by Marc Maurer
As readers of previous Kernel Books know, Marc Maurer is President of the National Federation of the Blind. He spends much of his time helping other blind people come to believe that blindness need not prevent them from working or playing or achieving success. But how did he come to believe this himself? Partly through his mother's good sense. Here is how he tells it:
Childhood is often regarded as a time of cheerfulness and joyand certainly I believe it should be like that. However, I also believe that children have the same depth of emotional feeling that adults possess. Not only love and joy but black despair and bitterness can be the experiences of childhoodand towering anger. It happened to me when I was six.
I was born blind, but I had a bit of remaining vision. I did not know that I was blind until I was five years old. Nobody ever told me. When I was standing on the front porch, I could see that there was a tree in our yard out by the street. When I stood next to my father's car, I could tell that it was red with a white top.
On my fifth birthday I was given a beach ball. It had a red section, a yellow section, a blue section, a green section, and a white section. I stood in our front yard and looked at the beach ball in the bright rays of the midday sun. That colorful ball is the most striking example that I now recall of color. I was convinced that my vision was no different from anybody else's.
However, I sometimes wondered why I couldn't tell what people were talking about when they said something such as "See that antique car over there?" I couldn't tell where the antique car wasbut I tried. I sometimes wondered why I was missing so much.
One day my brother said to a friend of his that he wanted to go look at the truck that was parked at the corner of our block. I was astonished. I went inside to tell my mother. "Did you know," I said, "that Max can see way down to the corner?" She didn't seem to think such talent was the least bit noteworthy. When I was six my parents took me to the doctor for an eye operation. They were trying to improve my sight. The operation failed. When I came home from the hospital I was totally blind. I was devastated by the change.
For a week I didn't do a thing except sleep, eat, and sit in the corner of the couch during all the rest of the day. I took no action. I ate when I was told, and I went to bed when I was told. The joy was gone. The day-to-day excitement about what to do and where to go and how to live was no more. I sat and brooded.
Our family lived in a house in the state of Iowa. It had a fine big living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a pantry on the first floor along with a big front porch where we could play outside even if it rained. It had three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. The front yard was a good enough place to be, but the back yard was the best. My parents had saved their money to buy a swing set for us. They thought that I wouldn't be able to get to the park, and they wanted our back yard to be fun.
There was also a great big picnic table close to the swing set. My father had painted a checkerboard in the middle of the top of the table. The squares on the checkerboard were almost four inches across, and my father had painted them black and yellow. The checkers were bigger than my hand, and they were painted red and blue.
My father thought that I would be able to play checkers on the table because the board and the checkers were big enough for me to see. However, I couldn't distinguish the detail well enough to play the game, but he had worked so hard that I didn't want to tell him. I pretended that I could play, but I was never really any good at the game on that checkerboard.
The swing set had a slide, two swings, and a glider. I particularly liked the slide-especially when it had been rubbed down with waxed paper. You could wax the slide by hand, but the easy way was to sit on the paper and slide down. When the slide was waxed, it was fast. We thought it was like lightning.
There was also an old garage on the back end of our lot. It housed gardening tools, the lawn mower, the wheelbarrow, and a whole lot of miscellaneous junk. It was a great place to play. The garage belonged to my Dad. Sometimes he let us play in it if we were very careful and didn't get it too messy. But after my operation I didn't go outsidenot even onto the front porch. I didn't care about the picnic table or the swing set or the garage. I wanted to stay inside, and I wanted to be left alone. I sat in the corner of the couch being gloomy, doing nothing.
After a week my mother had had enough. She told me that I was going to go outside to play. I said I wasn't. But she said I was, and she was bigger than I was. She said, "You are going outside to the swing set, and you are going to slidedown the slide." I refused. My mother took me by the arm and pulled me to my feet.
Although I resisted, she marched me out the back door and across the back yard to the swing set. When we got to the ladder that led to the slide, she said "Climb!" And I climbed. I slid down the slide and turned around prepared to head back inside. But my mother wasn't having any. She said, "Now do it again." I thought it wasn't fair. She had said I was to slide down the slide, and I had done my part. Now she wanted me to do it twice.
My brooding despair changed to boiling anger. Once again I climbed the ladder and slid down the slide. But I thought to myself, "I'll show you. I won't go back in the house. I'll stay out here, and maybe I'll run away."
My mother left me and headed for the back door. I stayed in the back yard, and after a time I forgot both my despair and my anger. I began to play with the things in the yard until I got hungry. Then I thought that my mother was maybe not so bad after all. She made the best grilled cheese sandwiches, and she was also good at cookies. I found my way to the kitchen, and I was not disappointed.
All of this came to mind when I attended a recent convention of the National Federation of the Blind. I was speaking to a large gathering of parents of blind children. What are the problems that these parents face? And what are their blind kids thinking and feeling? Whether we are adults or children, we need to know that blindness will not prevent us from working or playing or achieving success. I don't know how other children react to becoming blind, but I remember vividly how I felt. I'm glad that my mother made me get up and move. I am fortunate that my despondency lasted only a week. We in the National Federation of the Blind are committed to helping others recognize that blindness properly understood cannot prevent us from playing checkers, swinging on a swing, playing in a yard, or having a good life.