Marc Maurer, Editor
Reflecting the Flame
by Marc Maurer
Of Milk Cartons and Belief
by Noel Nightingale
Between Kindness and Honesty
by Gary Wunder
by Lynn Mattioli
Chain Saws and Chigger Bites
by Marie Cobb
Static on a Distant Station
by Jody W. Ianuzzi
All in a Day’s Work
by Peggy Elliott
Lessons of the River
by Pamela Dubel
A Fundamental Lesson
by Michael Baillif
In a fireplace one log by itself, regardless of how big, will almost certainly fail to burn. There must be at least two. The flame from one is reflected by the other. The brightness and heat come from the space between the logs, the reflection of the flame.
As it is with flame, so it is with ideas. If a new idea is to take fire, to catch the imagination of the public and burn—if the flame is to be reflected, the kindling point sustained—more than a single person is required. There must be many to build the heat and speed the process. The idea which reflects the flame of group interaction burns brightly; it acquires a life of its own; it becomes unstoppable!
So it has been with us, and the Kernel Books are no small part of the reason. When the National Federation of the Blind was founded fifty-nine years ago, the prospects for the blind of this country were utterly desolate. There was little education, almost no hope of a job, and virtually no chance for meaningful participation in other activities of life.
A powerful new spirit now moves in the blind of the nation—and also in growing numbers of the public, most especially in those of you who have become devoted readers of the Kernel Books.
Like logs in the fire, sixteen Kernel Books have reflected the flame. Now, the present volume (number seventeen in the series), Reflecting the Flame, adds new fuel to the process.
The blind men and women who tell their stories here—the lawyer, who gains a deeper understanding of her own blindness from her battle with the office milk carton; the city council member, who is threatened and sued just like any other politician; and the teacher, who learns the lessons of the river on a white-water rafting expedition—all of them, like logs in the fire, are reflecting the flame.
And finally you—the tens of thousands of you—who have come to know us through the pages of the Kernel Books are reflecting the flame. You share our dreams and understand our hurts. You help us keep the new and better ideas about blindness at the kindling point, ignited and burning brightly.
The flame must burn for the thousands of blind children growing up today. Their tomorrows are ahead of them, and it is up to us—to you and me—to see that their futures are filled with hope and opportunity. We want for them something better than we have had.
As more and more of our sighted friends and colleagues come truly to know us as ordinary human beings—who laugh and cry, work and play, hope and dream—the future grows brighter. Each generation must do for itself; but in so doing, it must build on the past. We are creating today the past upon which our children will build their futures. And the readers of the Kernel Books are helping us do it.
With your help the vital elements for an alteration in the pattern of our experience have formed an energetic and forceful mixture. Together we will believe in each other and, with joy in our hearts, we will go to meet the future. Together we will reflect the flame.
The type size used in this book is 14 point for two important reasons: One, because typesetting of 14 point or larger complies with federal standards for the printing of materials for visually impaired readers, and we want to show you what type size is helpful for people with limited sight.
The second reason is that many of our friends and supporters have asked us to print our paperback books in 14-point type so they too can easily read them. Many people with limited sight do not use Braille. We hope that by printing this book in a larger type than customary, many more people will be able to benefit from it.
A KERNEL BOOK published by NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
Copyright ©1999 by the National Federation of the Blind
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
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by Marc Maurer
We in the National Federation of the Blind believe in teaching one another. We believe in this so strongly that it has become a hallmark of our organization.
There are enough odd-ball notions about blindness abroad in the world that we find it necessary to keep our minds alert. We want to be able to accept ideas about blindness that make sense and to reject those that don’t.
It has been argued, for example, that the blind (simply because of our lack of sight) possess a more thoroughly developed sense of smell than sighted people, and that blind people have a more sensitive sense of touch than their sighted neighbors. Those who have argued that we have a better sense of smell than the sighted have, think we would be exceptionally good perfume testers. The people who claim our sense of touch is superior to that of the sighted assert that the blind are better at kissing than other people because we are not distracted by visual images. Although it might be nice to believe that blindness provides these advantages, our experience suggests otherwise.
I met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan in 1969; he was then President of the National Federation of the Blind, and he continued to be a leader of the blind until his death in 1998. Dr. Jernigan, himself blind, was directing a rehabilitation program for blind adults, and I was accepted as a student. I had graduated that spring from high school with good marks, and many people had been telling me that I was bright enough to do well in college. By observing my patterns of behavior and thought, Dr. Jernigan formed the conclusion that I had been told I was bright so often that I had come to believe it.
A bright blind kid is sometimes praised in greater abundance than is warranted. Dr. Jernigan suspected that I had been praised out of all proportion to my performance because I am blind. He thought that I needed to learn better. If I accepted the undeserved praise without trying to understand what it meant, then I would accept less from myself than I could produce.
A counselor in the rehabilitation program believed that I was a sharp cookie. Dr. Jernigan made him a bet. The two of them selected ten words, which they thought any moderately bright, reasonably well educated human being would know. For each word that I could not define the counselor would pay Dr. Jernigan a dollar. If I did define the word, Dr. Jernigan would pay the counselor two dollars.
The first word they gave me I missed, and Dr. Jernigan collected a dollar. When I missed the second word, Dr. Jernigan collected another dollar—and seemed amused. When I missed the third, Dr. Jernigan chuckled as he collected his dollar. When I missed the fourth, Dr. Jernigan rubbed the dollar between his hands and laughed out loud. When the fifth word was presented, the counselor was so disappointed at my missing it that he began to swear. After I missed the sixth word, the counselor paid Dr. Jernigan nine dollars to buy his way out of the bet.
Then, Dr. Jernigan told me what it all meant. The competition for positions in colleges and universities, for places of employment, and for assignments in government is fierce. Those who want to excel must learn to use their heads. It is not enough to be pretty good. First-class achievement demands excellence, and I had been lazy. I had not demanded all that my mind could perform.
Not all of Dr. Jernigan’s teaching was of the academic sort. He showed us how to shoot firecrackers safely, and how to cook over an open fire.
