrive in the post at home, Mr. Rodney commented:
He has been quite happy socially, and has been interested in all House activities, being one of the first to demonstrate his ability in any field with evident enjoyment. He eats and sleeps well.
Happy? Enjoyment? Sleeps well?
My efforts in class after the Whit break hadn’t placated Mrs. Pennington. On the report card, she saw fit to blame Mum and Dad:
Since he has only been in this class since May, and has been given to understand by his parents that he will not be returning in September, he has made no attempt to work. It is therefore impossible to give a report on his progress.
Notes: The summer after my term at Exhall Grange, I returned to school in Sheffield. However, at that very moment, the partially sighted (P.S.) unit for older children at Bents Green moved to a school for “normal” children named Brook. It was England’s first attempt to integrate partially sighted children into a regular school.
Brook was for children who hadn’t passed the eleven-plus exam, but as I was to learn, it hardly meant they were failures. On the contrary.
The school maintained the hierarchy based on those same eleven-plus results, with 1A1 being the top class in the first year. Several of us P.S. students were assigned to regular classes, depending on age and academic aptitude. Mr. Frasier, who went with the P.S. unit to Brook, continued to teach those who were deemed less likely to prosper in a regular classroom. But we all had him for homeroom.
Since all we P.S. students lived far from the school, the city paid for taxis to pick us up one by one at our homes and drive us there, as well as back home. For me, it was a forty-minute ride.
This post is an abridged account of my first two years at the school.
I opened the door partway to Class 1A1 and peeked inside at an array of navy blue boys’ blazers and royal blue girls’ jerseys, three dozen eleven-year-olds sitting in silence at desks for two. This was my first day at the school called Brook Secondary Modern. It was also theirs, but they had all come from one of two junior schools and so had friends here.
Pushing the door all the way open, I stepped inside. The gray-haired teacher walked over from his desk by the windows and introduced himself as Mr. Berry. I assumed he’d already explained to the class that I was partially sighted and that I was joining Class 1A1 as an experiment. Although my homeroom would be with Mr. Frasier, the rest of each day I’d be with this class.
“I suggest you sit here,” he said, pointing to the two empty chairs at the double desk in the middle of the front row. “You should be able to see the blackboard, I think.” He returned to his desk.
I pulled out a chair and opened a fresh exercise book. I heard “Hello” whispered from behind and turned to see a wiry boy with curly black hair. “Hello,” he repeated, leaning forward, “I’m Keith.” Then his face assumed a mask and he sat back. Mr. Berry was ready to start the lesson.
Producing the fountain pen my parents had given me, I was glad I’d thought to load it ahead of time. Splashing ink while filling the pen from my desk’s inkwell would have been a catastrophe in the silence wrapped around Mr. Berry’s meandering lecture.
“I never got over that election,” he said. “Here was Mr. Churchill, who had steered this country through a terrible war, who had won a great victory, and what did the voters do? Threw him out.”
That had been the election of 1945, all of twenty years ago. He was still upset about that? Yet I, too, was obsessed with the World War II era.
He drifted back to the subject of composition, which I had to admit was less interesting.
A few days later, I asked Keith, the boy who sat behind me, to tell me about our other classmates in 1A1. We were standing in the playground, gazing across asphalt toward a grass field and another of Sheffield’s valleys.
“Everyone knows Christie is the brightest,” he said. “She comes in first on every test.”
I wasn’t surprised. Sitting in the middle of the back row, fair-haired Christie was eager to answer teachers’ questions, which she did in a strong voice.
“How about Paula?” I said. Dark-haired, she shared the desk with Christie and was as quiet as Christie was outgoing.
“She’s really nice is our Paula, but she only talks to Christie. Now then, the funniest fellow is Nigel. Do you know who he is? He sits near the back by the windows.”
The one course in which Christie didn’t sit at the back was science, where she was assigned a place at the front bench next to me.
“What does your dad do?” she said one day before class started.
“He’s an accountant.”
I didn’t like her tone, but said, “What about yours?”
“An engineer.” She spoke in an offhand way, as if the gulf between our two fathers was too great to mention them in the same breath.
Shedding the passivity I’d taught myself at Exhall Grange, I said, “My dad’s a manager at two industrial plants.”
“My dad builds plants. He probably built those, too.”
Science class was horrible even without this senseless competitiveness and even beyond the room’s sulfuric and metallic smells. Our humorless teacher, Mrs. Rattle, relied on the blackboard. Although the front bench was farther away from the blackboard than where I sat in my other classes, I was confident I could follow her lessons, between what she said and what I could make out of her chalk writing. But before each lecture, she summoned me to her table to be close to the board. Each time I held back at my place and she stared. The class fell silent, perhaps in embarrassment for me or perhaps simply because our routine confrontation signaled the start of a lecture.
