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Me and My PE Teacher
by Melissa Williamson
Editor’s Note: Melissa Williamson shatters more than a few stereotypes. For example, cheerleaders are typically portrayed as cute, perky, outgoing, and—of course—dumb and stuck-up. Well, Ms.Williamson is not, and never has been, either dumb or stuck-up. However, she is still as cute, as perky, as outgoing—and as blind—as she was almost two decades ago during her cheerleading days. Today, Melissa Williamson is an experienced elementary school teacher who puts her talents to use as a board member of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and the Blind, the secretary of the Birmingham chapter of the Alabama NFB affiliate, and the stay-at-home mom of three delightful children between the ages of two and six. In the following article (which is based on a presentation Melissa made at the 2002 parents seminar) she talks about an ordinary high school coach who had no special training in matters of blindness, but who made an extraordinary difference in her life. Her advice and insights are relevant and timely. Here is what she has to say:
Sometimes as a blind person I get lucky enough to encounter a sighted person who, in regard to the capabilities of blind people, just gets it. I met one of those people in the form of my PE coach in sixth grade. He worked with me from sixth through eighth grade in the public school system where I was mainstreamed. At a time when I didn’t quite get it, Coach John got it.
Up to that point in my life I had been physically active. I was a decent gymnast and I water-skied. I played outside, but I did not participate in team activities, and I did not intentionally modify any sport so that I could play. Therefore, when the coach said we were going to play whiffle ball, which is a game something like baseball for those of you who don’t know, I thought that he meant that “they” were going to play whiffle ball. He didn’t. With some modifications, I played. The coach put people on the bases to call to me so that I would know where to run. He watched my batting swing enough to know where to throw the ball so my bat would actually hit it. I played, and because I played I came to understood how to swing a bat and how to run bases. I understood whiffle ball, I but I still didn’t get it.
When Coach John said we were going to play football, I thought he meant that “they” were going to play football. He didn’t. I learned to pass a football with a sighted guide; I learned to run passing routes, to hand-off the ball, and how to receive a hand-off. By spring of sixth grade, I finally got it.
It was time for those who were interested to prepare for cheerleading tryouts. My friends were interested. I was kind of interested, but I was scared, too. I showed up for the first day of practice. Coach John, who was the cheerleading sponsor, didn’t miss a beat even though he had no idea I was coming. (My mom wasn’t even sure I was going to do it.) As he demonstrated various techniques involved in cheering, he also described them. When he talked about the various positions of hands, he showed me. He explained that jazz hands were splayed fingers. He explained that candle stick hands were hands held up like you were holding candle sticks. He showed me everything I needed to know. When he demonstrated a cheer, I stood behind him with my hands on his arms. As we worked on the cheers in small groups, he came by and corrected our mistakes. He corrected me just as he corrected the others. I made the squad both years that I tried out. Incidentally, Coach John was not one of the cheerleading selection judges.
I experienced full inclusion in my physical education class. My PE teacher understood that alternative techniques were equal for the purposes of education—even physical education. I cannot fully describe how my confidence grew from experiences made possible by this teacher—a teacher who seemed to instinctively understand that blindness is a nuisance, but not an insurmountable tragedy.
Participation in physical activities is crucial for maintaining physical fitness. We all know this. But just as importantly, participation in PE classes on an equal level with peers is a means of achieving self-confidence and, to some degree, social acceptance. Kids who play together early on have shared experiences. These shared experiences (which often turn into shared interests) can spawn friendships as time passes. Furthermore, a blind child gains an experiential understanding of sports and other recreational activities when he or she actively participates in a structured PE program. This can be a social asset in our somewhat sports-obsessed nation. But of most significance is the confidence children can gain from participating in PE. Through physical activities, children—blind as well as sighted—gain coordination; they gain the ability to move their bodies confidently and intentionally to achieve a particular goal. This impacts the way a child carries himself or herself. And, realistically, a child who moves and acts confidently is more likely to make friends and less likely to be a target for bullies.
Additionally, the skills a child gains in PE will be used in many ways, some unpredictable, throughout that child’s life. For example, I learned that when I throw a ball I should point my nose and the toes of my front foot toward the spot I intended the ball to go. It works. I became quite good at trashcan basketball in high school. You know—the teacher leaves the room and the students make paper-wads and throw them at the trashcan. I got good at it. Now I use that same skill to throw baseballs for my own kids so they can practice batting and catching. (To my kids’ dismay, however, I still can’t catch a baseball, and they’ll gladly tell you about that.)
However, more experience is needed in the outdoors than can be gained in a PE class. It’s vital that we give our blind kids the same kinds of opportunities that our sighted kids have. The other day my husband and I took our children to Chucky Cheese for a birthday party. It rained prior to our arrival so as we were walking toward the building across the parking lot, my sons began jumping into every puddle they could find—half-inch deep? Splash! Four-inches deep? Splash! They did not care. I started to stop them, and then I realized that puddles just seem to call to kids. They say, “Jump right in. Splash as far and as high as you can!” Mud puddles call to kids, too, not just water puddles. Mud puddles call to kids to muck about in it and make mud pies. Fences and trees beg to be climbed. Flowers call to be picked. Rocks call to be thrown (particularly if there’s water around). And large open spaces call to kids to run. Our blind kids need to do all of these things—to experience the joys of the outdoors to the fullest.
But for blind kids we must think outside and beyond the traditional outdoor kid play. Blind kids don’t need to have a stick bug described to them; they need to touch it. My experience suggests that that’s what sighted kids want to do anyway. It’s the same for worms, just-caught fish, caterpillars, plants, and anything else that we can imagine for them to touch. Our blind kids need to get messy. They need to get dirty. They need to get wet. They need to experience.
Let me give you a concrete example that will, hopefully, illustrate my point. I’ve heard since I was a kid that giant redwoods in California are huge. I know that these trees can be over one hundred feet tall and six feet or more in diameter. But until I attempted to put my arms around one of these trees, I had no concept of how big a BIG tree really is! Honestly, I still can’t fathom what a one hundred foot tall tree might look like. I said that to my husband last night and he said that we need to go find one for me to climb. (My husband is one of those sighted guys who get it.) There’s no description on earth that can compensate for touch. Touch can make objects real, just as physical education experiences can make sports and concepts of space and dimension real.
We don’t just want to give blind kids the same childhood experiences as sighted kids. We want to—we must—give them more. Sighted kids don’t need encouragement to climb a fence. They climb them because they are there, they see them, and what else are you going to do with a fence if you are a little kid? But our blind kids don’t have that visual incentive, so they might need our active encouragement to climb fences and trees and play with worms. The more experiences they have when they are little, the stronger their knowledge base about the world, and the stronger their confidence. And with this knowledge and confidence, they will eventually be ready to strike out and explore on their own. Certainly this can only help them to be more successful as they grow.
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