Some people, who shoot firecrackers, light a match, and (while holding it in one hand and the firecracker in the other) bring the fuse of the firecracker to the flame. This is not the way it should be done. The firecracker and the unlit match should be held in the same hand with the fuse of the firecracker and the head of the match protruding between the thumb and finger. When the match is ignited, this lights the end of the firecracker fuse. The flame, traveling along the fuse, cannot reach the firecracker unless it passes between the thumb and finger. Consequently, the person holding the firecracker will release it before it goes off because the fuse will be too hot to hold. As soon as the sputter of the fuse tells the blind person it is alight, it is time to toss the firecracker away. The technique is simple and safe.
Then there is the cooking of steaks over an open fire. Dr. Jernigan taught us that this could be done, and we experimented to discover the most effective method. The best steaks are cooked over an extremely hot fire so that they will be juicy and tender in the middle and charred on the outside. One time Dr. Jernigan tried using an acetylene torch, a device designed for cutting metal with a flame. But the steaks that came off the fire had an acetylene taste which is positively awful.
The method we eventually adopted cooks an excellent steak. The steaks should be one and a quarter inches thick. If they are thicker, they will not be done in the middle; but if they are thinner, they will be too done. First, build a hot charcoal fire. It takes about an hour for a charcoal fire to reach the intensity that is needed. Two or three minutes before cooking the steaks, add a substantial number of thin, dry, hardwood sticks to the fire. Walnut, pear, apple, hickory, oak, or cherry are all good. This dry hardwood makes a hot flame. The moment before the steaks are to be placed on the fire, sprinkle a double handful of wet hickory chips over the flame. This creates smoke, but dampens the enthusiasm of the fire.
Now, it is time to put the steaks on the grill. I use a rack with a long handle so that I can turn the steaks all at once. As soon as I have the rack of steaks positioned over the flame, I pour a cup of vegetable oil over them. This causes an immediate and dramatic impact on the fire. Flames boil out of the grill and shoot into the air. Depending on the heat of the fire, I cook the steaks between two-and-a-half to three- and-a-half minutes per side. They are nice and crisp on the outside and tender and juicy in the middle. Sometimes, when the fire is particularly hot, I use welding gloves to handle the racks of steaks. These gloves protect my hands from the hot fire.
In 1969, Dr. Jernigan, whom I had just met, showed me that it is possible for a blind person to cook over an open fire. Now I do it regularly and as a matter of routine. But not then. I was eighteen, and I was blind. I thought that the flame of a grill or a campfire was too much for a blind person to handle, but I was wrong. This lesson helped me to understand that I had underestimated what blind people are able to do. It helped me to have a greater belief in myself and my blind colleagues.
I have carried on the tradition—the teaching over the charcoal. I have brought blind students to the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore and taught them the technique for cooking a good steak. In the process, I have not neglected the mental exercise, either for myself or for my friends in the Federation. We challenge each other to think, but we also challenge each other to find methods and techniques for doing what we thought could not be done. And above all else, we challenge each other to believe in ourselves and expand our horizons. Just as in a fireplace one log by itself cannot burn, we have come to understand that one good mind cannot build the future. The intensity of ideas must be captured and reflected to keep the flame of opportunity alive. We at the National Federation of the Blind are doing exactly that, and we enjoy a good steak cooked over a hot fire.
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by Noel Nightingale
Noel Nightingale is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington. A competent young lawyer, she carries her share of the workload in the environmental law firm where she is employed. Her blindness has come gradually over a period of a number of years.
In her story "Of Milk Cartons and Belief," she tells of her battle with the office milk cartons and what that battle taught her about her own blindness. Here is what she has to say:
For several years, I casually wondered how I would know which end of the milk carton to open when my failing vision finally failed to see the arrow on the carton indicating which end to open. Less casually, I often think about how I can make people with whom I work at ease with me and my blindness, and, more basically, what I can do to make sure that I fit in.
In the office where I work, we have a lunchroom. We have all sorts of amenities, from 25-cent soda pop to free bottled fruit juices to gourmet coffee. In the lunchroom refrigerator are cartons of milk for use with coffee. The milk is shared communally among coworkers.
Frequently, after I have poured my first cup of coffee in the morning, I reach in the refrigerator for some milk and find that there are no open cartons. During the first year or two of work, I could vaguely see the arrow pointing to the end of the carton to open. As my sight rapidly degenerated, I often reminded myself that I needed to ask one of my blind friends how I would know which end of the carton to open when I could no longer see the arrow.
It seems silly, but I did not want perpetually to open the wrong end of the carton, having then to turn the carton around and open the right end. Everyone in the office who also used milk in their coffee would undoubtedly know that it was the blind woman who could not manage to open the correct end of the milk carton. Silly or not, exceedingly self-conscious or not, I wanted to be able to open the right end of the carton on the first try.
I had intended to ask one or two blind friends what their techniques were for opening milk cartons. The question had not, however, risen to the level of a priority by the time I actually needed to know the answer. One day I walked into the lunchroom and found that I could no longer tell which end of the carton had the arrow on it.
I took a stab at opening the carton, and as I feared, I opened the wrong end. For the next week or so, it seemed as if I opened the wrong end more often than not. When I went back for that second cup of coffee, I would reach into the refrigerator and find the carton with both ends open. I heard it screaming, "That blind woman opened me!"
Over time, I experimented to determine whether one end of the carton was easier to open than the other. It is. Once I started paying attention to the feel of the carton as I tested each end for ease of opening, I found that it is actually quite easy to tell which end is the one that wants to open. It is no longer even a low-level issue percolating in the back of my mind.
I have spoken with several older blind people who lost their sight late in life who believe that they cannot operate a touch- button telephone because they are blind. They believe that they must be able to see the numbers to know which buttons to push. This is simply not true.
I cannot see the numbers but use a telephone many, many times a day. Most blind people I know use the telephone as quickly and frequently as people who can see.
There is no trick to dialing a telephone without being able to see the numbers. It is merely a matter of remembering where the number one key is and knowing how the keypad is organized. And, it is not just blind people who memorize this information; sighted people instinctively know, if not consciously, this information as well.
Why do these people who were blinded late in life believe that they cannot perform this daily task of living? Probably because they have dialed a telephone by using their sight most of their lives and cannot imagine that they can do it another way.
Why did I believe that I could find a way to open milk cartons correctly? Through my membership in the National Federation of the Blind I have learned that I, as a blind person, can perform those small tasks of daily life as well as sighted people. I just need to approach those tasks differently than I did when I was sighted.
