Growing Up Blind in Tennessee During the Depression

by Kenneth Jernigan

I grew up on a farm in middle Tennessee during the depression-first the farm depression and then the one that everybody talks about. Life was not the way it is today. My father (though intelligent) had less than two weeks of formal schooling, and my mother (at least equally intelligent) did not finish the eighth grade. There were no books in our home except the family Bible, and we didn’t get a newspaper or magazine.

We had no radio; no telephone; and until I was six, no automobile. It was the early thirties, and money was scarce. Hogs (when we had any) brought two cents a pound; and anything else we had to sell brought an equally low price.

I had an isolated existence. Except for the extremely elderly, I was the only blind person for miles around. My experiences in no way were like those of the sighted children I knew. Mostly until I was six, I had nothing to do and nobody to play with. Sometimes on Sundays my family and I would go to the home of one or the other of my grandparents for dinner and the day. I remember those times vividly.

The men (remember that this was rural Tennessee in the early thirties) would sit under a shade tree in the front yard and talk about the crops, the weather, and the price of hogs. The women would be in the kitchen preparing Sunday dinner and talking about children, what the neighbors were doing, and their gardens.

The boys and girls (usually a bevy of cousins were there on such occasions) would be in the barnyard playing hide and seek, tag, or some other game. I belonged to none of these groups. I circulated back and forth on the edges and hoped the day would end.

One thing more: Nobody had indoor toilets, so if I knew we were going somewhere for Sunday dinner, I would begin the day before to reduce my intake of liquids. It is embarrassing for a child of five to have to interrupt the men under the shade tree to ask if someone will take him down behind the barn to answer the call of nature.

I am sure that each person who attended those gatherings came away with different memories, memories that lingered through the years-playing with other children, talking with the men under the trees, or exchanging confidences in the kitchen.

Certainly I came away with memories. They revolve around a full bladder and a day of boredom. This is not to say that I felt abused or mistreated. Instead, I recognized (even at that early age) that the world was as it was; that nobody was trying to do me in; and that if I wanted to have a full life, I had better learn to plan and think ahead.

My parents loved me, but they didn’t know how to deal with a blind child. They knew that they wanted the best for me, and I knew that I wanted out of that limited environment.

Every time I could, I got somebody to read to me. Read what? Anything-anything I could get. I would nag and pester anybody I could find to read me anything that was available-the Bible, an agriculture yearbook, a part of a newspaper, or the Sears Roebuck catalog. It didn’t matter. Reading was magic. It opened up new worlds.

I remember the joy-a joy which amounted to reverence and awe-which I felt during those times I was allowed to visit an aunt who had books in her home. It was from her daughter (my cousin) that I first heard the fairy stories from The Book of Knowledge-a treasure which many of today’s children have unfortunately missed.

My cousin loved to read and was long-suffering and kind, but I know that I tried her patience with my insatiable appetite. It was not possible for me to get enough, and I always dreaded going home, finding every excuse I could to stay as long as my parents would let me.

I loved my aunt; I was fascinated by the radio she had; and I delighted in her superb cooking-but the key attraction was the reading. My aunt is long since dead, and of course I never told her. For that matter, maybe I never really sorted it out in my own mind, but there it was-no doubt about it.

As you might imagine, I wanted to go to school as soon as I could, and I made no secret about it. But you had to be six, and when they said six, they meant six. School started in September, but I was not six until November 13, 1932. So I was not allowed to begin until the next quarter-January 9, 1933.

My parents loaded me into a car (a new secondhand Chevy bought especially for the occasion with hard earned savings) and took me to the residential school for the blind in Nashville fifty miles away. I entered the school grounds in early January of 1933 and didn’t come out again until Easter when my parents took me home for the weekend.

That first year at the school for the blind in Nashville was quite an experience for me. I had never been away from my parents for any length of time in my whole life, and suddenly I was plopped down in the midst of twenty-five other small boys, who (though possessing certain cultural traits in common) came from widely diverse backgrounds and environments.

We called the woman who was in charge of us our supervisor. (We would have been outraged and humiliated by the term "housemother.") She was a genteel person, the elderly widow of a doctor; and she did the best she could to teach us manners and morals, keep us in order, and raise us right.

But even if she had had the sleuthing skills of a Sherlock Holmes and the energy of a strong young athlete, she couldn’t have kept track of us all of the time. Although we obeyed her rules and paid the penalty when we didn’t-that is, when she caught us (I might say here that a heavy paddle was much in evidence), primarily we made our own rules and governed ourselves-at least in matters relating to social interaction.

One of the more noteworthy customs of the school was a Saturday morning ritual involving the Scriptures. Shortly after breakfast the small boys (I don’t know what happened to the girls) were plopped down on a bench and given the task of memorizing a chapter from the Bible. It didn’t do any good to protest, object, or try to resist. You sat there until you memorized it, after which you were free to go play.

One’s religion had nothing to do with it, nor did one’s interest or aptitude. When you got the task done, you could go where you pleased and do what you liked. Meanwhile, you couldn’t. And any time you spent trying to beat the system was just that much of the morning gone.

