Future Reflections Winter 1994, Vol. 13 No. 1
CHILDHOOD ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE
by Dr. Abraham Nemeth
From the Editor: A basic ingredient in every NFB National Parents Seminar is the blind adults who talk about what it is like to grow up as blind children. Parents-including myself, and I have been organizing and attending these seminars for the last ten years-never get tired of these talks. Year after year I have been inspired, informed, and challenged by Federationists who are willing to share their insights into blindness. What I find especially intriguing is that despite the different circumstances and environment in which these speakers grew up, they always have something to say which is relevant to the problems we-today's generation of parents-struggle with.
As relevant and as inspiring as any of our speakers was Dr. Abraham Nemeth who gave the following presentation at the NFB Convention, July, 1993, Parents Seminar in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Nemeth, distinguished college math professor and creator of the Nemeth code for Braille mathematics, grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York nearly 70 years ago. Here is his inspirational story:
I was very lucky. I had parents who knew nothing about blindness but who had an innate understanding of what was necessary to do to raise a blind child. I was also lucky because I went to the New York City public schools, where I had a very, very good resource teacher. Not only was I integrated, but I was really integrated. Let me tell you a little about that.
The New York City public schools had a resource room for blind kids in each of the five boroughs. It so happened that the one in Manhattan was within walking distance of where I lived, so I went there. Every day my aunt (my father and mother were busy taking care of the store they operated) walked me to school and walked me home. We had a wonderful teacher. Her name was Miss Roberts. She taught me Braille, and she made sure that I learned it.
There were other kids in the resource room; some of them with no sight, some of them with a lot of sight; and everyone learned Braille. There was no such a thing as you didn't learn Braille. Even those who could ride bikes learned Braille.
Now I did not go to the resource room for arithmetic, or geography, or history. I went to my regular classroom for these subjects. I went to the resource room during times when the other kids were doing penmanship, drawing, art, and so forth. It was there that the resource teacher would teach me blindness skills; for example how to read a map. I remember one day she put me at a large globe of the world. This huge globe had nice smooth surfaces for the oceans, was raised for the land masses, and was even more highly raised for the mountain areas. And then she put a problem to me. You know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, she said. Now, this globe spins. Which way should the globe spin in order for the sun to rise in the east and set in the west? Finally I figured that out, and it was a wonderful educational experience.
My father, (maybe some of you heard me tell this story in Denver four years ago at the NFB Convention) whenever we were out walking, he would tell me, "Now we are walking west, and when we make a left turn, we will be walking south. Listen to the traffic. All of it is going in the same direction on this street. But when we get to the next street you will notice that all the traffic starts traveling in the opposite direction." And he would let me touch mailboxes, fire hydrants, police call boxes, and fire call boxes and let me read the lettering on them. You know in our neighborhood on the Lower East Side the kids would all open the fire hydrants in the hot summer. He never encouraged me to open a fire hydrant, but he showed me where and what the firemen would do if they had to open the fire hydrant.
Anyway, my mother was equally perceptive. She would send me on a trip to the grocery store. She would give me five or six items to memorize when I was six years old, tell me exactly what to buy and in what quantity, and send me to the grocery store for them. Where was the grocery store? Around the corner, no streets to cross. And who was the grocer? My grandfather. Anyway, I was very diligent in remembering every single item and would bring back everything she sent me for. This was wonderful memory training.
I had an uncle who was a handyman. He taught me how to fish electrical wire through a wall, how to replace a burnt out bulb and screw in the new one, and just generally how to do electrical work. I developed a wonderful sense of mechanics. I knew how things had to go together. My grandfather, I told you, had a grocery store. And he had an icebox, not a refrigerator, but an icebox. A large block of ice kept all the cheeses and butter and things cold. And from the icebox, which was high overhead, there was a rubber hose. As the ice melted the water would drain through that rubber hose into the sink below. Well I was a curious little fellow, and one day I went around the back of the store and discovered this hose trailing in the sink. Now my mechanical sense told me that no mechanical mechanism could work right if there were loose parts around. Things had to be connected. It was clear to me that the end of that hose had to be connected somewhere. So, I felt around. Aha, I thought, the faucet, that's where it goes. So, I connected the hose to the faucet and, proud of myself for having corrected my grandfather's obvious oversight, I walked out of the grocery store. A few hours later I was confronted by my grandfather. I will end the story at that point.
