Future Reflections Fall 1994, Vol. 13 No. 3



by Bonnie Peterson

     Editor's Note: The following article is based upon a speech Mrs. Peterson gave at the parents' seminar on Friday, July 1, at the 1994 National Federation of the Blind National Convention in Detroit, Michigan. Bonnie Peterson is President of the NFB of Wisconsin, a wife, a mother, and a university professor. She is also blind.

I teach communications and public speaking in the university system of Wisconsin. I am also blind. Taking notes is of course something that is extremely valuable to me. From my experience I believe that note taking is probably one of the most important skills that your children will learn. So what is note taking and how is it valuable?

First of all, note taking is not tape-recorded documentation of information. Note taking is where you, the notetaker, pick and choose the information you wish to retain. For true note taking this must be done in a medium that is flexible and quickly accessible. You also have to be able to take notes under a wide variety of circumstances-while you're standing or sitting; inside or outside; and so forth.

There is no question that the skill and art of note taking leads to active listening. In other words, the better you take notes, the better you listen. You need to listen in order to pick and choose which things you wish to take down. That is, you must be constantly making decisions as you write down notes. When children start to study for tests and exams from notes, they begin to realize the importance of making good decisions-especially if their notes were incomplete and the information they need isn't there. Note taking leads to better decision making skills, and this in turn promotes leadership qualities.

One of the key skills of successful leaders is juggling five or six or more different things at the same time. Successful people are busy people. Once people discover you are a competent, skillful leader everybody wants you. Note taking allows people to function more efficiently and effectively and therefore be more successful.

I take notes on a myriad of topics, and I take them in Braille. I use Braille to write notes to myself about the grades and other important information about my students. I use Braille when I judge speaking competitions. There is no way anyone could remember, or would care to remember, all the intricacies of each speech and each speaker, so I use my Braille for that. I use Braille for political issues, especially public hearings. The information in my testimonies-the figures and statistics-are all written down and at my fingertips; and frankly, no one beats me. As a matter of fact I have a running competition with my Congressman, Gerald Kletchka. We have a sort of game we play. He wants to see if he can get to his statistics faster than I can get to mine. So far I've always won, and I like it that way. I intend to keep it that way, too.

I also use Braille in my home life. I use it for writing down appointments, grocery lists, and for keeping track of my two daughters' schedules. (They have basketball practice, volleyball and soccer games, gymnastic classes-and I have to see that everyone gets to the right place at the right time.) But it wasn't always that way. I didn't always take notes in Braille.

When I went to school my parents were told that I didn't need Braille; after all I could see. We didn't know about the National Federation of the Blind then. My parents trusted the professionals, so I did not learn Braille as a child. Instead I learned to take notes in a dive-bomb fashion. Now, when you take notes this way-and you can; it is doable-your back and shoulders are hunched up and your nose is literally on the paper as you drag your face across the page. But I didn't need Braille. I could see. And a funny thing happens if you have long hair: it all plops down on the desk, onto your paper, and into your face so you're eating hair while you're trying to take notes. Nobody thinks about those things. You also eliminate what little light there is because your head is blocking it off, and there's a tremendous amount of eye strain. But that's how I took my notes. In between classes I would go into the ladies' room and wash the ink off the tip of my nose. (Later, in high school, I didn't want the boys to see ink on my nose so I had to devise methods to wipe it off in class without being obvious.)

I went through certain stages in my childhood trying to deal with the fact that I really couldn't see (we didn't use the word blind when I was a child). My family was Polish, and we heard a lot of jokes about Polish people with big noses. So I thought that Polish people must have big noses, and I must have a bigger nose than other people. I remember thinking that if I didn't have this rotten Polish nose, I could get close enough to the paper to read without getting ink on the tip of my nose.  This is true confession time-not many people know this-I decided I could squish down my nose and make it smaller by sleeping face down in my pillow. I really did.  But after a few weeks my desire for air and my fear of suffocation while I slept made me give up. I still have the nose with which I was born. So, I gave up my "ethnic nose" stage and I moved into another stage; the "martyr" stage.

By this time I was in eighth grade, early adolescence. For years I had heard people say things like, "Isn't she remarkable? That poor little thing struggles so hard. Look at how good she does with the little that she has." My reaction in this stage became: "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen. Nobody knows but me, and I will endure this for the greater good of society and someday I will be rewarded." However, my "Joan-of-Arc" stage didn't last very long, either-I was quite aware that, like Joan, I was getting burned. I didn't really want people to pity me, to pet me, and tell me how sweet and wonderful I was to endure this hardship. That wasn't what I was about.

So I moved into another stage. This was the "Buck up, Bonnie, and just make the best of this. This is the way the cards of life have been dealt out to you, so watcha' gonna' do?" stage. I stayed in that stage for a long time-a long, long time. I stayed in my "poker-hand of life" stage into and beyond my college years.

