by Gary Wunder
From the Editor: Over the weekend of July 25 to 27, 2008, the NFB of Missouri conducted a workshop for middle school students and their parents titled “Mission Believe.” The winter 2009 edition of the Blind Missourian, the publication of the NFB of Missouri, carried written versions of the presentations at the workshop. NFB of Missouri President and National Federation of the Blind Secretary Gary Wunder keynoted the event on Friday evening. His message was so compelling and wise that we are reprinting it here. This is what Gary said:
Welcome to “Mission Believe,” a weekend of fun, enriching experiences, information, a dose of hope, and a whole lot of love to share. One of the first challenges for a speaker is to know the audience who will have to listen to him or her. I know pretty well one part of the audience because I came into the world as a blind child, and some people say I still act like one. The other part of the audience I know less well because, although I am a parent, I've not been the parent of a blind child.
In trying to decide what to talk about, I asked myself a few questions: What would I have listened to and really thought about when I was in the seventh, eighth, or ninth grade if the information was coming from a man old enough to be my grandfather? The next question would be critical. What could I say to parents that wouldn't risk making them mad by trying to suggest to them how they might become better parents? After thinking about this a bit, my conclusion was just to stop, designate this as free time, and let you all go. The coordinators overruled me, so here I am, doing my best to say something that may go with you beyond the weekend and may help you become the successes all of you want to be.
A few weeks ago we had our national convention of the Federation in Dallas, and one of the speakers was a congressman from the state of Texas. Being both a Texan and a congressman, he had a whole lot he wanted to say. One thing lodged in my brain, and perhaps you can benefit from it if I follow his advice tonight. He said that his experiences have shown that a good story is worth more than ten complaints or ten compliments. If the government is doing something wrong, he doesn't want to hear about the decaying infrastructure of the country. He would rather talk about how Joe Smith can no longer get to work using the bus system and offer some solutions. If someone believes the education system is doing something right, then he doesn’t want statistics or test scores or talk about “No Child Left Behind.” He wants to hear about how little Jimmy from Anderson County, one of the poorest in Texas, came from nothing to become a university president for the largest school in Texas. So maybe what I should do this evening is tell a few inspiring stories, some to suggest what you should do if you want to live your dreams and reach for the stars, and some to suggest what you shouldn’t do if you don't want to risk a detour that may well cost you your dreams.
Let me start first with one of the most inspiring stories I know--some of you are moaning inwardly, fidgeting in your chairs, and thinking that this guy is going to make us listen to his whole life story. Yuck! No, I like my story, but it's not all that inspirational, and it's not where I want to start.
I am sure that all of you have heard of Helen Keller. She was blind and deaf after suffering from an extreme fever at the age of two. Almost everyone has also read or heard about her blind teacher, Annie Sullivan, who singlehandedly took a young child who behaved more like a wild animal than a human being and helped her become an accomplished speaker, an author, and unquestionably the most prominent deaf-blind person of the twentieth century.
But no, I'm not going to tell you much of Helen's story either because it is told in many books and even in a movie. I want to tell you about a young man born eight years after Helen, a blind kid who had an overwhelming desire to become a doctor. His name was Jacob Bolotin, and in his day it was very unusual for blind people to attend school or to do anything except sit around the house. When Jacob’s parents took him to the local public school, the principal looked at Jacob, then looked them straight in the eye and said, “We have no place for your child here.” Luckily there was a school for the blind that Jacob could attend, and, though because of distance it meant going for years without seeing his parents, Jake attended that school--sounds like Ray Charles’s beginnings that you may have heard about as depicted in the movie abut this award-winning performer. Anyway, Jake went on to earn good grades, made himself lots of friends, and graduated at the top of his class, another success story with persistence.
When Jacob went to school, there were no aides to help him from one class to another. Nobody said that, because he was blind, he could go to the head of the lunch line or start for lunch five minutes ahead of everyone else. Nobody said he shouldn't learn Braille because that would make him different. Jacob’s difference was already a fact. What was unclear was whether that difference would strengthen or stifle him, and the school had determined to do everything it could to graduate a student as competent and capable as his brains and talent would allow.
