American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2021     GROWING UP

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Yes, I Made Mistakes, and I Lived to Tell About It!

by Karen Anderson

Karen AndersonFrom the Editor: This article is based on a presentation by Karen Anderson at the NOPBC board meeting during the 2020 NFB National Convention. Karen Anderson serves as coordinator of education programs at the NFB, including the BELL Academy® (Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning).

Hello, it's great to spend some time with you parents. I get to spend a lot of time with your kids, and you're their first and best teachers. Being here with you is awesome!

Failing out of college is the best thing that ever happened to me!

That sounds weird, I know. I'll explain why it's true.

I grew up as a blind child with a blind mother, so I had a lot of advantages. I learned Braille early; my mother knew that was important. Both of my parents believed I could be successful. I did pretty much all of the things sighted kids did. There's a story about how, when I was three, my dad looked out the window and saw me climbing on the porch railing to get onto the roof of our garage! He came and got me down, and we had a discussion about why that wasn't a good idea—not that my three-year-old mind grasped what he meant.

Then there was the time when we went over to my friend's house. My friend Nickie had just gotten a new gymnastics bar, which was mounted in her room. I thought it looked like super fun! When we got home I decided I was going to do gymnastics, but I was going to use our back porch railing, which overlooked a concrete patio. I ended up at the hospital getting x-rays.

I was a typical kid with typical opportunities to have fun and play and sometimes get hurt. But I also got the message that I shouldn't fail. I really couldn't make mistakes. Sometimes that was because it was inconvenient for other people. At one point I was trying to learn to ride a two-wheel bike. I was out on my grandparents' farm—I grew up in Nebraska—and I was riding down the hill on a bike that we were considering buying. I wasn't going very fast, but the front wheel of my bike bumped into one of the poles of my aunt's tent. She was really frustrated! The tent was fine, and the pole was fine—I didn't break it, but she was really annoyed. I got the idea that when you're learning something new and you make mistakes, it's inconvenient and frustrating for other people. The lesson was, don't make mistakes.

Sometimes I understood that making mistakes was not only inconvenient to others, but it could be problematic for me. When I was twelve I had O&M class every week. It was super fun! My travel teacher was showing me how to get to places like the Texaco gas station by myself, and I could buy snacks there. We went to the new shopping center where the Panera was. That was super cool! I remember being really proud when my instructor said, "Okay, I think you've got it. This is probably the last week we're going to do this."

But I remember the many times I made one mistake. I might cross the street just a little bit crooked, or I would make one wrong turn, and my instructor would say, "Okay, I guess we need to do this again next week."

In some ways this was fine with me, because it meant I got to go to the Texaco more often. Every time I went I could buy more watermelon bubble gum! But that experience of having to do everything perfectly wasn't teaching me how to make mistakes. It taught me that failure was bad. Instead of working through it, you had to do it over again from the beginning. I wasn't learning how to get lost and figure it out. I was learning how to give up and start over from the beginning. If you couldn't start over, it meant you just failed.

I was good at a lot of things, or at least that's what I was told. I got pretty good grades in school. I was a singer, and I sang in my dad's band, which was a lot of fun. But a lot of people's response to the things I did was, "She's blind! I couldn't do that if I was blind! She's amazing!" I felt that if I failed, if I made mistakes, I would end up letting people down.

The summer between my junior and senior years of high school I went to the WAGES program, which stands for Work and Gain Experiences. My counselor for the blind and visually impaired had been trying to get me to go to this program for several years. He finally convinced me that if I went I could get a job and earn money. I was a teenager, old enough to find some appeal in spending time on a college campus away from my dad, getting to eat in the college dining hall.

I knew there would be blind participants in the program—that was the point! We were supposed to be gaining work experience as blind teens. But I didn't realize I was going to have counselors who were blind. These were college age kids, just a few years older than I was. In a lot of ways they had it much more together than I did, even more than I thought was possible. Two of them had just gotten married, and they walked from their apartment to the campus. And they walked other places. It was just normal for them. These were some of the coolest people I had ever met, and they wanted to be my friends—actual friends, the kind of friends who kept in touch with you, even after the summer program was over. That blew my mind!

These guys were members of the National Federation of the Blind. They were in the Federation, and they were cool, so I figured it was worth checking out this organization. My friends pushed me to apply for a scholarship through the NFB of Nebraska, and I won. That was pretty exciting to me! I attended my first state convention because I was a scholarship winner. At the convention one of my friends asked me to consider running to be the secretary of the Nebraska Association of Blind Students, which was a division of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. This friend was on the Nebraska scholarship committee, so I wasn't about to say no! I figured I'd serve for a year and then I could leave.

I was elected, and I started attending meetings and events. I started to think that maybe the Federation had something to offer me. My friends pushed me to apply for a National Federation of the Blind Scholarship. I won, and I got to attend my first NFB National Convention in 2007. I realized that I had found people who believed in me, who thought that I had potential—not potential because I am blind, and not potential despite the fact that I'm blind. Blindness was just part of the equation for them, it was just a characteristic. It was part of who I was, but it didn't define what I could do. They saw that I could be someone—and that was terrifying! I was terrified of making mistakes and letting down these people who thought I could be something.

