by Kenneth Jernigan
Blind children are as different from each other as sighted children, but this may not hold for every characteristic. If, for instance, blind children want to get along and do well, they have to learn to plan. At least I did.
As I have often said, living on a farm in rural Tennessee in the late twenties and early thirties was altogether different from what we know today. Not only did we not have a radio, a telephone, electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, or a newspaper. We didn't have automobiles either. It wasn't that we didn't know what a car was. It was just that one didn't pass our house on an average of more than once a week. When we wanted to go somewhere, we walked, rode a horse, or traveled in a wagon drawn by two mules.
Besides me, there were three others in that four-room house, my father and mother and a brother, who was four years older than I. Visitors were rare, and the other members of the family were usually busy. As to entertainment, it was scarcežand even reading wasn't available until after I went away to school in Nashville when I was six.
In the circumstances I had to make my shots count, both for the short run and the long run. Early on, I knew that an education was essential if I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in isolation on the farm, which I didn't. I also knew that there would be a fairly brief window of time to set things in motion. After I started school, I spent nine months of every year in Nashville and three months at home on the farm. That meant that I pretty much lost contact with any local children who might have grown up as friends, and it also meant that I would have three months of isolation and boredom if I didn't find something productive to do. And I didn't just want entertainment. Well, that too-but something more, something that would help me get an education, something that would help me get off the farm.
By the time I was in the sixth grade I had started getting Braille and recorded books from the Library of Congress. I ordered from the main library in Washington, from a library in Cincinnati, and from another in Illinois. I don't know whether I was supposed to use only one, but I didn't think it was safe to ask, believing I had better let well enough alone. I spent my summers reading, sometimes (not always but sometimes) twenty hours a day-and I took notes on every book I read, planning to be able to make top grades when I got to college, with time left over for participation in extracurricular activities. I thought this would help me build a record of not just being a book worm. By the time I finished high school I had read hundreds of books and had stacks of bulging folders of Braille notes.
In my senior year of high school (that would have been 1945) I had my first contact with the federal-state rehabilitation program. A counselor came to the School for the Blind, and he and I sat down for a chat in what was called "the parlor." (The school was in an old southern mansion, and the amenities lingered, high-ceilinged parlor and all.) When we got past the niceties, the counselor asked me what I wanted to major in when I went to college. I told him I wanted to be a lawyer. He left the subject, talked for a while about the crops and the weather, and then circled back to it. He asked me to tell him three or four things I might like to do.
I was a late teenager (maybe a brash one), so I told him I didn't need to give him three or four. I wanted to be a lawyer. He was not an unkind man, but when you cut through the verbiage, what he said was clear. I could either be a lawyer and pay for it myself, or I could be something else and the rehabilitation agency would help. Academically I was prepared for college, and I had done what I could as a blind boy growing up on a farm to save money. Also, my dad and mother were willing to do what they could to help. But all of it together wasn't enough, in addition to which I didn't feel right about putting strains on the family finances. In short, I went to college and was something else.
As I have said, the rehabilitation counselor was not an unkind man, and he undoubtedly thought he was acting in my best interest; but I now know that he was wrong. There are, to my personal knowledge, hundreds of successfully practicing blind lawyers in this country today. If the National Federation of the Blind had been stronger at the time and if I had known of its existence, maybe things would have been different. Or, maybe they turned out all right after all.
In any case I started college in the fall of 1945, but the day before I was to enroll, I became seriously ill with a ruptured appendix. So I was six weeks late. Tennessee Tech is located in the hills of upper middle Tennessee, and before the Second World War it had only four or five hundred students. Now, in the fall of 1945, it suddenly had a student body of 2,000, most of them combat hardened veterans. I was the only blind student on the campus, and even though my rigorous planning stood me in good stead, there were touchy moments.
When I went to my first English class, for instance, the teacher said to me publicly: "Young man, you there on the back row, I don't object to your being in my class, but I think it is only fair to tell you that you will fail. A blind person can't do college English." I said I hoped I would get a fair opportunity to try, and he assured me that I would.
Later, the biology teacher was blunter and more terse. I had decided to sit on the front row this time, and the teacher was neither gentle nor kindly disposed. He had obviously had a run-in with the college administration because of me, and he wasn't happy.
His speech went to this effect: "You can sit in this class if you want to, but I can tell youright now that you will fail. I didn't want you here, but the dean made me take you."
When I ventured to say that I hoped I would have an equal opportunity, he replied with what I can only call menace, "Don't worry! You will!"
The next day in laboratory I learned what he meant. There were four of us at each lab table, and I was handed a microscope along with the rest. When I asked what he wanted me to do with it, he said, "It's not my problem. You said you wanted an equal opportunity. Here's your microscope."
Let me not be misunderstood. Almost uniformly I was treated with understanding and respect, and even the English and biology teachers eventually came around. The first quarter each of them gave me a B, but after that I got A's. As a matter of fact, the biology teacher became as belligerently my defender as he had been my detractor.
As the college years went by, I made the grades I had hoped and planned to make, but an experience in my senior year is worth noting. I had become so accustomed to being able to make A's that perhaps I had become careless, or maybe just a little too big for my pants. I had all of the credits I needed to graduate, but just for fun I enrolled in a class for advanced athletes. I was reasonably good at standing on my hands and other gymnastics, but I was totally outclassed. When the coach told me he was going to have to give me a B, I was not disappointed but grateful. Inwardly I felt that I probably deserved an F for presumption. I had no business enrolling in the class in the first place. From that experience I learned a valuable lesson, one that has stood me in good stead for the rest of my life.
I not only made the good grades for which I had prepared during the summers of my boyhood on the farm, but I took part in intercollegiate debating, became a member of the editorial staff of the college newspaper, and got elected to a variety of club and class offices. In addition, I helped pay my college expenses by selling candy, tobacco products, and sundries.
When I finished my degree at Tennessee Tech, I went on to graduate school and later into teaching and other activities, but the basis of it all (the underpinning which made it possible) was the early preparation, the habit of planning I developed as a child.
Today's blind youngsters are, by and large, not discouraged from going to college, and Braille and recorded books are more plentiful than they have ever been. But there are still major obstacles to the blind person seeking a career and a full life. The National Federation of the Blind is now strong enough in every part of the land to play a major role, and public attitudes are better than they used to be. Even so, one thing is unchanged. Planning is still the essential foundation of success.