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Kenneth Jernigan

Competing on Terms of Equality

by Kenneth Jernigan

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in The Freedom Bell one of the early Kernel Books. The anecdotes and stories recounted here are familiar to many Federationists, but they have never been published in the Monitor before. The points Dr. Jernigan makes here are so important for every blind person to reflect upon and understand that we are reprinting the article in order to make the information easily available. Here it is:


At one time in my life I sold life insurance--a most interesting occupation. I had a big rate book in print. I could not always afford to hire somebody to go with me and read it for me. I was trying to make a living, not be an executive. I couldn't put it into Braille. I didn't have enough reader time for that; and, even if I had, it would have meant carrying around volumes. So that wouldn't have been practical.

I had another problem: The company kept changing the rate book as new policies and procedures came along. So what was I to do? I could have asked my prospective customers to look up the information I needed, but that wouldn't have worked because the book contained information I didn't want them to have. I wasn't trying to hoodwink them. But if you're a wholesaler, you don't ask your customers to look in the manufacturer's catalog and see what kind of markup you make. It isn't good psychology. Besides, most of my clients would not efficiently have been able to find what I wanted. But what would have been even worse was that it would have destroyed their confidence in me. They wouldn't have believed that I was competent to handle their insurance business if I had done it that way.

I either had to figure this out or stop selling insurance. By the way, when I'd tried to get the insurance job, the first company had said they wouldn't hire me but would let me sell in the name of another established agent and split commissions with him if I wanted to. I said no, I didn't think I'd do that. Then I went off and found a company that would put me on.

So I tried to discover if there was any way to figure out shortcuts to work with the rate book, a formula. I learned that, if I knew the annual premium on a policy, the semiannual premium (if a client preferred to pay it that way) would be 51 percent. The quarterly was 26 percent, and the monthly premium was 10 percent. So right there I saved myself lots of columns. It isn't very hard to figure out 51 percent of something or 26 percent or 10 percent. Ten percent is easy--all you have to do is move a decimal.

Then I started on the other end of it, the hard part. I learned that, if I knew what an individual of a given age would be charged for a particular policy, there was a formula by which I could determine what that particular policy would cost an individual of any age.

I arbitrarily took age twenty-six, and (knowing the premium on an ordinary life insurance policy for a person of that age) I could figure the semiannual, quarterly, or monthly premium for a person of fifty, sixty, or any other age. Since we mostly sold fifteen or twenty kinds of policies (there were a few exotic things, but they were not ordinarily sold), I could put all the information I needed (name of policy and annual premium for age twenty-six) on a Braille card or two and put them in my pocket so nobody would even know I was looking at them.

It occurred to me that my competitors might also have such data available. Rate books are rate books. So I thought, "If ours are like that, I wonder what theirs are like." So I lured some of my competitors out to my house to sell me insurance and deduced a number of things about their policies--unraveled the formula and found that they worked.

One lonesome, rainy night I went to see a fellow who was quite well-to-do, a man who could buy (and intended to buy) a relatively large life insurance policy. It was going to make somebody a whopping good commission. There are always fewer things than there are people wanting them, and in this case a lot of us wanted his insurance business--but only one of us was going to get it. And it didn't matter whether you explained it, or called yourself blind, or said, "I can tell you why I didn't do it." Only one thing counted: did you or didn't you? That was the test.

So I went over to see him, and he said he'd been thinking about buying this insurance. I said, "Well, if you do, it will cost you this amount."

Suppose, he said, I decided I want to pay it on a semi-annual, twice-a-year, basis?

You could do that, I said, and if you did, it would cost you this amount.

I've considered buying from this other company, he said.

Well, I answered, they're a good company, and, if you buy the policy from them, it will cost you this. And I went on to tell him as honestly as I could the advantages and disadvantages of the other company's policy and of mine.

Then he said, "I'm going to give you my insurance business because I think you know what you're doing. I had a fellow out here the other night who didn't know a thing. Every time I asked him any question, he had to look it up in that little book he had."