As a boy I had a tricycle. Now, remember, I had no sight at all. My father told me that I could ride the tricycle around the block, but to remember to make a right turn every time I came to a corner. Ride slowly, he told me, don't bump into anybody, and come back here. That's what I did. I rode my tricycle around the block and I came back where I was supposed to. One time my younger brother and I went on some kind of an expedition. We got separated, and my brother, who had perfect sight, got lost. I came home.
When I grew up on the Lower East Side I had a wonderful playmate. We used to filch empty orange crates from the grocery stores, and then we would go to the junk yards and take the wheels off discarded baby buggies. Then we would find planks of wood and make a wagon or a skateboard. I would hop on the back of it, and he would drive it. Now that little buddy of mine became famous. He was Zero Mostel. I spent almost every Saturday night in his home. Why did I spend every Saturday night in his home? Because my father took me there. What was my father doing? He and all the other men were poring over the account books. What were they doing in those account books? They were making interest-free loans to immigrants coming into this country. After a year or two these people had acquired furniture and a business and were as affluent as you could be in those days. They would repay the loan with a little appreciative addition, and then we would have more money to lend to more immigrants. And that's what my father and those men were doing on those Saturday nights-keeping records of those free loans. It was a wonderful experience in morality, in human feeling. And so I knew all of Zero Mostel's family. I knew his mother and father and his brothers and sisters and so on.
Because of my family, because of their expectations and what they taught me, it never occurred to me that I couldn't do whatever I wanted to do. I just had to think of a way of doing it.
Take this problem, for example. A lady who was blind called me one day in desperation. She's having a problem. She has a family and she wants to broil a pan of hamburgers. She knows she has to turn those hamburgers over. But she can't see which ones she has turned over and which ones she hasn't. How can she solve this problem? I told her it's very simple. You make the hamburger patties and you put them in the broiler pan. Then you take some toothpicks and you implant one in each patty. You time the hamburgers and when they are half done you pull out the broiler pan, pick up the spatula, and feel above the hamburger. When you locate a toothpick, take it out and turn the burger over. When there are no more toothpicks, all the burgers have been turned. The lady was very thankful for this idea.
There are all kinds of ways of doing things. Let your kids participate in household activities. Let them change a bulb. Let them do the dishes. Teach them to pour water from a bottle into a glass. Let them do this over the sink at first if you don't want a mess. Pretty soon they will be able to pour any liquid-hot or cold-without spills. It's not a problem. They will learn if you expect them to do it and you give them the chance to experiment and learn. But don't give them the idea that they are wonderful because they are able to pour a glass of water. Everybody pours a glass of water.
I once had a teacher, a vision teacher as they call them these days, who told me I was a genius because I was able to read Braille at the rate of a high school student. Now maybe I have other qualifications that would rate me as a genius, but certainly reading at the rate of a high school student is not one of them! Expect your kids to do the normal things, and then react normally when they do. Encourage them and do not overprotect them.
My father did not overprotect me. You know kids will tease a blind kid in the street-particularly on the Lower East Side where I grew up. They would get after me, and I would want some protection from my father. I would say, "Pa, he hit me." My father would say, "So, why didn't he hit me?" In other words, my father was trying to teach me to fend for myself. Which I was very well able to do. One time, in the park, a sighted kid was teasing me. When I ran after him, he shimmied up a ladder on one of these jungle gyms which had a trapeze, a pair of rings, a chinning bar, and all that stuff. I went right after him. Well he wanted to get out of my way so with his hands he grabbed the upper bar and moved himself to the right. He ended up dangling above the ground some distance from the ladder. The poor fellow got so scared he was unable to move back to the ladder and get down. However, I wasn't scared so I did get back to the ladder and get down. But somebody from the park had to come with a ladder and get him down. He didn't start up with me too much after that.
I did participate in physical activities. I was on the high school swimming team (I'm still a good swimmer). I climbed ropes and jumped and did all kinds of physical activities. It was very good for me.
Well, all I can tell you is that I have led quite a normal life. I think I have been able to do this because I was not overprotected as a child. I had a wonderful, wonderful support system in the form of relatives, parents, and teachers who expected me to be normal and do the normal things. They gave me opportunities to learn. And that's what made it all possible. And that's what can make it possible for your kids to have a normal childhood and life, too.