Future Reflections Spring/Summer 1993, Vol. 12 No. 2
by Valerie Negri
Editor's Note: The following article was originally a letter submitted by Valerie Negri to the National Federation of the Blind Scholarship Program a few years ago. Partly on the strength of this letter, Valerie was awarded a $2,500 NFB Merit Scholarship in 1989. The letter was later published in the NFB of Illinois Newsletter, The Month's News.
Last year when I was a senior at Marian Catholic High School, I should have been floating on cloud nine and simply bursting with enthusiasm for the future. After all, I was an A student. I was involved in many extra-curricular activities such as a Students Against Substance Abuse group, the school choir, and the prestigious National Honor Society. And most importantly, I was well-liked and respected by faculty and students alike. But something was missing! I didn't have the confidence I needed to be certain that I could use my gifts and talents to live a useful, satisfying life. Every time I would think about my postsecondary plans, a comment that I overheard my English teacher say to another teacher kept ringing in my ears. “It's such a shame that Valerie is blind,” he had remarked, “because she has so much potential and so much to offer! If she were sighted, she could use her abilities to make the world a better place. But being blind, I don't know if she can do that.”
When I heard him say that, it felt like someone was slashing a knife through my heart. All my life I had tried to use the gifts I'd been given, and still no one believed I would truly succeed. My self-esteem was shattering, and I was frustrated.
Being totally blind since birth, blindness has become an ordinary and natural part of my life. Although at times it has been annoying and frustrating, it has never stopped me from doing anything I have set out to do. As a child, I took ice skating and piano lessons and enjoyed playing with my friends, reading Braille books, and camping with my family. Later on I liked participating in school and community activities and did the same things any ordinary teenager would do. Neither my family nor anyone else even implied that blindness might hinder me in my endeavors until the subject of careers would come up. As far back as I can remember; I have always enjoyed learning new things and sharing my knowledge with others. So it's not surprising that merely the thought of becoming a teacher sent shivers of excited anticipation through me. But to my dismay, no one shared my enthusiasm.
Although I had spent minimal time in a resource room with other blind children, I was mainstreamed as much as possible and entered an all-sighted school in sixth grade. My mother was disappointed when I did not have any blind friends, and thinking it would benefit me to have some blind adults as role models, she set out to find organizations that might fill this need. Sadly, no one ever mentioned the National Federation of the Blind to us, because the only blind people I ever met lived on disability checks and sat around waiting for people to do things for them. It sickened me to think about all those people wasting their talents simply because they were blind, and I vowed that I wasn't going to sit around all my life. “When I grow up, I'm going to work for a living,” I told anyone who would listen, “because life is just too precious to waste like that.”
“I'm sure you will work, Val,” said my mother. “If you learn to be self-sufficient and get a good education, I'm sure you can get a job although I'm not sure what kind.”
So finally in my freshman year of high school, after much wondering and searching, I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I automatically assumed that other teachers would be delighted with my career choice, because I was sure they would be glad to have another person who was going to join them in their quest to educate future generations of grade-school children. But when I proudly announced that teaching was my vocation, I was met with skeptical responses such as “There's too much visual work in teaching! How are you going to grade papers, write on the chalkboard, make sure the kids behave? Maybe you'd better pick a profession that blind people can do!”
I was heartbroken when I heard these kinds of comments because I knew in my heart that I could be a fine teacher. I also firmly believed that there were ways that I could handle the so-called “visual” aspects of teaching! It was then that I started praying that I would find a blind teacher that I was certain was out there somewhere. How I longed for a role model to look up to and the comfort of knowing that there were other blind people who had made something of themselves and who were living worthwhile lives!
When I was a senior in high school, I was given the chance to teach religious education to seventeen sighted third graders at my church. I jumped at the opportunity to prove to myself and to others as well that a blind person truly could teach sighted kids effectively. I can't say that I never made a mistake, but I must say that my teaching was a terrific success. Everyone involved was pleased with my performance, but there were still doubts. People wondered if I could teach a variety of subjects all day long instead of just one for an hour-and-a-half. I was discouraged, but although my confidence dwindled, my hope of finding a blind teacher never failed.
Around this same time, as is the case of many seniors, I was swamped with a ton of scholarship applications. The NFB's scholarship was one for which I applied. I knew nothing about the NFB and had just read about the scholarship in a magazine and decided to take a shot at it. To my great delight, I learned that I had received an NFB of Illinois scholarship and that I must attend the fall convention to get it. I also learned that the National Convention was going to be held in Chicago, and I was strongly urged to come. Figuring that I could at least meet some of the people who had been so generous to me, and since it wasn't too far from where I lived, I agreed to give it a try. Little did I know that I was doing myself a tremendous favor by going and that my prayers were about to be answered.
The first week of July 1988 was the most thrilling and memorable week of my whole life. Everywhere I turned, I was surrounded by blind people who were successful and happy and whom I admired. I remember going to the NFB's Blind Educators' seminar and wanting to cry out “I found you! I knew you were out there someplace, and I'm going to be one of you someday!”
Yes, the NFB is what I had been praying for. It has given me role models to look up to, the confidence I need to pursue my dreams, and the comfort of knowing that there are others out there striving with me. When the NFBI Student Chapter asked me to be their secretary, I was honored to be a member of an organization who is truly working for blind people. I have now decided that I want to teach blind children because I want to pass the message of hope that the NFB has given me along to people who need to know that they can be whatever they want to be. I never want another child to feel the frustration and isolation that I felt when everyone discouraged me from becoming the teacher I want to become.
The NFB has given me more than just a much-appreciated scholarship. It has opened up a whole new world for me, and for that I am sincerely grateful. Thank you for everything, NFB!