by Debbie Kent Stein
Debbie Kent Stein is a professional writer. She has found success in a career in which most who attempt it fail. In "A Debt to a Kid Named George," she explores in-depth a question faced by many of us (whether blind or sighted) at some time or other in our lives. Do we cling to what seems safe and certain and pay the price for that security? Or do we take the risk and go for it! Here is what she says:
I began my post-college career as a social worker. Once upon a time, about twenty years ago, I worked in a place called the University Settlement House in New York City, mostly doing counseling with parents and kids, people from the neighborhood which was on New York's lower East Side.
It was really a wonderful place to work in a lot of ways. It was very comfortable. It was like a big family. It was a great community-oriented sort of place, and all the kids who came in knew all of the social workers, and all the social workers knew all the kids. I had been there for a few years, and one of the other social workers was getting ready to leave to go take a bigger and better job. She had been working with a boy named George who was about twelve.
When she was telling him that she was going to be leaving, she asked him, if he could have a choice, who would he like to have as his next social worker when she was gone. He thought about that for a while, and then he finally said, "I want to work with Debbie." Helen asked him why. He said, "Because she's blind, so she's not going to be able to find another job that easily, so she's not going to leave."
This kid really had things pretty well worked out. A lot of people had left in his life, and he'd been doing a lot of thinking about this problem. He had figured out that there are people who are going places, and there are people who settle in for the duration. He had me pretty much pegged as the kind who settles in. Apart from being amazed at George and really admiring his perceptiveness, I found the concept troubling.
I had always seen myself as somebody who liked challenges and went out after new experiences. Here I was, this kid from the suburbs, working on the lower East Side. People thought that was pretty adventurous, and I had allowed myself to think that I had come as far as I could go.
I didn't like the idea of being the sort of person who just finds a nice comfy niche and stays there. But I had to admit I had run into a lot of roadblocks when I was looking for a social work job, the kind of roadblocks that all of us who are blind run into when we're job hunting. Job hunting was not my favorite thing.
Now I had a job that I liked, and I did not care for the thought of ever leaving this nice little nest that I had at the University Settlement House. But at the same time I didn't want to work there forever on the basis that there was nowhere else to go and I was afraid to go any place else.
This kid George really got me thinking. The more I thought, the more I started to realize that I really was ready to make a change. I knew that I wanted to do something creative. I wanted to write. I had been writing stories since I was old enough to hold a slate and stylus. I had kept journals since I was fifteen.
I had been collecting my share of rejection slips since I was in college, sending stories out to the Atlantic and to the New Yorker and getting them back. Now that I was working full time as a social worker, I really wasn't doing much writing anymore. My whole life had gone in a very different direction.
Well, even if you decide that you want to make a very serious commitment to writing, how do you go about doing that? I didn't have a clue until I spent a summer vacation in the town of San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of central Mexico. In San Miguel there was a small, American-run fine arts college, which offered a lot of courses in creative writing, and there was also a thriving colony of foreign writers. During my vacation I took some writing classes, and I wrote the first couple of chapters of a novel.
As my departure time got closer and closer, I realized that I really wanted to stay where I was in San Miguel. I knew that there was a way that I could actually do it. I had saved enough money to live in Mexico for a year or two. (This was back in the mid-seventies when it was actually possible to live in New York and still save some money.)
I figured that, if my writing venture didn't quite come through and I wasn't successful, I still had my social work degree, and I could go back and look for a social work job again based on my education and experience. So I wasn't burning all my bridges. If I wanted to, I could go back and look for another job.
So finally I went back to New York and handed in my resignation. I gave up my apartment. I packed all my worldly goods into my parents' attic and moved to Mexico. I remember one of my colleagues at the Settlement House saying that he was so jealous that he almost hoped that I wouldn't have a good time.
I spent the next few years living in San Miguel, writing and hanging out with other writers, and learning everything that I could about writing: the day-to-day, nitty-gritty aspects of making yourself stick to a schedule and get work done, the world of publishing, how to find an agent, and a whole host of things about which people were very willing and generous in sharing their experience.
I completed my first book, which was a novel for teen-agers about a blind girl who goes into a public high school program for the first time. I called it A Different Drummer after the line from Thoreau's Walden about some people's marching to the beat of a different drummer.
I sent it off to the Houghton Mifflin Company, and I waited for a few months, and back it came with a very nice rejection letter. All of a sudden I thought, you know, I'm at a crossroads here. My money is running out, my confidence is running out, and I haven't sold a book. I have been here for two years. How long can I drop out of the real world? Maybe I need to go back. I might never sell a book, and even if I do, I might not be able to live on what I make. I started making plans to leave San Miguel and go back to New York.
Ever since I had come to Mexico, I had been hearing about a woman named Marguerita, who was supposed to be a bruja, which is a witch. She was supposed to be a white witch. People said that Marguerita cured illnesses and told fortunes. She did all sorts of neat things that people were very impressed by. I thought, I have to meet this lady because this would be a terrific article that I could write for some publication.