Sometimes I need to use my imagination, try several methods, or ask my blind friends what their techniques are. I have also learned, through the National Federation of the Blind, that I can accomplish the larger tasks of life. I work; I am married; I own a home with my husband; and I am actively involved in my community. My activities have increased, not decreased, as I have lost more sight.
Since I began opening milk cartons using my "alternative technique," I have had several blind people point out to me that milk cartons come with indentations at the end of the carton which indicate which end should be opened. I had not noticed that before. There is usually more than one way to accomplish a task. The trick is believing that, one way or another, we can do it.
I recently found a couple of cartons in the lunchroom refrigerator which had had both ends opened. No other blind people work with me, so it could only have been the handiwork of one of my sighted coworkers. I clearly did not need to feel so self-conscious about whether I opened the milk carton correctly.
The real issue raised by my battle with milk cartons was my anxiety that if I opened both ends, I would be seen as different from the rest of my coworkers. Of course, opening both ends of a milk carton would be the least of our differences. Most of the time I do things very differently than my coworkers because I use a long white cane, Braille, and special computer equipment. On the surface, it appears that I have little in common with my sighted colleagues.
The National Federation of the Blind has taught me that my blindness does not make me inferior to my sighted colleagues. It just means that I need to do things differently than they do. When I use the tools that blind people have developed, I am capable of working at the same level as my sighted peers.
I still strive daily, though, to do everything I can subtly to show my colleagues that we have more in common than not. They may not think consciously about how to open a milk carton or dial a telephone, but then neither do I most of the time.
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by Gary Wunder
How does a blind person deal with things that are done primarily for visual effect? How does he know if he’s done them right if his friends are hesitant to tell him for fear of hurting his feelings? These are the questions Gary Wunder, who is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri, explores in "Between Kindness and Honesty." Here is what he has to say:
One of the most difficult challenges for blind people is to determine how well we do things which are done primarily for visual effect. Does the bathroom mirror have streaks? Is the window clean? Is the shirt wrinkled or smoothly pressed? Is the fence well sanded and painted?
There are several issues to address when we tackle some of these everyday chores. We must create an effect which, since it is visual, may be one about which we have very little understanding. Is the visual effect we’re trying to create one which corresponds to something we can feel? In the case of sanding the fence, the answer is yes. But in the case of the window or the mirror, the answer is no. If we can use our sense of touch, will the act of touching to verify our work alter the positive outcome we seek?
Touching the fence to inspect one’s painting job will probably have no long-lasting effects if the paint is dry, but touching the mirror or the window to see that one’s efforts have been successful will probably go a great distance toward undoing the good work which was intended.
Striving to achieve a satisfactory visual effect isn’t limited only to house cleaning and simple home repairs. Some of the clothing we wear is to meet a functional need, such as keeping warm. But a good deal of how we dress has to do with looking visually appealing as defined by the communities in which we live.
When I was a boy growing up on a farm, being well dressed meant putting on a clean pair of jeans and a clean shirt every two or three days, and occasionally dropping one’s sneakers into the laundry. After high school, college, and eventually a professional job, I found that the rules for being well dressed had changed. Now the requirement was that I wear a pressed white shirt, a nice two- or three-piece suit, and freshly shined wing tip shoes.
In my family, buying a pair of wing tip shoes was quite an occasion. Wing tips were not a part of normal footwear in a family which made its living by running large dirt- moving machinery used in the construction of houses and other buildings. Wing tips were special occasion church shoes, which also made their appearance at weddings and funerals.
I suspect that, in my 18 years at home, I had never seen my father polish a fancy pair of shoes more than two or three times. Even then, my experience of seeing him do it really meant listening to the noise he made while rubbing the shoes with a cloth, a foam rubber pad, or whatever it was he happened to be using.
I was familiar with the smell of shoe polish and had a general idea that it was being applied to improve the looks of the shoes, but never had I tried polishing a pair myself. Any thought voiced about trying my hand at it brought forth the admonition that shoe polish was very messy and quite difficult to get off one’s hands, and that I would do well to avoid it.
All of this changed, of course, when wing tips were transformed from fancy shoes to working shoes. Wearing them for two weeks on a daily basis was probably equivalent to a year of use such shoes would have had when I was a child. It soon became obvious that I had to figure out a way to maintain them if they were to add to rather than detract from my appearance.
When I went to the drugstore for my first purchase of polish, I learned that it came in two forms—liquid and wax. Which should I get? A description by the druggist convinced me that wax would probably be easier for me to handle, so I handed over the money and went home to try my hand at the first polish.
My initial assumption was that what improved the look of the shoe was coating it with polish, much like one would cover bread with peanut butter. I had the idea that the polish would serve as protection for the shoes and so I laid on as much protection as I dared. Remembering the warnings about getting polish on my hands, I applied it with a foam rubber pad and was very diligent in seeing that none of it got on me. From the description of how hard it would be to remove if, God forbid, I ever got any on my hands, I came to think of the shoe polish as something close to toxic, and held the conviction that if I ever got any of it on me, I would be forever scarred, like those who, on a drunken impulse, have their bodies tattooed, and then must carry the results of that mistake with them for the rest of their lives.
When I presented my shoes for their first inspection by a sighted friend, he told me that it looked like I had failed to remove the polish. I had no idea what he meant, as you can understand from my previous explanation. As he explained it, the visual effect had something to do with applying the polish, and then meticulously removing it, the end result being an improvement in the appearance of the shoe.
So, with a new understanding of the art of shoe shining, I set to work on my shoes with a towel, rubbing vigorously to remove polish I had so generously applied. A second inspection brought me a higher score than had the first, but my shine still had major problems. Not only had I used too much polish, but I had applied it spottily and inconsistently.
Worse than all of this, I learned (horror of horrors) that this time I had actually gotten shoe polish on my hands. For a few moments the condition of my shoes was of no consequence whatsoever. The only thing that mattered was figuring out how I could undo this terrible accident which would forever label me as the careless and hapless blind man who had disregarded the loving advice of his family and had experimented with—yes, had actually tried—shoe polish. Would it matter that I hadn’t inhaled?
Much to my relief, I learned soap, water, and several repetitions of vigorous hand washing would remove any trace of the stuff. And so, when I went back to the task once more, I did so knowing that I had the freedom to use my hands, not only to apply the polish, but to help ensure I was spreading it consistently.
