American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Fall 2016 LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES
by Jo Elizabeth Pinto
From the Editor: Jo Elizabeth Pinto lives in Colorado. This summer she has been enjoying adventures in science, art, and cooking at the local library with her eight-year-old daughter and her guide dog. She works as a freelance Braille proofreader and writer. The Bright Side of Darkness, her first novel, is available in Kindle, audio, and paperback formats at amazon.com.
I entered a local kindergarten in the fall of 1976 in a small farming town north of Denver, Colorado. The laws had just changed, opening the way for students with disabilities to attend public schools. My parents took full advantage of the new legislation. They wanted to bring me up at home, along with my sighted brother and sister.
The teachers in public school had good intentions, but they often didn't know how best to include me in their classes full of sighted students. For example, I went nearly all the way through my school career without knowing how to raise my hand to give an answer.
I didn't volunteer to answer questions in class. I only answered when the teacher called on me--or, more precisely, put me on the spot, with no way to dodge the question. I was an A student, but I usually sat quietly and soaked up the information I needed without attracting attention to myself.
Over the years I heard harried teachers admonish excited kids to raise their hands rather than call out of turn. However, these vague directions meant little to me. If I were to raise my hand, how high should I lift it? Should I wave it in the air or hold it still? How long would I need to hold it up? How would I know when to put it down, or when it had been noticed?
I learned early on not to follow unclear instructions. When I was eight or nine we were each told to walk up to the front of our music class and beat out a rhythm on the big round bongo drum. Then the whole class would clap back the rhythm. The drum had a deep, resonant sound, and I couldn't wait to get up to the front of the room and check it out. I clapped along with the rest of the class, and when my turn came, I walked eagerly up to the drum.
I ran my hands over the drum's round, metal sides and its smooth, taut head. I wasn't exactly sure how the other kids had beaten out their rhythms, but after a moment's thought, I decided the best way to beat something, obviously, would be with a fist. Just as my dad had taught me, I tucked in my thumb, squared up my knuckles, and gave that drumhead something to think about.
Knock-knock-Knock, knock, knock!
Everyone laughed, and I wished I could crawl up inside that drum and disappear. Nobody had told me I was supposed to pat the drum with an open hand instead of hitting it with my fist. Snickering kids deluged me with knock-knock jokes for the rest of the school year.
The drum incident and many other awkward moments told me that vague directions such as "Raise your hand," were dangerous. Looking back with the hindsight of adulthood, I realize that I could have asked any number of people how to raise my hand correctly. However, hand-raising--like so many other matters of body language--wasn't an important part of my world at the time. It was something that needed to be brought into my world from the outside, made real to me, before I could understand its significance.
I vividly remember the day I learned to raise my hand in school, because it was also the day I met my best high school friend at the beginning of my freshman year. We're still in touch now, decades later. We've been in each other's weddings, walked through times of deep sorrow and great joy, been the kind of friends who can go months or occasionally even years without speaking and pick up right where we left off. Those relationships don't come along often in a lifetime.
In those days, in many classrooms, I still sat off in a corner at my own desk or table. Isolated. Different. Separate. Public school was not always run inclusively back then, at least not in a small Colorado farm town. Granted, some of the separation was dictated by my need for electric outlets to plug in typewriters, and by the extra space taken up by my Braille textbooks.
On that particular day, though, I was seated with the rest of the students, dragging through a mandatory ninth-grade health class. I don't remember what question had been asked, but nobody was coming up with the answer, which I knew. The silence grew awkward. Finally I muttered the answer, hoping someone nearby would hear it and get the teacher's attention in whatever magical way sighted students seemed to have mastered, a way I had long ago given up on figuring out.
"Well, raise your hand!" somebody next to me said in a barely disguised stage whisper.
"What?" I turned to face the unfamiliar voice.
"You know the answer. Are you going to raise your hand or what?"
"Raise my hand?"
"Yeah. You know, so the teacher can call on you."
"Huh? Oh, I don't know . . ."
"Oh okay, it must be a blind thing. I had a blind friend named Becky at my last school. She missed stuff like that, too."
And this strange girl I'd never met before reached out and hauled my hand up over my head for me. I tried to pull away from her, but she held my arm up in the air. "Over here. She knows the answer."
Of course, by then I was so flustered, being the shy one who hardly ever talked to anybody at school, that I'd forgotten both the question and the answer, and practically my own name besides. So the strange girl repeated my answer to the class.
The two of us got to chatting after the bell rang, mostly because the strange girl, whose name turned out to be Vicki, was too persistent to give up on me. And the rest, as they say, is history.
By the end of the week, Vicki had helped me to advocate for a seat with the other students in my civics class. "How come Jo has to sit by herself at that corner table over there?" she asked the teacher bluntly, right out of the blue, while attendance was being taken.
The teacher stopped short and thought for a moment, genuinely surprised by the question. "Well . . . it's for her safety. So she doesn't get trampled when the bell rings and you clowns go bolting for the door."
"She won't get trampled." Help came from an unlikely source as one of the best runners on the track team spoke up. "Let her sit with the rest of us."
The teacher turned to me. "Jo, do you want to sit at a desk with the other students?"
I felt myself smiling as I nodded and picked up my heavy backpack to move. "Yes. I'd really like that."
After that domino fell, I started to find my voice more and more. My high school experience, and in a way my whole life, began to open up for me. Advocating for small changes felt good, and small victories set positive precedents for the more important battles that were to come with adulthood.