In 1895 no laws said that Jacob was entitled to a free and appropriate education. Jacob had no hi-tech equipment, and, in fact, the Braille writer, the tape recorder, the computer, the BrailleNote, the PAC Mate, and the CCTV were decades in the future. So what did Jacob have? First, he had an attitude which said, “I get to go to school,” and not “I have to go to school.” Second, he had teachers who believed their blind students could learn. They knew Braille was the key to literacy, and, if their students had even the slightest chance to go anywhere in life, they would have to master reading and writing. Certainly Jacob was blessed with intelligence, motivation, and creativity, but most of all he had a dream, and it didn't matter to him how many people said his dream was impossible--he was going to be a doctor.
When Jacob left high school at the head of his class, no one besides him had any idea what he might do. They knew what he said, but in Jacob's day blind people didn't work or raise families or run for political office or give their time to helping the community. Blind people were thought of as helpless, pitiable unfortunates, and it was just expected that their families would care for them until the day they died. Think about that!
Today we have a rehabilitation program that will send blind people for training, including a college degree and, if warranted, medical school. But in Jacob's day there was no rehabilitation program for the blind. If he was to go beyond high school, he had to raise the money to pay for his books, supplies, transportation, and tuition. This he did by walking the streets of Chicago selling brushes, matches, and typewriters. After a couple of years, when he worked fourteen hours a day and found he wasn't making enough money to help his family and still save something for medical school, Jacob went to the head of the typewriter company and asked, not just to work in Chicago, but to be in charge of sales for three states. The skeptical owner felt he had to say yes to his best salesman, and four years later he reluctantly said good-bye to this young blind man with his foolish dream, his parting words being that, when Jacob returned to his senses, there would always be a job waiting for him at the typewriter company.
Now, if that dream of Jacob's had really been foolish or just a dream, I wouldn't be telling you about it today, but Jacob Bolotin made it come true. He figured out how to feel and hear what others saw with their eyes, graduated with honors from his medical school, developed a practice, won the respect of his colleagues, and was frequently called by other physicians for consultations. It is said that, when he died, more than five thousand people came to his funeral. Think about a man whose influence was so profound that five thousand people felt compelled to say their good-byes. That’s the kind of turnout one expects for congressmen, senators, and governors, but not for a blind man.
Okay, I don't want to spend all day talking about the blind doctor, but any of you who want to learn more about him should consider reading the book which, not surprisingly, is called The Blind Doctor: The Jacob Bolotin Story. Now you would think that if Jacob could accomplish all he did a century ago, we should have it easy today, but you would be only partially right. As scary as it is, only about three out of every ten blind people of working age actually have a job in our country. That means seven out of ten blind people don't. Why? The person who can answer that question should be here speaking rather than me, but I do have some ideas. Rather than spout off my theories, another story might be easier for me to tell and for you to hear.
A young student at the School for the Blind when I was there seemed to have a great future ahead of him. Jeff was a wrestler; was popular with the women; and made really, really good grades. He was an upper classman, and I was a seventh grader who idolized him. When I made it to college, Jeff was a graduate student. When I graduated, sure enough Jeff had a job--what an encouragement it was to know it could be done, and there he was, leading the way.
What happened then I can’t really explain. One day he had a job doing psychological testing. The next thing I knew, he had quit his job. I talked with him for a few months, and he said he was “in transition.” Now that made some sense to me; maybe he was on his way to something better. A year or two later he was still trying to get things together. After five years he was “weighing his options.” Fifteen years after his first and only job, he was back living with his parents and telling me that there were so many possibilities he couldn’t figure out what to do.
What would his options have been were he a sighted man? He would not have had the opportunity to rely on Social Security and Blind Pension until he “weighed his options.” The long and short of it, at least from what I could observe, is that he wasn't hungry, he had a roof over his head, and nothing or no one was urgently saying that all of this would change if he didn't go back to work. People might have wondered why a man with so much education didn't have a job, but they didn't question him in the same way they would have questioned Uncle Joe, who had sight.
In my heart what I've told you is a sad story because my friend was a man with a good mind, maybe even a brilliant mind. Was he a casualty of the system or a user of the system? I don't know, and I'm not sure he does. But what I do know is that his life experience has value for you this evening because, if he could get trapped by too many choices and too few expectations, so can you. But, as they say, to be forewarned is to be forearmed, so we learn what can happen when temporary indecision becomes a lifelong trait and when eventually it becomes just too scary to decide to do anything at all.