After a time, my shoe shining efforts moved from unqualified failures to something more acceptable. Just what that something was I couldn’t say, but I began to notice that shoes I paid to have shined at the airport brought me compliments, while shoes I shined myself seemed to bring only silence.
If I inquired of family or friends about the condition of my shoes and explained that I had shined them the night before, invariably I was told that it certainly looked like I had worked on them. Thereafter the conversation would move from the appearance of the shoes to the virtues of cleanliness and attention to one’s appearance. It was admirable that I cared about my shoes and bothered to shine them when so many, who were probably more able than I, completely neglected their footwear.
Since I was aware that airport-shined shoes generated compliments while my own efforts did not, my assumption was that somehow the quality of my work just wasn’t as good as that of the shoe shine experts. To try to learn how my shoe shines were different, I would ask friends to critique my work and give me suggestions for the improvement of the shine.
Again, the conversation would soon move from the work I had done to how wonderful it was that I cared and would bother to take the time to shine them. I almost never got suggestions about how to enhance the appearance of my shines, no matter how much I coaxed and pleaded, and no matter which of the trusted friends I asked.
From time to time I would think about the problem of evaluating my shoe shines and would wonder whether there was really a problem at all. Perhaps I was just showing an unflattering lack of trust, and the real problem wasn’t the shine on my shoes but a lack of confidence in myself.
If people advising me were really my valued friends, why didn’t I just take their word for the fact that my shoes looked okay? Wasn’t it true that one always got more compliments on his hair on the day when it was cut and styled by a professional than on the days following when he washed and combed it himself?
My reservation about simply accepting the assessment of my shoe shines had its roots in an incident which occurred when I was a teen-ager. From time to time my parents would meet a blind person, or would meet a person who knew a blind person, and would ask if I wished to be introduced.
On one such occasion my mother had the opportunity for us to meet with a blind couple who were visiting friends in our little town. My mother and I agreed that this would be a good thing. And so, on a Saturday afternoon, we were escorted into the living room to wait for the blind couple to come downstairs. We were seated on furniture which the blind man had upholstered for his friends, and while his work was greatly admired, in whispered voices we were cautioned not to mention the defect on the arm of one chair.
We were given to understand that the man took great pride in his work, and that his friends were concerned that his feelings would be hurt were they to tell him about the mark or the scratch or the stain or whatever it was which marred this otherwise admirable work.
Obviously I didn’t pay much attention to exactly what the defect was, so flattered was I by being taken into the confidence of the grown-ups with our little secret. I felt some discomfort about knowing and keeping the secret, but the source of that discomfort didn’t really come to me for some time. I was too caught up in being talked with like I was actually an adult (and at fourteen I certainly knew I was).
If the adults thought concealment was the right path to take, far be it from me, the newest person in the room to be elevated to adulthood, to dispute with them about it. Besides, I too felt sorry for the blind man, somehow believing that he was very different from me, and only realizing long after that one day, if my luck held, I too would grow into a blind man.
On the day I’ve just described, I met a nice blind couple; and we shared some food and drink. But what I really took with me went far beyond two new acquaintances and some cordial conversation. What I learned was that in the name of charity and kindness it would be considered unacceptable by many with whom I would associate for them to give me a candid and unbiased assessment of anything I might do.
The charity which I was so willing to extend to that blind man was unwelcome when it came to me, but it didn’t matter whether I welcomed it or not, for the decision as to whether or not to extend that questionable charity would be made by someone else. It didn’t matter that the someone else was a good friend or that there were strong bonds of trust between us. In fact, the very friendship we shared might be the strongest and most compelling reason for the secrecy with which my friends would proceed.
Given this as background, perhaps you can understand why I kept looking for a way to get a candid unbiased assessment of my shoes. The inspiration came to me one morning while taking a cab to attend a National Federation of the Blind sponsored event. The cab driver who drove me was one I knew quite well, he and I both sharing an interest in computers and baseball and politics and religion and any number of things one talks about to keep from being haunted by the ever present clicking of the cab meter.
When the cab driver greeted me with the question, "Well, young man, how has your morning been," I said that it had been a busy morning for me, that I’d gone out to breakfast, had gone to get my shoes shined, and was now on the way to the airport. Glancing down at my shoes, the cab driver remarked, "Well, so you went and got your shoes shined this morning, did you?"
I said yes, that I thought keeping them shined was important, and this seemed as good a day as any to do the job.
The cab driver next turned to the subject of baseball and the rivalry between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals, who were, at that time, engaged in World Series play. Right in the middle of his commentary on the game, he hesitated, and almost as an aside said, "So you got them shoes shined this morning, did ya?" Yes, I said, I got them done early this morning when I would rather have slept in.
Next the driver’s commentary moved from baseball to computers, he being an amateur computer enthusiast, and knowing me to be a computer programmer. Often he had picked my brain for tidbits of information to make his system perform more efficiently.
Again, right in the middle of his strongly held views about the dominance of IBM and the superiority of other systems on the market, the driver interrupted himself to say "Got them shoes shined today, did ya?" Again I replied in the affirmative.
When we neared the airport, the conversation moved from computers to crime, as we talked about a recent murder which had shaken our small city. In the middle of his discourse on the sad state of the world when crime lurked just outside our door, the driver interrupted himself once again and said, "Tell me, young man, just who was the dirty — — — who charged you to shine them shoes?"
I sputtered, realizing that while I probably had just evoked an unbiased judgment on the appearance of my wing tips, I hadn’t reckoned with the possibility that this angry man might want to go and settle the score for me. I danced around the question and asked what kind of job they had done. The cab driver had every bit as much to say about my shoes as he did about baseball, computers, and crime—which he was certain had been committed here.
According to the driver, the negligent shiner seemed to believe that the only part of the shoe that would be visible was the toe. With great emotion he explained that the sides of the shoes still had streaks of polish on them, and the heels looked like they hadn’t been touched at all. Yes, it was clear that from the cab driver’s perspective, we were still talking about the issue of crime, and I should avoid whoever it was that gave me that shoe shine.
Now at least I had some data with which to work. We had moved beyond how wonderful it was that I cared and how brave I was to attempt the job myself. As bad as that review sounded at the time, I now had reason to believe I was capable of delivering a quality shine, if only on the toe of the shoe. I reasoned that if I was more methodical in applying and removing the shoe polish, my work would indeed be acceptable.