I picked up my exercise book and pen and trudged forward. Mrs. Rattle placed a chair for me next to hers. It meant facing the class, though I looked down to avoid seeing them and pretend they weren’t seeing me. To copy what she wrote on the blackboard, I had to turn back and forth in my seat. Even if I could see the board more clearly, it was harder to take notes. Sitting with the other children, I would have had a better chance of absorbing what Mrs. Rattle taught. Sitting here, I took in nothing.
Partial sight wasn’t the only reason I stood out at Brook. I walked with my feet turned inward, despite several operations, night-time braces and my off-and-on conscious efforts to walk “straight.” One afternoon Mr. Berry took us to the other end of the school to a room with a piano to demonstrate a piece he’d mentioned in a lesson. When he was done, he told us to return to his classroom. He stayed behind to talk to the religion teacher, and he hadn’t caught up with us by the time we got back. We sat at our desks, chatted and waited.
At last he strode in. “I thought I’d lost you. Then I saw a group from the back at this end of the hall and recognized him,” he said, pointing at me, “by the way he walks.”
The school term drifted into winter. Days grew short, the taxi drove both ways through the dark, the fluorescent lighting in the classrooms felt suffocating, and damp, gray mist obscured the windows. But Exhall Grange was behind me. Nothing else mattered.
On a day when a cold rain kept us milling around Stairwell A, Nigel, the class comedian, introduced himself. Even his appearance was comical. He had a big face, wide mouth and dark hair that fell down from a center part.
Over several play times, phrases such as “dead body” and “tarantula” somehow crept into our conversation. We worked them into the tune of a popular song:
Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside
Where I can jump off the pier
And land into a pile of tarantulas
And become a dead body.
One day Nigel announced, “I’ll sit next to you.” I hadn’t even had to ask. Now I would no longer sit alone in my double desk at the front of the classroom.
Nigel had a trick of saying something funny while looking at me with an amazed smirk, then running his spread hand from forehead to chin to reveal the picture of a solemn rector. He pulled a solemn rector one day when Mr. Berry was going on about morality. By way of illustration, Mr. Berry said, “And no one would find the idea of a dog with a firework on its tail funny.”
Nigel turned to me with a look that lied, “Not I.” Caught off-guard, I giggled.
Mr. Berry kept his stare on the silent class as he added, “Well, some might.”
Nigel and I tried to redress a historical omission by inventing a new county. Knowing that the county names Essex, Sussex, Middlesex and mythical Wessex meant East Saxons, South Saxons, and so on, we felt history and geography had overlooked the North Saxons. Hence “Nossex.”
Nossex appeared in the addresses of letters we wrote for an exercise in Mr. Berry’s English class. The next morning, while I was downstairs in Mr. Frasier’s homeroom, Mr. Berry stood before the class and scribbled wildly all over the page in Nigel’s exercise book, then tore the page right out of mine. By the time I came upstairs, the explosion was over, but not the nervous silence. Nigel had to wait until after class to explain.
“I suppose he thinks Nossex is short for no sex,” I said.
Nigel put on an expression that said, “How could that be?” It had been in his mind all along.
At the end of the school year, I placed ninth out of 140 first year students, our ranking based on the results of our final exams. On my report card, Mr. Berry wrote, “Has settled down in the class well,” just what the teachers at Exhall Grange wished they could have said.
Mrs. Rattle wrote: “He should look to his science and not be afraid to say when he cannot see the blackboard or the demonstration bench. This is the reason for his low science mark.” She gave me a C.
September had come around again and we were Class 2A1. While our first year science teacher had singled me out for humiliation, our next, Mr. Hoskins, humiliated us all. Despite a boyish grin and neat, fair hair suggesting a pleasant personality, he was sarcastic, even sadistic. He was also funny. When ready to start a lecture but a girl was slow to reach her seat, he barked, “Get thy carcass on that bench right now.” Recognizing that his lapse into broad Yorkshire portended anger, I hid my involuntary smile behind my hand.
My turn came the day he introduced us to ammonia. He liked to stand at the room’s front pair of tables, which meant I sat virtually beneath him. At the beginning of a lecture, he handed me a jar and said, “Take a sniff and pass it around.”
I didn’t just sniff; I inhaled. Tears filled my eyes and I choked. He beamed. Even through the blur, I saw it was funny.
By second year, Nigel’s and my routines had become infectious. Keith would greet me, “Morning, Dead Body,” and even Christie grinned when overhearing us go on about tarantulas and worms.
Nigel and I resumed setting our compositions in Nossex for our new English teacher, a young and earnest Miss Pelham. She played a piece of music to the class and instructed us to write something in response. However, Nigel and I had just dreamed up worms’ sports day in Nossextown, and a detailed account was what came tumbling out into my exercise book.
Once a year (a day to us humans) worms have their international athletics meeting at the Matchstick Arena. Always something goes wrong.
