Future Reflections Special Issue, Vol. 14 No. 2

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HAMBURGERS AND THE PRACTICE OF LAW

by Marc Maurer

[PICTURE] Marc Maurer finds time in his busy schedule to give a cooking lesson to his daughter, Dianna Marie.

Reprinted from The Freedom Bell an NFB Kernel Book

Twenty-five years ago Marc Maurer was a blind teen-ager, unsure of himself and wondering what he could do. Today he is a successfully practicing lawyer--with a home, a wife, two well-adjusted, active children, and a full life. He is also the President of the National Federation of the Blind, the organization which helped him set his values and start on the road to success. Here is what he says about how he found himself and what it was like to wonder if he as a blind person could have a dream and hope for the future.

It seems to me that development of life stops when the dreams go away. It isn't that a person dies; instead, the interesting part of existence is all in the past. When there are no dreams for a bright tomorrow, hope itself withers and fades.

These reflections brought fear and agonizing uncertainty to me when I was a junior in high school. Blind kids (I was then, as I am today, totally blind) were expected to attend grad school and high school. Some went on to college. Many did not. My high school buddies (all sighted) were planning of the future. Some intended to get college degrees; some planned to enter the local business community; some wanted to gain a technical education directed toward the trades; some preferred farming. I was afraid that none of these choices was available to me.

On a warm evening in the early spring of that year, I sat by the window listening to the night sounds and wondering what was in store for me. Except for the teachers at the school for the blind, which I had attended through the fifth grade, I had met only one blind adult. He sold pencils in front of the Ben Franklin store in my home town. He was a silent man, who seemed to me to be elderly and gloomy. I hoped fervently that I would not be like him. But who could I be like? What could I do that would be worth remembering? More to the point, what could I do to make a living? Would I ever be able to travel, to visit interesting places, to see the world? I knew about (or thought I knew about ) hundreds of things that blind people could no do.

The magic age of sixteen meant (for the sighted) that three things happened: first, the sixteen-year-old got a driver's license; second, dating was permitted; and third, real work became available--construction jobs, factory work, retailing and warehouse assignments--the kind of employment with a forty or forty-eight-hour week, a time clock to be punched, and a regular paycheck. Sixteen meant the possibility of freedom and money, but that is not what sixteen meant for me. I was to learn from personal experience that I, a blind person, could not get a job in the factory, and the driver's license was out of the question. They symbols of coming adulthood were not mine.

As I pondered the question of the future, sitting beside the window and listening to the creatures of the night, I reflected upon the odd jobs I had done to bring in a little pocket money. In addition to shoveling snow and raking leaves, I had put a roof on a garage, performed some minor concrete work, washed cars, set up a lawn-mowing business, and operated a tiny manufacturing company. My father had some woodworking equipment in the basement of our house. I liked the machinery. It seemed to me that although others might not want to hire me, I might be able to start a cabinet-making business, which would bring me at least some money. Of all of the choices that I thought might be available, this seemed to me to be the best--and even it seemed doubtful.

It was not exactly what I would have chosen for my life. Woodworking was a satisfying thing to do, but there were other things that were far more exciting.

One of them was politics. The mayor of my town had, while I was a junior in high school, awarded a contract for the construction of a public facility. The award did not go to the low bidder. I wanted this situation investigated. I called the mayor and asked him to come to my civics class to explain why he had spent public money which could have been saved if he had given the contract to the person who had bid the lowest amount. When the mayor appeared, I was so astonished that I couldn't ask him all the mean questions I had planned.

I was also interested in inventions and mechanics. One day I devised scheme. A battery could be used to turn an electric motor.

The electric motor could be used to drive a generator. The generator could be used to charge the battery. The system could be built so that it would never need any additional power. Some grown-ups laughed at me, saying that my idea was a perpetual motion machine which obviously could not work. They never told me why it wouldn't work, and I could not understand why they laughed. Years later I learned what a perpetual motion machine is and why the notion is impractical.