I've seen many of these sad stories in my life, often at times when I have least expected them. One day, while I was on a bus traveling across Missouri, a man with a familiar voice came up to me and asked my name. It turned out he and I had been classmates when I spent two years at the school for the blind. It had been fifteen years since he had graduated from high school, and we began to chat--did I remember Debbie, and what had become of her? Did I ever hear from Terry, and how was he doing? I asked him similar questions. All of this was normal enough for two old friends until we tried to talk about life after school, life in the present, and plans for the future. The response to every question I asked him about life after high school was “Oh, nothing.” “Well, not much.” It soon became clear that for him the only part of his life that had meaning was the time he spent at the school for the blind. Those were the times he cherished--the times when he had friends, played sports, and attended parties. It hurts me deep down in the gut to think about a man not yet middle-aged who already believed the best part of his life was over. I love my childhood, my school days, the memories and the friends, but my world is what's happening today, what I think will happen next week, and the things I would like to make happen in the next year.
Then there is Jessie, the blind man who called and left me a message on my answering machine--he had something really exciting to tell me, he said--something he said was the high-point of his year. I got excited too and called him right back. His news--he said a new radio station was coming to Columbia, and it would play easy listening music. I waited to discover the excitement--was he going to get a job there; did his family own the business; maybe his sister was a DJ? No, none of that--his excitement, the most exciting thing in his year, was that Columbia was going to have an easy listening station.
Now I like the radio--I bet you like the radio, but, when was the last time some radio station coming to town was the most exciting thing in your year? I wanted to cry out, "Hey man, get a life," but he was living the best life he knew, and I doubted there was anything I could say or do to change it at his age.
I'm going to finish with a final story which represents neither great success nor heart-rending tragedy. I knew this blind fellow who, for the moment, will remain nameless. He went to a small country school starting in the eighth grade. Unlike Jacob Bolotin’s experience in being denied entrance to his public school, this school was glad to have a blind student. The principal and the superintendent let him know they’d never had a blind youngster before, and that made him feel like a real pioneer. With no hassle and every expectation he’d do well in the future, this young fellow was admitted without a hitch.
In his time at the small country school, people bragged on him all the time because he was a rather pleasant guy to have around; made friends pretty easily; got along with all the teachers; and, most important, he didn’t cause any trouble. But if you looked below the surface, how was he as a student? Most of the time he made average grades, though the funny thing was that lots of people said he was pretty smart. Why was a pretty smart guy making Cs? Perhaps because in his family Cs were good enough. Perhaps because in his school there were no blind people to use as yardsticks, and maybe, just maybe, that’s the best a blind kid could do in a public school.
What about the student? How did he feel about getting average grades? Well, he kind of wanted to be in the Honor Society and was disappointed he was slated to finish twenty-second in a class of forty-three, but somehow it was just easier to keep doing what he was doing and wait for something to change.
You see, people so respected this young man that they put him in charge of his own education. He would tell them what it was reasonable for a blind person to take. He would tell them what books were available in what subjects and where those books could be ordered. If he said that to do well he needed a math book in Braille and that no Braille copy was available, well then, they would suggest that math wasn’t a very good option to pursue and that maybe a bit more history, maybe auditing a biology class, maybe general math and then they could think about algebra next year. That sounded like a good idea to him, certainly easier than the algebra or the trigonometry. At one point this supposedly bright student was taking four classes and three study halls in a seven-hour day. Everybody thought he was college bound, but he certainly wasn’t taking the classes other bright students were taking in preparation for their time after high school.
Once he understood that he was in charge of the courses he would take and how many he would take, this fellow, who thought himself so very clever, set the bar only as high as it was comfortable for him to step over. He was blind--there was no need for him to jump. There were some real disadvantages to being blind, so, if he could cut a corner here or there and make blindness work for him, what was wrong with that?
What it took our young friend a long, long time to figure out was that decisions he was making--by not taking advanced math, by not focusing on the sciences, by not doing all the exercises in diagramming his English sentences, not reading his history in advance for the inevitable pop quizzes, not turning in his English assignments but giving his papers to someone else and then being surprised when they got lost--all defined him and placed limits on him which he'd have to work very, very hard to overcome.