Well, it was a sunny day at the arena. All the worms and slugs were sitting with their dark specs covering the top half of their faces. They were wearing casual shirts (men) and blouses (feminine worms).
The first event was the worms’ 100 yard sprint. The starter, a semi-invalid old worm, fired the pistol and killed all the worms. He had misjudged his height, so he was fired, and the race abandoned.
In the worms’ 440 yards, all the entrants died of exhaustion before they reached the half way mark.
Then the loonie worm came. His name was Rastus Windybottom.
Sand was supposed to be at the end of the long jump, but it wasn’t (Windybottom the Guilty). All the worms and slugs jumped. Nobody noticed them fall until the last worm. But it was too late. Quicksand!
The one competitor for the discuss [sic] hung on to it for too long… it had chewing gum on it, and the worm took off with it. He was squashed.
The javelin thrower (only one) had his implement the wrong way round, and he stabbed himself.
All the other events were abandoned.
I accompanied the composition with a pencil sketch entitled “A Worm in Natural State” that showed a long worm with arms and legs and wearing a little bow tie, shirt and trousers.
Even as I placed my exercise book on the pile on Miss Pelham’s desk, I was horrified to think how disgusted she was bound to be.
The next class, she returned my exercise book with the comment: “Has this any connection with the music, or was it written largely for your own entertainment? If the former, I’ll give you a mark.” She did: B.
After a rain shower, I’d stand with a group of boys in the playground, and we’d chat around the edge of a puddle. The urge would come upon one or the other of us to kick water at the boy talking. The victim responded in kind and the rest briefly joined in, then conversation resumed. I thought we made a funny sight, talking civilly in our formal uniforms and bursting out in fits of lunacy.
Passing me in the hall, the deputy headmaster let me know he took a different view. “I never thought I’d see you splashing in the puddles.” He walked on without waiting for a reply. Between my antics with Nigel and the silly compositions I persisted in writing, I’d have thought kicking puddle water was exactly what he’d expect of me. But I never did it again.
Meanwhile Nigel and I had gone too far with our French teacher, Mrs. Baraniecki. A cheerful, statuesque blond who presided over Stairwell D, she was married to a Polish ex-fighter pilot, and I liked the incongruity between the spelling of her name and its pronunciation, “Baranesky.” She had one very shapely leg and the other very straight, for which Nigel and I nicknamed her “Log Leg.”
We must have tried her patience once too often. Halfway through a lesson she said, “Okay, you two. Nigel, go back to that desk against the wall over there.”
“What?” I said. She was grinning in spite of her annoyance. She couldn’t be serious.
“And that will be your seat for the rest of the year.”
She was serious.
Nigel’s new place was four rows behind and to my right. If I turned around, I was likely to see a solemn rector or its aftermath transforming his face. But I hardly ever dared to with Mrs. Baraniecki teaching the class right in front of my desk.
* * *
Paula, the dark-haired girl who sat next to Christie, was the most beautiful girl I knew. One day I saw her wearing a leotard, standing alone and staring vacantly. She looked sad, as well as all wrong, dressed that way. I wanted to go over to comfort her, but you couldn’t approach a girl wearing a leotard.
I tried to draw her out between classes and in the playground, but though she smiled, I never elicited more than a soft-spoken sentence. Her entire attraction was in her look — that shy smile and black hair waving down to her shoulders — perhaps made more beautiful by her reticence.
Dad had said I was too young to fall in love, but the longing was real, even painful. What would it be like when I was at last old enough to act on it? In my red spiral notebook, centering each line as if for some avant-garde poem, I wrote:
It is so easy when you think about it,
But what about doing it?
You walk past her, and by ‘accident’ you
Spill water over her sleeve.
“Sorry,” you say. And then get on to something else
“Have you seen the film at the Odeon,”
Hoping she won’t say she has.
Then you’ve done what you can about the wet sleeve,
And think of something else to say.
But it doesn’t happen like that.
You do walk past her, and tilt the glass
And nothing comes out. So you try again,
And succeed. But she’s ten yards away now.
But assuming that worked, many other
Things go wrong. “Have you seen the
Film at the local cinema?” “Yes.”
Or the wet sleeve won’t dry: it’s raining.
And you can’t think of a thing to say.
So she walks off, disgusted.
* * *
On the second year final exams, I came second, behind the insuperable Christie. My science mark improved from first year’s C to a B. Without Mrs. Rattle to make partial sight a public ordeal, I’d done what she’d said I refused to: looked to my science. This time it was Mrs. Baraniecki who made a critical comment. Though marking me third in French, she wrote: “At the risk of seeming to lack appreciation of his most creditable achievement in spite of his handicap, I must state my opinion that he is not working to capacity. Next year he must aim higher.” The headmaster, Mr. Johnson, wrote, “I must say that I agree with the above remarks. He is ‘resting on his oars’.”
