Braille Monitor                                                 April 2011

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Ode to a Mentor and a Friend

by Ryan Strunk

Ryan StrunkFrom the Editor: The following article appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, a publication of the NFB of Minnesota. It captures the way many of us felt and have come to feel about our teachers--the good ones--the ones we used to say we didn't like but who challenged us enough that we knew there were standards to meet, goals to achieve, and a person to satisfy who actually demanded something of us. We detested and then came to love these special people for not making allowances and excuses because we were blind. I wish I had had the good sense to write something like this for my first public school teacher while she was still living. Here is the article, including the original editor's note:

Bulletin Editor's Note: This is the winner of the 2010 Metro Chapter essay contest. Ryan grew up in Fremont, Nebraska. He is a communications instructor teaching Braille and computer at Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions (BLIND); is a past president of the National Association of Blind Students, an NFB division; and is a member of the Metro Chapter of the NFB of Minnesota. We are glad to have him in Minnesota.

From age two to age eighteen I had the privilege of working with Kim Adams on everything from learning Braille to cooking to traveling independently--all skills in which many of today's blind youth never receive training. Because of Kim's excellent teaching and boundless dedication, I am able to lead a normal, productive life.

But Kim's story is also our story. The time and effort she was willing to put forth to ensure that her students received the training we would need to be competent, successful blind people is the same work each of us in the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota does every time we advocate for the rights of blind people. Every time we hold ourselves and the public to a higher standard of expectations, we raise the bar that much higher for those who will come after us, and, though some may tell us we are being unrealistic or expecting too much of blind people, we, the blind, know better.

Kim Adams is retired from the public school system now, but she continues to work to improve the lives of blind children across the country. She is still active in the National Federation of the Blind, and she still believes wholeheartedly in the capabilities of blind people. When Kim retired in 2008, her coworkers asked those of us who had learned from her to write our reflections for her in a scrapbook. I include my remarks here as a public thanks to Kim for helping me to become the man I am today. At the same time, however, I include them here to show just how much of an impact the work we do can have. Kim's story is our story, and our story is a great one.

Dear Kim,

I wonder if there is a nice way to tell someone he or she is mean. I suppose it all depends on how I write it and how you take it. I hope, though, that as you read what amounts to a heartfelt roast--one out of love, of course--you will keep in mind that, as far as I'm concerned, you did everything right.

Kim, let's be honest with one another. I mean really, really honest. You're mean, okay? Sometimes you're downright cruel! Five detentions for not writing down my assignments? And not once, but three or four times. That's fifteen to twenty detentions. That's seven and a half to ten hours of my life that I'll never get back. Granted I've spent more than that in front of the Nintendo on a good weekend, but I mean, really!

Everyone else got their books from the teachers. Not me. I had to order my own books, all the time. So unfair. You made me sew. You made me cook. You made me vacuum your house. I am not your maid. I had to miss lunch in first grade so I could sit in a dark classroom with you and learn to cut meat. If God had wanted us to use forks, he wouldn't have given us fingers. I had to walk around with sleepshades on--in public--in front of people! "What are you?" they asked--"a burn victim"? "Why do you have those things on your face?"

I had to miss class to study Braille. "He's so lucky," they said. "He gets out of class fifteen minutes early." Yeah? Well, while you guys were studying your aquamarine and teal readers, I was prancing my happy bootie up and down the sidewalks learning to cross streets and shoreline. Lucky me, huh?

Do you have any idea how hard it is to write with a slate and stylus? You do? Well, do you have any idea how hard it is to write with a slate and stylus on an empty stomach? You don't care? Well I'll just starve, then. See how you like it! You called me blind! You wouldn't even let me hide behind the false security of political correctness. "I'm not blind; I'm optically occluded." and I could go on….

I wonder why it never struck me before that there was more to your style than my perception of your sadism. Probably because, when you're a child and a kid and a preteen and a teenager and a young adult, life is unfair. I should get what I want, regardless of whether or not it is what I deserve. So you were mean—and, if we're still being honest, you were more than mean. If we printed what I really thought about you sometimes, this book would probably catch fire.

I have to wonder as I'm writing this what you're thinking at this point. Are you blushing? Are you quaking with righteous indignation? Are you holding fast to grim resolve? "So what if I was mean," you might be saying to yourself. "It was for your own good." I hope it's the last of those, because despite my grumbling and grouchiness, my wheedling and whining, my cursing and complaining, my bartering and bit…--well, you get the picture--I think I may just have turned out okay, and I owe much of it to you.

As I look back on it now, I realize what a pain in the neck I was, and for that I'm sorry. I think, though, on some level it really was sinking in--with glacial slowness, of course--but sinking in nonetheless.

You gave me detentions for not writing down my assignments. You even gave me a couple for negligent behavior (not wearing my watch to school). But I eventually started wearing that watch, and I started filling the pages of those handi-books with my cramped abbreviations. You caught me lifting my sleepshades while walking around my babysitter's block. You were supposed to be waiting back at the house. All you did was clap your hands once, and I was reduced to paroxysms of guilty tears.

You even told me once that, if I fiddled with the typewriter and broke it, you'd stop working with me. You know, I never again fiddled with that typewriter, despite all my curiosity. I think the thought--even then--of losing your teaching scared me enough that I knew I had to do the right thing.

But the cruelest part? I wasn't the only one who fought you. You have spent your whole life working in a field where little is usually expected of the people you serve, and it hasn't always been comfortable for you. The status quo has very little room for blind people with college degrees, blind people with jobs, or blind people with any semblance of a normal life, and, because you chose to defy the status quo, you faced any number of uphill battles, blacklists, and irate teachers.

I was wrong, though, and so are they. I used to think nasty thoughts about you. I used to think you were unfair and unkind. I never realized that what I took as unfairness was really a dose of reality in a world that was happy to give me everything I wanted and nothing I needed. I never realized that what I took for unkindness was really tough love in a world that would be soft for me on purpose.

You are a rare gem, Kim. You are the treasure I never realized I had until I had already grown rich. You polished and shaped me, and through it all--the late nights, the weekends, the missed lunch breaks, the countless hours of devotion--you never lost your own gleam and sparkle. Thank you for your love, your dedication, and your hard work. I could not be where I am today without you.

Are you mean? Absolutely! But you're the kind of mean you can justify; you're the kind of mean that gets results. I know that, as you go through life, you won't ever lose that. You'll stay strong, you'll stay focused, and you'll keep your determination; and the world will be a better place because you're in it.

With all my love,
Ryan

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