Circles of Transformation

By Sheila Koenig

Editor's Note: Sheila Koenig is a former National Federation of the Blind scholarship winner. She is now a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri.

One of my favorite poems by Wendell Berry begins, "within the circles of our lives/ we dance the circles of the years/ The circles of the seasons within the circles of the years."

Continuously, I am fascinated by the circles that life presents to us to dance through. I am a blind teacher beginning my first year of teaching in a public school. After Spanish class on the first day of school, one of my students asked to be moved to the front row; she couldn't see the board from the back of the room. During the next class, I noticed that after being moved to the front, she still walked to the board to copy things down. As I stood by the copy machine, enlarging pages of the book for her to read, I recalled my experiences as a blind student. Throughout my elementary and secondary school years, I read the same sort of large print pages.

Today, with horror and pity, I recall my face flushing a deep red as I was called upon to read aloud. The heat from my face would cause my glasses to steam up, and I then had trouble reading, which generally caused more anxiety and blushing. No one ever considered teaching me Braille. I wasn't really blind anyway; I could still read print slowly if I dragged my nose across it. For a moment, I am caught in the embarrassing memories of my early years, and a flood of relief sweeps over me as I remember that I am not that awkward, quiet, insecure girl anymore.

The winter before I started my student teaching, I panicked. I had sat down to practice some Braille that some Federation friends had started teaching me. I couldn't read it. How would I take attendance? How would I read class notes? How would I explain blindness to my students? Dr. Homer Page had given a presentation at one of the National Association of Blind Educators division meetings. He had said that in order to be a successful teacher, or a successful student teacher, one first needed the skills of blindness (Braille, cane travel, confidence). As I sat on my parents' sofa, unable to read the Braille in front of me, I realized something important. I knew I needed to attend a training center where I could obtain intensive training and gain these blindness skills that I needed so badly.

At this point in my life, I was familiar with the Federation. I had won a Wisconsin state scholarship and a national scholarship. But I was still dealing with the acceptance of my blindness, struggling to feel and believe that I was equal and competent. I was not using a cane, but had been wrestling with that issue for some time. So the panic I felt was genuine and horrific. I wanted to be successful and confident. I needed those skills.

I only had the opportunity to attend an NFB training center for three summer months. I will be the first person to tell you that I could have used more training than that. But those three months turned my life around. I used a cane, read Braille, and worked with power tools under sleep shades! Being successful at those tasks fueled me with confidence.

Just a few days ago, my classes were reviewing for a unit test. I had created a trivia game, with rows of note cards taped to the chalkboard. One of my kids decided that he wanted a sneak preview of the questions, so he walked to the board and turned over one of the cards. "Ah, man!" he said as he saw the questions written in Braille. I just smiled at him. I use Braille daily to take attendance, read class notes, and develop class activities.

Throughout life, experiences can sometimes fill up, or can sometimes steal from, our bucket of confidence. I loved student teaching tremendously! I tried new activities, created entire units, and whole-heartedly enjoyed the kids. I knew that teaching was the profession for me. While I hunted for a full-time job a few months later, however, I encountered a situation which left me full of doubts and questions. I received many calls for interviews. My resume was quite impressive with its list of awards, volunteer teaching experiences, and work in Mexico. So I went to interviews, talked eagerly with principals, but never was called with a job offer. I was told that I interviewed well, and so I don't think my interpersonal skills were the problem. Principals and administrators were afraid to hire me because of my blindness.

In order to further build my resume, I signed on as a substitute teacher for the Springfield Public Schools. Shortly after I began this endeavor, I realized that the substitute coordinator would not call me to sub at a middle school. "We wouldn't want to feed you to the wolves, honey" she once told me. Every night I tossed and turned, unsure that teaching was the profession I should choose. I doubted myself, and sometimes it took every ounce of strength to go to another interview. But in times of doubt, we must persevere. I initiated a meeting with the substitute coordinator and director of personnel to educate them about alternative techniques in the classroom.

On April 15, I interviewed at a public middle school in Springfield. On May 15, the principal called me, asking if I was still interested in the position. On August 24, students walked into my classroom. I've been teaching for over a month, and I love it! The kids, though sometimes challenging, are enjoyable and curious. They want to learn, especially about blindness. I have spoken with other classes about blindness, and as I leave the building, kids who aren't even in my class yell "Bye, Ms. Koenig!"

So now the circles move again, and I have a student in my Spanish class who is in the process of losing her vision. I want her to be better than I was: not to spend years of her life pretending that she could see, not to spend hours memorizing speeches and presentations, not to remain quiet and shy for fear of having to do something unfamiliar. There is much I can teach her simply in doing my own daily activities. With the help of the National Federation of the Blind, I have successfully and confidently danced through many circles. I now look forward to the next.

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