Future Reflections Convention Report 2012
by Deborah Kent Stein
Intro by Laura Bostick: Our next speaker on this panel is Debbie Stein. She grew up in New Jersey and was fully mainstreamed beginning in eighth grade. She worked as a social worker on New York's Lower East Side and helped start a school for children with disabilities in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, prior to launching her career as a writer of books for young readers. Her first young-adult novel, Belonging, drew upon her experiences as the only blind student in her high school. She lives in Chicago and is active in the Illinois affiliate of the NFB. She also edits the magazine Future Reflections.
Last night I got together with some old friends who live here in Dallas, Peggy and Gary. We had dinner and hung around and got ice cream. Somehow we started talking about art and my interest in sculpture. Gary said, "There's a wonderful park here called Pioneer Park, and it has sculptures that represent a Texas cattle drive." Peggy said, "Let's go see it!" and I said, "Yeah!" And off we went.
So at about nine-thirty last night, there we were in Pioneer Park. I got to look at all these wonderful bronze sculptures. There were dozens and dozens of longhorn steers, running in various poses with their tails streaming, and there were cowboys on horses, waving their hats and their lariats, and the horses' manes and tails were flying. The pieces are bigger than life-size, so to reach the cowboys I had to climb up. Gary gave me a boost, and I got my foot onto a cowboy's boot and grabbed hold of the horse's bronze mane. I hauled myself up so I could reach the cowboy's face. They told me he had a really stubborn, determined, fierce expression, and I wanted to find out what that expression was like, how it was shown by the artist. If you have a chance to get over there, go look at those sculptures. They're incredible!
For this panel on "Adults in the Mainstream," I was asked to talk about education. When I started thinking about what I want to say, I realized how much education has to do with curiosity and reaching out to the world. Having experiences like exploring Pioneer Park, getting to look at things, asking questions, trying to learn about things and understand them--all of that has been a very core part of my life. Education is something I interpret very broadly. It's not just what happens in school, but what happens before school ever begins and what happens throughout the whole lifespan. From the beginning, my parents instilled in me a real interest in the world around me, a desire to reach out and get my hands on things, to ask questions and explore and learn.
A couple of years ago my brother unearthed an old reel-to-reel tape that had been made when I was four years old. He found a company that takes old tapes and turns them into CDs. We got to find out what was on that tape made in 1953, back when tape recorders were novel and amazing devices.
The tape turned out to be an interview my dad had conducted with me. My dad was a lawyer, but at one time he had dreamed of being a radio announcer. He loved to play a game with us kids which consisted of interviewing us about things we were doing. He interviewed me at the age of four about a project he and I had been working on--setting traps for mysterious animals in the back yard. We had set a box trap, which was a shoebox propped up by a stick. One end of the stick was tied to a piece of bread with peanut butter on it. The idea was for the animal to tug on the bread and cause the shoebox to fall down over it. We had gone out that day to check the trap, and the bread with the peanut butter was gone. The shoebox had fallen down, but there was no animal underneath it. Dad asked me what kind of animal I thought might have sprung the trap, and I said, "Well, probably it's some animal that likes to eat peanut butter."
I hadn't started school yet, but my dad was teaching me to have adventures, to be curious, to try to solve a mystery. He was also saying that what I did was interesting to other people and was worth paying attention to. It's a moment of my childhood that seems symbolic of what my parents gave me and how they prepared me to go out into the world.
My parents were very curious people themselves. In 1959, at the height of the Cold War, they decided to visit the Soviet Union. They kept hearing about it in the news, and everybody was terribly afraid of it. My parents said, "Let's go see it and find out what it's really like." I was ten years old. I got sent to summer camp, and off went Mom and Dad to see the Soviet Union for three weeks. They came back with stories that lasted the rest of their lives!
When I was in college, I had some very interesting summer experiences. Instead of staying home and reading to get a head start on my next semester, I found exciting things to do. The summer after my freshman year I went to Mexico with a group sponsored by the YWCA. I was the only blind kid in the program. We ran a recreation program for kids in a village outside Mexico City. The summer after my sophomore year I joined another YWCA work project, this one in New York City. All of the participants were assigned paid jobs with social service agencies. I was a top forward deck attendant on the Floating Hospital. The Floating Hospital was a boat that took families from impoverished neighborhoods for excursions up the Hudson River every day. On board they had a dental clinic and a well baby clinic, and there were various other screening facilities, so people could get some basic health care while they enjoyed a fun outing. I think the Floating Hospital was originally established to serve TB patients. After that summer I got to put that job on my résumé. I loved being able to say that I'd been a top forward deck attendant.
The summer after my junior year, I went to California as part of a program for college kids who were interested in the mental health professions. I worked in a day treatment center for patients who had been discharged from state hospitals.
My parents thought all these summer projects were good things for me to be doing. I'd say, "Hey, I got accepted into this program!" and they'd say, "Great! When does it start?" They never said, "Gee, I don't know how you'll find your way around. And you're going to meet a lot of people who've never known a blind person before, who won't understand what you need. How are you going to handle all that?" I'm sure they worried. Probably they thought, oh no! What if she gets lost! What if ... What if ... I guess there are a million what ifs when your kid is going off to California alone for a whole summer. My grandmother said, "I'm so worried about you going out there to work with the inmates!" I said, "Oh, Grandma, don't worry. They're not inmates. They're out now." [Laughter]
Through all those summer experiences, I learned not to be afraid of going off to new places. When I went to social work school, I chose the program at Smith College School for Social Work. I chose it because all of the academics were packed into three summers on campus. The field placements were full-time for nine months instead of two or three days a week as they are in other social work programs. In the Smith program, the field placements were all over the country. You might be sent to Denver, you might get sent to New York City, you might get sent to Washington, DC. You didn't find out where you were assigned until the beginning of August, and you had to start placement in September. You had a month to get yourself to wherever you were going, find a place to live, and start your placement. Because I had worked those summers during college, I knew I could do that. I thought it would be an adventure. I'd get to know new cities, I'd meet lots of new people, and I'd be able to work every day. I'd build up a résumé better than anybody would have from another social work school, because I would have twice as much hands-on experience.
When I started looking for a real job, there was no Section 504, and there was no ADA. There was no law protecting people from discrimination on the basis of disability. I'd walk into an interview and they'd say, "I'll tell you right now--because of your blindness I'm not going to hire you." Still, I could say, "I've worked in a lot of settings, and the things you're worried about are not going to be problems."
Eventually I found a job in social work. I worked in New York City in a settlement house on the Lower East Side. I had amazing and wonderful experiences there before I ran away to Mexico. As Laura said, I lived in a town called San Miguel de Allende and helped start a school there.
I live a pretty quiet life now as a writer in Chicago. I have a grown daughter who has had some adventures of her own. She went off to Ecuador and worked with kids in Quito, kids from villages in the mountains who had never been to school before. She told me, "Mom, I've lived in Mexico a lot, and I want to see some more of Latin America. I want to go and work in Ecuador for a while." I kind of gulped, and I thought, Ecuador! It's so far away! She won't know a soul there! What if ... Then I said, "Great! When do you start?" I knew she would have adventures. She would expand her education far beyond what she could learn in a classroom.
I hope that's something parents of blind kids, and parents of any kids, can take to heart. I hope you can instill in your children a sense of curiosity and wonder and adventure. It is such a gift, and it will carry them far.