The “handicap” reference bothered me. It was enough to say I was lazy, which I was.
It happened that Mrs. Baraniecki’s French had been the subject in which I did the most work, driven by my love of lists. I wrote pages of French vocabulary, one word strung after another according to my whimsical associations. But my lists hadn’t been homework, and she’d never seen them.
Mrs. Baraniecki, who liked me in spite of everything, did notice an improvement that had no place in a report. I was at last walking with my feet straight, though it required concentration. Passing me on the path behind the school, she said, “You seem to be walking more easily these days. Are you?”
It had been a while since anyone had said I walked funny, but she was the first to comment on the transformation. It was even better than she could know. Just then I hadn’t even been trying. My feet had decided to point the right way all by themselves.
- Last Summer in England
The eighteen-inch wheels of my Raleigh were legally too small to ride in city roads, forcing me to cycle on sidewalks, but I didn’t mind. With caution deeply ingrained against violent jolts or knocks to my head, I’d have been afraid of cycling in traffic. I’d range down to the woods at the foot of Button Hill, where I rarely encountered anyone, and bump gently over mud paths. I’d glance up through the leaves for glimpses of sky. Or I’d head off for Ringinglow Road, a twenty-minute bike ride away that continued on to where the city petered out. The sidewalk disappeared, but I felt safe on the usually empty road. The gravel crackling under my wheels was a companionable sound against the silence.
I met a boy named Ron as I cycled through Millhouses Park at the bottom of Springfield Road. Ron, the milkman’s son, lived on Millhouses Lane in an old farmhouse, though there were no cows on what remained of the property. It must be that someone dropped off the milk to them for delivery around the neighborhood.
Ron and I were sitting around his attic bedroom when he lit a cigarette. “Want to try?” He handed it to me. I inhaled, but it was as horrible as Mr. Hoskins’ ammonia. I coughed violently and handed it back. Ron offered a second puff, but I shook my head.
Ron and I would cycle around Millhouses Park, sometimes with a stocky friend of his. One evening they said they were going to cycle to the City Center and invited me to join them. I’d always gone downtown by bus or car, a half-hour trip. The idea of getting there by bike excited me.
The ride out went well. Whenever I stopped to lift my bike over a curb, they waited. Reaching the Moor, the main shopping street, I resisted the call of the big toy shop as we went on to circle Cole Brothers, Sheffield’s main department store. Beyond was an area I hadn’t known existed, a business district whose narrow streets were deserted with the workday over. Modern office blocks threw shadows across each other that accentuated the gleaming surfaces and windows where summer evening light reached in.
Coming out of my reverie, I caught sight of Ron and his friend going around the next corner. I pedaled hard to catch up, but when I turned the corner, they were even farther ahead and speeding on.
I’d take it all in later, but now I had to concentrate on cycling home alone. I set off along Ecclesall Road South, the route that the 86 bus followed on its twenty-five-minute journey to the stop nearest our house. It was curious seeing each landmark emerge, so familiar and yet somehow so different when watched from the bus. Here were those colorful gardens on the right and farther along the shopping center and the roundabout at Hunters Bar. I remembered to stay on the right to reduce the number of streets I’d need to cross. The next landmark was the cinema at Banner Cross, followed by a line of small shops, and then at last the left turn onto Knowles Lane, leading to the bottom of Button Hill Road. Exhausted, I walked my bike up to our house on the crest.
Some days afterwards I stopped in at Ron’s home, where his mother told me both boys were in the attic. I climbed the ladder and poked my head above the floor. I looked at them and they at me, but they continued talking to each other without acknowledging me. As I eased back down the ladder, I heard the stocky boy say, “We didn’t need him anyway.”
I decided I was better off cycling alone because I didn’t need to worry about keeping up or holding others back. A taxi driver back in London had said after a speeding car had flown past us, “The faster they go, the longer they take to get there.” He’d been right. Going at my own pace, I got where I wanted.
* * *
After summoning us to the living room, Mum and Dad told my brother and me that earlier in the spring, Union Carbide had offered Dad a position in New York.
“We waited till the end of term to tell you,” Mum said from the dining table. “We didn’t want to distract you from schoolwork.”
“What happens if you refuse?” I said to Dad, who sat across from her at the table. I was sitting in my armchair by the television.
“Well, I couldn’t expect to get another promotion,” Dad said.
He elaborated, but the idea he’d be stuck if we didn’t go clinched it for me.
He ended by saying, “If we don’t like it over there, we can return after two years.”
“So what do you think?” Mum asked us.
From the couch, my brother said, “Sounds great.”
“I’m up for it,” I said.
It was a lot to take in. I was about to be uprooted again. And to a whole new country.
