The Circumference of our Minds
by Joanne Wilson
It was once said that whoever controls the circumference of our minds controls the circumference of our beings. The year was 1966; I was a young college student struggling with the problems of how to function as a blind person. I was dragged to my first encounter with blind people, which was a student seminar held at the Iowa Commission for the Blind.
After the day's events the students were invited to a fancy restaurant to relax and enjoy each other. I was seated next to Dr. Jernigan. I sat in awe and listened and knew that something important was about to happen. As I was leaning over the candle in the middle of the table trying to read my bill so I could pay for my meal, Dr. Jernigan suddenly asked me, "Joanne, are you blind?"
I said, "No, no, I'm not blind--I just can't see very well."
He held up his hand and said, "How many fingers do I have up?"
I said, "Well, I can sort of see your hand there, but I can't exactly tell how many fingers you have up."
He said, "Joanne, you're blind." The talk that followed was like nothing I had ever heard. That night and in the months and years to follow, a voice was put to all the confusion and funny notions about blindness that I had in my mind. I was taught to define philosophy. I was given knowledge, belief, and most of all hope.
I went to the Iowa Commission for the Blind, and I learned many things. I learned skills. I learned a philosophy about blindness, but I also learned how to get political influence and how to build an organization, how to be a leader, how to get elected and stay elected, how to give a speech, how to be an advocate, how to have discipline and work real hard. I learned how to play; I learned how to love; and I learned how to give.
Dr. Jernigan was always teaching and sometimes even used words. Everything that Dr. Jernigan did from the ordinary to the spectacular, from ordering a meal to giving a banquet speech, always seemed to have a purpose and to be a part of something bigger, to be a part of building a great movement. All his actions and all his works were part of something bigger.
He taught me how to make my day-to-day activities count and to be a part of a bigger cause. I remember one day, when we students were sitting in our discussion groups, Dr. Jernigan came into the room and started telling us about a legislative banquet that we were going to have in a couple of weeks. He started assigning jobs to us--explaining how we were going to help set up the tables and get things organized and mix and mingle with the legislators. Then he told us we needed to buy our tickets and pay for another person's ticket. We said, "What? we don't have any money--why, we ought to get our meal for free. We're going to do all this other work." Well, a discussion ensued. It was the first time I heard the words, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." At that legislative banquet we all stood with pride and dignity when Dr. Jernigan got up and said to the legislators, "Your meal has been bought by a blind person."
I remember another time. It was about 5:30 in the morning. I was sound asleep in my dorm room at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, and suddenly there was a rap at the door. My heart pounded, and I heard Dr. Jernigan out there saying, "Hurry, hurry Joanne come to my apartment immediately. It's urgent." I heard him go up and down the hall, knocking on other students' doors saying, "Hurry, hurry, come immediately to my apartment." We all rushed down there. We had our robes on, and I had big rollers in my hair and my flip flops on, and my night cream was dripping from my face. We ran in there with our hearts pounding. We gathered in his living room, and he said, "Surprise, come as you are party."
We learned, and we began to live what we learned. Where were you when you heard of the death of Dr. Jernigan? On that October 12, I was in a fancy restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas, relaxing after a hard day of rock climbing with the students at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. My cell phone rang; I took the phone and went to a quiet part of the restaurant and heard the news. On my way back to my table in the restaurant, I felt confused and sad. I felt empty and uncomfortable. What should I do next?
I sat down at my table and looked around. There at my table were young college students struggling with the problems of how to function as blind people. I thought, "Dr. Jernigan, even at this moment you are teaching me a lesson." I had a flashback to my first dinner with Dr. Jernigan, and I knew he was telling me to pass it on. We had made the full circle. I was there to give the knowledge, the belief, and the dreams to these blind students. I was there to be their voice and to give them a defined philosophy about blindness. Whoever controls the circumference of our minds controls the circumference of our beings. Thank you, Dr. Jernigan, for helping us be.