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

that follows.

"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

cause.

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

so on.

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

her.

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

blindness."

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

companionship.

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

was too.

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

always expressed.

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.

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