by Debbie Kent Stein and Anne Emerick
From the Editor: Debbie Kent Stein is First Vice President of the NFB of Illinois. She is also a distinguished writer and reviewer. She became a student at Oberlin College while I was still an undergraduate. If I had bothered to get to know her, I might well have been able to help her and her roommate, but I had not yet met the National Federation of the Blind, so I worked hard to avoid other blind people because I didn't think I had much in common with them. It never occurred to me that I could learn from them and they from me.
All this is a healthy reminder to me of how much we all have to learn and how much pain we can inflict on others simply by refusing to reach out to each other in the spirit of friendship.
The following article is mostly the transcription of an agenda item at the student seminar that took place at the 1999 convention of the NFB of Illinois. It begins with an introduction by Debbie Kent Stein:.
In July, 1998, I received a brief and startling letter from my former college roommate. We had spent a difficult, painful freshman year together and had successfully avoided each other for the rest of our college careers. Now my roommate had written me a letter after thirty-two years of silence. At midlife she was looking back at the past. She wondered if we might reconnect and look from this distance at what had happened between us. That letter led to months of e-mail correspondence and finally to an exchange of visits. We unwound many tangled threads of the past, making amends to each other and trying to understand that crucial first year away from home. At the 1999 NFB of Illinois student seminar my former roommate and I had the opportunity to share some of our reflections with a new generation of college students.
NFB of Illinois Student Seminar Transcript
October 22, 1999
Moderator: Nicole Gleason, President, NFB-I Student Chapter:
Moving on to our next panel, Debbie Stein is going to touch on a topic that, as far as I know, has never been addressed at our student seminars before. This panel will be about the challenges of living with college roommates. So Debbie Stein.
Debbie Stein: Nicole and I have been kicking around the idea of this discussion for the last six months or so. A couple of things led me to suggest living with roommates as a possible seminar topic. One was a discussion I had recently with a blind friend who was reflecting on her college years. When she started college, my friend told the Dean of Students that she wanted a single room. She didn't want a roommate during her freshman year. She knew that she would be struggling to learn a lot of new things; she would have a lot of skills to master. If she had a roommate, everyone would expect that person to take care of her, to be her mother in absentia. Her roommate might have the same expectation and feel obligated to do a lot of caregiving. As a blind student on an unfamiliar campus, my friend knew she could fall into this trap and that it would be hard to fight her way out. Her solution was to avoid this whole messy dynamic by requesting a room to herself.
I was very impressed by the level of awareness my friend had shown at such a young age and by how well she had thought things through. I have to say that I went into college having given virtually no thought whatsoever to my living arrangements. I did make the concession to write to my assigned roommate ahead of time. At my college the entering freshmen were given the name and address of their future roommates during the summer.
I wrote to my roommate in August, and I decided that maybe it would be a good time to inform her that I'm blind. I was encouraged to reveal this by some blind students whom I had met. Otherwise I probably wouldn't even have thought of that. I figured that, since blindness wasn't a big deal for me, why should it be a big deal for anybody else?
So I wrote my letter and went blithely off to college to live for an entire year with a total stranger. When you think about it, this is a pretty unnatural thing to do. It's probably the only time in your life when you will ever do such a thing. The closest parallel I can think of would be an arranged marriage. But in an arranged marriage at least you have a whole house to rattle around in, hopefully. When you go off to live with a college roommate, you're going to be sharing a little two-by-four cubbyhole.
For the first couple of weeks my roommate and I seemed to get along just fine. Since neither of us knew anyone else, we did a lot of things together. But as time went on, I noticed that some tension seemed to be developing. My roommate was less friendly as time went by, a little more distant, a little more uncommunicative. I didn't know what was the matter, and I really didn't have the confidence and the social skills to ask what was wrong. I only sensed that a chill was deepening between us day by day.
