Future Reflections         Summer 2011

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Lunch in the Chorus Room

by Jennifer Dunnam

Reprinted from The Minnesota Bulletin, Volume 76, Number 2, Spring 2010

Jennifer DunnamFrom the Editor: Jennifer Dunnam is president of the NFB of Minnesota. During a seminar at the Minnesota state convention, several parents of blind teens talked about their children's struggles to make friends and fit into the social milieu. After the convention Jennifer reflected on her own experiences growing up and wrote the following article.

I was born totally blind, and I grew up a relatively normal kid during the 1970s. I attended public schools throughout my education, although I spent the first three years in a "self-contained" classroom with other blind and visually impaired students. In that setting I received a good foundation in Braille and in the other necessary subjects. By third grade I was mainstreamed in all my classes at a public school nearer to home.

Things were not always easy by any means, but I was generally successful during my elementary and junior high school years. I had acquired strong Braille skills early on, and I was fortunate to have all of my educational materials provided in Braille. Also I had the advantage of getting to know my classmates from an early age, and I made some good friends. My parents were very supportive and worked to make sure I was age appropriate in most skills and behavior.

However, there was one major lack in my education. I never had a long white cane until I was twelve years old. I never knew any blind people who got around without being led by a sighted person until much, much later. My parents and I simply didn't know anything different, and neither did anyone around us. I could climb trees, ride bikes, and get into my share of trouble along with my sisters. But when I wasn't at home I couldn't walk independently beyond the confines of a classroom or on routes within the school that I had practiced beforehand. I spent a lot of time worrying about how I would get from place to place. I remember as a young child hoping that somehow when I grew up I would find an invisible person to guide me so that people would not have to see someone with me everywhere I went.

Starting High School

Even though some of my good friends would be scattering to different schools, I eagerly looked forward to the start of high school. Several days before school began, I went to the building with a cane travel instructor and practiced the routes I would need to get to my classes. Things started out well. The teachers were interesting and knowledgeable, and I enjoyed being exposed to some of the older students. However, when lunchtime came that first day, I had no plan. Like many other students I had brought my lunch from home, but with whom would I eat? Where would I go? The cane travel teacher had talked with me about how I would handle this eventuality, but I had tried not to think about it.

Clearly now there was nothing to do but to follow the instructor's suggestion. I would have to walk up and down the courtyard where people were chatting and having lunch until I heard someone I knew or until someone saw me and asked me to sit down. Nowadays I would think nothing of such a maneuver, but at that time it was very traumatic and frightening to me. I worked up my nerve and did it successfully. I had to do the same thing every day for the first week or so, and it never got any easier. Finally I discovered that some people I knew and liked ate regularly in the chorus room. I started eating there and fit in well, getting to know some very interesting people. What a relief! Things were looking up.

Then, about three weeks after the start of school, my father announced that we would be moving to a new town because of his job. Suddenly I was off to a new school where I knew no one and where no one had any experience dealing with a blind person. My materials were available in Braille, and again I was successful academically. But socially my life was an entirely different story. Every day and every hour seemed as traumatic as that first week of lunchtimes had been at my other school. I never realized how much the people I grew up with had learned to anticipate what I needed. I did not know how to cope with a completely new situation.

A couple of weeks after I settled into the new house and the new school, a classmate invited me to a Halloween party. My parents would not permit me to go. The invitation was very important to me, but unfortunately I couldn't clearly explain why it mattered so much. I felt I shared common interests with the people who would be at the party, and I wanted to get to know them better. My parents only knew that they had never met these kids or their parents, so I stayed home. That group never again invited me to an activity, and I never became close to them, although they were in many of my classes. For the next four years, whenever I needed a place to focus my anger and hurt over the isolation I experienced, I blamed the Halloween party incident. Of course, it's now clear that one declined invitation was not the cause of all my troubles.

Long, Lonely Years

The details of my lonely high school years are hazy in my memory. I know that my head was often filled with terrible thoughts, and in some ways it is a miracle that I am still here to tell about it. Being a private person, I didn't generally reveal what an awful time I was having. My interests, hopes, and dreams were like those of others, but few seemed able to see that. Mostly I felt treated as if I were from another planet. In my mind, my troubles came down to the fact that I was blind and that most of my classmates did not accept me.

