Braille Monitor March 2006
by Daniel B. Frye
From the Editor: We can all look back at experiences in our past that we recognize in hindsight to have been of greater significance than we knew at the time, perhaps even turning points in our development. In the following story Dan Frye tells of such an event and of the young man whose determination and courage in the face of terrible odds taught Dan the importance of patience and the power of the Federation's dedication to high expectations.
Dan Frye is a frequent contributor to these pages. He and his wife recently returned to the United States after several years in New Zealand. He is now working at the National Center for the Blind as manager of affiliate advocacy and training. But in this story he recalls a summer when he was a college student working with youngsters at the Colorado Center for the Blind, one of our adult training centers. This is what he says:
Jason was a student in the summer program for junior-high-aged students at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), and I was his counselor. In addition to his blindness, Jason was challenged by multiple disabilities, the most serious of which were cognitive, motor, and memory problems stemming from recently removed brain tumors.
Despite his several disabilities Jason tried his best to participate in all the summer program activities. He traveled by city bus between the training center and the apartments where students and counselors lived together. He participated in Braille, travel, computer, and independent living classes to the best of his ability. Jason cheerfully joined his fellow students on the camping trip organized and planned by students and counselors. In short, Jason gave his all in the CCB Summer Program of 1992.
Even though Jason was committed to doing his best, the truth was that he had trouble doing the simplest tasks. He was unable, for example, to do his laundry independently. Memorizing travel routes, not to mention mastering advanced concepts like cardinal directions and bus travel, proved hard for Jason. In light of Jasonís limited skills, it quickly became clear that summer counselors (usually me) needed to supervise him closely.
Working one-on-one with Jason gave me plenty of opportunity for honest self-evaluation. I struggled mightily against my weaknesses that summer. It was first necessary to acknowledge and combat my lack of patience with people who could not grasp and master new skills quickly. Sadly for Jason and me, my confidence in Jason and my expectations of his capacity gradually diminished as the summer progressed.
Hindered by my prejudices,
Jason and I headed out one crisp, clear summer morning to take part with the
other students and staff in rock climbing, a challenge recreational activity
that has become a traditional rite of passage for students attending the CCB.
Jason and I brought up the rear of our enthusiastic group, many of whom were
walking well ahead of us, eager to test their athletic prowess and overcome
their anxieties about safely and successfully scaling the legendary rocks of
Boulder Canyon. Enjoying the relative cool and quiet of an early summer morning
while trudging up a dirt trail nestled between towering rocks that gave definition
to the route leading to the climbing site, I wondered how Jason would fare in
this physically demanding exercise. As a counselor charged with demonstrating
confidence in our students, I also wondered how I would do, for this was also
my first rock-climbing experience.
We reached the climb site, dropped our backpacks of provisions, and joined the assembly sitting on scattered rocks just in front of the rock wall. We were lectured by the rock-climbing instructors about safety and taught how to tie secure knots in our ropes. We learned about belaying and the importance of trusting our partners. After thirty minutes or so we were declared ready to climb. I canít remember if Jason fully grasped the technicalities of belaying and knot tying. Since trained experts were present to coach us, though, this detail did not matter much.
I vividly remember, however, the details of his climb itself. I was Jasonís belaying partner, the person responsible for holding and pulling the rope to which Jason was securely fastened, and Diane McGeorge, then director of the CCB, was standing behind me to offer extra support. Jasonís climb began badly. He struggled to cling to the rock and started to cry and later to scream. His fear escalated, and he pleaded with me to let him down. I tried to encourage him by offering soothing assurances that he would be all right and that he should not give up without a little more effort, but Jasonís protests and alarm did not subside. Alison, one of the rock-climbing instructors, quickly traversed the short distance up the rock free-form (without a rope) and tried to offer him support and encouragement. But Jason was not willing to be calmed.
I consulted with Diane,
proposing to bring Jason down. Gently but firmly she told me not to give up
on Jason just yet, and she assured me that he was in no danger. Dramatic displays
usually seem to last longer than they actually do, and this was no exception.
Sensing my unease, Diane assured me that we were not hurting Jason. I nervously
waited while Alison gently talked to and worked with him.
Ultimately Alison calmed Jason enough so that with her support he successfully ascended the rock, reaching the top some forty feet above the ground. Many waiting members of our group erupted in spontaneous and unrestrained cheering, while I silently wept tears of joy and pride in response to Jasonís hoots of jubilant laughter and glee at having met his goal. Jason savored his moment of success for several incredibly happy minutes, reveling in his achievement and delaying his descent.
While I held Jasonís rope as he celebrated his success, Diane softly talked to me about the benefits that would accrue to him as a result of the firmness of her resolve. She counseled me to believe past reasonable belief in the potential of people. We agreed that his small victory then would have big consequences for him in years to come. I privately reflected on the virtues of patience, and I resolved to redouble my efforts with Jason for the rest of the summer.
During the hot walk back to the van and for several more hours into the afternoon, Jasonís pride in his accomplishment was contagious. He was uncharacteristically confident, animated, and talkative. It was evident that the underlying purposes of the rock-climbing adventure (the development of self-confidence and self-esteem among the CCB students) had been fulfilled for Jason. For the duration of the Summer Program Jason was an eager and active participant in the weekly rock-climbing trips.
While writing this account, I learned that, tragically, Jason has since died from a recurrence of his brain tumors. I am certain, though, that Jason left the CCB Summer Program with more self-confidence than he had before he came. I cannot think of a better gift to have given Jason, a gift made possible through the empowering organizational philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.
Jason was my student, but in many ways he was also my teacher. I will always be grateful to him for the unconscious role he played in expanding my belief in blind people. I witnessed first-hand the tangible personal benefits that result from helping others realize their potential. Seeing these advantages and having had my capacity to believe beyond belief expanded, I am better equipped to share the promise of the NFB with others. I also learned again the value of humility and patience from Jason--traits that make me an overall better human being, not just working in the blindness community, but generally. Thank you, Jason. Rest in peace.
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