The Braille Monitor                                                                                       January 2003

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by Sheila Koenig

Sheila Koenig
Sheila Koenig

From the Editor: The following story first appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, a publication of the NFB of Minnesota. Sheila Koenig was a tenBroek Fellow at the 2002 convention. She is an inspiring and dedicated middle-school English teacher. This is what she says about an important lesson that she learned:

Every summer during my childhood my family ventured out on at least one camping trip. My brother David and I conjured up fantastic adventures wherever we went. Building enchanted hideouts or mystical sand sculptures, we embarked as pioneers to chart new territory. Though blind since birth, I have not always traveled with a long white cane; during the expeditions with my brother I squinted at the ground in front of me and let him lead, even though he was younger. I anticipated our adventures with enthusiastic curiosity, eager to unleash my imagination in each magnificent place we discovered. But straining and squinting became tiresome, and my incompetence at times created in me genuine apprehension to explore rocky or unfamiliar terrain.

The summer we camped at Devil's Lake in Baraboo, Wisconsin, I realized the magnitude of my ineffective travel technique. Hiking along the bluffs, which rose nearly 500 feet, I clenched my father's hand. He tried his best to guide me along the trails, but I clung to him, paralyzed with the fear of falling. I understood that trusting my residual vision compromised my abilities, but I knew no alternative techniques. As I gathered the courage to finish the hike, I promised myself that someday I would not allow my blindness to thwart my ambitions.

Years later I stood atop a different bluff, one that I had climbed while wearing sleep shades as a student at Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND), one of our Federation training centers. Upon graduating from high school, I had won a scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind, and part of the scholarship included attending the national convention. At national conventions I observed blind people traveling confidently with the long white cane. I realized that, if I had learned Braille, I would not be holding large-print books close to my face in an awkward attempt to read them.

Since those childhood days of expeditions with my brother, I had aspired to be a teacher. But questions always lurked beneath the surface of my dream: How would I read the class attendance roll? How would I grade papers and complete lesson plans? How would I approach the topic of blindness with my students? With the help of the National Federation of the Blind, I observed that alternative techniques existed, and I recognized that, before I could become a successful teacher, I must first acquire the skills to become a successful blind person.

I developed these skills at BLIND. Daily lessons in travel, Braille, and computers built my competence, but one activity more than any other launched my confidence. My initial reaction to rock climbing was one of anxiety and fear. I speculated that falling would probably not be any less frightening if I were attached to climbing gear. But as I listened to other blind people clamoring with excitement, I became more eager to climb. When I touched the anchor at the top after my first climb, I smiled with proud exhilaration, confidence rushing through my veins.

On the first day of school I challenged my ninth grade English students to stretch their imaginations, to explore the possibilities of language and images in the world around them, and to confront the fears that paralyze them. Showing students the way, however, does a better job of inspiring than simply telling them. I began my presentation this year with a video recorded two weeks prior to the start of school; I had ridden the Skycoaster at the Minnesota State Fair. Tightly secured in our harnesses, Jennifer Dunnam and I ascended a 150-foot tower. Upon reaching our perch at the top, she pulled the cord, sending us plummeting towards the ground. I screamed through the initial fall, but as we began to glide back and forth, pendulum style, I marveled at the exhilaration of flying.

My students also marveled at seeing their English teacher falling through the air and flying triumphantly. They too began to understand how to stretch the possibilities of their imaginations and dive into new experiences. I thrive on challenges and high expectations, but without the influence of the National Federation of the Blind, I would never have evolved beyond that fearful young girl clinging to others for guidance and direction.

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