Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1



by Kenneth Jernigan

Editor's note: Kenneth Jernigan is the President Emeritus of the National Federation of the Blind. He has dedicated his life to improving the lives of blind people in this country and around the world. He is also a voracious reader. I have seen him pace a room, reading Braille aloud to his listeners. I have watched him scan Braille material at an unbelievable speed and read silently far faster than he could speak. In short, Braille is for him as useful a tool as print is to his sighted wife. How did he develop such excellent Braille skills? He read as a small child, read as much and as often as he could, and he kept on reading as he grew up. In short, he became a good reader in the same way that print readers become proficient. The following are some of Dr. Jernigan's recollections of his early days as a reader:

When I was a boy growing up in Tennessee, Braille was hard to come by. At the Tennessee School for the Blind (where I spent nine months of each year) Braille 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 advisedlyþ"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 greatþbut 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 atþand 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 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 forbiddenþon pain of expulsion and God knows what elseþto leave the campus except for a brief period on Saturday afternoonþafter 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 the 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 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 thereþand 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 aberrationsþand the weekend was only beginning.

After breakfast on Saturday morning some of us (not all) would continue readingþusually 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. We also engaged in certain organized games, and as we grew older, we occasionally slipped off campus at night and prowled the town. Nevertheless, the reading pattern was a dominant theme.

Time, of course, is inexorable; and the day inevitably came when we outgrew the intermediate department and advanced to high schoolþseventh through twelfth grades. Again it meant a change in statusþa change in everything, of course, but especially reading. Not only could we come to study hall for an hour each night Monday through Friday and take a Braille volume to our room during weekends, but we could also check out Braille books whenever we liked, and (within reason) we could take as many as we wanted.

Let me now go back once more to the early childhood years. Before I was six, I had an isolated existence. My mother and father, my older brother, and I lived on a farm about fifty miles out of Nashville. We had no radio, no telephone, and no substantial contact with anybody except our immediate neighbors. My father had very little formal education, and my mother had left school just prior to graduating from the eighth grade. Books were not an important part of our family routine. Most of the time we did not have a newspaper. There were two reasons: our orientation was not toward reading, and money was scarce. It was the early thirties. Hogs (when we had any) brought two cents a pound; and anything else we had to sell was priced proportionately.

I did a lot of thinking in those preschool days, and every time I could, I got somebody to read to me. Read what? Anythingþanything I could get. I would nag and pester anybody I could find to read me anything that was availableþthe 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 joyþa joy which almost amounted to reverence and aweþwhich 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 Knowledgeþa 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 cookingþabout 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 wasþno doubt about it.

As I have already said, I started school at sixþand when I say six, I mean six. As you might imagine, I wanted to go as soon as I could, and I made no secret about it. I was six in November of 1932. However, school started in September, and six meant six. I was not allowed to begin until the next quarter þJanuary of 1933.

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 meantþand 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 regional libraries during the summer. Often I would read twenty hours a dayþnot every day, of course, but often. I read Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, Zane Grey, Rafael Sabatini, James Oliver Curwood, 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 most people viewing it today. Many of today's children seem to have the attitude that they are "forced," not "permitted," to go to schoolþthat 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 of that group which deplores the illiteracy which characterizes much of our society and distinguishes many of its would-be leaders and role models. 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.