Now I'm as lazy as anybody else. We all have a tendency to that, and there's nothing wrong with being lazy if you properly understand that it means extracting as much as you can for the labor you exert. That's perfectly proper. It's just that a lot of people don't know how to be lazy. If you'll work hard up front, it will allow you more time to do whatever it is you want to do, and you can do it more effectively and have more time left over to do something else.

If I had had sight, the chances are I never would have been motivated to have hunted up all that stuff and reasoned it out. But once I did, it proved to be a tremendous advantage and an asset. Yet a lot of people would have told me that I was handicapped in selling insurance because I was blind and couldn't read my rate book. And they would have been right--unless I did something about it.

I also did a stint teaching school. I taught in a school for the blind, in a day when blind teachers were not highly regarded. The question was: Could I carry my own weight, and (specifically) could I keep discipline? I figured out some methods that worked for me.

At the beginning of the first class I made a speech to the students. I said to them, "We are entering on a new relationship." (That sounds nice and bureaucratic, doesn't it?) "We're entering on a new relationship, and we can live at peace, or we can engage in war. If we engage in a peaceful relationship, all of us can live happily. On the other hand, if you choose to go to war with me, I have certain advantages that you do not possess. You may have some that I don't possess--and some that I haven't thought of. But let me tell you what mine are.

"I can give you assignments or not. I can assign things to you in a minute or two that will give you a great deal of trouble, either to do or find ways of avoiding doing. One day (whether you now know it or not) it will help you if you have nice recommendations written on your reports from me--not a lot, but it will help some.

"But beyond that, if you try to engage in conflict with me, there are times when you will succeed in putting things over on me because all of the brains didn't come here when I got here. So you'll win sometimes. But on the other side of that is this: All of the brains didn't come here when you came, so you'll lose sometimes, and I will catch you. It remains to be seen, then, whether or not I can make it desirable for you to try to live in peace with me. I choose peace if I can have it, but I will engage in war if I must." I made them that speech and passed on.

I had a student named Johnny Lindenfellow, who was at that time in the seventh or eighth grade. He took every occasion to be as mangy as he knew how, and he was an expert at it.

I tried to reason with him; I tried to be good to him; I pleaded with him about the good of the school and humanity; I talked with him about living and letting live. But nothing worked. There was no getting along with him. Nothing made any difference. In fact, whenever I would lay some punishment on him, he seemed to glory in it as proof that he was a tough customer.

So I changed tactics. One day, when he had done something I didn't like, I said, "Johnny, you will please stay after class."

I could feel him expand with pleasure. He knew I wasn't allowed to kill him, that there was some limit as to what I could do.

After class, when we were alone, I said, "Johnny, it's been a long conflict between you and me, and I want to tell you now what I'm going to do. As you know, I teach other English classes in this school. In about two hours I'm going to be teaching an English class, and I'm going to provoke an incident in that class so that somebody misbehaves.

"It's not difficult to think up some way to get it done. Then I will say to the student who misbehaves, `Why can't you be a good little boy like Johnny Lindenfellow?' I will do that over and over and over until I make you the most hated boy in this school. You will fight fifty times every day. I will call you a good little boy to every class I have until the day comes that they will beat you to death. You will fight all of the time."

"You wouldn't do that to me," he protested.

"Oh, but I would!" I said. "It's clear that I can think it up.... I did; I've already told you about it. And I will do it."

He said, "Look, I'd like to get along."

"So would I," I said. "I'm perfectly willing to have it either way, peace or war. You have declared psychological war on me, and I'm no longer prepared to be passive about it. I'm going to pull out all the stops and go to war with you now."

"Look, I want to get along," he reiterated.

"Fine," I said, and he and I became the best of friends and had no more trouble.

That is one way you can maintain discipline. It didn't hurt him. It probably helped him. It certainly helped me.

