Even though I used to find public speaking a nightmare, I consented to be the senior speaker at my Amherst College commencement. I say “consented” because I’d promised Andy, the friend who nominated me, that I would go ahead if elected, as I was. Vanity is perhaps the greatest motivator, as well as the greatest compromiser.
For a week or more before the June 6, 1976 ceremony, my thespian friend Dana made me practice my speech. We’d walk around the campus with him demanding, “Speak clearly, Mumbles. Speak up.” Early on the morning of the event, we went to the Robert Frost Library steps, where it was to be held, so I could practice locating the lectern that had been set up overnight. For a sighted person, knowing how to get there required simply looking in that direction. For me, it meant creating a physical memory.
In no time the ceremony was underway and my moment arrived. I stood up from my front-row seat, shook out the six folded sections of my white cane and strode forward. My cane’s tip touched the first of the library’s steps. I shifted it to the second as I raised my foot to the first. A few steps later, my left hand grazed the portable lectern and I was oriented. Another step or two and I turned to face both the lectern and the audience. No blunders inducing gasps of pity.
Someone, perhaps President Ward (I forget) alerted me to the glass of water over to the left, and I touched the microphone to locate it; lightly, so as not to send an ear-crunching noise across the quad. I laid down my one-page braille outline and raised my face to look out over the hundreds of people assembled before me. The audience was hushed, but I sensed the generalized movement of people unable to sit quite still. Mum and Dad were there, as were all my college friends, along with other friends who had made the trip to share the moment with me. So, too, were Professors Cody, Davidson, Marx and Sofield and numerous other teachers to whom I owed an unredeemable debt. Last, but hardly least, was the woman friend who had driven down from Montreal and with whom I’d be driving back to her city. What a lovely spring day, I thought. I began speaking.
The day before had been just as springlike. The basic text of my speech already worked out, I sat on Amherst’s wide-vistaed Memorial Hill with a friend I’ll call Tom, who had graduated my freshman year and was here to see me and other friends graduate. He read a letter to me that he’d written ten days earlier. It soon became clear where he was going: “If I know you, I think you are carefully avoiding asking why they chose you. You’re avoiding the full and dangerous recognition that it’s because you’re blind.”
Actually, he was articulating a dilemma I’d mulled over while choosing a theme for the speech. I’d done well academically (summa cum laude) and had a wide range of friends at the college, but what no doubt distinguished me on campus was being the sole blind student. Should I address that fact, I’d asked myself, or act as if it weren’t a reason, or at any rate, not a reason to acknowledge? Normally, I kept such questions to myself, knowing some friends would insist blindness wasn’t a reason, while others would concede it might have been at most a minor consideration. True, blindness alone wouldn’t have earned me such an honor.
Back in high school a fellow senior had told mutual friends that the only reason I got into Amherst was that I was blind. I phoned him and, trying not to sound confrontational, asked him about it. He denied he’d ever said such a thing, which I supposed he had to. His belief played into my own suspicion, but I couldn’t let such an undertow drag down my resolve. Rather, I had to go on to prove I was worthy of admission to such a prestigious institution.
Now here was Tom, a real friend showing a lot more spine. I respected him not only for writing such a direct letter, but also for undertaking to read it to me himself.
Another of his predictions was more accurate:
I half think you really will stand up in front of Amherst and say in effect, ‘You see, I’m really just like you,’ when obviously you are not. You will of course blandly decline to talk about being blind. Or if you do talk about your blindness, something that can’t be quite ignored, you’ll mention it so to eloquently establish a contact for talking about more important things, like the meaning of your years at Amherst. I can hear you nobly inviting your audience to see you not as a blind person, but as a person.
That was exactly what I planned to do: Present myself not as a blind person, but as a person.
Still, if blindness did indeed help explain my selection, exactly how did it? The answer wasn’t obvious to me. Perhaps it was the appeal of someone seeming to succeed against the odds. Tom had his own explanation:
I believe the class chose you because you represent that fear central to all of us that we lack something, that one thing, which prevents us from getting on in life as we really want. You symbolize to them a person living on the most intimate terms with a defect, a limitation, with precisely that thing in themselves they most fear: inadequacy.
People look at you, even people who know you well, and see in you a person who cannot escape the fact of his limitations. They construct a meaning from the way they see you relating to your blindness. You, of course, don’t like this, recognizing that it serves to keep you at a distance from others.
Since losing my vision, I worried I’d become as much a metaphor as a person, and here was Tom corroborating that blindness can set a person apart, even sometimes from those they are close to.
It wasn’t his only insight:
A key ingredient in [people’s] image [of what a blind person is] is one of resignation and reserve. Blind men don’t dare rock boats. They can’t. If they fall over, they won’t be able to see where to swim. They must admit to themselves and the world that they are, yes, basically helpless, over-dependent on the good graces of others. They must recognize their condition requires of them quiet submission and politeness.
Here Tom was echoing my years-long anxiety about independence. My family had moved to America while I was in the process of losing my vision. Between my newness to the country and coming to terms with loss of sight, I’d done nothing, as Tom put it, to rock the boat. A year after our arrival, I was voted “friendliest” by my graduating junior high school ninth grade class. But in high school I’d criticized myself for being too nice, by which I meant passive, and compensated by experimenting at asserting myself, that is, by not always being nice. Nevertheless, Tom was right that when to rock the boat required calculations on my part. I’d long told myself that everyone was dependent on others to one degree or another, but that my dependencies were more obvious. That was bad enough, but Tom was arguing that even beyond physical limitations, I couldn’t be independent in any sense of the word. His letter was a prescription for fatalism.