I suppose I need not tell you that I quickly concluded to learn my chapter with minimum delay, which I religiously (no play on words intended) did. As a result, I have been a devout Bible quoter ever since-and much, I might add, to my benefit and long-range satisfaction. Ah, well, children are not always in the best position to know what will stand them in good stead.

At home on the farm my family got up early, often around four o’clock. My dad would go to the barn to feed the livestock and milk the cows, and my mother would build a fire in the wood stove and cook breakfast. We would then eat, and by the time it was light, my dad would be in the field to start his day’s work. I got up when the others did, for the table was one place where I was equal with the rest. It was not just food that I got there but an important part of the day’s routine and ritual-a time when all of us were together in a common activity.

But at school it was all different. I went to bed that first night at the school for the blind in a strange city and in the biggest building I had ever seen-a building with running water, indoor toilets, electricity, steam heat, and a group of strangers.

And as might have been predicted, I woke up about four o’clock the next morning. It was not only that I was wide awake and in a strange setting. I had to go to the bathroom (simply had to), and I didn’t know where it was or how to get there. I didn’t think I should wake anybody else up, but I knew I had to do something-so I got up, went out into the hall, and began to hunt.

Somehow (I don’t know how I did it, but somehow) I found the bathroom, but then I didn’t know how to get back to my room. At this point I simply lay down in the middle of the hall and waited for something to happen. It was an experience which I still vividly remember.

But that was not all that happened that day. When the other boys got up, I went with them to the bathroom to wash my hands and face and get ready for the day. One of them (he was nine and big for his age) said, "Here, give me your hand. I’ll show you where to wash."

I wasn’t very sophisticated, but it was clear he was trying to put my hand into the toilet. I was outraged. My mother and father didn’t believe a blind person could do very much, and they had restricted my movements and actions-but they loved me, and even spoiled me. Certainly they never mistreated me.

My anger took tangible form. I jerked away and resisted, accompanying my actions with sharp words. The nine-year-old (who, as I was to learn, made a practice of bullying the smaller children) was not pleased to have his fun spoiled and to be resisted in the presence of the other boy. He beat me up. In fact, it was but the first of several beatings that he gave me during the next few days.

It was clear that I was either going to have to find a way to solve the problem or lead a life of intolerable misery. There were a number of other six- and seven-year-olds in the same boat. So I got together with them, and we went to see him as a group-and this time we didn’t lose the fight. Just to make certain, we kept at it for a while until there was absolutely no doubt that we hadn’t lost the fight. He never bothered us again.

It was my first lesson in the worthwhileness of collective action. It was a valuable learning experience, one that I have never forgotten. It has stood me in good stead through the years and been a comfort to me in times of trouble-and I am sure that it always will.

If I should ever be foolish enough to doubt the necessity of the National Federation of the Blind, all I would need to do would be to remember that week of misery in January of 1933 when I was six. That nine-year-old that I confronted may long since have passed to his reward, but he did me a service and taught me a lesson.

The most exciting thing about starting to school was finally learning to read. But I soon found that Braille was hard to come by at the Tennessee School for the Blind. As a matter of fact, it was rationed.

In the first grade we were allowed to read a book only during certain hours of the day, and we were not permitted to take books to our rooms at night or on weekends. Looking back, I suppose the school didn’t have many books, and they probably thought (perhaps correctly) that those they did have would be used more as missiles than instruments of learning if they let us take them out.

When we advanced to the second grade, we were allowed (yes, allowed) to come down for thirty minutes each night to study hall. This was what the "big boys" did. In the first grade we had been ignominiously sent to bed at seven o’clock while our elders (the second and third graders and those beyond) were permitted to go to that mysterious place called study hall. The first graders (the "little boys") had no such status or privilege.

When we got to the third grade, we were still not permitted to take books to our rooms, but we were allowed to increase our study hall time. We could actually spend a whole hour at it each night Monday through Friday. It was the pinnacle of status for the primary grades.

When we got to the "intermediate" department (the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades) we were really "growing up," and our status and prestige increased accordingly. We were allowed (I use the word advisedly-"allowed," not "forced") to go for an hour each night Monday through Friday to study hall, and during that time we could read books and magazines to our hearts’ content.

True, the choice was not great-but such as there was, we could read it. Of course, we could not take books to our rooms during the week, but on Friday night each boy (I presume the girls had the same privilege) could take one Braille volume to his room for the weekend.

Before I go further, perhaps I had better explain that comment about the girls. The girls sat on one side of the room, and the boys sat on the other; and woe to the member of one sex who tried to speak or write notes to a member of the other. Girls, like Braille books, were difficult to get at-and all the more desirable for the imagining. But back to the main thread.

As I say, each boy in the "intermediate" department could check out one Braille volume on Friday night. Now, as every good Braille reader knows, Braille is bulkier than print; and at least four or five Braille volumes (sometimes more) are required to make a book. It is also a matter of common knowledge that people in general and boys in particular (yes, and maybe girls, too) are constantly on the lookout for a way to "beat the system." What system? Any system.

