A LESSON FROM MARSHA
by Barbara Walker
Almost all children test their parents to see just what they
can get away with. What if the parent is blind? And what if the
parent is blind and the child takes advantage of the blindness?
Is it fair? And what does it say about the child's attitude
toward the parent and the parent's blindness? With sensitivity,
love, and true understanding of herself, her blindness, and her
daughter, Barbara Walker (one of the leaders of the National
Federation of the Blind) explores these questions in the story
"Mom, someone asked me today if I can read Braille because I
was wearing my Braille Readers are Leaders sweatshirt." I felt
again the depth of my daughter Marsha's acceptance. I know that
as she grows, a time may come when she won't want to champion the
cause of the blind. I thought that junior high might be that
time. But not only has she worn that sweatshirt, but she has also
proudly worn her "Braille is finger food for the mind" T-shirt
with the "cool Federation logo" on the back.
One day she took a copy of some titles she had Brailled
along with the print version to show her teacher. She did them on
an IBM Braille typewriter which was recently donated to our
affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. Without much
thought, I can bring to mind many times she has promoted our
There was the time when she took copies of our first Kernel
book, What Color is the Sun, to each of her teachers. Inside, she
had tucked a Christmas tree shaped note pointing out that the
title article was written by her aunt.
When she ran for student council in the fifth grade, she
wanted to mention in her speech that I was president of the
National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. I told her how
pleased I was that she wanted to do that, but suggested that
since she was the one seeking office, it would be more
appropriate for her to talk about some of the things she herself
has done to further our cause--stamping and stuffing envelopes,
helping younger children at our conventions, assisting in sorting
and distribution of literature, participating in fundraising, and
That same year, she involved friends of hers in our walk-a-
thon, created Braille art, and made a Braille picture card game
with me. She is very interested in art, and believes people
should be allowed to touch three-dimensional creations whether or
not they can visually see them because you experience them more
fully that way.
I have complimented her insight and have encouraged her to
present that perspective often to others. Since our society tends
to emphasize visual learning and to underestimate the value of
education through other senses, many, including some artists, may
otherwise never consider the treasure which feels so natural to
Last summer, while volunteering at a day care home, she took
copies of The Encounter (a cartoon book about blindness) for the
children to color in. She said, when asking to do that, "If they
take them home to their parents, which they usually do with
things they make, their parents will read it and learn about
On another occasion, when I was not present, a man in our
church suggested to her that she should see to it that her
brother wore clean and appropriate clothes to church. When I
heard that this had happened, I asked her what she had said. She
told me she had been a little embarrassed about how to answer
him, but had ultimately said, "I think that's mom's job."
In the midst of all of this, there was one situation which
at first seemed to contradict all of the foregoing. Marsha had
been wanting to have someone over one evening, and I had said she
couldn't because she hadn't earned the privilege. A little while
later, she went to the door. I asked if someone had come. She
said something noncommittal which, since her brother came in
shortly thereafter, I took to mean that he had been the one who
was out there.
Moments later, John asked why Seana's bike was in our
driveway. I felt stunned. Trembling in disbelief, I went to
Marsha's room and knocked on the door. I asked if she was alone
in there. When she didn't immediately answer, I opened the door.
The smell of Seana's perfume brought with it a suffocating
mixture of hurt, anger, mockery, and betrayal.
When I found my voice, it was surprisingly low, even, and
cool. I asked Seana to leave at once, saying that I was
disappointed in both of them. She started to speak, but I cut her
off, stating that I didn't want to hear from her then. I added
that if she was intending to have me consider her innocent, I
didn't. She could have, at several points, rejected the idea,
even if Marsha had initiated it.
After she left, Marsha wanted to talk to me. I said I would
seek her out when I was ready. I went to my room and cried. There
are many kinds of tears. Mine, on that occasion, were not tears
accompanied by audible sobs which invite sharing. They were
silent tears, spilling unbidden from one too full of pain to
contain them; too deep in the aloneness of betrayal to seek human
I prayed for guidance and strength as I again approached
Marsha's room, believing that our relationship would be forever
changed by this incident. I was not prepared for what followed.
She received me calmly, continuing to tape a poster to her
door as I began to talk to her. I asked how she felt about what
had happened. She said she didn't feel good about it. I said I
felt for the first time that she had deliberately included
someone outside our family in taking advantage of my blindness
and in doing so she had shaken my trust. She said she knew she
had done that and she was sorry. Then she added, "If you were
sighted, I would have found a different way to have Seana come."
Again I felt stunned. What was she really saying to me? I
said to her that I was willing to rebuild our trust. She said she
As I left her room, I began to consider that perhaps we had
taken a step forward. Why, after all, should the characteristic
of blindness be some sort of touch-me-not fortress protected by
delusion from the throes of children's testing? And had it
really, through the years, been untested?
When, at last, I felt the fresh air sweeping through his
deepest hole in my cover, I realized that it was riddled with
snags and I was finally willing to let it fall away.
We have all known, all along, that blindness brings with it
opportunities for the creative tester. But we often succumb to
confusing equal with identical--that is, it's o.k. to acknowledge
that children of blind parents will test them in the usual ways,
but it's not o.k. to put blindness-related tests in that same
category. They are worse, somehow. They take the child beyond the
realm of fair game testing into the arena of the dirty player.
That night, I had to ask myself why that is.
Over time, I have come to understand that the answer relates
to perceptions about blindness. All of us, blind and sighted
alike, consider blindness a characteristic with so much on the
negative side that even children, whose natural bent is to test
limits and explore ramifications of human characteristics, should
treat this one with kid gloves. The unfortunate outcome of that
process is that the unexplored trait becomes stagnant or brittle,
and neither parent nor child knows what it's made of.
I believe, of course, that Marsha's actions were wrong. Both
the disobedience and the conspiracy were unacceptable. She
endured consequences of that behavior. But after the initial
shock of her having included someone outside of the family in
this test passed, I realized that it was not in any way a
contradiction of the positive approach to blindness she has
She is not bamboozled by the facade we so often build when
we want to be treated identically rather than equally. Blindness
is, in her mind, no more or less sacred than other potentially
fertile testing grounds of her parent. I hope we've all learned
the lesson well enough that we won't need a refresher course any
time soon. If we haven't, it won't surprise me at all if younger
brother John steps up to teach it.