Mary Ellen Gabias
Delivering the Coffee
by Mary Ellen Gabias
From the Editor: The following story is taken from Like Cats and Dogs, the latest in the NFB's Kernel Book series of paperbacks. It begins with Dr. Jernigan's introduction:
Mary Ellen Gabias has held a variety of responsible jobs. She has worked for a state legislature and has been an administrator of a program which helps blind people find employment. Today she is a wife and mother with three small children. In her story, "Delivering The Coffee," she reminds us that it isn't always the great events of life that make the difference. Here is how she describes her own personal journey to confidence:
I was lucky. My parents always believed I could do great things. When I wrote my first composition in elementary school, my mother was very proud. She said that I could work hard and become a famous writer. She had it all planned. I would write the Great American Novel and make enough from it to support her and Dad in their old age.
I began learning French in Grade 3. My parents imagined me working as an interpreter at the United Nations. I became a political junkie in the seventh grade and began working on political campaigns in high school. My parents reminded me that I should not forget good ethics when I was elected to Congress. My parents definitely believed that I was capable of doing extraordinary things with my life.
It was the ordinary things that gave them trouble. I was expected to dust furniture, but my mother gave up on teaching me how to sweep floors when I couldn't get the hang of using a dustpan. I took my turn washing and drying dishes, but my sighted brothers were all expected to clear the table. It just seemed so much easier to do that job with sight.
I learned how to measure, pour, stir, and chop. I did not learn how to use the gas stove. In fact my mother always thought I would have to marry a rich man, who could afford to hire a cook and housekeeper. Either that, or I should stay single and live at home.
My parents were quite progressive compared with some of the other adults I knew. They expected me to be responsible for myself and my actions. They pushed me to do more than I thought a blind person could do. They stood up to other adults who called them cruel for letting me play tag and roller skate. All in all, they were terrific.
But they had never heard of the National Federation of the Blind. They had very limited contact with blind adults who were earning a living and managing their own lives. The local agency for the blind had a very custodial approach. They organized picnics, but the people with the most sight served them food and cleaned up afterwards.
The totally blind people were taken to a bench and encouraged to sit there and wait to be served. My parents knew that I could do more than the agency thought a blind person could do, but they didn't know how much more.
I was a typical adolescent. I felt ugly and awkward, and I was sure that every blemish on my nose made me a social pariah. With their usual patience and understanding, my parents reminded me that I wasn't the only kid who'd ever had a pimple. But blindness made me stand out more than any adolescent wants to stand out.
My parents helped me to understand that being different from everyone else could be tremendously positive, provided the differences were based on excellence and achievement. I came to believe that, if I were only good enough at everything I tried, people would forget I was blind and treat me like everyone else.
I became active in the Junior Achievement program. High school students in Junior Achievement work with representatives of local companies to form their own small businesses. The businesses make a product or provide a service throughout the school year. If they are successful, they make a profit. If not, they go the way of many failed small businesses. Needless to say, the whole program is permeated with the spirit of friendly competition.
I was in Junior Achievement for three years. I worked hard and entered every competition for which I was eligible. In my senior year the other students in my company elected me executive vice president. I was very excited. This proved to me that people would forget I was blind if I was good enough at what I did.
Our company produced a radio show, which was aired on a local station. It was a lot of fun. Everyone had a turn being disc jockey for the week. We sold radio advertising. We produced a company annual report. Our officers competed with the officers of ninety-three other companies for the title of "Officer of the Year." I won. Out of ninety-four executive vice presidents in northwestern Ohio, the judges chose me. What more proof did I need that blindness could be forgotten?
Then the wind was knocked out of my sails. I was told that I could not attend the National Junior Achievement Conference along with the other contest winners. They were afraid to be responsible for a blind person. They said I could go if I was willing to be the only student among the 2,000 who attended from around the country to come with their parents.
The conference organizers said they might let me eat with the other students, provided the food was not "too difficult." I could not stay with them on the college campus where the conference was being held. I would have to stay in a motel with my parents. I learned the hard way that others do not forget about blindness, particularly when they do not understand it. I was not willing to attend the conference under such humiliating circumstances. My confidence was badly shaken. If being the best wasn't good enough, what could I do?
I first heard about the National Federation of the Blind when I was a university freshman. I read Federation literature with increasing excitement. Here were blind people succeeding despite obstacles thrown in their way. They weren't asking anyone to forget that they were blind. They were not asking for special favors or to be taken care of by others. They were prepared to do their share of the work and to help take care of others in need.
As I met other members of the National Federation of the Blind, I began to understand what real self-confidence means. I did not have to struggle to be perfect at everything I tried in order to feel acceptable to others. I needed to strive for excellence because doing my best was the right thing to do. I met people who were doing things which I admired. Some were succeeding in careers I never dreamed possible for a blind person. Others were doing the ordinary work of everyday living with skill and grace.
Sometimes it is the small moments which make the largest impact. I was attending the Federation's National Convention during the summer I graduated from college. The Presidential Suite was a place for convention delegates to gather, make friends, and conduct business with the President.
There was always a pot of coffee on hand to serve visitors. I dropped by the suite to say hello to friends. Someone asked for a cup of coffee, and the person in charge said to me "Will you get that, Mary Ellen?"
That simple request threw me into a dither. I was an honors graduate of a large state university. I'd travelled by myself across the country. But I had never before carried a steaming cup of coffee across a crowded room. Yet someone had asked me to do just that. I was afraid I might not put the right amount of cream and sugar in the cup. I was afraid I might burn myself when I poured the coffee. I was afraid I might bump into someone and dump the whole cup on them.
But I was at the Convention of the National Federation of the Blind. This was not the place to use blindness as an excuse for failing to try. Besides, where else would I get more understanding and support if things didn't go well? I delivered the cup of coffee. Nothing went wrong. In fact, I doubt if anyone else realized what a moment of truth this small act had been for me.
I was quite ready to heave a sigh of relief and rest on my laurels. Then three more people asked for coffee. Before long I'd gotten over my nervousness. By the end of the afternoon I felt quite experienced. I did drop a cup and realized the world did not come to an end. It was just an ordinary part of doing an ordinary job.
More than twenty years have gone by since that convention. I still enjoy writing and speaking French, though I've long since decided that the life of an author or interpreter is not for me. I'm still a political junkie, and I spent more than two years working for a state legislature.
Now I'm a wife and mother. I'm teaching my three-year-old son to pour his own apple juice. He's learning the ordinary skills of daily life from me. Now I'm the Mom who encourages my children to dream great dreams and work hard to achieve them. It's amazing how extraordinarily satisfying ordinary things can be.