I’d spent a good part of my childhood criticizing that country. I disliked how American movies dominated British cinema and television. Anachronistically, I also resented certain wartime decisions, like waiting until December, 1941 to declare war on Nazi Germany. But when Dad had returned from his three-week business trip to West Virginia and Niagara Falls the previous October, I’d been transfixed by the slides he projected onto the screen unrolled before the curtained dining room windows. In the shots he’d taken from the plane, West Virginia was all warm brown fields. In the pictures he’d taken at ground level, the white wooden houses shimmered in an evening light different from the light in English photographs. Shadows seemed surrounded by a luminosity suggesting a vibrant light just outside the aperture.
That same trip, knowing my love of maps, Dad had brought back a Rand McNally road atlas for me, and hour after hour I tried to extract meaning from the names of cities, shapes of states and the garish military badge symbols framing interstate highway numbers. I loved names like Grand Rapids and Chicago and the map of California, the only state given two pages.
In my Oxford world atlas, America was a rectangular swath of green. Last summer, during our holiday in Cornwall, I’d looked out from Lands End at a line of rocks fading into the southwest. My imagination had followed them all the way south and west to that green America, radiant under a nearer sun.
* * *
Later that summer, my parents drove me to Nigel’s for a Sunday afternoon visit. It was the only time I’d been in that section of Sheffield except when going to and from school, and I was surprised at the tiny, boxlike houses.
The only time anyone from school saw the inside of my home had been a morning I failed to notice the taxi arrive. This was the taxi that drove half a dozen of us partially sighted students from around the city to Brook. Tony, three years older than me, and Wendy, who was my age, were picked up before me. That morning Tony had to walk up to ring the doorbell. When I joined him in the taxi, he said to Wendy, “He lives in a boarding house.”
“Boarding house?” I asked.
Wendy and he exchanged looks of shared knowledge.
In time I realized Tony meant we had a big house only rich people could afford. I supposed our hallway looked large, with three rooms leading off from one side and the stairs winding around on the other. But it was a semi-detached, half a house. Neighbors we hardly knew owned the left half. I didn’t like rich people, whoever they were, any more than Tony did, and we weren’t rich, not the way I understood “rich” from television.
Having a small, boxlike house would be a small price to pay for having all your friends living nearby. My one visit to Nigel’s, I discovered he had that advantage.
I was surprised to find that Nigel acted shy around his parents. I suggested we leave the adults drinking tea in the living room and go for a walk. But once we set off, I was hard-pressed to think of anything to get us talking.
I asked, “Seen any dead bodies lately?”
This time he didn’t even shake his head.
I, too, felt that dead bodies and loony worms had lost their allure. I managed to draw him out about the people in his neighborhood, but something had changed.
* * *
We weren’t leaving England until November, and so in September I began the third year at Brook. Though Nigel and I continued to share a desk in most classes, the magic had gone. Perhaps one reason was that I was determined to work harder and not begrudge homework.
The first day of science class, I found Christie sitting at my side, just as she had in first year science. The teacher announced we’d be working in pairs and told us to choose partners. Christie said to me, “Let’s work together.”
Despite all her baiting, I liked her, and I was flattered. I nodded.
Christie wasn’t halfhearted about our partnership. If I didn’t get a concept, she explained. If I couldn’t see something clearly, she described it. She even listened when I explained something to her, although the frown that had poisoned our earlier years would soon reassert itself. My science exercise book became neat and the experiment summaries intelligible.
During art class, someone asked where I’d be living in America.
“Dad’s office will be in New York, so he says we’ll buy a house in a New Jersey or Connecticut suburb.”
The art teacher, who drifted around the room but offered no advice, overheard me say “Connecticut” without pronouncing the second “c.” He told the class, “He’s already speaking like an American.”
On the taxi ride home that night, I wished I’d thought to parry with the English Leicester or Thames, their spellings even more disconnected from their sounds. I bet he didn’t make fun of Mrs. Baraniecki’s name. But the bad moment contained a nugget of good. He wouldn’t have ridiculed me if he’d thought of me as handicapped, as special. How dismaying to think I’d once liked that notion of “special.”
In the playground, I looked around as if for the first time at the rain-sodden grass, white-gray concrete and sepia tree trunks. Mum and Dad had given me a 35-millimeter color camera for my thirteenth birthday, and I spent a lot of time studying the photographs I took. They were training me to observe details not just in my prints, but also in the world around me. Clarity was no doubt heightened by my awareness that these weeks would be my last in England. The gravity of the move was sinking in; that at the very moment of leaving, I finally had a sense of belonging.
Acceptance begat ribbing and ribbing begat pushing and shoving. My entire life I’d been warned to avoid knocks to the head, but I’d come to associate my habit of caution when crossing streets, walking through buses, even getting in and out of chairs, with running away and my fusses in the hospital. All caution had done was make me fearful.
