Barbara Walker
Barbara Walker

Fueling the Fire

by Barbara Walker


From the Editor: The following moving article appeared in issue 4, 1999, of News and Views of Blind Nebraskans, the publication of the NFB of Nebraska. It was originally a speech delivered at the meeting of the Nebraska student division during the 1999 state convention. Barbara Walker is a long-time leader of the National Federation of the Blind and a Federationist whose words often inspire us all. This is what she said:

When President Clark called me a couple of weeks ago to ask if I would speak at the Student Division Luncheon today, I hesitated, as I nearly always do when asked to do something conspicuous. But when I suddenly realized she was handing me a chance to fulfill a pledge I had made to myself at our National Convention this past summer, the only viable answer I could give was, "Yes. And thank you for the opportunity."

I hope each of you--for we are all sometimes students, whether or not we're currently attending a school of formal education; and we are all sometimes teachers, whether or not we hold an academic degree--will be willing to help me keep my promise.

As I made sure my ticket was in my purse in preparation for the banquet of the National Federation of the Blind in Atlanta, I wondered if it would be the high point of the convention for me this year. Since the time I began attending National Conventions in 1975, I had thrilled many times to the magical spirit of the banquet. But this one, my twenty-fourth (I missed the convention in 1981 due to the birth of my daughter, Marsha), wouldn't be the same. Dr. Jernigan, who had been the catalyst of the vibrant Federation spirit for more years than I have attended conventions, wouldn't be making sure his ticket was on his person tonight. And he never would again. He was dead.

I sat down on my bed and let myself cry. Then I remembered how, ten years ago at banquet time in Denver, less than three weeks after my beloved husband Jim had died, I couldn't imagine walking into the banquet without him. But I did. And I was glad I had. I would go this time too, beginning by summoning the advice our first First Lady, Mrs. Hazel tenBroek, widow of our Founder, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, had passed along to me nine years ago when I was struggling to keep my composure.

I had been on my way back to my room after the 1990 Fiftieth Anniversary Banquet in Dallas. A close friend had just said to me, "I thought this banquet was just perfect. Didn't you?"

"It was great," I sincerely replied, fighting back tears. "But perfect?" my inner self said, "Certainly not."

One of the living ingredients of anything approaching perfection for me was tangibly missing. True, it had been a year since Jim had died. And my friend, who had also known Jim well, had learned to experience life without feeling the constant void of his physical absence. I, at that time, still hadn't.

As my friend and I parted and I reached the hall outside the ballroom, Mrs. tenBroek, who had undoubtedly heard our conversation and empathized with me, said that her husband, who had been dead for over twenty years by then, had shared with her something she continued to find useful when dealing with hard times: "Sometimes, the only thing to do is to keep putting one foot in front of the other."

It got me to my room that night and to many places since then. It would also get me to the 1999 banquet hall.

Soon I was there--one of the over two thousand present at our largest banquet ever. As I sat down, those on either side of me urged me to look inside my mug. (Since 1974 everyone attending our banquets has received a complimentary mug with the Federation logo and something specific to the Convention site on it.) Usually there is nothing inside. This year was different. Della Johnston handed me one item--a replica of the bust of Dr. Jernigan, which had been unveiled at the Memorial Service the previous day. I was interrupted from my exploration of this treasure by another of my tablemates. "Keep looking. There's more."

I knew there was. I had already found something that disturbed me--a book of matches.

"I noticed," I said, trying not to sound upset. But I was remembering the time, at the school for the blind, when we were all asked to light a match and, from that, a candle, in order to pass some class. To my relief, we had used wooden matches. When my turn came, I braced myself, stuffed down my fear, and performed the task flawlessly. I hadn't willingly done it since.

And book matches? Those were too dangerous for blind people. That's what I had been told until I met the National Federation of the Blind. And then, although I learned that it wasn't really unsafe for blind people to use them, I, well, I just preferred not to. I mean, why do that when there are obviously superior ways of getting the job done?

"Did you find the candle?" someone asked.

"Yes," I said, too quickly, and with an edge in my voice which I hoped hadn't revealed the emotion I was trying to conceal.

"Are you concerned about lighting a match?" Jeff Altman asked. "If so, I can show you this nifty way I learned where you can't burn yourself."

