Braille Monitor July 2006
by Gary Wunder
From the Editor: The National Federation of the Blind has received a grant from the Rehabilitation Services Administration to conduct a mentoring pilot project. For almost a year now about twenty mentoring pairs in Louisiana and Nebraska have been spending time together. Four more states will soon be added to the project. It is impossible to predict what the benefits of this effort will be as measured in the coin of human experience and changed lives, but mentoring is a bedrock element of this organization of ours, so we can say with confidence that it will undoubtedly make a difference to everyone involved.
On February 17,
2006, the following article was posted on the NFB's Web magazine, Voice
of the Nation's Blind, <www.voiceofthenationsblind.org>. Its author
is Gary Wunder, president of the NFB of Missouri and secretary of the National
Federation of the Blind. He is also a marvelously evocative writer and, contrary
to what he suggests in this reflection, a thoughtful and patient mentor to many
of us in the Federation. This is what he writes:
Nothing has helped me become the person I am today more than the mentors I've had along the way. Some have been encouraging and have said, "Follow your dreams." Others have said, "Go beyond your wildest dreams and be surprised at what you can accomplish." But a very important few have said something infinitely more important: "You'll never do big things if you keep considering the normal things you do to be extraordinary and looking for praise when you do them."
My first mentor was my father, a man I now absolutely love and adore, but for the first five or six years of my life I regarded him as little less than my enemy. To me he was a loud, rude, and compassionless bully. He was always talking about how I'd have to grow up like other people, how the women in my life were too soft on me, and how I was taking advantage of all the coddling and playing it for all it was worth. I remember hearing him get up at five in the morning in preparation for work, and pretending to be asleep until his truck roared out of the driveway. Then I would bound from my bed to deal with the civilized people in my family, the ones who would feed me breakfast and tell me what a wonderful boy I was and how miraculous it was that I knew every tune on the Forty Star Survey, the lingo for the popular radio tunes on our local rock and roll station at the time. My father didn't even appreciate the precocious genius under his roof, for he listened to country music and had little patience for songs that had words like "ding dang dong" and "She loves you! Yah, yah, yah!" He thought with the money those boys were making, they could at least afford to cut their hair, and besides, what respectable group of four men would call themselves "The Beatles"? Now Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, and Marty Robbins--these were men with talent and names they weren't afraid to use!
Sometime around age seven or so, I learned that all this coddling from family and friends came with a price, and that when it came to being allowed to do things with some risk, things that were really fun, my father suddenly became my greatest ally. My sighted friends were riding bicycles; I thought I should too. My protectors said that this was foolish, but my father said, "You'll have to pay attention to where you're going, so go fast enough that you don't fall over, but slow enough that you can avoid hitting the things you know are in the yard." With every scrape and bruise I was encouraged by my loving protectors to give up on piloting any kind of a moving vehicle and to realize that trying to do so was just plain reckless. My grandfather called his son a damned fool for encouraging me to do something that would get me killed, and when that day came, he'd be the first to go to the prosecutor to provide the needed evidence. But within a few weeks I was riding that bike, and every member of my family rejoiced in how each and every one of them had always told me I could do anything other people could do if only I'd dare to try.
The time came in my development when my father could still be the guiding force in my life, showing me what it meant to be a man, to have integrity, to realize nothing was more important than my honor and my word; but despite all his fatherly advice he couldn't tell me much about what it would mean to be a successful blind man. "You can do anything you set your mind to do" goes only so far when there are clearly things one can't do without sight. Oh, I could work in the hay fields throwing bales onto a moving truck, I could stand atop that truck and deftly stack the bales thrown up to me, but I couldn't drive the tractor to cut that hay or rake it into rows or pull the baler behind me pumping out those bails, which got ever heavier as the day grew longer. I could do odd jobs my father found for me around the farm, everything from feeding pigs and cleaning stalls, to rehabilitating old bricks that had been used in the construction of a schoolhouse by knocking off the mortar so they could be sold and used for new projects, but how I could sell another person on hiring me, how I could get to the job, and how I could ever hope to work in a setting not specially created for me all waited to trip me up as I thought about the next steps I was to take.
One of my childhood interests was radio, and soon I wanted to do more than just listen--I wanted to talk. First it was the walkie-talkies that were all the rage when I was a child; then came CB radio, which truckers would one day make popular in the lyrics of country songs. Inevitably I came to be an amateur radio operator, more commonly known as a ham radio enthusiast. To get that license meant learning the International Morse Code, the basic principles of radio theory, and the regulations governing the operation of a ham radio station.