In retrospect it's quite clear to me where our problems began. I was quite shy. I didn't know many people yet, and I didn't know my way around. My roommate would offer to help me. She would offer to run errands for me, and it was all too easy to accept that kind of help. If she said, "I'm walking over to the bookstore, do you want me to pick up your book for you?" I'd say, "Oh, sure, okay." It was easier to accept that kind of help than to figure out how to ask for help that would have made a real difference. I could have asked her to show me where the bookstore was. Then I could have gone ahead and gotten my own book, maybe even offered to pick one up for her sometime.
Instead a very negative syndrome developed. I found myself expecting help. My roommate found herself feeling that her help was expected and even required. In fact, the other people we knew in the dorm seemed to have the same sense of it. They acted as though I needed care and my roommate was supposed to provide it for me. Maybe they felt a little sorry for her, but there was nothing to be done about it; that was the situation she was in.
Actually I think the whole thing was almost a set-up from the beginning. I sometimes wondered why the powers that be selected the two of us to live together. Supposedly roommates were matched according to interests, majors, and other similarities. Well, my roommate and I had almost nothing in common, as far as interests and talents went. We were very different people. But she had been very involved in Girl Scouts all through elementary and high school. What could be a better match, right? (laughter). She could help me across the street! (laughter) Well, a very harmful pattern got established. If she did something for me once, we both seemed to assume she would keep doing it again and again. For instance, the first time she did her laundry, she offered to do mine too. I guess I was a fairly typical seventeen-year-old kid. Someone's offering to do my laundry for me? "Okay! If you want to do it, go right ahead!" Rather than getting somebody to show me how the washer and dryer worked, rather than labeling the gadgets on the machines, I was depending on my roommate to wash my clothes for me!
I finally got a major jolt when my roommate casually dropped the comment that she had five things to do for me that day. That really brought me up short! I realized I had to rethink the way I was doing things. I started to see what this whole dependency syndrome was. That wake-up call got me to begin mending my ways. But by then we were really in trouble. My roommate had weeks of built-up resentment and anger. Our communication had deteriorated.
What began as coolness grew into all-out silence. My roommate didn't speak to me, which therefore made it very hard for me to speak to her. After a while I didn't even try any more. The situation was intolerable and unlivable, but neither of us knew how to change it. Basically we just toughed it out for the rest of the year, in a complete communication vacuum, sharing our little two-by-four cubbyhole.
Looking back, I can certainly suggest some things to college students today, whether you're rooming with somebody straight out of the blue as a freshman or with someone you chose yourself later on. Any roommate situation can be difficult at times. For starters, be careful to avoid getting into a dependency situation. The familiar proverb about fishing comes to my mind: if you give someone a fish, you feed him one meal; if you teach someone to fish, he can feed himself for a lifetime. You don't want people giving you a lot of fish. You want to learn how to catch your own. If somebody offers to walk you to class one day and you don't ask about landmarks and street names, the next day you'll need somebody to walk you to class again. You need to learn to fish right from the beginning. That can really help prevent dependency from the start.
Another crucial piece, I think, is to keep communication open. That is true in any human relationship, and one human relationship that can be really sticky is living with a roommate. When you sense a problem developing, try to open communication.
It might be very hard for the other person to talk, especially if the problem is in any way related to your blindness. Your roommate might be very uncomfortable bringing such a topic out in the open. The onus really falls on the blind student to try to break down the silence before it sets in. Once you slide into a situation in which neither of you is speaking, it is very, very hard to undo the damage.
You always have the option of doing as my blind friend did her freshman year. You can decide to room by yourself. I don't know that that is the best option, at least not for everyone. Living with a roommate is an experience like no other. It offers a unique opportunity for learning and growth. But it can certainly be a challenge.
Before I open up to questions, I'd like to introduce somebody who's here with me today. Anne Emerick is out in the audience, and she was my college freshman roommate. (applause) You're on, lady!
Anne Emerick: It is indeed an honor to be here.
I think back to thirty-three years ago when I was about to go off to college. I was filled with curiosity about what lay ahead of me and wondered what my life was going to be like. I don't think I expected a letter from my future roommate, but in fact I got one--the letter that Debbie just told you about.
I opened it with excitement. I am a sighted person, and when I read that she was blind, a clutch of panic came over me. I'd never known a blind person in my entire life. The very thought terrified me.