Now, during the hour-long lunch breaks, I’d join in brawls with my new friends on the lawn beyond the playground. I couldn’t run fast, but I was strong. Once I pushed a boy, or one pushed me, I’d grapple him. No matter how the fight went, I held on to prevent him from escaping and hurling taunts from a distance. It was hard work, but the hardest part was knowing when to stop. An exhausted grunt often sufficed. Otherwise, a few words of capitulation were required: “All right, I’ve had enough” or “Okay, stop.” No one ever said “Please,” and it would have been terrible to take a fight that far.
In the midst of a brawl I was clouted on the right temple by something hard. My opponent freed his grip and asked, “Are you all right?” I looked around. The boys playing cricket nearby stared. One was running toward me, and I spied a hard red cricket ball lying nearby in the grass.
“Yes,” I said, kneeling with my hand on my head to absorb the shock. The running boy reached down to retrieve the ball and circled around back to the pitch. Their game resumed.
Reading in bed that night, I noticed a curving edge of shadow in the bottom right corner of my eye. I closed the book and turned off the light. In the dark, what had been shadow glowed yellow. I figured it would go away by morning.
But it stayed with me, in the corner of my vision, all next day. I went on as usual, except I avoided the area where brawling was tolerated. It was Friday. The shadow had a whole weekend to get rid of itself.
After dinner that night, I rode off on my Raleigh along Ringinglow Road to the countryside. The sky had the look of a leisurely northern summer evening, but the days were getting shorter. Tomorrow would be the first day of autumn.
Cycling on and on wasn’t driving away the curving shadow. I turned back, impatient now to be home.
When I closed my book and switched off the light that night, the crescent in the corner of my vision again glowed yellow. It wasn’t going the way of other ailments.
At breakfast, insisting it was nothing, I told Mum and Dad.
Note: My eventful next four months in Sheffield and London hospitals are related here in an extended, unabridged excerpt from my memoir.
- Arrival in America
Note: On January 26, 1968, three days after my release from London’s Moorfields Hospital, I flew with my mother to join my father in America.
I sat in the airliner’s cabin at Heathrow. The summer before, when Dad had told us he’d been offered a job in New York, my misgivings had transformed into excitement about our move. Now, as the aircraft taxied, it seemed to make no sense to leave England behind. Mum sat between me and the porthole, which cast her profile in gray. Even with diminished vision, I saw she’d squeezed her eyes shut. She was feeling it, too.
Then we were in the air, gravity pushing on my insides. Despite all the model planes I’d made, this was my first flight. Tilted back, I imagined looking from the ground at our climbing plane, visible only by a smoke trail.
Then the sky brightened. Leaning around Mum, I made out white and gray layers of cloud gleaming beneath us. I thought of the grassless hills and plunging canyons in the desert landscapes of cowboy films. Below the clouds would be the Atlantic, which I’d last seen from Lands End as I’d stretched my imagination out toward America.
A uniformed woman trundled a cart down the aisle. Did I want something to drink? Coca Cola? For all the advertisements, I’d never had any. She put a gigantic plastic cup on my lowered tray, and I sipped through the straw. It tasted rich, beyond sweet, sharpened by a mountain of ice. America was going to be a country of vivid sensations. I thought of a television image in a letter Dad had written from America of a hundred thousand people in the Rose Bowl parade offering up a pattern of colored cards to the sky.
Hours later, the banks of stratus behind us, the ocean appeared below. Blobs of blue and yellow rippled in my vision. The pilot told us we were over Long Island Sound.
A long hour crept by before the plane taxied to a halt. We retrieved our bags from the luggage rack and inched toward the exit. Descending a metal staircase into startling midday light and cold, dry air, I stepped for the first time on foreign land. We raced inside with the crowd and through long corridors to join a line. The customs official’s slow speech failed to conceal tense concentration. Then he smiled and said, “Welcome to the United States.”
At the luggage wheel Dad rushed through his greetings. Finding our bags, he picked them up, one under each arm and one in each hand. Beyond was Mrs. Skipton. I remembered her hair and glasses as severe, but in her own country, her hair was softer and she seemed more at ease. Maybe it was my dim vision. Her husband was on assignment in Tokyo, where she would soon join him, and they were giving us the use of their New Jersey home until we found our own.
A policeman guarded the exit. At his hip was a shape that had to be a holster. American policemen did carry guns; it wasn’t just in films. I angled away to the door farthest from him.
I got in Mrs. Skipton’s car at the right side, and Dad took the seat in front of me. That forced me to make two more adjustments. The driver sat on the left in an American car, and the person taking that seat was Mrs. Skipton. I’d never known Dad to take a passenger seat.
The New York we drove through on the way to New Jersey had no skyscrapers. Drab patches of disused land clumped with snow ridged the road sides. Dad pointed out Shea Stadium, and I recalled a film of the Beatles performing before a sea of girls ecstatic for music their screams drowned out. In the blood haze that a car’s motion would send through my vision ever since my surgery, I looked out at a stadium bathed in red.