The books providing this information were readily available on the shelves of electronics stores and the public libraries we visited, but where could they be gotten in a form a blind kid could read? The term "accessible materials" still hadn't been invented, or if it had, certainly it was not a phrase that graced my ever-growing vocabulary. If you could find books you could read, they were something for which you were grateful, not something you thought you had a right to demand. Mostly they weren't produced by institutions but by volunteers whose payment for their hard work was that they got to meet and follow the progress of the blind student they had informally adopted.
Finding books in Braille and on tape inevitably brought me into contact with blind people who shared my interest in radio. One of them was a man named Carl Slavens. His name probably does not appear in any Federation document at the National Center for the Blind, and I doubt any Missourians still remember him. Carl was not a public man--a facial birth defect and fruitless attempts at plastic surgery limiting his exposure to the public to what was absolutely minimal to get along in the world. So badly deformed was he that one day he took a bus trip, and, upon boarding the bus, he heard screams and witnessed a frightened woman hurriedly disembarking. Unsure what all the fuss was about, Carl went on his way, but when night came and he tuned into a local late-night talk show called Night Beat, a distraught woman called to complain that there ought to be a law against monsters being allowed to roam free in the city. She described her trip on public transportation and the hideous creature who had boarded the bus at the location where Carl had entered, and complained that as a pregnant woman she now feared her child would be deformed. Carl understood independent mobility for the blind, the use of the long white cane, and the traffic patterns which, when observed, made it safe for him to walk, but he never again traveled the streets alone.
My friend and first blind mentor worked every day at the Kansas City Association for the Blind and hired his brother, who was a cab driver, to take him to and from work. He made $64 a week and, of that amount, paid $25 in transportation. His brother also did Carl's shopping as time allowed, and this too was a paid service.
He made and kept friends through the safety of the telephone, but Carl's telephone and friendship provided much more than a friendly voice for me. That phone guided me to an experience which forever altered my life. I had always considered learning, teachers, and books just a part of what I did at my stage of life, in much the same way as my father worked for a living. But through our shared interest in ham radio, Carl showed me that I had the capacity to take a subject few people knew anything about and master it with nothing more than a book and my own persistence. No outside force would make me do it. No one would grade me on my performance except the government officials administering the ham radio license exams, and there was no accounting to Mom and Dad for whatever grade I received. This learning was done by my own initiative, and Carl convinced me that I could learn not only radio and electronics, but any number of other things I set my mind to learn. The world expanded, and never was I so proud of an academic accomplishment as when I gained my first, second, and third amateur radio licenses and eventually obtained the highest license offered.
Carl and I shared much more than radio. To some extent Carl lived beyond the walls of his house through me: my stories of horseback riding, figuring out how to ride a bicycle along our country road, and watering an eleven-hundred-pound bull without getting gored in the process. But the street ran both ways, and I learned a great deal from Carl. I learned that being a blind kid wasn't all about romantic stories of Gary the Super Hero doing things no other blind person had ever attempted. Once I told Carl I thought I'd write a book about my life, and with his words, "Yes, I'm not at all surprised you would want to do that," I enjoyed all of three seconds of glory.
"You know," he continued,
"I don't think I've ever met a blind person who didn't think his life was so
fantastic that he should write a book about it. Some have, and some sell, but
mostly they're pretty boring stuff. Do something in the world that's really
worth writing about, and you'll probably be so busy doing it that writing will
be the last thing you have time to do." Feeling kicked in the gut, I told my
friend I was talking on my father's business phone and probably should clear
it for other calls, and I went away about half mad, half broken-hearted, and,
just the least bit grateful for a message I thought I heard in Carl's rebuke--perhaps,
just perhaps, a blind person could do something worthy of the world's notice,
not just because he was blind, but because he had talent and worked around his
When I regained some of my lost courage, Carl and I again talked about other careers. "Maybe I could be a preacher," I said.
"Well, you sound like a believer, but I've never had the impression you've been called to the ministry. Now if you're not called, and if you're not a huckster, maybe we should look at your motives. I bet you've also thought about being a disk jockey."
"Yes, I do like radio."
"I like baseball, but I make a better fan than a third baseman," he said. "Next you'll be telling me you're thinking about becoming a psychologist because, you see, the only thing you're really convinced you can do is talk."
"So what are you trying to tell me, that I have no talent?"