When I think back to the fear I experienced, I can touch it when I recall how I feel when I hear that a friend has been diagnosed with cancer. I don't know how long she's going to live, and I don't know how much pain she's going to suffer. When I opened that letter, I had the same fear of the unknown. I had no idea what blind people were about.
Debbie was the first blind person I had ever met. When we got to college, I asked and learned bits about her life and tried to understand what it was like to be blind. And yes, at first Debbie was my friend. I offered assistance to her liberally at the beginning. As time went by, our communication went awry over dependency issues. Soon I felt I was being taken for granted. I became angry, but I didn't talk about it. I moved into indirect communication. I would relay messages to Debbie through a friend in common, rather than speak to her myself. Of course this was totally absurd. Yet that's what I did.
I believe I took my discomfort with Debbie's dependency and blamed everything that was wrong between us totally on her blindness. My discomfort with blindness moved into fear. I made a very illogical leap. Somehow I took my fear of Debbie's blindness and put it upon myself. I was afraid of becoming blind. I've always been very athletic--I was then, and I am now. I thought I couldn't possibly be athletic if I were to become blind. Now I realize that's utter nonsense. But back then, as a college freshman, I was sure that, if I were blind, I would be completely worthless, without value because I couldn't do the athletic things that were such a major part of my life.
When I started college, independence was my god. I thought that to reach out for help meant you were a failure. I couldn't ask for help. It was simply not modeled in my family. It's hard enough to seek physical help at times, but it is even more difficult to ask for help in the emotional world.
I didn't reach out when my relationship with my roommate went awry. My fear of blindness made our communication even more impenetrable. It froze my tongue. I went silent. I pretended her existence away. I pretended her away for most of the school year. With small exceptions this amounted to at least six months of full out glacial silence. It was deeply wounding to both of us. Unspoken fears reverberate. They amplify.
If I have one word of advice for anybody heading off to college, about to room with an unknown person, it is to find your voice. It's not easy to find the confidence to speak up when you sense something is wrong. But you need to do that. You need to speak up and ask at the merest whiff of trouble. Ask, ask: how can I do things differently? Be proactive, and suggest options yourself. Riding into town today, I heard a lovely song that has a wonderful phrase in it. The phrase was "kindling of fear." Fear can act like kindling. It can rise up into a brushfire and obliterate communication. Speak up early, at the very first sign of fear. Waiting invites ugly patterns, invites problems to become entrenched.
The words "conflict resolution" mean a lot to me. When I went to college, I had zero concept of what they meant. I had never even heard that term. Thank the spirits, human beings can learn, can do things differently. Conflict resolution is really nothing other than common sense--to listen to each other's hard truths and work toward a solution. It is almost always easier to listen fairly when there is a referee, since this ensures that the conversation will be balanced. That gets dialog going. Dialog is the opposite of silence, and it can provide the solutions you need. So if you have a conflict and direct questions don't help, get a third party involved.
Ask for help immediately. Asking for help is not failure. For most of us the hardest part is to speak honestly about your own anger, your own discomfort. Our culture is laden with signals that one is not allowed to acknowledge, let alone talk about--negative feelings. No wonder Debbie and I got into such a mess. To prevent communication glitches, it is a requirement to be able to talk about and listen to negative feelings when they come up. I needed to say I was angry and to explain why. Then it would have been my turn to listen to Debbie. Speaking up is one hard part. The second hard part is really to listen, even when what is being said is critical of you. This is terribly difficult to do.
I know this is not necessarily a miracle cure. Speaking and listening might not work. You might not be able to straighten out a mess if communication has gone too far adrift. You might need to reach outside and seek help from an adult--from someone at your school, from your family, or from the NFB. And that might not help either. You might have to request a different roommate or even ask for a single room.
The point is that there are options. You don't need to be trapped. And asking for help, again, is not a sign of failure. It's a sign of maturity. Silence serves no one. It should not be tolerated. It is a weapon, and it is a form of abuse.
Well, I can give you all the advice in the world to speak up; it took me thirty-two years to do it myself!