For as long as I can remember I'd had a plan. I was going to graduate from high school, I was going to go to college, I was going to get a job, and some day I'd get married and have two point five kids and a picket fence. There wasn't room in my plan for detours. My new blind friends, those members of the Federation, encouraged me to get some training in blindness skills between high school and college, but I didn't think I needed it. I'd been told my whole life that I had the skills I needed. I was ready for college. And that was the plan! If I deviated from that plan, it would mean I had failed, and I couldn't do that.

I got accepted into college, and I enrolled at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Before my first semester started, my high school O&M instructor showed me around the campus. It was a pretty big campus, but she showed me how to get from my dorm to my classes. I could definitely get from my dorm to my English class and back to my dorm. I could get from my dorm to my sociology class and back to my dorm. And I could find the cafeteria. I figured I was set. I didn't think through what would happen if I wanted to go somewhere else after my English class, but everything was fine. It worked out.

I did really well during my first semester of college. My second semester I ended up having classes in all of the same buildings I already knew how to get to. One could say that was incredibly lucky, or one could say that possibly I looked for classes in my major that I knew I could find. You decide which you believe.

The summer after my freshman year of college I was asked to go teach skills to blind teenagers in a program similar to the one I had attended, though this one was out in Baltimore. These kids weren't much younger than I was, and it was awesome to recognize that I could have the same level of impact on them that my friends had had on me. Being in Baltimore and working with other blind people, I started to realize that maybe I didn't have all the skills I thought I had. Maybe I should consider training. But no, no, I had a plan. Letting go of the plan would be failing.

Back in Nebraska for my third semester of college, most of my classes were in the same buildings that I knew how to get to. I was in the same dorm, too, which was great. That dorm also had the best cafeteria food! But I did have one class in a new building. A friend and I had decided to take Chinese together. Fortunately we were in the same class, and often we studied together before class started. She would meet me at my dorm, and we'd walk to class together. It was interesting that if she was sick and couldn't go to class, I was sick, too. I've never before or since had a friend who was sick at exactly the same time as I was, on exactly the same days. It couldn't have been that I didn't know how to get to class by myself and didn't want to admit it! That would be failing!

I did pretty well that third semester. But then I got to my fourth semester, and every single class was in a new and unfamiliar building. I had no idea what to do!

I knew that blind people figure out how to get wherever they want to go. But I didn't know how to figure it out. I felt really, really stupid asking my classmates for directions during my fourth semester! If I didn't look like I knew exactly what I was doing, if I was out in the world making mistakes, I was going to let people down.

One day we were scheduled to watch a video in one of my classes. I really didn't care about the video. Nobody would notice if I skipped one day of class.

Then I skipped another day. Then I skipped a week of classes. Then I skipped a month of classes, and then I failed out of my sophomore year of college.

My dad was less than pleased. My rehabilitation counselor asked me what came next. Okay, you did college. You didn't succeed. Now what?

Well, maybe it was time to try that training thing. What did I have to lose? All the people I knew who had awesome skills had gone to the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I submitted my application, got accepted, and got my state rehab agency to pay for me to attend the program.

That August my dad drove me down to Ruston, Louisiana. He was not happy about doing it! It was a pretty silent drive, which was really impressive, considering that it's a twelve-hour trip if you don't get lost—and I like to talk. Picture twelve hours in a car with one other person and nobody saying a word!

I figured training would teach me the skills I needed so that I wouldn't fail again or make mistakes. That is not what happened, not even a little bit! I'm pretty sure I made more mistakes in training than I had made in my entire life before. I remember getting lost on travel routes and coming in so incredibly soaked with rain that I had to borrow another student's extra clothes so I could throw mine in the dryer. I made a lot of mistakes! But they helped me figure out that I was allowed to make mistakes. Making mistakes didn't mean that I had let anyone down.

I used my new skills when I went back to college. I didn't feel that, because I had made a mistake, everything else I did was worthless. I spent a lot of time learning a new city and now and then getting lost. I knew I wasn't failing—at least, sometimes I knew. Sometimes it's still really hard for me, but without training it would have been absolutely impossible.

One thing that was very helpful was recognizing that sighted people make mistakes, too. Sighted people get lost and drop things and spill things. As a blind person I can't look around and see that So-and-so just totally face-planted into that pole over there! Pointing out some of those things can help your kids feel less awkward about their own mistakes. You don't have to scream out in the theater, "Oh my God! This woman in front of us just dropped her popcorn all over the floor!" But you can lean over and whisper, "Guess what just happened!" It might help your child feel a little less like they're on display all the time.

I love to bake, and I've gotten pretty good at it. But my last loaf of sourdough bread was kind of flat. I don't know what went wrong, but I'll try again and see if I can figure it out. I continue to make mistakes and grow through the process.

I want to leave you with this: Give your kids room to fail. If they're not doing their homework, let them get a bad grade. We don't learn best through our successes. We learn best by failing and figuring out how to do better.

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