LESSONS FROM THE CHARCOAL PIT

by Joyce Scanlan

Today Joyce Scanlan is the Director of one of the National Federation of the Blind's regional training centers for blind adults. On a daily basis she helps her blind students come to believe that they can live productive lives. From personal experience she knows that this belief is hard to come by. She knows that it has to be painstakingly built, often in small and unexpected ways, and that we as blind people must encourage each other. In "Lessons From the Charcoal Pit," Joyce tells of a pivotal event in her own journey to belief. Although I happened to be the one giving the encouragement in the situation she describes, it could just as well have been any of a hundred others, because this is what we do in the National Federation of the Blind. Here is Joyce's story:

Growing up in the state of North Dakota I had known what isolation and loneliness were. I knew what being on my own meant. I knew how to fight my battles (or I thought I did), for I was an independent thinker and considered myself highly informed on all matters. I had received a college education past the master's degree level and had been successfully employed as a teacher. I was not blind; I only had a visual problem. In my opinion no one knew I was anything but sighted, so what a rude awakening I had when I suddenly learned that I was destined to lose the sight I had and would probably become totally blind. Suddenly my bubble burst.

My goal had always been to become a college English professor, but when I faced blindness, that goal became something seemingly unachievable. My livelihood, career plans, and independence all appeared to vanish from the horizon. It was not a happy time. In 1970 I had hit bottom. Then, the National Federation of the Blind Convention came to my hometown, and I went. I went because a friend practically dragged me there after I had run out of excuses. That was twenty-five years ago.

The convention was indeed a life-changing experience. Spending four or five days at convention, meeting teachers from all over the country, and discussing interesting topics about blindness with all kinds of well-informed blind people proved to me that I had been doing everything wrong and needed to make some drastic changes in my life. My style of going it alone had not worked and would never work. The Federation had a lot to teach me.

I remember vividly to this day an evening I spent with Kenneth Jernigan twenty-three years ago. It was, perhaps, a little thing— but, it changed my life. At the time, Dr. Jernigan was President of the National Federation of the Blind, and I was attending a training seminar over Labor Day weekend in 1973. The first evening, when we were all going out to dinner together, someone suggested we go to a place called the Charcoal Pit. We were told that we would be able to select and grill our own steaks. I said I didn't like the idea because I had never before grilled a steak to my liking. Dr. Jernigan very calmly said, "Oh well, we'll help you." I was suddenly terrified. I prayed that, when we got to the Charcoal Pit, he would have forgotten what I had said. Of course, that didn't happen. He immediately escorted me to the refrigerators, where all the steaks were kept. He was so enthusiastic and seemed to be having such fun that I began to enjoy the venture myself.

With the steak selected, a plate, and a long fork in hand, we approached the big pit. He said, "Now throw your steak out there; just toss it out there." I did, thinking all the time about losing the steak forever in the fire. After a short while, Dr. Jernigan said, "All right, reach out with your fork and find the steak and put it on the plate." I did. Then he showed me how to turn the steak over. I was so relieved that he had done it, so I wouldn't have to touch that hot meat. However, he flipped the steak back and said to me, "Now you do it." I should have known he wouldn't let me off so easy. Then we grilled the steak on the other side, and I became more comfortable handling it.

I ate the steak and enjoyed it, too. Everyone was having such a good time, and for the first time I actually enjoyed a steak that I had cooked. Then Dr. Jernigan asked me to grill a second steak for him. It must have been okay because he ate it and didn't complain. I learned much about myself, about leadership, and about dealing with blindness just from that one experience.

I'm glad there is a National Federation of the Blind. I know that, when I was a child, when I was in college, when I was teaching, and when I was struggling to deal with blindness, other blind people were busy founding a movement to help me and others like me. I'm grateful and pleased that they did that. But even more, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to do as they did to keep this movement strong and vibrant for the next generation of blind people, who will have much less struggle than I did because of the work that we have done.