Future Reflections Special Issue: The Teen Years
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by Sue Tillett
From the Editor: I met Sue Tillett the summer I was six years old at Camp Marcella, New Jersey's camp for blind children. I remember exploring a play area with her on our first afternoon and making one amazing discovery after another--finding a slide, a seesaw, a merry-go-round, and a giant rock that was great for climbing. With the spirit of adventure that I came to admire, Sue kept saying, "What's going to happen next?" In this article she shares a bit about what happened next as she was growing up in the sixties. Sue worked for nearly thirty years at a center for senior citizens, where she developed a program called LINK that matches seniors with high school students. She is a member of the Capital Chapter of the NFB of New Jersey.
When Debbie Stein asked me to write about my life as a blind teenager, I said to a friend, "Do I really want folks to know what a poor student I was and to read about my shady exploits?"
"Aw, come on, Sue," she said. "After all, it was the sixties." I was the one who suggested that Future Reflections include a series of articles about teens growing up in different eras. I guess I had to give it a go.
My parents knew nothing about how to raise a totally blind child. Fortunately for me, they set the gold standard for not being overprotective and for not letting me use my blindness as an excuse to get out of doing things at home. (I used it to the hilt in school though, something I am not particularly proud of today.) My parents kept up a united front, so we kids couldn't play one against the other. They gave us a lot of freedom if we didn't abuse it. We could roam all over town, as long as we showed up at six o'clock for dinner. That meant six o'clock--not one minute after six!
I was the middle child of three, with a brother nine months older and a sister five years younger. My brother taught me to wrestle, climb trees, and join in neighborhood games. Since I wasn't taught to use a cane, he walked me to and from school until I began walking with friends. My parents constantly got calls from neighbors saying, "Your daughter is up in our tree," or "Sue is on our garage roof!" My parents calmly told them to go back inside. "Don't look," they'd advise. "She'll get down the same way she got up there."
Like most blind students in New Jersey at that time, I started out in my neighborhood school. I disliked school from my first day. To me it was a hardship that simply had to be endured. Kids teased me; I had some learning difficulties; and teachers felt sorry for me and pushed me along, ignoring the problems.
When we were six and seven, my brother Jeff and I were allowed to take the train together from Princeton to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to visit our grandparents. When I was seven I was allowed to take the trip alone. In fifth grade, when my parents shipped me off to Perkins School for the Blind, I traveled from New Jersey to Boston and back on my own. Without a cane, I was completely at the mercy of conductors, bus drivers, flight attendants, the Travelers' Aid Society, and the kindness of strangers. At Perkins I was always being punished for the terrible things I did--standing up on the swings, sliding down the banisters, and sneaking off to my room for a little privacy.
In the fall of 1963 I left Perkins and returned home to attend high school. I began my freshman year with trepidation. After four homesick, unhappy years at Perkins, however, I was thrilled to be living at home again and delighted to be back in public school. I worked hard and even made the honor roll my first semester.
The Braille versions of my high school textbooks rarely arrived on time. Eventually I hired a couple of classmates as readers. I used a slate and stylus to take notes in class, and often asked classmates if I could share their notes. When I took a test I would type my answers on a manual typewriter, or I would have to stay after school and take the test orally with the teacher. My father read to me faithfully every single day of our life together. He gave me a wonderful appreciation for books, although I was an adult before I enjoyed reading on my own for pleasure. I was, and still am, a slow Braille reader, but I wouldn't trade Braille for anything. I can't imagine how I would have gotten through school or held my various jobs without it.
Outside of school I had an active social life. I joined a Mariner Scout troop and made some good friends. We had wonderful troop leaders. They got us involved in service projects, took us on camping and canoe trips, and taught us to sail. Our troop owned two sailboats and two canoes, and we spent many afternoons on a nearby lake. We all became good sailors. During my senior year, ten of us took a week-long cruise on a fifty-nine-foot schooner out of Mystic, Connecticut.
With my friends I was fearless and outgoing, but I was a totally different person in school. I never raised my hand if I didn't understand something and only rarely if I did. Despite all my activities and adventures, I was not completely comfortable in my skin as a blind person. I was ill at ease with anyone I didn't know, and I just wanted to be invisible.
By the time I started high school I still had had no mobility training at all. At first I depended on my brother and my friends to help me get from class to class. Eventually I learned the way, but even then I walked with a friend whenever I could. How much easier life would have been if I had had a cane in my hand!