"No, I'm trying to suggest to you that you're not looking for something you love and figuring out how to do it, but looking for something you can do and then trying to figure out how to love it. You're asking yourself what a blind man can do, when you should be asking yourself how you, as a blind man, will do whatever you are called on by talent and temperament to do." I wasn't mad or hurt that time, but I needed a while to think about what he had just said, so again I told him how mad my father got when I tied up his business phone and I'd call when I next could.
Without trying in any way to push me away, Carl began to direct me to other people I could talk with who could tell me what it was like to be an honest-to-goodness blind man. I was afraid of that term, actually hated it, and somehow was convinced that, though I was blind, I'd grow up to be something different. The blind man was the beggar my folks saw when we drove the streets of downtown Kansas City. A blind man was the guy in the shop like Carl--making pens, putting washers on bolts, making brooms, working only around other blind people. Now that was fine for Carl, a person with physical deformities and challenges I could only imagine, but I didn't want to live alone in a rundown house on $64 a week, and I was afraid this was what the future held for me.
There was more to my mentoring than Carl's shooting down my ideas for making a living. "Pay attention to your education," he said. "Learn from history, read the classics, and don't confine yourself to fiction. Fiction is fun, but people are generally paid based on the facts they know. Your family does physical work, and they do very well at it, but it's not something you're likely to be able to do. You'll make more money if you can discipline your mind and make it work for you. I've got a fellow I want you to read--he's a fellow from Tennessee who grew up as poor as a man could, and he's done everything from caning chairs to directing one of the most successful state agencies for the blind in the world."
"What if I don't want to direct an agency for the blind?" I asked.
"Read him anyway. He knows how to write, he knows how to speak, and he knows how to be an administrator. All of those are skills you may find handy some day."
"Okay, I can do that, but is this really relevant to me?"
"You're always telling me that people make you do things that aren't relevant--I guess that's the big word for your generation today--but take my word for it: you haven't a clue what is relevant to you now and what will be relevant to you later on. One thing is relevant to you right now, and it isn't the self-actualization or any other such nonsense they talk to you about these days--it's getting skills and the proper mindset, and once you've got those, you can work on self-actualization and deciding what is relevant."
"Okay, so let's say I read this Jernigan fellow, and what after that?"
"Then you can read some tenBroek, a college professor from California. If you're college-bound, as you should be, listening to a few lectures will do you good."
As you can see, my conversations
with Carl always started off better than they ended, but one does not ignore
what is clearly said in love and sincerity, and for every one of those lectures
I got, my friend endured hour after hour of my talking about me, me, and only
Eventually through Carl I met other people who were more involved in the Federation than Carl felt his physical deformity and limited contact with the public would allow him to be. When I wanted to know more about guide dogs, Carl sent me to a fellow named Jim Couts. Jim would talk with me a bit about dogs and then slowly drift off to talking about this blind group. Jim was an older fellow, and I foolishly assumed he simply couldn't stay on task. After a time I thought perhaps I could trick him into leading me to a person who would talk more about guide dogs and less about the NFB, so I said in my politest tone that I really didn't want to bother him excessively and perhaps he knew of someone who would also be willing to talk about his experience with these wonderful animals. Unsuspecting as he was, he gave me another name and even encouraged me to call this fellow. I did, we talked about dogs, and what do you know--he started down this same road, talking about the opportunities to be gained by associating with this blind Federation. You see, Jim wasn't fooled in the least. He was glad to refer me to someone else, someone closer to my age, who might get across a message he was sending but I was rejecting. The new messenger, thanks to my sneakiness and Jim's cleverness, was Melvin Lewis, the president of the Kansas City Chapter of the NFB, and the man who took every excuse I could throw at him as to why I could not attend a meeting and shot it back to me with a solution for which there was no argument. Did I mention that this Melvin Lewis was a college student--a law student, to be more exact, and one who knew how to make a case and make it stick?
In my time in the Federation I've had many mentors. One fine man named John Cheadle told me I had the ability to lead people and that I should. If I was going to lead, however, I should dress like a leader. He said I should be wearing a suit to Federation events to show respect for the people who had elected me and for the office in which I served. So I bought that garment, a leisure suit as I recall, and another fellow named Tom Stevens taught me to tie a tie on the two-hour trip to a legislative dinner. Until that time I thought the only tie I could use was the kind with the clips one inserted under a shirt collar and clipped on the top button. Proud as punch, I tied my tie, elated at the knowledge that, besides my father, no one in my immediate family knew how to tie a necktie. So off to another meeting I go, this time riding with John Cheadle, and when I give him the opportunity to admire my handiwork, he says that the bow tie I am wearing is a definite improvement over the clip-on, but it doesn't quite fill out the space over my throat, that there is a fancier way to tie a tie, and that he can teach it to me if I dare unbutton my collar. So, with both his hands on the steering wheel and using only words and his occasional glances, I learn to tie what he calls a full Windsor, and true to his word, the new knot does fill up that gap under my throat.