His letter went on in this vein for eleven pages. As he admitted, it came from his own harsh judgments about himself, but all I heard was his list of my limitations and my role as symbol. His bottom-line pitch was:
Because I know blindness is central not just to others’ views of your efforts but of your own, I feel very strongly you should make your blindness the center of what you have to say to the class of ‘76. When you make that speech, don’t be the blind person everyone takes you to be. Really be blind, that muddled, stumbling, awkward, bumbling and also feeling, frail, often a visionary person struggling toward faith.
He closed with a simple declaratory sentence that I knew he intended as a friendship-confirming offset to his grim lecture: “I’ll be at commencement.”
And there he was, sitting next to me on Memorial Hill the day before the event. I don’t remember what we said when he finished reading, but I’m confident I did what I usually did when upset, which was keep my own counsel until I’d come to some sort of resolution.
Tom’s critique didn’t cause me to make any revisions. Today I cringe at the rambling nature and naivety of some of what I proclaimed to my captive audience. Even so, I’m pleased I had enough sense of myself to proceed with my original text despite Tom’s sentiments and my own misgivings.
What did I say that Sunday morning? A passage near the speech’s end and the very last paragraph might give a sense of it:
Our introductions to Plato and Heisenberg don’t mean for the majority of us that we thoroughly understand what they have to say, or even that we recall what we once understood… What we derive from an Amherst education beyond that is hard to say, perhaps for the reason that parallels one of Frost’s famous statements: that to call oneself a poet is like calling oneself a good man. The ideas of poetry and goodness are ones which not even the greatest poets or the best men can live up to. An educated man can only be the shadow of the idea of education in the same sense. …
All this is one person speaking at a particular hour of his life. If you take into account all the words that gush out in a day, almost every word written or spoken is forgotten shortly afterwards. So speeches like this tend to exist only as ornaments to events whose significance lies outside words. All I hope this speech does is to suggest the silent significance of the event of our commencement.
That fall’s edition of the Amherst Alumni Magazine made no mention of the content of my speech, but it did point out how I’d gone to the lectern with my white cane. I wrote a letter protesting their focus on blindness. Mercifully, I don’t have a copy of that letter, but I gather from the gracious reply an Amherst official sent me that I’d said I was “offended.” Talk about cringe.
In the years after college, I gave countless presentations in court, in classrooms and on radio and television, almost none on the topic of disability, and became more or less at ease speaking in public. I rocked many boats and, sadly, burned some bridges.
Tom and I stayed friends even as we moved around to different parts of the country. But in 2007, having rediscovered the letter three decades after the event, I decided to confront him with the comments he’d made “at the very moment I was about to face the most public event in my life up to that point.” The deep-felt sincerity of his reply was lightened by his inimitable wit:
What to say about “that letter?” Only the vaguest memory of having written it comes to me. The self-portrait it unwittingly renders is at turns beguiling, brilliant, bad, boring, beneficent, bulging, bogus, brittle, boiling, pitiable and pointless, heart-rending and hamstrung, flatulent and fabulous. You see, I can still play.
The theme of seeing and being seen hasn’t gone away. On the contrary, it seems even more the centerpiece of my struggles than 30 years ago.
I’m amazed, and somewhat disheartened that I ever wrote such a thing. I’m amazed you have it, or rather that your way with the world preserved it. That in itself discloses a gift.
Today I feel fortunate that Tom gave me that convoluted, arguably self-indulgent but nevertheless brave pre-commencement letter. It gives me a reality check. Identity is what survives of our sense of self under the barrage of society’s perceptions of us, none more confusing than those that are hidden or disguised. Without Tom’s letter, I might be afraid I was merely imagining the mixed signals still rattling around inside my head.
In the Trump era, with the rise of white supremacy, we are reconsidering the risk that socially destabilizing speech will do lasting damage despite a long-held consensus that it’s better to have questionable sentiments out in the open rather than festering in the shadows. Candidate Donald Trump even mocked a reporter’s disability, and did so with impunity. Despite these developments, it’s better to have such feelings and beliefs vented in the open. Many who harbor them but are afraid to voice them might recoil from them, but without an outlet in speech they have no way out of the mental tangle of involuntary thought and inhibition. Once exposed, questionable ideas can be defended against. While nowhere near on the same scale, Tom’s 1976 letter accomplished all this not only for him, as his 2007 email attests, but also for me.
The seventies was the very early, hardly perceptible time in the advancement of disabled people. Disability had once defined a person almost out of existence—into back rooms and asylums. Today disabled people routinely assert themselves: Witness recent Congressional hearings where people in wheelchairs are making their voices heard so effectively that guards are frequently summoned to eject them. The seventies was about the rise of women’s equality. For the college, that 1976 commencement was historically significant because nine of my fellow graduates were the first women to receive Amherst degrees. In a few short years, the College was to become fully coeducational.
Had one of those women given the senior speech, her gender would have been highlighted, and I doubt she would have taken offense. Why, then, did it bother me so much to have my disability highlighted? For answer, there’s always self-loathing, that infuriatingly insidious name for the stress that social prejudice causes individual psyches. More likely, I was still affected by my high school classmate’s claim that blindness explained my original admission to Amherst. Simply put, I no more wished disability to be the explanation for recognition than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas likes the idea that race might have helped his admission to Yale Law. Any suggestion of compromised standards undercuts accomplishment. Mostly, though, I think the answer lies with the apartness that Tom touched on.
Two-thirds of the way through my speech that spring morning, I paused to take a sip of water. I’d earned a few laughs at the beginning, but after that I’d turned serious, and the hundreds of people before me were quiet, which I hoped, and strangely enough sensed, meant they were expectant. Taking that sip of water, I grew conscious that whatever the reasons I’d been selected to speak for my class, I was in command both of the moment and myself.