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Patricia Harmon
Toms River, New Jersey

August 28, 2009

Dear President Obama:

Running quickly up the steep attic stairs to the tiny lavender bedroom, I reached for peace and familiarity in the Nancy Drew books of my adolescence. Nancy did it all when I was awkward and unpopular. She drove the car I pictured in the midst of challenging mysteries. In high school I traded Nancy in for The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. I imitated the poetry of Emily Dickinson, scribbling my personal lines on flowered sheets of stationery. Then I read them dramatically to the window or the mirror. I watched my face closely as I read from F. Scott Fitzgerald or Robert Frost. It was all reading, teenage-style, in the sixties.

Reading took me to the dormitories at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore. When texts clogged my mind, I read historical fiction like Gone with the Wind. Imitating Scarlet, I postponed worry until tomorrow. I wrote sonnets in iambic pentameter and dramas with poor dialogue. Lines of poetry or music lyrics came alive as I practiced in my room or under a tree. Reading was the reward of my days.

When the print in my English textbooks began fading, I realized teaching was fading too. Childhood diabetes was creating serious issues for my print vision. Without books my life lost personal beauty.

Braille arrived like a colorful parachute, a rescue for a floundering college graduate with no certain objectives for her life. Without Braille all career goals would have been impossible dreams.

The New Jersey Commission for the Blind sent a home teacher one spring morning in the late sixties. I had had treatments for my eyes in Colorado Springs. I went West, but I cannot recall why doctors in the East sent me to Colorado. This fact dramatically altered several aspects of my life. By chance a family took me in, so I did not stay at the hospital. The new friends from the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind persuaded me with positive views about life. With Braille, recommendations, study, and positive thinking, I enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado. For a master's, Braille was required; For life, reading was essential.

Often classmates and I pounded together on those Perkins Braillewriters long after midnight. Because I needed Braille just to live alone in the dorm, I read and wrote as part of daily life. I did not have vision to scribble or draw. Braille was as necessary as my hair rollers and perfume--a way of life. Computers and other technology were slowly moving into universities, but the disabled were not achieving immediate access. I wrote rough drafts of papers and notes for speeches on the Braillewriter. I read those sheets over and over again. When I did my student teaching, Braille was essential to completing my program. Then I had to use it to go for my interview in Alamogordo, New Mexico. On the long bus ride I read to calm my nerves. I needed that teaching job.

The apartment on New York Avenue needed Braille too. I had to organize my stuff. I had to read fifth-grade books for my eight students. Phone numbers were valuable. When I felt afraid and alone, I needed to find my John Denver albums to blare down the small town streets. And I definitely used Braille to write my reports concerning students. I worked on a typewriter, transcribing Braille to print. It was the seventies, and there was no other technique.

Experience perfects one’s skills, and Braille is no exception. The more I did it, the better I became. I created stories for students of all ages, including staff members. Not all learning and practice were fun, but they were part of mastering the code. I became queen of the campus dramas, whether I was teaching lessons or using a Braille script to take part in school plays. What I needed, blind students needed.

Students also needed, and I believe they need it today, a desire to read. For a wide variety of reasons, students needed to read. Many needed Braille for success. Many of the students I encountered disliked reading because of negative experiences in the past. This is happening today.

Students and adults are convinced before teachers reach them that Braille is hard, clumsy, weird, unnecessary, and the opposite of fun. Braille must be seen everywhere, allowing familiarity to occur naturally. Braille is beautiful; this fact must be shouted everywhere. Parents and teachers, politicians and chefs, aunts and cousins, neighbors and writers, librarians and administrators--all print readers must believe in the beauty of Braille.

In my retirement Braille moved naturally out of the classroom and into everyday life. It had been there, but now it came frequently. I made lists; I wrote greeting cards; I played a little bridge; I put favorite sayings on the refrigerator. Magazines were on the floor in the den; cookbooks were open on the kitchen table. It was calming to discover my old friends hanging out. There were large binders of old stories and speeches, just in case I ever needed them again.

When I gathered the guts to leave New Mexico, Braille had to come. In my New Jersey house the counter usually holds my Braillewriter. Nothing is better for quick notes, telephone numbers, messages, appointments, grocery lists, or other notes. My Braillewriter is there and ready. New friends love watching as I make those dots. Braille is so practical and so pretty.

In the East I am still disorganized. I have one drawer filled with index cards that hold dates and numbers. Someday I shall buy a binder and tidy them all up. I keep magazines on the floor near the couch, recipes in a cabinet, and notes surrounding the computer. I can pretend Braille is my secret code, if I want to do so. But we need to let the secret out--to shout to all about the practicality and the beauty of Braille. I am slower today; I read fewer novels; word lists and contraction practices are unnecessary for me. Without Braille, though, I might never have achieved a teacher’s retirement. The world might have been sad and lonely for me. Academic challenges might have disappeared. The writing of poetry and stories might never have been my beloved hobby. Speeches might be only a wistful thought. Because of Braille I can live alone in a senior development in Jersey. Independent living is my way, and I love it. When strangers say, "You live alone?" I answer calmly, yes.

Patricia Harmon