Gray Pancakes and the Gentleman's Hat
by Marc Maurer
From the Editor: The following story is taken from Gray Pancakes and Gold Horses, the fourteenth in the NFB's Kernel Book series of paperbacks. It begins with Dr. Jernigan's introduction:
How important is appearance? More than most people think. As readers of the Kernel Book series know, Marc Maurer is not only the President of the National Federation of the Blind but also the father of two sighted children, David and Dianna. The Maurers, like others who are blind, keep bumping into the matter of appearances. Here is what President Maurer has to say about it:
I have been given (along with almost everybody else I've ever met) the advice that I should not judge a book by its cover--that the intrinsic value of a thing is more important than its appearance--or that beauty is only skin deep. The problem with most of the people who have given me this advice is that they ignored it themselves much of the time. Those who try to live so that they may disregard the covers of books or the packaging on the outside of a commodity or the stylish cut of somebody else's clothes are regarded as crazy and ostracized.
While I was a boy, attending the School for the Blind, I was forcibly made to realize the difference between the way a thing looks and the way it feels. The School for the Blind collected blind children from all over the state of Iowa, and we attended classes together. The boys living in dormitories were divided by age. The Cottage was a building for the little boys--the kindergartners and first graders. The second and third graders got to move into one wing of the boys' dorm. This was a major step in our growing up. When we lived in the Cottage, we attended classes and ate our meals in the Cottage. The classrooms and dining room for the small boys were all in the same building.
However, when we got to the second grade, we had begun to be counted among the bigger boys. We slept in the boys' dormitory, but we attended classes and ate our meals in the administration building.
One of the Saturday morning rituals for the boys in the fifth and sixth grades at the School for the Blind was shoeshining. We did this in the janitor's room. Each boy was required to have a can of shoe polish--cost, ten cents. A dauber, a shoe brush, and a polishing cloth were provided. I wasn't all warmed up about the shoeshining assignment because anything that interferes with the enjoyment of free time on a Saturday for a fifth grader is bothersome. However, I thought if I got the polishing out of the way, I could go somewhere else; so I started in with a will.
I soon discovered that polishing shoes has its disadvantages. I daubed the polish onto the leather, rubbed the shoes with the shoe brush for a time, and followed up with the polishing cloth. The shoes felt perfectly clean and smooth to me. I figured that I had finished the job and could go my way. But this was not the case. The house parent, the master of the shoeshining and general arbiter of boys' lives, came to inspect. The shoes were not shiny, he said. I was told to begin again. So I started once more--this time with extreme care. I put on more polish, making certain it covered every part of the leather. I rubbed vigorously with the brush, and then I took up the polishing cloth. I polished diligently for a time, and I thought that they must certainly be done by now! But the inspector, the house parent, informed me that I had failed a second time. I started polishing my shoes for the third time and wondering whether I would be through polishing before lunch.
After the third try (another failure), the house parent asked an older boy to show me what to do. He took the polishing cloth and made a few swift passes over the shoes. Then he said, "See how easy that is?" I couldn't figure out why his polishing worked but mine didn't. From the perspective of many years, I have concluded that the speed of his polishing put the final shine on the shoes. They felt the same after I had polished them as they had after his effort. But they didn't look the same, and I understood the importance of getting them to look right.
The next step was to clean my hands. During the first attempt at polishing, I had kept my fingers out of the can of polish and away from the moist surfaces of the shoes. But when my polishing job was rejected, I decided that my fingers must tell me how much polish was being applied. My hands carried the unmistakable evidence; my fingers, my nails, and my knuckles were black. Shoe polish is intended to be reasonably waterproof. I washed my hands thoroughly; they felt perfectly clean to me. However, they were still black, and I was sent back to the basin to wash a second time. After several sudsings, my hands became clean; and I understood for the second time that the way a thing feels isn't the same as the way it looks.
Today I know that appearance is important. The substance of a thing is more important, but often we don't explore the substance unless the initial appearance is attractive.
