by Janna Stein
From the Editor: Many of us remember with a shudder the personal essays required of us on our college application forms. The challenge of distinguishing oneself from the herd in that confined space is formidable.
Janna Stein is the daughter of NFB of Illinois First Vice President Debbie Kent Stein. She has now attended a number of NFB conventions, and it is clear from what she writes that the experience has helped to shape her life. The following application essay demonstrates once again that National Conventions profoundly affect many, many people, not all of them blind. This is what Janna wrote:
On the Fourth of July most kids my age are at parties with their friends or visiting relatives for a barbecue. But, when the fireworks go off each year, I am usually sitting by the pool of first-class hotel in a big city, surrounded by hundreds of blind people. That may seem strange to some, but I would never wish to be anywhere else. I attend the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Convention each year with my mom, who has been totally blind since birth. I guide people to their hotel rooms, help them find the registration line, and basically make myself useful. The most meaningful thing I do by far is working at NFB child care. Child care is a service for children whose parents are attending the convention. Some of the children are blind, and some are the sighted children of blind parents. One of the main things I have learned helping at child care is just how much potential disabled children truly have if you help them reach it.
The first day of child care last summer I looked around and saw the sighted children playing happily together with the toys. But I was troubled to see that most of the blind or disabled children were playing alone in a corner or not playing at all, simply sitting or rocking back and forth. The sighted children made no attempt to reach out to them. I even saw one sighted boy taking advantage of a girl's blindness by hiding her toy where she could not reach it. From that first day I was determined to help the blind and sighted children to play together as equals. After all, "Equality, Opportunity, and Security" is the NFB's motto.
Encouraging the children to play together was a hard task. There were some games, like basketball, the blind kids had some trouble playing, and many sighted kids would lose patience with them. I began to get frustrated. I was realizing how many hardships blind people have to endure, even from childhood, to fit in. I became conscious of some of the things my mom must have had to go through when she was my age. The thought of some of the rude people she must have encountered made me angry.
I was giving up hope when I met Margaret. She was about ten years old and had lost her sight very early in life. She seemed to have other disabilities as well, such as autism. All day long she would sit cross‑legged on the floor, rocking back and forth. She listened to the same song over and over on the electric keyboard while other children played around her. I tried to talk to her, and at first I thought she was only babbling. But I began to realize that what she said had meaning to her. The more I listened to her, the more I understood. She would count the keys on the keyboard or hum along to the tune. I was amazed at what she could do. I realized, maybe, if the other children saw this, they would accept her as one of their own.
The high point of my entire convention came the next day. It was open-microphone day. Anyone could get up in front of the whole group and perform. Kids sang songs or told cute little jokes, but I was afraid a lot of the blind kids were too shy to venture up to the spotlight. Then another of the counselors brought Margaret up onto the stage. To everyone's surprise she sang every word of "On Top of Spaghetti" perfectly. The kids were amazed. After she finished, they all began to chant in unison, "Margaret! Margaret!" She recognized her name and jumped up and down in time with the chant as my eyes filled with tears of pride. After that day things were much better between the blind and sighted kids. I think they realized everyone should be given a chance at equality.
Seeing the change in those children's attitude has changed my life. When I got home from convention, I tried to treat everyone equally and never judge someone before getting to know them. However, the lesson I learned does not stop at the disabled. I now try to make sure no one suffers discrimination due to race, religion, or sexual preference. Some of my old friends used to make hateful comments against gays or people with other ethnic backgrounds. This always made me angry, but before convention I used to keep my feelings to myself. Now, if someone says something prejudiced, I will speak up. I will never forget what I learned from my convention experience. That lesson will follow me throughout my life, making me a better person. People have a right to be treated equally, and no one has a right to judge another.
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