One afternoon a friend who knew her took me to meet Marguerita. We trekked out into the hills and found her in this little two-room hut out in the countryside with no electricity and no telephone or any kind of modern conveniences.
There was this great big long line of people standing outside her door, waiting to get in and talk to her one at a time. They were all very serious and very intent.
As I stood there in line I thought, "This really isn't a joke; she may not like the idea of this American coming in and trying to interview her for a Sunday supplement somewhere up in the States. I really better have a good reason to talk to her." So I started thinking, "I've got to have a question to ask this lady."
When I got in, she asked me why I had come. I said, "Well, I'm trying to make a decision in my life. I'm trying to decide whether I should stick with writing as a career or whether I should go back to New York and do social work again."
She listened and said, "Well, what is this social work? What are you talking about?" I said that I worked in an office. Then it occurred to me that she hadn't a clue about what an office was, so I said, "It's sort of a room, and people come and talk to me about their problems, and they ask me questions, and I try to help. I try to give them some answers." The more I talked about this, the more it started to sound a lot like what Marguerita was doing.
The trouble was I had never had a line of people standing outside the door, waiting to talk to me the way she did. Then she asked me a couple of leading questions. She said, "When you are doing this social work, do you ever feel a great heat inside your head?" I said, "No, I don't remember that ever happening to me." She said, "Have you ever felt a great flash of lightning in front of your eyes?" I said, "No, I don't think so. I don't think that ever happened to me." Then she reached out and patted my hand very kindly, and she said, "I think you should continue with your writing."
I definitely got the feeling that she didn't think I was cut out for social work. Actually, my feelings were not at all hurt at that point because in her unique way she had confirmed something for me which I knew was right. She had pointed me onward in the direction that I already had chosen. I didn't want to go back to social work. I wanted to continue with my writing, and, sure enough, as the next couple of weeks went by, a job opened up for me in Mexico so that I was able to stay.
I got my first book published, and I also got together with a fellow writer, Dick Stein, who is now my husband.
Things sort of fell into place. In this age of layoffs and cutbacks, nobody's job is secure. Any kind of career change involves a substantial risk, and taking risks is not always a desirable thing to do in a world that seems more and more precarious every day. But risk-taking is part of growth, and growth is part of the life process that doesn't stop with physical maturity.
As humans we have a great need to meet new challenges, to learn, and that's something that lasts all our lives. As we go on, we need to face the possibility that we might indeed fail, and the consequences of failure can range from minor embarrassment to a loss of our livelihood. As blind people I think we receive a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle warnings about taking risks.
We are told all our lives, "Be careful; this might be dangerous. You might get hurt." It is not limited to crossing streets and handling sharp knives in the kitchen. It applies to taking emotional risks too. It's the blind teen-ager who is in the throes of her first crush, and people around her are saying, "You know I hate to see her go through this. I hate to see her get hurt."
Crossing a street, dicing vegetables, falling in lovealmost any human activity could carry a warning label. I sense that people think somehow that as blind people we're in greater peril than others, that somehow we are less able to survive the hurts and disappointments that are part of life for everybody. We're all very aware that there is an appalling rate of unemployment among blind people. Seventy percent is the figure that we hear all the time, and it's appalling and shocking.
Those of us who do have jobs are among the lucky ones, the people who have had quality training and who have had opportunities that have allowed us to get to where we are.
So it's no wonder a blind person who is fortunate enough to land a job is likely to cringe at the thought of letting go of that job to try to strive for a promotion, to try to tackle a career change. But not to do so, not to allow ourselves that possibility can actually be a betrayal of our inborn capacity for growth.
If we cling to what we know and to what seems safe and certain, we give up on our need for challenge. There is a terrible price for that security, and that price is the possibility that we can become stagnant.
We lose that spark that keeps the mind and the spirit alive and enables us to continue growing and learning throughout our lives. I'm not saying that everybody should just go hand in their resignations on Monday morning and cut out for Mexico.
There are foolish risks, and there are calculated risks. It pays to calculate with a lot of thought and care. But I think we owe it to ourselves to develop to our fullest potential. We owe it to the world to try to make the greatest contribution that we can.
As a writer I've written fiction and non-fiction for children. I've written romances for teen-agers. I've written books about kids who have more serious problems. I've written biographies. I've written books about states and books about countries and the history of the Vietnam War. Everything that I've written requires research and requires learning about new topics and presents me with a whole set of brand new challenges, so that whatever I'm working on remains interesting and exciting.
I didn't get to be successful writing in a vacuum. I owe an enormous debt to loving and supportive family, to the many friends who have believed in me, to the National Federation of the Blind for helping to create a climate in which blind people can hope to live full and rewarding lives.
And I owe something to a kid named George who lived on the lower East Side, who helped me balance the need for security against the need to move on toward new horizons.