When I went to college I was still dive-bombing my paper, of course. (However, I did devise a hairstyle so I wouldn't eat my hair anymore.) The college I went to was quite a ruthless college, by the way. They treated everyone equally. I was fortunate to get a very strong education there.

Communication was the career I chose. In communication classes we did a lot of group analysis. Groups of students were videotaped as they interacted, and professional evaluators critiqued and rated each student within the group according to communication principles and criteria. These evaluations were given to the class instructor, who would then review the evaluations with each student. It was my turn on this one particular evening. I will never forget it-it was nine o'clock in the evening on a Tuesday. Sister (my instructor) was going through this process with me. (She had not seen the videotape of course. She was merely reviewing the evaluation with me.) On the list of things that I had done was a comment about withdrawing behavior. For those of you who don't know anything about communication jargon, withdrawing behavior is the worst thing that you can do in communication. It's sort of like turning your back on a person-ignoring them. It means that you have taken your consciousness, your essence away from the group. My instructor said, "Bonnie, leading behavior here, challenging behavior here. Those are all positive, but what is this? Withdrawing behavior? You never withdraw. What are you doing here?"

When I told her I didn't know, this upset her more than the behavior itself-that I could do something and not be aware of it. So she read the description from the evaluation to me and asked me again just what I had been doing.

"Well, I was only taking notes, Sister."

"Notes aren't withdrawing behavior. Show me what you do when you take notes."

So I played World War II Ace and dive-bombed the paper and pretended to take notes. So she asked me, "Bonnie, what is the definition of withdrawing behavior?" I regurgitated the definition of withdrawing behavior as any good student should do. She left it at that, but I didn't. I thought about it. She was right. To take my face, my body-the entire portion of my upper torso-away from the group and to be down there on top of that paper for even a millisecond was, of course, withdrawing behavior. This bothered me. I had always been praised and encouraged for taking notes this way. Now someone was telling me, for the first time in my life, how this behavior was interpreted in the real world. I wasn't bothered enough to change anything right away, but I certainly put it on the back burner to simmer.

I continued to dive-bomb my paper-I was the best World War II fighter pilot Ace-even after I stumbled into the National Federation of the Blind and saw wonderful positive blind people doing things that I couldn't do in a million years-like reading and writing (Braille, of course) comfortably and easily. They were people who weren't struggling with eyestrain, which had become such an ordinary fact in the course of my everyday life that I didn't even bother complaining about it. You would think that this would be enough to make me change, but it wasn't. It was the actions of my three-year-old daughter that did it.

I was reading her a book about Dumbo, the elephant. Of course, reading the book meant wrapping it around my face. I still remember how she just looked at me and said, "Daddy read me." What I heard in her words were, "You are stupid; you are embarrassing; I am going to get as far away from you as I can; you're dumb." Now she didn't mean to be cruel, but as far away as a three-year-old could get was across the room to her dad, and that was far enough for me.

I learned Braille with the help of the Federation in two months. By the way, let me tell you something else that you probably won't believe. If any of you would have come to me during the time I was still dive-bombing and offered me one million dollars in unmarked bills tax-free if I could read back to you notes I had written a month ago, I couldn't have gotten the money from you. I was taking notes that I literally couldn't read. But I knew no other way. It was what the professionals told me I should do.

After Braille came all the chairmanships of the committees that I serve on and all the expertise and success in teaching that I have enjoyed. All of this comes after Braille and the help of the NFB. I owe a great part of who and what I am today to the National Federation of the Blind.

My parents didn't know a lot about note taking, but they did know about taking out the trash. They knew about providing me with strong values, about teaching me to be responsible, and what it was to do a job well. From the time I was a young child I was expected to do household tasks, make my bed and do it correctly, fold up my clothes, and put them away. By the time I was eight years old I was helping my mom on Saturdays to clean the house. My job was the bathroom, hall, and the steps-the total cleaning thereof. When I was thirteen my mom went to work. It was just going to be a part-time job, she said, just for a little extra spending money in the family. But my mom was so good that she moved up into management full-time. By the time I was fifteen I was grocery shopping, ironing, and taking care of the family. I did all of that and I did it well, for nothing less was acceptable to my parents.

Now, kids are kids-blind or sighted-and they want to get away with what they can, especially if they are creative, and I was. When I was about thirteen I developed a passion for long, hot showers. But soon my long, hot showers began causing the bathroom tiles in our bathroom to fall off the wall. I figured out that if, after a shower, I would just plunk those babies right back up on the wall, they would stay until the next person took a shower, and that person would get the blame, not me, for the falling tiles. Of course, my parents eventually pinned it down to me. Slowly they eliminated the possibilities, and the only possibility that was left was Bonnie. "Stop taking those hot showers," my father said. "Okay, Dad, sure." Of course I was too old for them to monitor my showers. I just opened up the window, fanned out all the hot air, plunked the tiles back up on the wall, and left. The next family member would come in, and plunk, plunk, plunk-down would come the tiles. It was clear that I wasn't going to stop taking long, hot showers; and the tiles were going to keep on plunking down.