What this young man was slow to realize in his mind, but felt deeply in his heart, was the difference between being at the game and being in the game. School is not meant to be a spectator sport for students, but too many of us who are blind find ourselves on the sidelines watching while others do the science experiments, read their essays aloud, demonstrate how to work out a math problem for the class, or use the latest computerized learning tools.
So this young fellow, who watched as men traveled to the moon and who hoped someday to follow them, had a wonderful life plan that he clung to in his dreams and a very different course he followed day after day. You know by now that the young man I’m talking about was me, and it wasn't until I was nearly a senior in high school that it hit me how many of the shortcuts I was so proud of in my school career would turn out to be dead ends if I didn't do something about them. I was very late in realizing that school was supposed to prepare me for the kind of life I wanted to live, and not just something to be endured, shrugged off, or short-changed with tricks to make my life easy. What I slowly came to understand was that I was passing up my opportunity to go to the stars, passing it up by being lazy, disorganized, unfocused, and content to be the person everybody thought of as exceptional, though I knew at some level that I was not behaving in a way that justified their praise and admiration. Those astronauts who walked on the moon were achievers who relied on math and science as I relied on water and air. NASA hadn't recruited them by saying, “Hey, let's look at the bottom half of the class and see if we can find people dumb enough to sit on this fiery stick we’re going to send into space.” No, they were looking for the best minds they could find to tackle the most exciting challenge of the twentieth century, and the man who sits here before you would never have a part in anything like that because he made different decisions without even knowing he was making a choice.
Parents, let me plant one or two thoughts with you. No matter how good your child, no matter how kind or courteous, don’t let him set his course alone. Don’t expect her to be more mature than a thirteen-, fourteen- or fifteen-year-old can be. When your son says he’d rather not learn Braille because that will make him different and at the same time says he can't read the class assignment because it hurts his eyes, you have to step forward to say, “My child must have a way to read and write efficiently. If it’s something he can’t do without straining his eyes, if it hurts him so much he doesn’t enjoy reading, then I demand that my child be given competent instruction in the reading and writing of Braille.”
When your daughter says she can't take math because she can't see the board and needs her textbook in Braille, find out where you can get that Braille and ask blind mathematicians how they got by without seeing the board. When someone says to you that your child can't take biology because they dissect frogs, ask what makes getting her hands dirty any more of a problem than for her sighted friend who will be working on the table next to her, dissecting another frog. If there are things that can be gained only by directly using sight, help figure out a way for that information to be conveyed aurally or tactilely. If your child sees well enough to get around fine in the daytime but makes excuses about not wanting to do this or that thing at night when the light is poor, demand that he be given instruction in the use of the long white cane and help him welcome it as one more tool in his arsenal to be successful in the world.
Most of all, don't just assume everything is okay because the grades you see are passable and your child isn't getting in any trouble. Those aren't the measures which separate fair, good, and excellent. If your child is capable of excellence, demand it; if capable of good, make sure you get the good and rejoice in it. Don't ask or allow your child to be in charge of something that is well beyond her judgment and maturity to handle without you. Yes, you may have other children; undoubtedly you come home tired after work; yes, you say there are laws to see that my child gets whatever he needs, professionals to tell me what those needs are, and people whose jobs are to see that those needs are met. But right now I'm not talking to you about theory or what should be. I’m talking about opportunities your child will have or will be denied based upon your direct involvement. Okay, no parents walking out–that’s good.
When I walked across the stage of my high school on graduation day, I got a standing ovation, and it was the first time I ever saw my dad cry in public. Whether they knew it or not, the people applauding were recognizing my presence, not acknowledging any special accomplishment. Their recognition was for my being there physically, but not for the mark I made in the history of the school with a prize for science, with a first-rate article in a writing contest, or for taking first place in a math competition. I had the ability to bring those things to the stage that evening, but I didn't because it wasn't required, because I didn't know I could, and because no one helped me connect the dots and do what I should have done to distinguish myself in school.
