Future Reflections        Convention Report 2012

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What I Learned in Physics Class

by Barbara Pierce

Barbara Pierce, knitting Intro by Laura Bostick: Barbara Pierce served as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio for more than twenty-four years. She has been active at almost every level of the national organization for almost forty years. Barbara is a 1966 magna cum laude graduate in English from Oberlin College and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Although she was certified to teach English at the high school level, she chose to work in several other fields. These include jobs as a childbirth instructor, hospital chaplain, college administrator, and magazine editor. She edited the Braille Monitor, the NFB's monthly magazine, until 2010 and still works part-time with her successor. She has coauthored two books, A Design of Poetry, a text for high school students; and Do You Get the Message, a coordination handbook for nonprofit organizations. She has edited The World Under My Fingers, a book for the parents of blind children about the importance of learning Braille; and So You Don't See as Well as You Used To, a book by blind seniors for those who are losing vision.

Barbara gradually lost her sight during her childhood. She was introduced to Braille at the age of twelve and to the long white cane at sixteen. She did not, however, become fully adjusted to blindness until her exposure to the National Federation of the Blind in 1974. Its philosophy of independence and equality enabled her for the first time in her life to accept herself as a normal person who cannot see, and not a person who needed to apologize for her alternative techniques.

We tried to line up the whole realm of adulthood in the mainstream for this panel, and this is a rather large topic. I get to talk to you about social life and family life. This is probably not on your radar particularly--you're trying to see that your kid gets enough Braille, enough technology and the right technology, cane travel--all the nuts and bolts that go into the educational life and personal life of a blind youngster. You may not be thinking about the importance of social life, but trust me, when your kids hit preadolescence and the teen years, they are going to be worried about this one! It's important for you to understand that these are real issues, and they are things your kids are probably losing sleep over.

I was mainstreamed all the way through school, and I knew that the friends I had were not in the top tier academically or socially. The first friends I had when I started middle school were kids who needed my help tutoring them. They were kids who were struggling. Since I wasn't doing anything with my study halls, because I didn't have most of my books in Braille and I couldn't read Braille yet anyway, I spent my time teaching them the basics of math and English and science.

I moved up the social food chain as I got older. I made friends with a set of kids who were more successful in school, but they were not the popular ones. I certainly was not dating. I used to lament that all of the boys thought I was a great sister. They would come to me, and because I was blind, they figured I was intuitive and sensitive and understanding of psychological nuance. Besides, I was a girl, so I knew how girls thought. They could tell me all their troubles, and I could advise them. I remember in those years, when I allowed myself to think about painful topics, I absolutely presumed that there was no way I was ever going to marry. First of all, I didn't know any blind people, and anyway, you wouldn't want two blind people to marry each other; and why would any sighted man be interested in getting damaged goods?

I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I don't know what I thought the final consequences were, because I also couldn't imagine what I could do for a living. I knew I was awfully good in school. I could get A's. I presumed that somehow that ability would transform itself into something, but I had only the haziest notion of how that might operate.

I think I got some baseline experiences on my own. For example, nobody assumed that a blind kid would go to the movies. So when I went to the movies with my friends, I would see to it that in groups further afield from my circle I would talk about seeing such and such a picture. Message: Blind kids go to movies! Hey, guys--if you're listening, considering--you could take me to a movie! They didn't get the message, but you see what the principle is. [Laughter]

You all now have a terrific opportunity. We now have the NFB centers, and even some other centers around the country, such as BISM in Maryland, are using the NFB model. These are places that have really good summer programs for blind teens. The kids go off and do cool things like rock climbing and horseback riding and whitewater rafting and going to baseball games. It gives them stuff to brag about when they go back to school in the fall. You want your kid to have bragging rights! I love reading what Eric Vasiliauskas writes about his blind sons. They go surfing in Hawai'i! Maybe you can't swing it financially to take your kids off to Hawai'i, but if you put your mind to it, you can find exciting things in your area that blind kids can do. What you want is to help your kids understand that their job is to have fun doing the kinds of things that other people do. That's a way to establish the basis for a healthy social life.

As I thought about my own high school experience, I realized that I have a lot to thank my physics teacher for. I had possibly the world's worst physics teacher. We got light and electricity and nuclear energy and a few other things all in the last six weeks of the year, because he spent the first six weeks with us in labs using mirrors and things to make up a slide rule. (Some of you probably don't even know what a slide rule is anymore.) It was a complete waste of physics class, but we had teams that had to do the labs together. Maybe there were girls on my team, but I don't remember them. I do remember that there were four boys. This was at the beginning of my senior year in high school, and I fell in love. The cool thing about it was that the object of my affections fell in love, too. So physics became a very wonderful class! [Laughter] I still remember the 29th of January as the day I got asked to the Senior Prom!

The business of finding that element of life before I hit college was really amazing. If I could make it into a pill and give it to every blind high school girl, I would do it! It gives you a basis of confidence! Sighted girls may be uncertain about dating, too, but at least they watch on television how people smile at each other and make come-on gestures, and how they kiss. They don't have to worry about how you avoid bumping somebody's nose, or what the heck you do with your heavy glasses at an important moment. These were big things when I was in high school, but I got them worked out before I went to college.

The confidence of having a romantic relationship is a big deal. I think every young woman in college will tell you that this is a real issue. A great benefit of going to college is that at least the guys are older. They're not so insecure that they have to find the best-looking, most poised girl to go out with. They can risk being with someone who isn't in the standard mode.

You also have to do some serious talking about what behavior is appropriate for young women and young men. Blind girls don't have to get the message that they need to put out in order to get attention from boys. I've seen blind women fall into that category.

The good news is that your kids have role models. They've seen Marc and Pat Maurer, so they won't grow up thinking that a blind person can't marry another blind person. They see people like Debbie Stein and me who are married to sighted men, and they discover there are men out there who don't write you off because you're blind. These are important learning opportunities. I had to make it up as I went along. I even made it up as I went along when I got married and started having children. I didn't know what I was doing.

When I was about six months pregnant with my firstborn, a faculty wife in the English department where my husband taught made an appointment and came to see me. She sat down and said, "How do you expect to take care of this baby?" Now, today my reaction to that kind of question is, you've got your nerve asking me such a thing! But at the time, the truth of the matter was that I didn't have the least notion of how I was going to take care of a child. Still, I was smart enough to know that every other person who was expecting a first baby probably had to cope with the same feelings of potential incapacity. At least I had the wit to say, "Helga, I don't know. What I do know is that everything I have tackled until now, when I got up to it I could figure out what came next. And I trust that's what's going to happen with this baby, and that I'm going to do fine." I have three adult children, two of them have doctorates, and one of them has two children. I guess I did okay.

I want you to help your kids understand that even if they don't know how they are going to solve the next problem, they are going to be able to solve it. Whether it's how to mow grass, follow a tricky knitting pattern, make a baked Alaska, or change the washer in a sink, there's a way it can be done without sight. Maybe they can figure it out themselves. If they can't, they can turn to someone in the Federation who has already hung wallpaper or whatever it is that they want to do. That's the option you have. Your job is to expect the most from your kids and to hold them accountable. If you can do that, they'll do the rest.

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