by Debbie Kent Stein
From the Editor: Debbie Stein is a lifelong Braille reader; a leader in the Illinois affiliate; and the editor of Future Reflections, the NFB’s magazine for parents and teachers of blind children. She and her husband recently visited France. The following article is her description of an important daytrip they made while in Paris.
If you wish to learn more about Louis Braille’s birthplace or the history of the Braille code, enter “Coupvray” in the search box on the www.nfb.org home page to find approximately eighty-six mentions directing you to articles in the Braille Monitor and Future Reflections. One especially notable article from the July 1994 Braille Monitor is “A Visit to Louis Braille’s Birthplace” by Kenneth Jernigan. It is followed by “Facts about Louis Braille’s Birthplace.” In 1994 the NFB made a donation of $26,000 to help Coupvray restore the home and museum. That article is at <http://www.nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm94/brlm9407.htm#1>. This is what Debbie says:
In 1819 ten-year-old Louis Braille traveled by stagecoach from the French village of Coupvray to Paris, where he enrolled at the Royal Institution for Blind Youth. The twenty-five-mile trip took four hours. It transported Louis from the security of his loving family to the challenges of boarding school in a noisy, congested city.
This past May my husband Dick and I undertook the reverse journey, traveling from the din of Paris to the quiet streets of Coupvray. Our trip involved two changes on the Metro, one train, and finally a bus from the sleepy village of Esbly. With all the speed of twenty-first century travel, the trip still took four hours. The last leg of the journey was the most challenging for us. I took French for only one year in high school, and Dick has never studied the language at all. I could unearth enough words to piece a question together, but the reply generally left me shaking my head and repeating, "Je ne comprends pas."
In Esbly I asked one stranger after another where we could catch the bus to Coupvray. Unfailingly people tried to be helpful. They pointed and explained and pointed some more. Dick could see the gestures, but, without a common language, communication was fractured at best. One thing grew abundantly clear--Coupvray was not a frequent tourist destination.
At last the kindness of strangers led us to a lonely spot at the side of the road, where, we were assured, the Coupvray bus would appear. There was no sign, no bench, and certainly no hint of a bus. And of course it started to rain. I heard a Paris-bound train roar into the station two blocks away. Maybe we should scramble aboard and head back the way we had come. But I dismissed the idea in an instant. I couldn't get this close to Coupvray without visiting Louis Braille's birthplace.
For me Braille has always been a delightful fact of life. I love the patterns of dots beneath my fingertips, the way they reveal words and sentences as my hands glide across the page. Even the smell of Braille volumes--that blend of glue and paper and age--evokes a thrilling sense of possibility. Braille is empowering. In Braille I read my first storybooks, learned my lines for high school plays, took notes in college classes, and launched my career as a writer. I write Braille labels for the spices in my cupboard, the bottles in the medicine cabinet, and the CD's on the shelves in the living room, turning unknown objects into things that are readily recognized.
The year 2009 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, inventor of the reading code that is a basic part of my life. As people around the world joined in celebration, I pondered the story of the French teen who opened the way to literacy for me and countless other blind people. When Dick and I began planning a trip to Paris, I put Louis Braille's birthplace on our agenda. I didn't know what we would find there, but it was one place I wanted to visit.
Eventually the bus drew up in front of us, just as our Esbly friends had promised. By the time we reached Coupvray, the rain had stopped. We emerged onto a half-deserted street full of sunshine and birdsong. After still more questions to patient strangers, we reached our destination at last, the old house where the inventor was born and spent his early years.
Our guide at La Maison Louis Braille was named Stephan. He was warm, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the house and its treasures. In his halting English he explained that the main room of the house and the adjoining workshop have been restored to look as they probably appeared during Louis's childhood. None of the original furnishings have survived, but the house has been furnished with authentic pieces from the early nineteenth century to convey the way the Braille family may have lived.
Louis Braille's father was a maker of harnesses, saddles, and other leather goods; and his business anchored the family in Coupvray's modest middle class. By the standards of the day the Braille home was comfortable and well-furnished. A massive fireplace dominated the main room of the house, which served as kitchen, dining room, and master bedroom all in one. Here the four Braille children must have gathered with their parents when the day's work was done, while a roaring fire kept the winter chill at a polite distance. Stephan showed me a row of pitchers and candles on the broad mantel. On the wall hung a metal ring a foot in diameter, used for making great wheels of Brie cheese.
In the workshop Stephan showed us an assortment of leather straps, pouches, and shoe parts, examples of the kinds of goods Louis's father produced. On the workbench lay a series of awls and knives, the formidable tools of the harness-maker's trade. One such tool played a key role in Louis Braille's story. As I remembered the tale, at the age of three Louis picked up an awl and somehow pierced his eye, an accident that led to total blindness. I had wondered how the accident could have occurred; if young Louis was trying to imitate his father, he would have punched down with the awl on a piece of leather, safely pointing the tool away from his face.
"We don't know for certain, but we think the accident happened with a knife like this," Stephan explained. He handed me a knife with a short, curved blade, pointed at the tip. "He probably saw his father use a knife like this to trim leather." Stephan held out a piece of leather the size of a saucer and demonstrated how the knife could be used to shave a thin slice from one edge. "If Louis used the knife like this," he said, sweeping the blade upward, "then you understand how an accident could happen."
I did understand. In that instant an event that took place two hundred years ago sprang into vivid focus. I stood with awe in the room where a small child had a mischance that changed the course of history.
From the workshop Stephan led us to the small museum that is also part of the Louis Braille birthplace. Among the displays are several books in raised print that were used at the Institute for Blind Youth before the Braille code was adopted. The books were very thick and immensely heavy--much bigger than the Braille volumes in use today. I ran my hands over the densely packed lines of tiny raised letters. Laboriously I deciphered the word "mathematique." I found it hard to trace the distinctive shape of each letter and to construct even that single word. Now I understood firsthand why Louis Braille's writing system was such a dramatic improvement.
After I had examined some of the museum's nineteenth-century Braille books, as well as books produced in a variety of other tactile writing codes, Stephan brought out a slate and stylus. "Louis Braille invented this device for writing," he told me, "and he used this very one himself."
Louis Braille's slate was almost identical to the pocket slate I carry in my purse every day, except that it had two lines instead of four. The paper fitted against a thin wooden board, and a light frame allowed the writing guide to be moved along the page. "Would you like to write on it?" Stephan asked.
I clamped a note card into the slate and picked up a wooden stylus. I knew the message I wanted to write. "Merci, Louis." Thank you, Louis.
At the end of our visit Stephan kindly showed us the way back to the bus stop. On the four-block walk I asked him what sort of work people do in today's Coupvray. "Some commute to jobs in Paris," he answered. "And a lot of people work at Disney."
"Yes. The French Disney park is mostly in Coupvray. They run special buses back and forth from Paris all day long." He paused, and added sadly, "All those people come to Coupvray, but they don't stop to learn about Louis Braille."
"I'm glad we came," I said. "Thank you for everything."The bus pulled up, and we clambered aboard, waving good-bye. Tucked into my purse I carried the note I had written on Louis Braille's slate: "Merci, Louis."