Another blind student, Gaye, went through the public school system in Princeton along with me, and we were good friends. She was an excellent student, outgoing and talented, and I was convinced that people saw us as total opposites. A few months into our freshman year, the New Jersey Commission for the Blind finally decided that it was time for Gaye and me to learn cane travel. Neither of us knew anyone who used a cane. The only blind adults we had ever met were Agnes Allen, our beloved counselor from the commission during elementary school; and Peter Putnam, the famous writer and historian, who taught at Princeton University. Both of them traveled with dog guides. To Gaye and me, traveling with a cane was beyond weird! To us one thing was clear--neither of us was going to be caught dead walking around Princeton with a cane, looking blind! Somehow Gaye charmed our O&M instructor into taking us over to Trenton for the little bit of cane instruction we received.
At Christmas time my father announced that he was going to take a sabbatical, and in February we loaded up the station wagon and moved to Riverside, California. Out there ninth grade was the top grade of junior high, which felt to me like a real demotion. The school officials didn't think that a blind student belonged in public school. They said I had to go to a school on the other side of town because another blind student already attended there and the teachers were "more used to it." Most of the students didn't talk to me, and I didn't know how to talk to them. I did make one close friend in the Riverside Mariner Scout troop, and we became inseparable.
In the spring my father was offered a position as chairman of the Department of Political Science at UC/Riverside. I began writing frantic letters to my friends back home, begging them to ask their parents if I could live with them and finish at Princeton High. My mother happened to read one of those letters. That was the deciding factor, plus the fact that the school said I had to take drivers' ed in tenth grade because it was a requirement, even though it meant I would have no room in my schedule for biology.
After missing a semester, fitting back into my Princeton class was difficult. I lost my enthusiasm for school again, and I nearly failed biology because I refused to cut into an animal or touch anything that was dead. (Given my immoderate love of animals, you might think I would have jumped at the chance to get a Seeing Eye dog when I was sixteen. But once again I didn't want anything to attract attention to the fact that I was blind. I was in my mid-twenties before I took my first exhilarating walk with Velvet.) Also that year, I began to do a lot of babysitting for the children of my parents' friends. Years later, one of those mothers hired me to work with her at the Princeton Senior Resource Center, a job I held for twenty-seven years. The most memorable event of my sophomore year was that my parents allowed me to go to the Martin Luther King March on Washington with a friend who had been one of my counselors at New Jersey's camp for blind children.
During my junior year, my best friends Margy and Cheryl and I began hanging out with a friendly, fun-loving crowd, and we partied hearty almost every weekend. We were in love with all the folksingers of the sixties, and we went to New York and Philadelphia to catch them in concert whenever we could. One of my friends wrote to Bob Dylan and asked him if it would be okay for her to Braille the poems on the back of his albums for me. He wrote back and said that he would be honored if she would do that, and that he would think of us someday but he didn't know where or when. A year later we were at a concert in Philadelphia when we heard Dylan sing the lines, "Write Braille, go to jail, / Join the army if you fail," in his song "Subterranean Homesick Blues." We grabbed each other and screamed as only teenage girls can.
By senior year, we began to dabble in drugs and alcohol. Margy and I took up smoking, thinking we were cool. Margy pinched a book of blank passes from one of our teachers, and we began cutting classes regularly. We also perfected the art of cutting whole days of school. Sometimes we would tell our parents that we were going to ride my tandem bike and set out for one of our favorite haunts. We'd head out to play in the woods or sunbathe, or we'd stash the bike somewhere and take a bus to Trenton or New Brunswick to go shopping. My sister wrote my absentee excuses and forged my father's signature.
Most Thursday and Saturday nights I sneaked out my bedroom window to hang out with my friends until dawn. One night my mother saw the light from a cigarette go past the window of her bedroom. Suspicious, she came into my room and opened my window. The kids whispered, "Hey Sue, wanna go to the beach?" Still tucked in bed, I didn't dare breathe as my mother replied, "Certainly not!" and checked to see if I was asleep. Even with that close call, my nighttime antics were not discovered until the middle of April. I was grounded until after graduation, while my buddies were grounded for only two weeks.
Growing up in Princeton, surrounded by extremely bright family members and friends, I was always expected to go to college. However, I couldn't wait to put school behind me, and I had no aspirations for the future. Weren't my poor grades evidence that I wasn't smart enough for the academic fast track? My father began bringing home the dreaded college catalogues in which I had no interest. I figured that I would flunk out of any college foolish enough to accept me and would end up living at home for the rest of my life.