To my surprise and great benefit, I also found that if I could tell my friends I knew I was having problems with certain areas of the shoe, then, for whatever reason, they felt free to offer constructive criticism of their own.
It would be wonderful if I could end this tale by telling you that I’ve now become such an accomplished shoe shiner that I work nights and weekends to supplement my income so that my daughter can attend the best college in the United States. Well, I hope she can, but if it turns out that she needs income other than what I can provide from my day job, she’ll have to find some way to earn it herself.
The truth of the matter is that my shoe shines are something less than those offered by the professionals. Still, my ability to shine shoes at least now gets me an occasional compliment, and my work is normally free from those untouched spots and globs of polish which once were my trademark and signature.
Sometimes in my work with the National Federation of the Blind I’m asked to attend state conventions where this story finds its way into my remarks. When I first started using it, the purpose was to introduce a fairly serious banquet address with a tinge of humor. Later the story evolved into a tool I could use to explain how we who are blind sometimes need to be clever to get at visual information which others are afraid to give to us.
At other times I have introduced the story to interject some self-deprecating humor when I thought my lecture on some subject or other was causing me to come across as someone who thought he had great pearls of wisdom to dispense.
Now, however, when I tell this story, my intent is to have it hint at the kind of balance we must have when dealing with one another. As blind people we need to realize that, in the name of charity, people will sometimes be reluctant to tell us things we think we need to know. If we want that information, blindness will require us to work at a way of getting it.
Balance enters in when we simply accept this truth and cease to feel put out by having to make the extra effort to get the information we need. Balance comes into play when we realize that the charity and kindness which frustrates us in one situation is the same charity and kindness which reaches out to us when we ask for a hand up and a chance to get an education, take a job, and live full lives in our community.
The suspicion that one may not be getting the whole truth has to live side by side with the knowledge that we who are blind are every bit as reticent about giving people information which may come across as critical as sighted folks sometimes are when we ask them for information that they think we cannot use or may not really want.
Walking the line between kindness and honesty isn’t easy for anyone, blind or sighted, but I leave the subject feeling grateful that both exist and that both serve their own distinct functions in helping us in our journey.
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by Lynn Mattioli
Not all of us have what it takes to stalk a mouse through the house. But as Lynn Mattioli shows us in her story, "Cat-and-Mouse Games," blindness is not the deciding factor. Lynn is a registered dietitian employed by Harbor Hospital Center and is president of the Baltimore Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. Here is what she has to say:
My cats, Ben and Jerry, are creatures of habit. We have a daily routine. When I come home from work they greet me at the door and then expect to be fed their dinner. One evening I returned from work, but they did not greet me at the door. When I went into the kitchen they were both sitting on the floor intently watching the refrigerator.
I put out the cat food, but they did not want to eat. They wanted to keep their cat eyes on the refrigerator. Ben and Jerry are robust cats, so I know if they did not want their cat food something pretty intense was going on.
I watched them for a while. Ben was sniffing under the refrigerator. The appliance sits in the corner of the kitchen, so he was able to get at it from two sides. From time to time he would move around the refrigerator as if to get at things from a different angle.
Jerry was following his lead as if his big brother was teaching him something new. From the way they were acting I suspected we had a mouse in the house. It had not happened before, but since I live in an older apartment building I knew it was possible.
I have never been afraid of mice, but I knew I did not want one to move in and start a family. At the same time, I did not want to hurt it. I definitely did not want Ben and Jerry to have the mouse for dinner. I stood there for a while thinking, "How am I going to catch this mouse if I can’t see where it is?" I decided that Ben and Jerry could help me corner the mouse so that I could grab it and put it outside.
First, we needed to get the mouse out from under the refrigerator. I have an extra long white cane that I use to fish cat toys out from under the sofa. I used it to check under the refrigerator, but no mouse came out. So, I moved the refrigerator out from the corner thinking that might scare it out. But again, no mouse.
At this point I started thinking that Ben and Jerry were sending me on a wild mouse chase. Maybe they were confused. Maybe there was no mouse. I waited to see what the boys would do next. Ben started sniffing the grill on the back of the refrigerator. He then tried to climb up the grill. I figured that had to be where the mouse was hiding. I felt around the grill, but did not feel anything. But then I heard it scurrying up the grill. So, I tapped on the grill. There was a "plop" sound and the mouse had fallen to the floor.
Ben and Jerry jumped into action. They chased the mouse right behind the stereo in the living room. This was not working well. I was worried I would spend the better part of the evening chasing the mouse from one appliance to another.
The cats were guarding either end of the stereo so the mouse could not escape. I used my extra long white cane to direct the mouse out one end. Ben took charge and chased the mouse into the fireplace. Luckily the fireplace was free of ashes.
Things were looking up. I thought Ben had the mouse cornered. Now my dilemma was how to grab the mouse so that neither of us would get hurt. I decided to use a plastic grocery bag to scoop it up. I figured the mouse would be unable to bite me through the bag.
When I returned to the fireplace, Ben was dismayed. He was searching around the fireplace for the mouse, but it was not there. I searched with him. I felt around the fireplace, but no mouse. Where could it have gone? How could a mouse escape with two cats and myself on its tail? I didn’t think it could have gone up the chimney, unless it was Santa Claus mouse.
Ben came to the rescue again. He started sniffing the fireplace screen. I covered my hand with the bag and felt around the screen. There was the mouse, clinging to the top of the screen. I scooped it up and took it outside. I felt so bad for the mouse. It must have been scared. But at least I was able to get it outside unharmed.
I learned something from this experience. Initially I did not think I could catch the mouse because I am blind. I thought the mouse would move too fast for me to find it. I did not think I could catch it without being bitten. But now I know I was wrong. I found ways to get the job done. Blindness won’t stop me from keeping that mouse out of my house.
To simplify the task next time, I think I will invest in a live mouse trap. But I would do this if I was blind or sighted. It just makes practical sense. I doubt the mouse will be back, though, with Ben and Jerry on guard. They also keep the elephants away!