Only much later did I come to understand that many other factors contributed to my teenage difficulties. First, I was painfully shy and naturally a loner. These traits necessarily bring challenges for anyone dealing with high school. Add my limited travel skills into the mix, and it's not hard to see why some high schoolers found it easier to go about the business of being teenagers than to do the work it would have taken to include me in their activities. I had to be led from place to place (or so we all thought), I could not drive, and I could not participate in things that were visual in nature. I was quiet and sad a lot of the time, except in class, where I could excel.

A few people made the effort to be friends and to include me. They did not do it out of pity, but out of genuine friendship. Even then I could tell the difference. I did not generally have much in common with them, but they were good people. Because of them, my high school years were not entirely without adventure, but those fun times were rare.

One day a friend told me of a conversation about me. Someone had commented that I was very smart, and someone else said, "Well, if I stayed in my house and studied all the time, I'd be smart, too." The friend who heard this conversation tried to explain that it wasn't quite like that, but the others didn't listen. How could they understand that I didn't stay home because I wanted to, but because I didn't know how to make anything else happen?

A Hopeful Perspective

One thing that helped me survive high school was the National Federation of the Blind. Some members of the Federation started to invite me to seminars and conventions. Slowly those experiences helped me see what I might do differently. However, change took a very long time. Conventions and student seminars didn't happen often, and I couldn't always attend. I didn't really get involved until after high school.

I had always believed the NFB philosophy, but I didn't have enough knowledge to live it to its potential. After some thorough cane travel training using the structured discovery method and after a lot of interaction with blind people who pushed and supported me, I began to gain a confidence I had never before known. I started to do things I had never thought possible. I learned to cope with public attitudes, working at the balance between not making people feel bad and not feeling obliged to accept every bit of help that was offered.

For some of my classmates, high school graduation was a sad farewell. For me it was just a great relief and a chance to move on. My parents did not stop me when I decided to attend a college far from home. They rejoiced with me when I found that I could thrive in the college environment. They did not object when I spent summers abroad studying French, German, and Russian. They only mildly expressed their concerns when, after graduating from college, I bought a pass that let me ride the Greyhound for a month. I visited friends around the country--even taking a three-day trip to Arizona with no clear plan of what I would do when I got there. Incidentally, I did not practice any routes ahead of time. By the time I moved thousands of miles away to take a job in Minnesota, it just seemed like par for the course.

A Twenty-year Overview

In the twenty years since high school I have led a normal, happy life. I have had a sequence of very good jobs, made many friends, and held leadership positions in community organizations. I have always had the support of my parents and relatives, who instilled in me a basic belief that I would someday be able to do whatever I wanted with my life. I have also had the support of the family that is the National Federation of the Blind, from which I learned the skills that I needed to make that belief a reality. There are always challenges--some of them blindness-related, some of them not--but that is life's way.

During the twenty years we have just flown through, I cannot exactly say that I came to peace with my high school experience. Mostly I blotted it from my memory. It was an awful period in my life, and I hoped to help other kids avoid going through similar times if I could. After graduation I did not remain in contact with any of my high school classmates. I hardly gave a thought to our twenty-year anniversary as it came and went. High school was a chapter from the distant past, utterly and thankfully gone and buried.

Reconnections

Life, however, is full of twists, turns, and unimaginable surprises. A few months after that twenty-year anniversary mark, a family member convinced me to sign up for the social networking site known as Facebook. I had resisted doing so for a long time, but I was finally persuaded that it might be a good way to keep up with family who live far away. Soon I began to find people from my past with whom I had completely lost touch. I found some friends from before high school, and, eventually, even some people who attended high school with me. It has been absolutely fascinating to see how their lives have developed--some in predictable ways, some in ways that were not predictable at all.

It has been a good thing to have contact with these people so many years later, now that we've grown up a bit, and with my clearer understanding about blindness and the role it plays and does not play. It is pleasant to find that my memory of some people as truly accepting of me was not wrong; that acceptance continues. Of course, some people talk about what an inspiration I was, and some remember things I wish they had forgotten. But mostly we're all just people living our lives.