One night my parents came home from a dinner party and told me they had learned about Goddard College in Vermont. It was a school where students worked according to their own ability and were not given tests. There were no grades. The student and her professors wrote evaluations of her progress. Students were expected to find volunteer or paid work in the community related to their field of study. If the college didn't offer a course the student wanted, she could design her own course as an independent study. At last, here was a learning environment that made sense to me! Goddard focused on learning in a practical way rather than forcing students to absorb what others thought was important.
In the fall of 1966 I began my time at Goddard in a state of high excitement. Then, at the beginning of my third week on campus, my father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-three. His death was a crushing loss, and it transformed my view of life. Almost immediately I turned into a serious, hardworking student. The only time I missed a class was to tack days onto a long weekend and go home to check on my mother and sister. I missed the closeness of my high school chums, and I spent so much of that year grieving for my father that I had a hard time making new friends. Gradually, I did make some very close friends in college. I walked around on campus without a cane and depended on classmates whenever it was convenient. Few of the books I needed were available from the Library for the Blind or from Recording for the Blind. I paid students to read to me directly or to record my assignments on my big old reel-to-reel tape recorders. Because my Braillewriter and typewriter were so noisy, I got permission to work in the office of one of my professors. I would head over there after my friends went to bed and study until four in the morning.
Goddard was the drug capital of the universe. Most of the students used drugs almost every day, and they seemed to be using them as an escape. They weren't laughing and having fun the way we did back in high school. I thought, "If this is addiction, I don't want any part of it!" I was determined not to allow drugs to become a crutch in my life.
Goddard was tough if you didn't learn to take responsibility for your own life. Out of the sixty-five students who entered as freshmen with me, only twelve of us graduated together four years later.
There was another blind student at Goddard who was two years ahead of me. During my sophomore year, Myra and I decided that our social lives would be a lot more exciting if we owned a car. My friend Peter and I hitchhiked down to Wesleyan and, for twenty-five dollars, bought my brother's 1951 Chevy that had no reverse gear. We learned that you had to parallel park the Chevy uphill so that you could coast down backwards. Should I really admit that I drove it onto campus and waved at the guard in the gatehouse? No one would insure a car owned by two blind people. So in the wisdom of youth Myra and I decided that if they wouldn't insure the car we would drive it uninsured. The Chevy was only worth twenty-five dollars anyway. Myra used it with her friends and I used it with mine. We had a lot of fun with it that year, and we sold it to the local garage in the spring for twenty-five dollars.
At the beginning of my junior year, I decided that I desperately missed having an animal in my life. A friend and I hitchhiked to a farm and returned to campus with two Maine Coon kittens zipped into our jackets. I continued to work hard, but I was starting to feel like I needed a break from school. I applied for a work-study program in the occupational therapy department at the Institute for the Crippled and Disabled (ICD) in New York City.
In January I moved into an efficiency apartment on St. Mark’s Place with two friends and two kittens. The apartment was fifteen blocks from my job. I knew I would finally have to learn to use my cane, but I was terrified of the city traffic. At first I would walk just far enough to take the bus, and it took me a month to work up the courage to walk to and from work. Eventually I began to walk all over the city, and even to the Port Authority Terminal to go home for an occasional weekend, but I still would not use that cane in Princeton.
My roommates and I tutored kids in Harlem, went to Broadway shows, and attended concerts at the Fillmore East and the Apollo Theater. We protested the Vietnam War and wore our skirts unimaginably short. Our tiny apartment overflowed with Goddard friends, booze, and pot. We shared our food, our beds, and everything we owned.
When I returned to Goddard in the fall of 1969, I threw myself into practice teaching and researching and writing my senior thesis. The whole dorm turned out to watch Mehitabel deliver four beautiful kittens in my bottom bureau drawer. A week later, I went to my graduation, for the second time, barefoot.
For a while I was under the impression that, because of all the new technology, today's blind kids have it much easier than we did. I was disheartened to discover that they still have many of the same difficulties we faced growing up, such as not getting their books on time. The worst problem they face, of course, is that so few blind kids are being given Braille instruction.
Still, when I see a four-year-old at convention stepping out in front of her parents with a cane in her hand, I want to skip down the hall. I love to listen to our blind teens speak and hear how self-confident and empowered they are. I love to read Future Reflections and learn about all the wonderful opportunities our kids have in the Federation today. I love knowing that parents have organized and are reaching out to help each other raise their blind children. It really does "take a village" to do it well.
Looking back over those years, I am amazed that we all survived and grew up to be responsible adults. How lucky I am to have several of my wonderful friends from high school and college still in my life. My father would have been so interested and astounded by all the technology we have today. He would have been pleased to know that his wild, rebellious daughter did well in college, that she turned out okay in this big crazy world. And he might even have been just a little proud.
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