What saved me, I think, was that I got scared, realized that soon school would be over, and, if I was going to succeed at something, I’d have to work and work hard. My last year in high school found me in the National Honor Society, and in my first summer orientation in college, when the dean of the school of arts and sciences said, “I want each of you to look to your right and your left. At the end of your freshman year, one of the three of you will be gone because you won’t measure up,” I vowed to myself and knew in my heart that I would not be the student who was absent. I didn’t know whether to feel pity for the guy on my right or be sorrowful for the gal on my left, but I knew I was there to stay. My days of taking the easy road were over. I wanted to jump over the same bar as others. I wanted the chance to compete. Maybe I had too much catching up to do to be the valedictorian, those who had already taken calculus, the people who already had good study habits and a track record of success. No, the Ivy League schools I had placed out of my reach, but what I couldn't change in the past I was determined to change in my future.
What I wanted more than anything was to get an education, find a job, and grow a family as happy and loving as the one my parents provided for me. I wanted to become the kind of man my father would respect and the kind of son my mother would be proud to call her own. Thank God that has all come to pass for me, but it happened because of agencies like RSB, who helped me catch up, because of schedules in college that found me studying twelve to fourteen hours a day, and because of some good fortune for which I will always be grateful, but will never be able to explain.
If I had studied harder in school, might I have been the commander of a shuttle flight or some kind of crew specialist with some time spent in space? Realistically I think the answer is no. It's difficult to conceive of piloting a ship that goes 17,000 miles per hour when I can't yet drive a car down a highway at seventy. But the truth is that, had I studied hard, brought more focus to my work, and been given high expectations by those who should have been helping me set them, I might now be working for NASA as one of several blind people who hold important jobs with the agency and are helping to put people into space.
So what advice do I hope you have gleaned from the stories I've shared this evening? Don’t be put off by blindness if there is something you really want to do. Don’t think you've done something really wonderful when people praise you for things a six-year-old should be able to do. Don’t make or take shortcuts because you believe blindness entitles you to them. Don’t take so long to weigh your options that one day you find you are too old to have options or too scared to exercise them. If you need to learn skills such as Braille or cane travel, learn them now--these are the skills which, when learned early, allow one to become proficient in a way which is just not possible for a person who learns them later in life.
Finally, find some blind people who can help you figure out when problems you face are truly related to blindness and when there are already tried and true solutions. My turnaround as a senior in high school didn’t happen because one day I woke up smarter. It happened because I began to associate with other blind people who started asking me, “Why aren't you doing more with what you've got?” Blind people were the first to tell me, “You can do anything you want,” and then they led me to people doing those jobs. Blind people were the first to turn thumbs-down on my idea of writing a book about my remarkable life when they said, “You should not spend any time thinking about writing about your life until you do something worth writing about.” At that moment I hated and loved those blind people in the National Federation of the Blind, hated them because they hurt my ego by shooting down one of my most prized fantasies, and loved them because they were telling me I could participate in the world as a full and equal human being if only I had the courage to believe and the drive to work hard.
Perhaps there is one other thing you should take away tonight--never offer to listen to a keynote speech after a big meal. It's awfully hard to be polite and stay awake with a full stomach and a guy who just keeps on talking and talking.
We are all here because we share a common belief--you believe we have something to give to you, whether it is education, training, or a weekend of fun. We are here because we too believe we have something to give. But, beyond this, we in the National Federation of the Blind are here this weekend because we want to add to and become a part of your family, and we want you to become a part of ours. We want to be your cheering section when you succeed, your help in times of adversity, your advocate when you need help convincing some school district or state agency that you need something, and your mentors when you want to try something you think is new and you wonder if and how it can be done. We are here because we love you. We care about what happens to you today, tomorrow, and for all of your tomorrows. Through you we are all joined in a cause larger than ourselves. Because people are individuals responsible for themselves, we cannot own your success or failure personally, but we can smile with joy occasionally when we see one of you fly.
All of us, working together, will change what it means to be blind for your generation, and maybe, just maybe, if we do it right, the impossible dreams we have dreamed for ourselves will one day be the lives you live and the history you help write for the blind of America. May one of you be the first woman or man to set foot on Mars, and when you do, perhaps you could sprinkle a few of my ashes there, knowing how much I'd like to have been in your place and knowing that you made the choices that allowed you to leave the confines of earth and travel among the stars.
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