Next morning, with the red dispersed, I went out and looked around. The Skiptons’ house was on a rise, its walls made of horizontal strips of wood and its roof curled toward the sky. New snow lay in the bright sun. Trees were everywhere, but there was no hedge or fence to show where the property ended.
Back in the kitchen, blue light came through windows on two sides, and a long counter trailed toward the living and dining rooms. Mrs. Skipton poured me a glass of orange juice and set it on the counter. I let it stand there, a flame in the winter morning.
Note: I had my final eye operation in March of 1968 at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City. After it, I had no usable vision. In April my parents bought a house in Darien, Connecticut.
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?”
- Meg; The Bowling Prize
Note: 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, to get a jump-start on mobility, braille and touch typing. After the summer, I would enter ninth grade back in Darien.
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?
- It’s Up to You
Miss Friss said, “You’re using people.”
We were sitting across the table from each other in the second-floor room that Middlesex Junior High 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.
- Adjusting and Adjusting
Mum or Dad drove me to Al’s home or his mother or sister drove him to ours, where we stayed in my study, closed the door and played records. After Oak Hill, Al and I kept up our friendship while going to regular schools in neighboring towns.
We talked about the obstacles to making friends in the “sighted world” and what Oak Hill had called “attitudes toward the blind.”
I told him about a student at school who had asked the people around him to lend him a dollar. I’d held out a dollar bill, but he’d refused, even though no one else offered.
“You’re not supposed to be handing out money,” Al said. “You’re supposed to be taking.”
One afternoon I left my tape recorder on the desk in front of the guidance counselors’ couch. My readers used it to record assignments for me. When I returned, it was gone.
“This is troubling,” Mr. Sobel, the guidance counselor, said. By the next day it was apparent someone had “liberated” it.
“I can’t believe anyone would steal something from a guy who can’t see,” said Wally, the boy I thought of as the swaggering cowboy, between classes.
When I was sitting on the guidance counselors’ couch during the lunch break, Margot, the girl with the swinging hair, approached. “On behalf of the student council, I want to say how sorry and embarrassed we are that this could happen at our school. We’d like to take up a collection to replace your tape recorder.”
The habit of delayed reaction I’d cultivated in the hospital gave me time to think. No one else’s stolen property had been a fundraising cause. By consenting to my case becoming one, I’d acquiesce to being treated as special. On the other hand, if I refused, I’d be seen as denying the student council an opportunity to do a good deed. Even if I accepted but urged them to consider all theft equally important, they might take it as criticism.
So I said, “Thank you. That’s kind of you.”
“It’s the least we can do.”
Hovering in the background, Mr. Sobel said, “Nicely done, Margot.”
In the family room, after I related the story, Al shrugged. “What can you do?”
“We wouldn’t be patronized at Oak Hill,” I said.
He chuckled. “No, we wouldn’t.”
* * *
Dad and I played a version of cricket on the front lawn. (The backyard had too many trees.) We didn’t bother with wickets, but did adopt the formal batsman’s stance, the bat held vertically, its bottom end near the ground. In cricket the bowler typically delivered the ball so that it bounced once before reaching the batsman. Dad would call out, “Coming,” and I’d listen for the thud of the ball on the grass. I used the two events to time my swing. When I connected, the ball caromed off a tree in the next yard. “Good shot,” Dad would say.
The cost of missing was that he’d talk me through to the place where the ball had stopped. One direction followed the next. “It’s there, two inches left of your left foot. No, forward and to your left.” I imagined our elderly neighbor watching through parted curtains. In time Dad bought several tennis balls and retrieved my misses in groups of six.
When we switched roles, my objective was to prevent him from getting hits. I relied on a spinner, where you flick the wrist on releasing the ball to make it go off at a misleading angle when it bounced. But I rarely prevented him from punishing the ball.
He bought a shortwave radio and slung an antenna to a tree outside the kitchen. Now we could listen to cricket scores on the BBC. But the games themselves weren’t broadcast to America. Without the games and people to talk to about them, the scores became data on something lost.
* * *
On Sunday afternoons, I plowed through homework in my study while a baseball doubleheader played on the stereo. As the braille letters developed into words that gradually formed sentences that I eventually understood, I envisioned the players and Shea Stadium. The Mets’ broadcasters, Bob Murphy, Lindsay Nelson and Ralph Kiner, assumed the audience had grown up with baseball. It was for me to figure out that shortstop was between second and third and that “mound” really meant “mound,” elevating the pitcher so that he loomed over the batter.
As I listened to the baseball game, my mind wandered to Garfield Sobers, the Barbadian cricketer. In cricket, it wasn’t three strikes and you’re out. A time at bat could unfold over a couple of days and lead to a score in the hundreds. I became Sobers, smacking one ball over the boundary for six runs, nudging the next away from the wickets. If the batsman didn’t stop the bowler from knocking them down, he would be called out. I built up huge scores and carried the side past a first-rate bowling and fielding team. Then I grew aware again of Bob Murphy’s voice and found my fingers listless on a terrain of dots.