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by Marie Cobb
There are a lot of experiences many of us never have. Sometimes it is because of lack of interest, sometimes lack of money, sometimes lack of time. But for those of us who are blind the reason is frequently something else: lack of belief (our own and others) that we can or even should try to do the thing in question. This is the situation Marie Cobb, one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, addresses in her story, "Chain Saws and Chigger Bites." Here is what she has to say:
As I was growing up in Tennessee the only experience I had with tools was on my grandparents’ farm with my grandfather and uncles who thought girls—and especially blind girls—had no business using such things. The most I ever was allowed to do was pull one end of a crosscut saw or screw a black walnut in a vice to hold it while I cracked it with a hammer. Power tools of any kind were certainly off limits.
Bright and early one hot summer morning five or six years ago the telephone rang and I heard my dad ask in a voice that sounded very chipper, "Are you alive?"
I did not want to admit that I was sitting in my bed drinking my first cup of tea and reading a good book. I answered, "Certainly."
"What are you doing today?" he asked.
"Oh, I don’t know. What do you want me to do?" I asked with no idea of what the answer might be since with Dad one never knew.
"If you haven’t had breakfast yet, why don’t you come over, and we’ll have a bite and talk about what you might do this morning."
I said I would come in about half an hour after I had taken a shower and dressed.
"You don’t need to do all that. Just put on some old clothes and come on now. I’m hungry. The gate is open." And he hung up the phone.
While we were having fruit and cereal you can imagine my delight when he asked me in a very casual manner if I had ever learned how to use a chain saw. Of course I had to admit that somehow I never had but that I would like to since I shared his love of gadgets. "Well as soon as we’re finished here I’ll teach you. A girl ought to know how to use a chain saw," he said.
When we went out to the wood garage he got out a contraption that looked like a vice on legs and took a tree branch about four feet long and about the size of my forearm and secured it with the clamps. He showed me the controls and how to place the blade exactly on the spot I wanted to cut before pushing the power switch. Then, he told me to put my hands on top of his while he made the first cut.
As those of you who are familiar with my father know, he was blind from birth, but what you may not know is so was I. Therefore, I was just a wee bit apprehensive since chain saws are so noisy and neither of us could see what we were doing, although I knew he wouldn’t have been showing me how to do something that wasn’t safe, and besides I didn’t want him to think I was a coward.
After he had done a couple of pieces it was my turn, and I discovered that it was great fun to zip through pieces of wood with such relative ease. When he was sure I could handle the saw competently he said, "Now over here I have a big stack of these limbs you can cut up for me to burn in my fireplaces.
In a couple of hours I had what I thought was a very respectable pile of wood, of which I was quite proud.
Getting the wood cut up was a good and productive thing to do, but the most important thing that happened that day was that I gained a little more confidence in my ability to use power tools.
On the following Saturday I happened to mention to Dad that I knew where there was a lot more wood about the size of the limbs we had cut earlier in the week. He wanted to know where they were, and I told him in the woods a block or so from his house.
"Show me," he said, and off we went.
By the middle of the afternoon when I was tired and bathed in perspiration I wasn’t so sure it had been such a good idea to tell him about the dead branches in the woods.
I had dragged many long pieces of wood back to his driveway, and some of them were too long and heavy for me to handle by myself. Of course Dad had a solution for that problem.
"Take this little hand saw over and cut the long ones into more manageable pieces," he said. I said somewhat sheepishly that I had never been able to use one of those successfully. "Nonsense. I know exactly what you are doing wrong," he said. Of course he really did. I had always put too much pressure on the saw instead of letting the blade just ride along the top of the wood until it caught on its own.
After several more trips to the woods I finished cutting the wood. Later that night I discovered that I had made another acquisition that day besides learning to use a saw.
I woke up itching in several places, and realized from past experience that I was covered with chigger bites. It was definitely time to get out the nail polish to seal off the little holes they had made in my skin for breathing purposes.
Using a hand saw proved to be much harder work than using an electric chain saw, but I was glad to have the knowledge and to have learned a new skill. Sometimes it is necessary to remind myself that blindness is not the reason why I can’t or don’t do certain things. It is simply that I haven’t tried yet, and there is the big difference.
We are all so thoroughly brainwashed concerning the so-called limitations of blindness that we have to guard against not allowing ourselves the freedom to accept all the exciting challenges the world has to offer.
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by Jody W. Ianuzzi
There are thousands of blind adults today (and the numbers are growing) who deeply regret that no one required them to learn Braille at a period in their lives when mastering it would have been relatively easy. Jody Ianuzzi is active in the National Federation of the Blind of New Hampshire and is a Silver Life Member of the United States Judo Association. She knows firsthand about limited opportunities and disappointed expectations. She is articulate and outspoken, and her message is compelling. Here is what she has to say:
I consider myself to have been functionally illiterate for most of my life! When I was growing up as a blind child in the public school system in Connecticut, I didn’t have to learn Braille; I could read print. I had a little eyesight, and with my nose in the book I could read my first grade primer. It was work, but I could make out the letters.
By the fourth grade the print began to get smaller, so I had to try even harder. In the seventh grade I was assigned to remedial reading classes because my reading speed was still at the third grade level. In high school I got all my work done; it just took me four times as long as my classmates. I loved learning, and I wove wonderful dreams for myself of academic success after high school.
I went off to college, but instead of succeeding, I fell flat on my face! There was no way I could keep up with the work load using the reading skills I had been taught. My totally blind friends had little trouble taking notes, reading, organizing their readers, etc. I told myself that I should have done better than they; after all I had some sight. But the fact was that I couldn’t study as a sighted student, and I didn’t have the skills to study as a blind one.
I am thirty-eight years old, and I am now learning Braille. It isn’t a difficult task. I love Braille! My reading time and speed are not limited as they are in print. I find Braille to be a refreshing experience with endless possibilities.
Reading print has always been like trying to listen to music on a distant radio station: the sound is so faint and there is so much static that it is hard to appreciate the music itself because listening is so much work. Reading Braille is more like sitting in a symphony hall. The music fills you without your even having to work. My well-meaning teachers thought they had made the right decision for me. Oh, how I wish I had learned Braille as a child.
My story is not unique or exceptional. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of blind adults now recognize that they missed out on a proper education. And the sad thing is that not much has changed. There are blind children today with less sight than I have who are being taught print only. Why can’t teachers make Braille special in a positive way?
Braille was originally based on a system devised by the French army to send secret messages at night. The night writing was later perfected by Louis Braille for use by the blind. Why not give children the feeling that they are learning a secret code?