So on Friday nights we boys formed what would today be called a consortium. One of us would check out volume one of a book; the next, volume two; the next, volume three; et cetera. With our treasures hugged to our bosoms we would head to our rooms and begin reading.

If you got volume three (the middle of the book), that’s where you started. You would get to the beginning by and by. Now, girls and Braille books were not the only items that were strictly regulated in the environment I am describing. The hours of the day and night fell into the same category. Study hall ended at 8:00, and you were expected to be in your room and in bed by 9:40, the time when the "silence bell" rang. You were also expected to be trying to go to sleep, not reading.

But as I have said, people like to beat the system; and to us boys, starved for reading during the week, the hours between Friday night and Monday morning were not to be wasted. (Incidentally, I should say here that there were usually no radios around and that we were strictly forbidden-on pain of expulsion, and God knows what else-to leave the campus except for a brief period on Saturday afternoon-after we got big enough, that is, and assuming we had no violations on our record which required erasure by penalty.)

In other words the campus of the Tennessee School for the Blind was what one might call a closed ecology. We found our entertainment where we could.

Well, back to Friday night and the problem of books. Rules are rules, but Braille can be read under the covers as well as anywhere else; and when the lights are out and the sounds of approaching footsteps are easy to detect, it is virtually impossible to prohibit reading and make the prohibition stick.

The night watchman was regular in his rounds and methodical in his movements. He came through the halls every sixty minutes on the hour, and we could tell the time by his measured tread. (I suppose I need not add that we had no clocks or watches.)

After the watchman had left our vicinity, we would meet in the bathroom (there was one for all twenty-six of us) and discuss what we had been reading. We also used the occasion to keep ourselves awake and exchange Braille volumes as we finished them.

It made for an interesting way to read a book, but we got there-and instead of feeling deprived or abused, we felt elated. We were beating the system; we had books to read, something the little boys didn’t have; and we were engaged in joint clandestine activity.

Sometimes as the night advanced, one of us would go to sleep and fail to keep the hourly rendezvous, but these were minor aberrations-and the weekend was only beginning.

After breakfast on Saturday morning some of us (not all) would continue reading-usually aloud in a group. We kept at it as long as we could, nodding off when we couldn’t take it any more. Then, we went at it again.

Let me be clear. I am talking about a general pattern, not a rigid routine. It did not happen every weekend, and even when it did, the pace was not uniform or the schedule precise. We took time for such pleasantries as running, playing, and occasional rock fights.

You can understand that after I had been in school for a few weeks, I contemplated with mixed feelings the summer vacation which would be coming. I loved my family, but I had been away from home and found stimulation and new experiences. I did not look forward to three months of renewed confinement in the four-room farm house with nothing to do.

Then, I learned that I was going to be sent a Braille magazine during the summer months. Each month’s issue was sixty Braille pages. I would get one in June, one in July, and one in August. What joy! I was six, but I had learned what boredom meant-and I had also learned to plan. So I rationed the Braille and read two pages each day. This gave me something new for tomorrow. Of course, I went back and read and re-read it again, but the two new pages were always there for tomorrow.

As the school years came and went, I got other magazines, learned about the Library of Congress Braille and talking book collection, and got a talking book machine. By the time I was in the seventh grade I was receiving a number of Braille magazines and ordering books from three separate libraries during the summer. Often I would read twenty hours a day-not every day, of course, but often. I read Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, Zane Grey, and hundreds of others.

I read whatever the libraries sent me, every word of it; and I often took notes. By then it was clear to me that books would be my release from the prison of the farm and inactivity. It was also clear to me that college was part of that program and that somehow I was going to get there. But it was not just escape from confinement or hope for a broader horizon or something to be gained. It was also a deep, ingrained love of reading.

The background I have described conditioned me. I did not feel about reading the way I see a lot of people viewing it today. Many of today’s children seem to have the attitude that they are "forced," not "permitted," to go to school-that they are "required," not "given the privilege and honor," to study.

They are inundated with reading matter. It is not scarce but a veritable clutter, not something to strive for but to take for granted. I don’t want children or the general public to be deprived of reading matter, but I sometimes think that a scald is as bad as a freeze. Is it worse to be deprived of books until you feel starved for them or to be so overwhelmed with them that you become blase about it? I don’t know, and I don’t know that it will do me any good to speculate.

All I know is that I not only delight in reading but believe it to be a much neglected joy and a principal passport to success, perspective, civilization, and possibly the survival of the species. I am extremely glad I have had the opportunity and incentive to read as broadly as I have, and I believe my life is so much better for the experience that it borders on the difference between living and existence.

The world today is much different for everyone from what it was when I was a child. And for blind people it is a better world with more opportunities and a better future ahead because we have worked with each other and with generous and caring sighted people to make it so. I believe there are few problems in life that can’t be solved when people do what they can for themselves and join together to help others. I am grateful for the help I have received in my lifetime and try to do my share to make the world a better place for all of us.