I discovered another very effective technique, which is translatable beyond school. One day I found a student engaging in an infraction of the rules. I said nothing about it until the next day. Then, in the middle of the class period, I interrupted what I was saying and remarked: "Yesterday, Frances, you violated this rule (and I specified). Your punishment is this." Without another word I returned to the discussion.

Nobody said much, but I could hear people thinking about it. In a day or two I caught somebody else doing something and didn't mention that for two days. The next time I let it go three days--then a week--then two weeks--and then three. Thus the culprit never knew whether he or she had been detected in crime, and the agony of the suspense cut down on the pleasure considerably.

The students never knew whether they had been caught--or when the ax would fall. A lot of times teachers forget that they were once students themselves, and they don't put any ingenuity into the psychological warfare which some students take joy in waging and always win.

We had a rule in my class. If anybody brought anything in and left it there and I found it, that individual had to sit down and punch out a whole sheet of full Braille cells, using a dull stylus and an old slate that wasn't in good alignment. The work had to be done in my presence so that I knew the individual had done it. That was also the rule if a person didn't bring whatever was supposed to be brought to class--book, paper, or whatever.

Once, when I was keeping library, the president of the senior class brought me a written book report. I got called away from the library desk. When I left at the end of the period, I forgot to take the report with me. The next day, when he came to my English class, the student walked up to my desk and handed the report to me. He said not a word. He just stood there. He had obviously primed all of his fellow students. Everybody simply sat and waited.

"You've got me dead to rights," I said. "Furthermore, you have done something else. You have stripped away all of the things that might have muddied the water. You didn't come and demand that I do anything. You didn't make me a speech. You just brought the evidence and laid it out. Therefore, today in library I will bring the slate and stylus and come and sit at your table. In your presence I will punch each and every dot and present you with the completed page."

I would like to be able to say that I deliberately planned that piece of drama--that I knowingly planted the book report and calculatedly forgot it in the hope that he would do what he did. But I didn't. I wasn't sharp enough. However, I hope I learned enough from the experience that I would do it next time--assuming, of course, there ever is a next time. It worked wonders. It made the students feel that I was willing to be flexible, that I wasn't stuffy, that I took seriously the rules which I made, and that I was not above the law. It did a lot of positive things, and if I had had the wisdom to think, I would certainly have staged it just the way it happened. But I didn't. I simply saw the possibilities in the situation and took advantage of them. Somebody has wisely said that luck is where opportunity and preparation meet.

Many of us who are blind could get jobs that we don't get, and we don't simply because we have been told by others that we can't perform, and we have believed it. We have been told that we're geniuses for doing the simplest of routine tasks, and we have taken pride in the so-called compliment.

Too often we have sold our potential equality for a trifle: If, for instance, it is raining and luggage is to be loaded into a car, which is right in front of a door and easily accessible, almost nobody would think anything of it if a perfectly healthy blind person waited under shelter while a sighted person said, "Just stand here. I'll load the car." It isn't pleasant to get wet, especially if you have on freshly pressed clothes. I know. I've been there. And there is a temptation, if nobody expects you to do whatever it is, to take advantage of it.

It is a matter of having sense enough to know how to behave to get on in the world. If my motive in standing in that doorway is that only one person is needed to load the car and that there is no point in everybody getting wet, that's fine. But if my motive is to stand and wait because I'm blind, let me not complain the next time I don't get equal treatment when the goodies are being passed out.

I believe that I am capable of competing on terms of real equality with others in jobs. When I have had a problem, I don't believe it's because anyone has wanted to be vicious or unkind or mean to me. It has been because people have taken for granted that I can't be expected to do this or that kind of thing. And sometimes I haven't believed I could do things.

I know that, before I can convince anybody else, I must convince myself. I must really believe that I can get along as well as others. Unless I believe that, how can I expect other people to believe it? To a great extent the sighted public will treat me and other blind people like what we believe in our hearts we are.