The blind child can read in many places where his or her sighted friends can’t—such as under the covers without the use of a flashlight. You can even read your Braille book in your desk without your teacher’s knowing it. Why not make Braille fun!
If I could speak directly to today’s teachers of blind children, I would say to them, "Ask yourselves this question: in twenty years will your students be grateful to you for teaching them the skills they needed, or will they be learning them on their own and trying to make up for lost time?"
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by Peggy Elliott
Peggy Elliott is a graduate of Yale Law School, a practicing attorney, an elected member of the city council in her community, and Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind. An obvious question comes to mind in reading her story, "All In A Day’s Work," and it is: What on earth does any of this have to do with blindness? The answer, after a little thought, is equally obvious: everything and nothing.
When a blind person carrying out a responsible role in her community can be sued and threatened just like any other politician perhaps there is nothing that need be said about blindness. And that, of course, says everything. Here is what she has to say:
I serve on the city council in the City of Grinnell, a town of 9,000 in the quietly beautiful farmland of central Iowa. In my first term, I was sued. In my second term, my life was threatened. I am serving now in my third term. Oh, and I also happen to be blind.
I could go on and on about the virtues of our community, but I won’t. I’ll just mention a few things we are doing at the moment. I serve on the finance committee, and we are currently trying to make the budget balance under the pressure of needs and expectations rising faster than revenues. Our community has over 30 percent of its land devoted to non-taxable nonprofits which add tremendous strength but no tax revenues to the community.
We are trying to balance not only the budget but also the need to invest in the future of jobs and residents by spending today’s money to increase the income stream while today’s needs for services demand our attention as well. We need more space for the library, more equipment for streets and snow removal, and the airport needs a longer runway to accommodate the business jets our growing industrial base is attracting. And we can’t do it all. No matter what choices we make, some of our constituents won’t like it.
Speaking of not liking it, a handful of disgruntled citizens sued me and my fellow council members when we voted several years ago to sell bonds to do a facelift of our downtown with new street lights and sidewalk repairs throughout the central business district.
Some of our citizens preferred the old, grungy sidewalks and lights so aged we couldn’t even buy parts to the slight increase in taxes the improvements meant. The suit garnered an unsalable rating for the bonds until it was resolved, and the momentum for change died. I said to my furious supporters at the time: "We’ll be here longer than they will." We now have the new street lights and the smooth sidewalks. And I’m still there.
What about the threat to my life? It came from annexation. I served for quite awhile as chair of the planning committee. And we annexed in two phases: first a lot of contiguous businesses and then a different area of residences. Annexation always raises tempers because taxes are higher inside the city limits for those who have thus far been benefiting from city services but not helping to pay for them. The business owners were vocally unhappy, and I lost some supporters for awhile.
The residential area included a person whose anger reportedly turned to threats. At a meeting I missed, he slapped the person chairing and controlled the meeting by shouting and stomping up and down. We all took the reported threats very seriously since a mayor and two council members had been killed or wounded a year or so earlier in another small Iowa town by a citizen enraged by a dispute over sewer service. I announced that I would not stand for threats or belligerent behavior.
When I opened the meeting I chaired, I described the ground rules of civility and explained that the police chief was there in uniform to enforce them when I asked him to.
The chief had told me in my conference with him before the meeting that he had been ready to eject the unruly citizen the last time but that no one had directed him to do so. I told him I would not hesitate to give such an instruction and would make that clear at the outset of the meeting. I just wanted to be sure he would do as I asked when I asked.
He was happy to make the commitment and stood ready during the meeting. The meeting I chaired was orderly, and the annexation proceeded to its successful conclusion.
I recently moved from chairing the planning committee to heading the public works and grounds committee which oversees the largest part of the city budget, an area in which I have served for my entire time on the council. We do all the building and repair of roads, city services like water and sewer, snow removal, and parks. Before assuming my post, I heard that there was some talk that I shouldn’t be appointed because "there are just some things you need a man for." Ha! When I heard that, I decided that my fellow council members had never had the detailed, precise reports I was about to start giving.
Custom before I assumed the chair was for the chair to bring up a topic and then call on city staff to provide details. Not me! My husband says he has never before met someone who can talk happily and at such length about sewers. He has now.
In addition to overseeing all the basic services, we are responsible for expansion, and we are working toward a new million- dollar well. It will assure enough fresh, clean water far into the 21st century for our citizens and also, along with the projected million-dollar storage facility that is next, probably bring our fire fighting rating up to the next level, meaning a reduction in fire insurance costs for every resident.
And we’re now embarking on a collaborative effort with the fine liberal arts college here to do a fundamental review of the downtown area and its interaction with the college to find ways of further cooperation so that each (town and gown) can serve the other better. My colleagues on the council have just appointed me as the council representative to this exciting new venture.
As I said before, I could go on and on about our community. But I’ve given you a flavor of my work on the council. You may be asking by now: What does this have to do with being blind? To me, everything.
I joined the National Federation of the Blind almost thirty years ago while still in high school and before I had earned my law degree and set up my private practice in Grinnell. During my entire adult life, I have been an active member of the Federation. The Federation has taught me many things, but two are relevant here. One is that service is good for the individual. We all learn and grow when we accept roles of service. The council has certainly been a fascinating and satisfying learning experience for me.
The other is that I as a blind person can serve and serve well. Any deliberative body works best when its members work out areas of agreement and consensus. I’m one of the six members of the council, and the others need my vote for their projects just as I seek their agreement for things I’m trying to achieve. And, when we get into it, I get the back end of others’ tongues, whether a citizen’s or a fellow council member’s, just as readily as do the other five.
My husband says that, as a blind person, you know you have arrived when people can be mad at you for your ideas and positions and don’t try just to be nice to you all the time or shield you from the harsh or the difficult. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I have achieved that position.
I’ve learned all sorts of things during my years of service in the National Federation of the Blind. From chairing meetings to forging consensus to sticking to my own beliefs even when I’m in a minority, service in the Federation has taught me much.
But the most important thing of all is that the Federation has taught me to get up out of my chair, go out the door, and find something useful to do because I as a person have something to contribute. The Federation has taught me how to accept and be comfortable with my blindness and then to get out there and teach others around me so that both they and I can get on with our lives.
Before I found the Federation, I doubted that I had anything to give to others, and the people I met who were sighted didn’t know any better. Now with the Federation’s training, I know how to give and to teach. And, I know I can be sued and threatened just like my sighted fellow council members. Service isn’t always pleasant, but it is always rewarding.