As readers of the Kernel Books know, my children, David and Dianna, are sighted. My wife and I are both blind. Much of the time we do not discuss the subject of blindness or its implications, but sometimes the difference in approach taken by a blind person from that of the sighted is significant.
I do much of the cooking for our household. One evening I decided to make potato pancakes for supper. This requires taking fresh potatoes and grinding them up before mixing them with flour, salt, and other ingredients to make pancake batter. When the pancakes are fried crisp and hot (and served with apple sauce, sour cream, or fruit compote), they are delicious. Most people peel the potatoes before grinding them up for the batter. However, I thought that I would grind the potatoes with their skins. Potato skins, I have been told, are very good for you--they contain many vitamins and minerals.
Soon I had a nice pile of potato pancakes, crisp and hot. I called the family to eat them, but my children would not take the first bite. My wife and I thought the pancakes tasted just right, but we couldn't tempt the children. When I asked why, David gave me the answer. My pancakes were gray. Apparently, not peeling the potatoes before putting them in the pancake batter makes the pancakes come out gray, and gray pancakes are not very appetizing in appearance. They tasted great, but they looked awful. So the children ate chicken noodle soup, and my wife and I finished the pancakes. Since that time I have considered (even if fleetingly) both the appearance and the flavor of the things I cook.
As I said earlier, I believe that appearance counts. My experience tells me that those who are most conservatively dressed are often taken most seriously. I dress conservatively, wearing white shirts, black wing tip shoes, and dark suits. A number of years ago a friend took me to get a wool top coat. She told me that the winter coat I had been wearing was not suitable and that I needed a gentleman's coat. Along with the coat I obtained a pair of black gloves. However, I was never sure how to complete the ensemble. What should I wear for a hat?
I grew up in the state of Iowa, which frequently has a cold winter. As a boy I was given a jacket with a hood. I disliked the hood because, when I wore it, I had trouble hearing. I used my hearing to learn about my surroundings and to help me in traveling with my cane. A stocking cap is much better than a hood. It can be worn so that it completely covers my ears without interfering with my ability to hear.
My stocking cap became my good wintertime friend. I did cause myself trouble with it one time. On a particularly cold day, I pulled it down over my face. A stranger apparently felt outrage at my appearance. He said that I looked like a fool, and perhaps I did. After that, I wore the stocking cap in the customary manner, and I had no more trouble. However, a stocking cap would not do with my gentleman's coat.
I went to a hat shop to look at all the hats, and I asked for lots of advice. I finally selected a black felt Saxon style with a black band. I was told that it was exactly the right kind of hat to go with the gentleman's coat. I bought it mostly for style, but I hope that it also has some practical use as well. I am now learning about the language of the hat. For example, what does it mean to "tip" a hat, and when should the tipping occur? What other odd customs are associated with the hat, and how will I come to learn them?
If the purpose was to keep my head warm, I would go back to the trusty old stocking cap. But the purpose is to combine a practical function with the proper appearance.
In the National Federation of the Blind we are doing what we can to help blind people become a meaningful, contributing part of our society. In order to make a contribution, we must learn enough so that the talent that we possess is useful. However, talent is not enough. We must also present the appearance of talent, and we are helping each other gain the proper appearance. Some people think our method of traveling from place to place with a cane or dog is odd or that some of the other alternative techniques of performing ordinary tasks used by blind people are unusual. Because some of the methods that we use to do ordinary things are unfamiliar, some sighted people seem to feel uneasy in the presence of a blind person. Of course there is no need to feel this way. Some of what we do is unconventional, but we have the same hopes and dreams, the same fears and frustrations, the same willingness to work and longing to make contributions that others have.
Through the National Federation of the Blind we are focusing this willingness to work and longing to contribute, and we are helping the dreams of blind people come true. We will do our best to remember that the pancakes should not be gray, and we will tip our hats at the proper time.