A LESSON FROM MARSHA

by Barbara Walker

Almost all children test their parents to see just what they can get away with. What if the parent is blind? And what if the parent is blind and the child takes advantage of the blindness? Is it fair? And what does it say about the child's attitude toward the parent and the parent's blindness? With sensitivity, love, and true understanding of herself, her blindness, and her daughter, Barbara Walker (one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind) explores these questions in the story that follows.

"Mom, someone asked me today if I can read Braille because I was wearing my Braille Readers are Leaders sweatshirt." I felt again the depth of my daughter Marsha's acceptance. I know that as she grows, a time may come when she won't want to champion the cause of the blind. I thought that junior high might be that time. But not only has she worn that sweatshirt, but she has also proudly worn her "Braille is finger food for the mind" T-shirt with the "cool Federation logo" on the back. One day she took a copy of some titles she had Brailled along with the print version to show her teacher. She did them on an IBM Braille typewriter which was recently donated to our affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. Without much thought, I can bring to mind many times she has promoted our cause.

There was the time when she took copies of our first Kernel book, What Color is the Sun, to each of her teachers. Inside, she had tucked a Christmas tree shaped note pointing out that the title article was written by her aunt.

When she ran for student council in the fifth grade, she wanted to mention in her speech that I was President of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. I told her how pleased I was that she wanted to do that, but suggested that since she was the one seeking office, it would be more appropriate for her to talk about some of the things she herself has done to further our cause—stamping and stuffing envelopes, helping younger children at our conventions, assisting in sorting and distribution of literature, participating in fundraising, and so on.

That same year, she involved friends of hers in our walk-a-thon, created Braille art, and made a Braille picture card game with me. She is very interested in art, and believes people should be allowed to touch three-dimensional creations whether or not they can visually see them because you experience them more fully that way.

I have complimented her insight and have encouraged her to present that perspective often to others. Since our society tends to emphasize visual learning and to underestimate the value of education through other senses, many, including some artists, may otherwise never consider the treasure which feels so natural to her.

Last summer, while volunteering at a day care home, she took copies of The Encounter (a cartoon book about blindness) for the children to color in. She said, when asking to do that, "If they take them home to their parents, which they usually do with things they make, their parents will read it and learn about blindness."

On another occasion, when I was not present, a man in our church suggested to her that she should see to it that her brother wore clean and appropriate clothes to church. When I heard that this had happened, I asked her what she had said. She told me she had been a little embarrassed about how to answer him, but had ultimately said, "I think that's mom's job." In the midst of all of this, there was one situation which at first seemed to contradict all of the foregoing. Marsha had been wanting to have someone over one evening, and I had said she couldn't because she hadn't earned the privilege. A little while later, she went to the door. I asked if someone had come. She said something noncommittal which, since her brother came in shortly thereafter, I took to mean that he had been the one who was out there.

Moments later, John asked why Seana's bike was in our driveway. I felt stunned. Trembling in disbelief, I went to Marsha's room and knocked on the door. I asked if she was alone in there. When she didn't immediately answer, I opened the door. The smell of Seana's perfume brought with it a suffocating mixture of hurt, anger, mockery, and betrayal. When I found my voice, it was surprisingly low, even, and cool. I asked Seana to leave at once, saying that I was disappointed in both of them. She started to speak, but I cut her off, stating that I didn't want to hear from her then. I added that if she was intending to have me consider her innocent, I didn't. She could have, at several points, rejected the idea, even if Marsha had initiated it.

After she left, Marsha wanted to talk to me. I said I would seek her out when I was ready. I went to my room and cried. There are many kinds of tears. Mine, on that occasion, were not tears accompanied by audible sobs which invite sharing. They were silent tears, spilling unbidden from one too full of pain to contain them; too deep in the aloneness of betrayal to seek human companionship.

I prayed for guidance and strength as I again approached Marsha's room, believing that our relationship would be forever changed by this incident. I was not prepared for what followed. She received me calmly, continuing to tape a poster to her door as I began to talk to her. I asked how she felt about what had happened. She said she didn't feel good about it. I said I felt for the first time that she had deliberately included someone outside our family in taking advantage of my blindness and in doing so she had shaken my trust. She said she knew she had done that and she was sorry. Then she added, "If you were sighted, I would have found a different way to have Seana come." Again I felt stunned. What was she really saying to me? I said to her that I was willing to rebuild our trust. She said she was too.

As I left her room, I began to consider that perhaps we had taken a step forward. Why, after all, should the characteristic of blindness be some sort of touch-me-not fortress protected by delusion from the throes of children's testing? And had it really, through the years, been untested? When, at last, I felt the fresh air sweeping through his deepest hole in my cover, I realized that it was riddled with snags and I was finally willing to let it fall away.

We have all known, all along, that blindness brings with it opportunities for the creative tester. But we often succumb to confusing equal with identical—that is, it's o.k. to acknowledge that children of blind parents will test them in the usual ways, but it's not o.k. to put blindness-related tests in that same category. They are worse, somehow. They take the child beyond the realm of fair game testing into the arena of the dirty player.

That night, I had to ask myself why that is. Over time, I have come to understand that the answer relates to perceptions about blindness. All of us, blind and sighted alike, consider blindness a characteristic with so much on the negative side that even children, whose natural bent is to test limits and explore ramifications of human characteristics, should treat this one with kid gloves. The unfortunate outcome of that process is that the unexplored trait becomes stagnant or brittle, and neither parent nor child knows what it's made of.

I believe, of course, that Marsha's actions were wrong. Both the disobedience and the conspiracy were unacceptable. She endured consequences of that behavior. But after the initial shock of her having included someone outside of the family in this test passed, I realized that it was not in any way a contradiction of the positive approach to blindness she has always expressed.

She is not bamboozled by the facade we so often build when we want to be treated identically rather than equally. Blindness is, in her mind, no more or less sacred than other potentially fertile testing grounds of her parent. I hope we've all learned the lesson well enough that we won't need a refresher course any time soon. If we haven't, it won't surprise me at all if younger brother John steps up to teach it.