bm980712.jpg (6137 bytes)

Meeting the Challenge

by Mary Willows

From the Editor: This story first appeared in the thirteenth Kernel Book, Wall-to-Wall Thanksgiving. It begins with Dr. Jernigan's introduction:

I sometimes ask people (both blind and sighted) to list the problems they think blind people face. One that I think is most critical rarely shows up near the top of the list, but Mary Willows, a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of California, zeroes in on it as she talks about meeting the challenge. Here is what she has to say about how she came to believe in herself:

As a child growing up in Chicago, I suppose I did all the things city kids do: Girl Scouts, baton majorette, cheerleader, something of a cellist, violinist, and otherwise an average student academically. I am the second oldest of six and the oldest of the girls. Fortunately for me, my mother always needed help with housework. So I learned early to be pretty independent. This really paid off for me in high school.

It was during my freshman year that I unexpectedly and suddenly became blind in a car accident. I had thought of one day becoming a teacher, but after the accident that just didn't seem possible. I wasn't sure what the future held in store for me. I knew that I had to find something to do with the rest of my life. But what?

As time went on, I decided that being a psychologist seemed reasonable and appropriate for me. I liked working with people and usually developed a good rapport with those I met. Besides, that way I could open my own business and not have to face the rejection of trying to convince an employer to hire me. I just did not believe anyone would want to hire a blind person.

I managed to get a couple of little jobs while I was in college. I stuffed Christmas stockings one year in what I now know was actually a sheltered workshop. I also got a job as a clerk/typist in a company that went bankrupt. So much for that idea. However, I had heard about that job from a blind girl who told me that she knew blind people who were doing all kinds of jobs. "Anything you can think of, there's probably a blind person already doing it," she told me.

She asked me what I wanted to be—never mind the blindness. I said that I had thought about teaching. She said she knew several blind teachers, and she would introduce them to me. She offered to let me share a room with her at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in downtown Chicago during July of 1972.

So I went to see for myself. I met teachers, all right—and lawyers, and secretaries and students. Yes, blind students who were pulling straight A's. I met someone who showed me how to use a slate and stylus. He said it was like a pen and paper. It looked like a little metal piece of framework with a hinge on the left. He showed me how to slip a piece of paper inside, close it, and write anything I wanted to in Braille using the notches that were already cut for me in the framework. He used it in all of his classes to take notes.

They used long white canes. They talked about their jobs and their families and their goals for themselves. I was beginning to recognize the challenge, and I started to believe that maybe these things were possible for me too.

I did get my bachelor's degree in psychology, but by that time I was ready for yet another challenge—my master's degree. I still never told anyone that what I really wanted to do was to teach children in a regular classroom, because I didn't believe I could do it. About that time I met Jim Willows, a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of California. We were married and now have two boys.

Children ceased being little creatures from outer space to me. Far from it: I have cared for as many as seven at a time in my home. I learned to believe in myself by putting one foot in front of the other. That little flicker had become a burning flame. I was ready to accept the challenge of returning to school for my elementary teaching credential.

I identified three areas of concern for myself: how to get around independently in an unfamiliar environment; how to write things down quickly for later use; and how on earth to control thirty-three youngsters. I believe in taking one step at a time and solving problems as they occur.

My first action as soon as I knew the name of the school where I would be doing student teaching was to investigate the grounds. I recalled that I knew a blind child who attended that school, so I asked her to be my mobility instructor for the day. She was pleased and proud to give me the grand tour.

Many schools in California are made up of small buildings called pods. Since I did not know the classroom I would be in, we located all the rooms. We even found the janitor's office. She showed me where assemblies were held, where the library was located, and how to find the swings on the playground. Since I did not know which grade level I would be working with, it was impossible to obtain any of the texts in advance.

When the time came for me to begin teaching lessons, I prepared myself with Braille notes. I used a slate and stylus for any last-minute instructions from the teacher who was supervising my work. I scheduled ample readers in the evenings so I could preview material for the next day. If there were papers to collect after a lesson, I put them into a file folder with my Braille notes so that I knew what those papers were. That evening I directed a reader in correcting the papers.

Long white cane in hand, slate and stylus in my backpack, I set out finally to become an elementary school teacher. On my first day of student teaching, my heart was pounding. There I was standing in front of a class of thirty-three very intimidating fourth graders.

My master teacher suggested that I take the children one at a time to the back of the room and let them interview me. They could ask me anything they wanted to know. So I did, and they did. They wanted to know about my slate and stylus. So I decided to seize the opportunity and slipped two 3-by-5 cards into my slate and wrote each child's name while we were talking. By the end of forty minutes I not only had all their names written in Braille, but I also had time to connect names with voices. Within my first week I became responsible for the weekly spelling tests.

I also supervised reading and math groups. Each week the teacher read the spelling words to me so I could put them into Braille. This was another time that I was glad I knew how to use a slate and stylus. This is a skill every blind teacher should have.

My third area of concern was discipline. The first time I was left in charge of the students, they were all over the place. I could have died because my supervisor was sitting right there. Of course the other student teachers at the university were having the same problems. The students were having a field day with their new teacher.

Once I demonstrated to them that I could write the names of the guilty on the board, they decided that I was the boss; and they settled down. I do not let my own children get away with anything, so why should these?

The very next day I was put to the test. I had to take many different reading groups over to the cafeteria to practice the plays they had been learning. I had never been in a play, so this was going to be interesting. I knew I could direct these plays, and I did. I sat each group down at the end of the stage and showed them my slate with paper in it. I said I wanted to hear only the actors. If I heard anything else, the guilty person's name would be written down and later copied on the blackboard. There were only two who tested me.

Student teachers typically start off with the responsibility of escorting the class from the playground into the classroom after the morning bell and after recess. This meant locating my students among the nine hundred others. This was no problem, for when they saw me, they all called my name, which made it easy to locate the line. The line of students did not move until I gave the word. I did not give the word until there was silence. Their own teacher was impressed.

Each morning I chose a monitor to assist with the absentee list and the lunch count. I told the monitor what to write on the absentee slip. I had the students look left and then right and tell me who was missing. For the lunch count I had them raise hands; the monitor wrote that count.

I hope that sharing some of my techniques might encourage others who think teaching is impossible because of blindness. In the National Federation of the Blind we say that, given proper training and reasonable opportunity, a blind person can compete with sighted peers and do just as well or just as poorly. The real difference is in whether or not we believe in ourselves. Belief in ourselves is the true key to success, no matter what the challenge, no matter what the task.