"Concerned," he had said. Afraid was more like it. He probably knew that, "but concerned" did sound kinder and less confrontational. Of course he knew. He hadn't even paused between the initial question and the offered assistance. Figuring that whatever we were going to do with the candles would be a tribute to Dr. Jernigan and knowing that I wouldn't want to look back on the event not having tried to participate, I accepted his offer.

Inviting me to put my hands on his if I wanted to, he explained that you fold the cover of the matchbook back so that the front cover touches the striking bar. After taking a match out, you place the head between the covers, far enough in that it will rub across the bar, but not in so far that you can't hold onto its other end. Holding the covers firmly together with your thumb and forefinger anchoring the head, you grasp the protruding end of the match between the thumb and forefinger of your dominant hand and pull the match out. He mentioned in passing that it's important to keep track of where things are so that you don't bring the lit match into contact with the exposed heads of those remaining in the open book.

On my first attempt I was gripping the match head so tightly that my other hand slipped off of the stick. My second try released the smell of sulphur, but no spark. I had loosened my hold too much. With Jeff's calm encouragement, I tried again. The match sizzled victoriously. Before my fear could cry "exception," I lit another and another. And there it was--the magical Federation spirit--mentor and student sparking a flame, putting out fear.

Although Dr. Jernigan hadn't directly taught me this technique, nor did he teach it to Jeff, he had nurtured our Federation family in such a way that we knew that, when it's done with love and respect, as one who knows teaches one who doesn't, both become stronger.

As I was thanking Jeff for helping me, President Floyd informed me that I was supposed to be at a different table. Flushed and apologetic, but also excited about the prospect of sharing my newest joy in learning, I went as directed. Sitting now between Aloma Bouma and Ardyce Earl, I proudly demonstrated the new skill Jeff had taught me.

Shortly thereafter we honored Dr. Jernigan by lighting our candles. When mine almost immediately went out, I triumphantly lit it again, reveling in the spirit of all who had made this fearlessly exuberant moment possible for me.

And later, as President Maurer was reaching the crescendo of another stellar banquet address, he put into words the glow I continued to feel from the candle-lighting tribute we had paid to Dr. Jernigan and, in my mind, to all of those, especially Jim, who had physically gone from our midst, but whose spirit and love were among us still: "The spirit they kindled," Dr. Maurer said, "can never be extinguished, because we will fan the flame. We will add fuel to the fire. And we, the members of the movement, will cause a great conflagration."

Those weren't just fancy words to me. They were the expression of a very intimate moment we in that room had shared. I made a personal vow to take both the spirit and the experience with me and to pass them on to others.

I intend, very soon, to make good on that promise. But first, I want to give you, again in Dr. Maurer's words, the reason I hope you'll accept not only the spirit of my offer but also the physical act of carrying it out, whatever your current level of confidence may be.

Dr. Maurer said: "We are the blind of more than a single generation and of every segment of society and of every part of the nation. We have the capacity to think and the mental discipline to reach conclusions that will alter the future for us all. We possess the confidence to bring those conclusions to reality. Nobody else can do it for us. We must do this for ourselves, and we will. Our future is bright with promise, because it belongs to us. And there is no force on earth that can stop us."

I said earlier that I had not willingly lit matches, even wooden ones, since that time in Nebraska City when I did what it took to get out of that class. How had I managed that, especially having directed an Orientation Center for the Blind for a number of years and having also been a parent?

A few times, when duty called, I made myself do it. But mostly I gave others the privilege. Between the time when Jim was alive to light candles for such things as birthdays and Advent and the time when I thought the children were old enough to do it themselves, we pretended the little lights in the chandelier above the dining room table were candles. (Both Marsha and John had said they looked like candles when they were dimmed.) I also discovered the existence of the torch lighter, something I continue to find useful.

In all of these instances I don't think my choices were necessarily bad or even detrimental to others. But inside I always knew I was hedging. And it was, as so often it is for me, the National Federation of the Blind that not only called my bluff but also gave me the chance to grow beyond my fear.

Please don't get me wrong. I haven't become a book match lover. I still would choose, when given options, another method of lighting a candle. But I no longer feel like fleeing the premises if something needs to be lit and book matches are the ready source of a spark.

I encourage you to participate in lighting a match and a candle today whether or not it frightens you. If it doesn't, you may be the one, like Jeff was for me, who releases someone else from fear. If it does, I hope you'll have the courage to let someone help you.

Please join me now in doing the kind of thing I believe Dr. Maurer meant when he talked in Atlanta about fueling the fire and fanning the flame. Let's add some sparks to that great conflagration!