Here is one example of the conversations I have had as I reconnect with the people from my past. When this person, whom I'll call Lisa, found me, she was not sure I would remember her. After establishing that we indeed remembered one another, our correspondence went like this:

* * *

Lisa: I remember we were in math class together during junior high! You know how, as we get older, we have a tendency to look back on things and remember all the idiotic things we've done? Well, I have been doing so and I feel that I owe you an enormous apology (again). During that year, you were kind enough to invite me to your birthday party. I was having such a great time. You had a real good friend there. I can't remember her name but she was always there for you and was even learning your Braille machine. She was with me and a couple other friends you had invited, telling us about how you had become blind, and that you could see only blurred shadows. For whatever reason, and to this very day I still think about it and still don't know why, I went up to you and asked how many fingers I was holding up. Your mom grabbed my hand and told me that it was not funny. I felt like crawling under a rock and probably should have.

That following week, your mom was bringing you to class, I caught up with you and apologized then, and you were wonderful enough to forgive me. But it has still been bothering me all these years that I had the mental capacity to have been so cruel. Jennifer, I am so terribly sorry for having done that. I cannot believe I ever did such an insensitive thing. That is why I thought you wouldn't remember me or wouldn't want to remember me. I hope that you will forgive me (again) and that we can continue to be friends and catch up on the GOOD times!

Jennifer: Goodness! Please spend not one more second worrying about such a thing! I have zero memory of the incident. What you describe sounds a whole lot more to me like a kid simply being curious than a kid being cruel. I have always viewed my blindness in a very matter-of-fact way, and not as something to be uncomfortable about. One of the very biggest challenges I faced while growing up (and even now, truth be told), is to help others not feel they must tiptoe around blindness or view it as some great tragedy that makes me vastly different from them. Your being at my birthday party indicates to me that you were clearly someone who had enough comfort with blindness that you and I were able to have a normal friendship based on other things. That's pretty special, and was not easy to come by for me, especially in those days. You weren't feeling sorry for me or thinking of blindness as some big deal. It is also likely that, even if I was a bit taken aback at first by the fingers question, I was probably a lot more upset with my mother for making a big deal about it. Anyway, I hope this makes sense to you, and please don't be concerned any longer about it. I'm absolutely delighted to have reconnected with you, and I look forward to staying in touch.

Lisa: Thank you, Jennifer! I will think of it no longer!!!! I have been thinking of you a lot over the years and I am also very happy we are able to reconnect! I am very happy you allowed me to be one of your friends and still are allowing me. What a blessing! My parents have always taught me to look past the things that make others different from me and to look for what lies inside; not to dwell on the color of their skin, the God they worship, or the wheelchair they sit in. It is the heart that makes the person.

* * *

While I certainly was not happy to hear that Lisa had worried about this incident all these years, it was encouraging to know that people could be so thoughtful. This was one of many exchanges with people in which I had the opportunity to articulate things more clearly than I could as a young person.

By no means do I mean to give the platitude here that "everyone has a tough time as a teenager, so don't worry, it will all work out eventually." I was fortunate in many ways to be at the right place at the right time, and several elements became available that helped me immensely. Such is not the case for everyone. We must do all we can to help blind teenagers through what can be a very tough time. While I have come to a better understanding of the difficulties of my teenage years, I believe I could have avoided some of the problems with better information and support. We in the Federation have been working hard to improve opportunities for blind youth today, and there is much yet to be done. Some of the challenges in today's world are quite different from those of twenty or more years ago, but some are the same.

A New Generation

Recently the journal of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind (AER) published an article about the benefits of giving children early cane travel instruction. Of course, we in the NFB have long known and advocated for this, and we have helped many children gain independence at an early age. Still, I was delighted to see that perhaps even more kids will avoid some of the difficulties I had because of my lack of travel skills.

Today's technology provides blind people with better access to information than ever before, and with more options for making connections with people than we have ever known. With computers, blind youth today can communicate in writing with their sighted classmates; such an option was not available to blind people my age and older.

These excellent developments do little good unless blind youth have the basic skills to move about independently and to function appropriately in social settings. Also, they must have access to blind role models who can show them what is possible. This is why our NFB youth programs are so important. We must do all we can to connect with blind teens and give them the support and encouragement they need.

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