Although my hopes for a self-contained electrical system had been dashed, I was still fascinated with machinery. Maintaining the family lawn mower, repairing door latches, replacing the washers in faucets, doing the minor repairs on our 1954 Plymouth, and similar tasks were my responsibility at home. I bought old lawn mower engines so I could take them to pieces to find out how they worked. I used the same process on everything else mechanical that my mother and father hadn't told me I couldn't touch.

But there also the academic interest: physics, chemistry, mathematics, English, and Latin. The Latin class was usually about war or high adventure--about how the Romans conquered the known world, or about the adventures of Aeneus traveling from Troy to establish the city of Rome.

I wondered if there world be any high adventure for me. Defense of my country in military service seemed out of the question; international relations were only an exciting dream; and the intrigue and masterful dealing of business were also (so I imagined then) quite impossible. Would I ever step beyond the boundaries of a small midwestern town? What realistic dreams for a bright future could be mine? I picked the best I knew--not politics, not international relations, not business, not scientific discovery. I decided to be a cabinet-maker.

Later that spring I received an unexpected telephone call at school Such a thing had never happened to me until that time. Telephone calls for students were rare, and nobody was ever excused from class to take one. A man from the National Federation of the Blind was urging me to consider attending college. He told me that I should take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and he said that he would help to arrange matters so that I could. I was dumbfounded. I didn't know how he knew I existed. But I was also delighted, flattered, and a little scared. I wanted very much to go to college, but I wasn't sure I had the ability, and I didn't have the money. Even though I wasn't sure what taking the test would mean, I agreed to do it.

When I arrived for the examination, I met other members of the National Federation of the Blind. I wasn't sure that I could take them seriously. They spoke about matriculation at college as though it were an everyday occurrence. They seemed to think that money could be found to meet the tuition payments and the living expenses, and they acted as if blind people could attend the best schools. They told me that the junior college in my home town was a good enough school, but that I might consider one of the major universities.

Within the next year I met the president of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. He told me to forget my chuckle-headed notions about being or expecting of myself less than the best, and he urged me to work as hard as I could to get ready for tough competition. "Perhaps," he said, "you can be a scientist, an engineer, a lawyer, or a diplomat, but you will never get the opportunity unless you have the willingness to work, the belief in yourself, and the ability to compete successfully. You must learn to work, and you must get a good education." He also demonstrated to me in a dramatic way that I was not considering all of the opportunities available to me--he taught me to barbecue hamburgers over a hot charcoal fire. First, we poured charcoal into the grill and doused it with lighter fluid. Then, he told me to strike a match and light the fire. Immediately, there was a substantial blaze as the gluid burned and ignited the charcoal. Presently, the fire settled down to a steady, intense heat. My teacher--Dr. Jernigan, a man as blind as I am--instructed me to put on a pair of welding gloves. He told me barbecuing would be no problem while I wore the gloves. They would protect me from the fire. He told me that I could put my hand directly into the blaze without being burned, and he invited me to do it. I wondered if he had lost his mind. Very cautiously, I reached toward the fire. He was quite right. I handled burgers and hot racks with my gloved hands. It was no problem at all. The burgers we cooked and ate were excellent, and so was the lesson. If I can do this, I thought, what else is possible?

With the help of the National Federation of the Blind, I studied for a bachelor's degree at the University of Notre Dame and for a law degree at Indiana University Law School. I passed the bar and became a lawyer. I learned that the things members of the National Federation of the Blind told me were true. Blind people can be a part of our society. Some of us practice law. If a client urgently needs the help of a lawyer, and if justice is on your side, the practice of law is one of the most exciting jobs there is to do. Blindness does not prevent planning and working for a brighter tomorrow. I did not imagine that I might stand in the federal courts to address the judiciary. But I followed the advice of my blind friends who said: Don't let yourself be limited in your aspirations--dream big. We will help you make it come true.

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