Then one day my dad called, "Bonnie!" He was in the bathroom, so I came in and he said, "Here, this is for you." It was a can of tile cement and a trowel. He said, "You're taking these tiles off the walls with these showers. I can't stop you from taking the hot showers. If you're old enough to do it, you're old enough to fix it up, and I'll show you how." And to my dismay, he did.

I soon learned that this tile responsibility was in fact mine. If I put the tile up improperly, or if I didn't squish the tile cement on all the portions of the tile, then the tiles would fall off; and, unlike before, even if this occurred after someone else's shower, I had to go in and fix them. You can imagine the teasing I got from my younger brother and sister. This was too degrading, so you can bet I learned how to be an excellent mason. It taught me many things, this little experience with shower tiles, but I never gave up my love for long hot, showers. When my husband and I built a home we put in a fifty-gallon hot water tank instead of a little thirty-five gallon because I never wanted to run out of hot water. I also amazed the contractors with my knowledge about bathroom tiles, backing, drywall, and ceiling materials. I did not plan on ever putting up bathroom tiles again-especially in my own household.

What did this all mean? What did my parents teach me? They taught me that if you mess it up, you gotta' fix it up. What you do, you need to be responsible for. My parents didn't know the value of Braille, but they did know about other values. They were smart people, and they didn't fall for my adolescent trickery and deceit. My blindness (even though we didn't call it that, then) was never an acceptable excuse for getting out of a job that had to be done. They taught me not to shirk responsibility, and they never made excuses for me. If homework had to be done, and it took other students an hour, and it took me two hours, then that's how long it took. I did the job. I did it thoroughly, and I did it well. If there was a test, and it was going to take an hour for other students to take the test, then I needed to figure out a way that I could do it in an hour, too. These lessons about responsibility have stayed with me throughout my life.

My parents thought of the future, of the woman who would be running her own household someday. They thought of the woman who would be married to a man and what a man would want-a responsible wife. They thought of a woman who would be a mother to children and the skills this would require. You need to think about these things for your children. The young children they are now are not the women and the men they will one day be. What will be required of them in the future? This is extremely important for parents to think about and plan for. My parents did, and I shall always be thankful for this.

Trash. There are many things that you can put in and take out with your trash, excuses for one. Pile up all of the excuses that you have about why your child can't do this or that regular chore, and put them in the trash. There are no excuses. People are not rewarded for what they cannot do, or for the least they can do. People get rewarded for what they can do, and the best rewards go to those who do the job the best. My "Joan of Arc" martyrdom stage certainly taught me that. I wasn't getting rewarded. I was being pitied, pushed back, and ignored. That's not good. That's not healthy.

Along with the excuses that you throw into the trash, you need also to throw in low expectations about blindness. Replace these with high expectations. The best place you can find high expectations about blindness is through the National Federation of the Blind. It's the only organization I know that consistently promotes high expectations. So, low expectations, into the trash.

The next thing to throw in the trash is negative attitudes about blindness. These can be subtle. They creep up on you. They creep up from other people; people who will tell you, "Oh, don't discipline him-the poor child is blind!" or "You let her do that? But she's blind!" or "Your little boy does so well you wouldn't even know he's blind."

Put all these negative attitudes, low expectations, and excuses in a nice hefty bag, tie it up real tight, take it out with your trash, and bury it in the deepest landfill you can find.

But even when you do this, you will sometimes find yourself in doubt. "Maybe I am pushing my child too hard." "Can she really do this?" "Maybe I am trying to overcompensate." Again, go to the National Federation of the Blind. Talk to parents and blind men and women who are in this organization. Read the material-Future Reflections, the Braille Monitor, the Kernel books-and think about what you hear and read, then balance it out. There are more negative attitudes and low expectations about blindness out there than there are positive attitudes and high expectations. But this isn't the way it has to be. There are better attitudes and higher expectations about the blind than there were in my own childhood because of the work of the National Federation of the Blind.

Even with this support you are going to have doubts, and yes, you're going to make mistakes. You will not be a perfect parent. No parent is. Parenting is hard work. It's hard work whether you have a blind kid or a sighted kid. (It's harder incidentally when you have a thirteen year old, which I am willing to sell for anything you want.) But don't let yourself, as a parent, get into that martyrdom stage that I went through as a blind child. You know, the "My goodness, am I not a wonderful parent because of the things that I endure. Someday I will be rewarded." You will not be rewarded any more than I'm going to be rewarded with my kids. Our kids will grow up, go away, and we'll be lucky if we see them at Christmas.

Our job is to train our children to be the best possible people they can be, to pass on to them values of honesty and responsibility. Blindness does not need to change any of our expectations for our children. Whether it is taking notes or taking out the trash, the blind can do it, too.