I've since had the pleasure of teaching a number of people to tie their own ties though never have I done so while driving down the road at seventy miles an hour. Some have been glad to learn the skill, others reluctant to admit they didn't know how to do it, and some arguing that their way, which was to have someone else tie the tie and just loosen and hang it between uses was quite sufficient, but the end result is that all have said they now feel better for learning this simple skill.
Any list thanking all my mentors is bound to be flawed and incomplete, because I'll leave out people who have served in this role and leave out important things they've taught me. The first article I ever had published in the Braille Monitor was begun and written in major part by Dr. Maurer and later read by telephone to Dr. Jernigan, who had me correct the grammar on the spot. That article came out under my name with nary a hint it had been crafted primarily by people trying to reveal a talent they thought they saw in me. My friend Bill Neal taught me how to shave with a regular blade, all previous teachers believing that an electric razor was the only safe way for a blind person to shave. Mrs. Jernigan so praised a pair of shined shoes which I had gotten done at an airport that I took up the task of learning to shine them myself, and she continues as my harshest shoe critic. Melvin Lewis told me that, if I had trouble staying awake while listening to boring textbooks on tape, I should study while standing, and if that didn't work, find myself a space and pace. Seldom now do I employ this technique while reading, but lengthy meetings still find me taking to my feet. Now I use the excuse that sitting for prolonged periods is just too hard on a fifty-year-old back.
In reminiscing about the people who have done so very much for me, I'm saddened by my own shortcomings in really being there for others. I don't have those two-hour chats that drew me into this wonderful Federation family. Oh yes, I spend the two hours doing Federation work, but my responses are too often contained in terse little email answers or in my participation in a conference call to map out some strategy for how we're going to accomplish this or that organizational task. I'm too much a volunteer administrator and not nearly enough of a friend providing some direct service and encouragement. To the extent that I work with people directly, my not-very-subtle message really is, "Okay, I've helped you now, so get to work! Write those letters, make some trips, raise some money, and give what you can to this wonderful movement we share."
There's nothing wrong with that message, but I fear the timing is all wrong. I am here, not because I instinctively understood the value of the work we do, but because people demonstrated their friendship for me, caused me to feel friendship for them, and over time caused me to want to be like them. My initial assignments were few and far between. When completed, they were praised lavishly and their importance was probably overrated. When I exercised initiative, it was rewarded, and I came to see that opportunities I had were purchased by a lot of folks I had considered stodgy old codgers who talked way too much about reading minutes, selling candy, and finding places where we could place fruitcakes on consignment.
This initial treatment I received as a yet-uncommitted newcomer contrasted greatly with the one I later received in our Federation. The message soon became, "Now that we know you have some capabilities, you'll get praise when you meet or exceed them and not before. We appreciate what you do, but you're getting to be an adult now, and you won't survive very long on faint praise. We love you, but love isn't always gentle, and it isn't always kind." Now there's a message that sounds remarkably like the one my father repeated over and over again, to which I so strenuously objected as a young child. Federationists went on to say, "You can make it in the world, and if you'll take our help, we'll see that you do. In turn, take stock of what you have been given, and don't consider for a moment how you will repay us as individuals. Instead, think about how you will give to others what we freely give to you."
A burden? You bet! A joyous burden? Absolutely. A gift worth repaying--without a doubt. My mentors have helped me live a life that would be the envy of any sane human being. I have a family, a job, and causes aplenty in which I can make my small contribution to this world we share. Will my name go down with Lincoln or Kennedy or Reagan or Asimov? No. But maybe, if I do the very best I can, it will live for a time in the hearts of others and be reflected in every step they take as my steps are a reflection of John Wunder, Carl Slavens, Tom Stevens, John Cheadle, Melvin Lewis, Marc Maurer, Kenneth Jernigan, Mary Ellen Jernigan, Jacobus tenBroek, and the countless other men and women who have cared about me and have done what they could to give me this rich and wonderful life I now enjoy.