And my husband is right. We blind people can get in there and be loved or hated for who we are, not sheltered and shunted aside. It’s fun to be a part of my community.
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by Pamela Dubel
Pamela Dubel is a staff member at the National Federation of the Blind’s training center in Ruston, Louisiana. Students at the Center take part in activities designed to change their beliefs about what kinds of things blind people can and cannot do. In "Lessons of the River" Pam tells of her experience on a white- water rafting expedition. Here is what she has to say:
It was a steamy August day. As we stepped out of the van and walked toward the river, I was eager to begin our trip. I had traveled to Tennessee for a white-water rafting expedition with a group of blind adults who were students at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
We planned to paddle "leisurely" down the river. After completing a brief safety course and practicing our paddling skills, we were ready to go! Our large group was divided into about six smaller ones. My group consisted of five people including me and another blind staff member along with three students. Our raft did not have a guide or any sighted person to give us directions.
The Louisiana Center for the Blind founded its program based on the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. The National Federation of the Blind believes that blindness need not be a barrier to success. The white-water rafting trip was designed to help dispel negative misconceptions that we all have about what blind people can do.
The "leisurely" ride turned out to be much more arduous than we had expected. Conditions on the river were less than ideal. For instance, the water level was extremely low, which meant that our raft frequently got stuck on rocks and other debris. It also meant that we had to do a great deal of paddling if we ever wanted to eat dinner that night.
It was so quiet on the river. We wondered how we could be sure we were heading the right way. Would we notice the landmarks that had been pointed out during our safety briefing if we couldn’t see them? My doubts persisted as the hours dragged by slowly. My arms began to ache. Although I had been involved in the National Federation of the Blind for several years and believed fully in the capabilities of blind people, I must admit that I wondered if we would ever see land again.
However, my hope was restored. Soon we heard a distant train. We had been told that we would notice railroad tracks running parallel to the river about midway through the trip. We could feel the heat from the sun and used the cue to help us maintain direction.
Next, we traveled under a bridge, another landmark. Although the bridge was too high above us to reach, we could tell that we were under it by the changes in temperature and sound. Soon, we began to hear others from our group up ahead who were pulling their rafts out of the water. We cheered with great pride. We had made it!
By using problem-solving skills and our other senses, we had navigated the river independently. Our obstacle that day had not been our lack of eyesight. Rather, it had been our doubts in our abilities and our attitudes about the limitations of blindness. However, we had demonstrated that perseverance and a positive outlook bring rewards.
Certainly there were times when blindness had been an inconvenience during our trip, but not a barrier to enjoying the challenges associated with rafting. With a little cooperation and creativity, we had conquered the river.
That night as I reflected upon the day’s events, I felt a sense of pride in our accomplishments. Although my whole body ached from paddling and I was exhausted, I felt a renewed sense of confidence in myself and other blind people. Just as we had conquered the rocks and challenges of the river, my involvement in the National Federation of the Blind had taught me that I could overcome the barriers imposed by our misconceptions about blindness.
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by Michael Baillif
Michael Baillif is a past President of the Student Division of the National Federation of the Blind. He is an up and coming New York lawyer and a Yankees fan, and he doesn’t let blindness get in his way—not, at least, when he can help it. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. In "A Fundamental Lesson" Michael shares with us an incident that started out wrong and ended up right. Here is what he has to say:
I first arrived at my new apartment in New York City one evening last summer around midnight. The doorman, a hard-boiled seventy-year-old New Yorker named Leeno, was somewhat taken aback to see, emerging from a taxicab at that late hour, a blind man laboring under the weight of several suitcases.
That night, and for several days thereafter, Leeno was constantly over-helpful, being quite concerned with the numerous disasters that conceivably could have befallen me in the lobby of the apartment building.
After awhile, however, when I didn’t tumble down the stairs or set off any fire alarms, the novelty of my blindness wore off. Before long, we were talking of the weather, the Yankees, and Leeno’s children in Florida as I traversed the lobby of the apartment building on my way to and from work or recreation.
Blindness soon ceased to be an issue in Leeno’s mind, and so we never discussed it. We both were more interested in whether or not the Yankees, who were playing great fundamental baseball and getting all the little things right, would set the record for winning the most ball games in a single season. Although I would have been happy enough to engage in a conversation regarding blindness, the topic just didn’t come up.
One evening, after I had been living in the apartment building for a few weeks, I was returning from the theater in the company of a young lady I particularly wanted to impress. You can imagine my chagrin, therefore, when, upon pulling up in front of the apartment building, our taxi driver refused to accept any money for the cab ride.
Now, if I had been short on funds, I might have been thankful for the gesture. Or, if the cabbie had offered money to be put toward the programs of the National Federation of the Blind to help all blind people, I would have been deeply appreciative. But, in this case, I had received a service for which I wanted to pay the going rate. Being fortunate enough to have a good job, I wanted to pay my fair share; that’s what equality is all about. Besides, all philosophy aside, there was still the matter of this date on whom I wanted to make a good impression.
Regardless of my protestations, however, the cab driver remained unwilling to take my money. There we were, standing out in front of the apartment building. He saying, "No money. No money." And me responding, "No, really. I want to pay."
At this point, Leeno emerged from the apartment building and approached us saying, "Hey, what’s going on out here? What’s this about?" My first reaction was, "Oh, no. Now Leeno’s going to get involved. There’ll be an even bigger scene, and I’m going to have to deal with him as well. He’s going to want me just to let the cabbie drive off without payment."
But, much to my surprise and delight, Leeno accosted the cabbie and said, "Hey, that’s not the way we do things around here." Pointing to me, he said, "He likes to pay and be treated just like anyone else. So, you let him pay. He’s the boss." The cab driver wilted under Leeno’s onslaught and relented, finally accepting my cab fare.
As we walked into the apartment building, I thanked Leeno profusely for coming to my aid and marveled to myself at the understanding of blindness he had acquired from somewhere in only a few weeks. This thought sparked in me a minor revelation.
Using me as his vehicle for observation, Leeno quickly had learned a great deal about blindness without my ever having had the intention, or even awareness, of teaching any lessons. Luckily, however, Leeno, like the Yankees, had mastered the fundamentals and proved to be a champion.
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