The Sunday the Mets beat the Cubs 10-0, an unimaginable result for the low-scoring Mets and so in my experience of baseball, I escaped the airless family room and sat at the top of the stairs with a transistor radio at my side. Mum, Dad and Tim were all out somewhere. As the score mounted, I pushed energy from the back of my brain along the optic nerve to the network of nerves and blood vessels that made up my right eye’s retina. I could restore my vision if only I tried hard enough. When I succeeded, I’d make amends to the people I’d hurt or forgotten to thank. I’d be better to Mum.
When the game ended, I went downstairs to do homework. Passing through the dining room, I rested my fingertips on the sideboard, which Mum and Dad had shipped with the rest of our furniture from England. I remembered how it had gleamed when the sun shone through our dining room windows in Sheffield and how the dust motes that somehow survived Mum’s cleaning had risen and danced in the yellow light. The polished surface, shape and coolness of the wood still pleased me.
In the family room, as I composed an essay on the Olivetti, I played a Zombies record and daydreamed to the lyrics:
And the breeze would touch your hair
Kiss your face and make you care
About your world
Your summer world
I was taken back to the woods at the bottom of Sheffield’s Button Hill, where I used to cycle. The woods changed into a garden of exotic flowers, soft but penetrating sunset light, big-trunk trees, a vaguely defined woman who beckoned, then faded out of view.
With the scent of spring at the window, I got up from the desk and went outside. The breeze touched my hair, my face and hands.
++* * *
I was passing through the living room as Mum sifted through the day’s mail. She said, “They can do everything else in this country. Why does it take so long to deliver letters?”
I remembered the gesture that accompanied her emphatic statements. Pausing at the side of her armchair, I mimicked the downward sweep of her hand.
“How did you know?” she asked. Her brown eyes would be open wide with pleasure.
I turned and headed upstairs, embarrassed to show how much the memory had also meant to me.
Ninth grade was the final year at Middlesex Junior High, a time for goodbyes and marking progress.
In our living room, Miss Friss told Mum, “The only way I could tell he was annoyed was when he sat even straighter.” I was standing next to Mum, so Miss Friss meant me to hear.
Teachers in English schools had trained us to sit straight, but I’d thought teachers here cared as little about that as they did classroom silence. Apparently Miss Friss did care, even if she didn’t write down my test answers in pen. On the other hand, she must have received many other clues that I’d been less than happy with her.
I owed it to her to say it. “Miss Friss, I want to thank you for all you’ve done.”
At the graduation dance, bombarded by noise, I sipped a glass of Coke. Sitting too close to the speaker where someone had shown me a chair, I strained to follow what people were saying. None of these students I liked so much had seen me get around on my own without a cane or someone’s help. They didn’t know that I used to ride a bicycle to the country. The girls couldn’t know that I knew more than their voices.
Through the distorted racket, Mrs. Latham, my French teacher, asked me to dance.
I looked up and said, “Thank you, but I can’t.”
My only experiences of dancing had been the ballroom lessons I’d skipped at school in London and staring at teenagers bouncing up and down in eerie trances on English television. I didn’t know what dancing was here. I’d make a fool of myself with everyone watching, ready with sympathy.
“It’s easy,” she insisted.
“No, really.” I offered what I hoped was a winning, regretful smile.
Then a girl, and then another girl asked me to dance. There was nothing I’d rather do than maybe hold the woman and the girls. Instead, I kept smiling my regret.
The graduating class was to have an awards assembly. Beforehand we filled out ballots naming whom we thought was most likely to succeed, most likely to lead, and so on. One girl and one boy were to be selected in each category. It became a source of fruitful discussion at lunch.
At the assembly, conducted entirely by students, I sat in an aisle seat a third of the way from the back and marveled as names were read over a loudspeaker. This culminating event in junior high school was all about popularity and nothing about academic achievement. Each time the student class leaders announced the winners in a category, a boy and girl got up from their seats and, heralded by a new round of applause, strode up to the platform to accept what my neighbor told me were certificates. This was the Rose Bowl for the America I knew, a place of fun worship and deserted streets, both more exotic and prosaic than the one in the letter Dad had sent us when Mum and I were still in England.
As I was accusing myself of ingratitude for my habit of cultural critiques, the student announcers reached the category “friendliest.” They rang out the name of a girl I knew slightly and then mine. A new wave of applause started as the girl, with touching presence of mind, came over and offered her arm. We walked up together to accept our certificates.
Afterwards I’d tell Al that my award was a sympathy vote, like the bowling prize. I couldn’t reconcile my loneliness with the regard my classmates showed me. But for that moment, with clapping and cheering resounding in my ears, I was uplifted.