Essay: Expecting the Invisible

In Sept. 2014, this essay was published in I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening, an anthology of women’s writing. I received permission to post it here.

*  *  *

On Monday afternoon, I am standing outside my classroom door, a large blue bag over my shoulder and a white cane in my hand. I’m wearing black pants, a red blouse with white cuffs and collar, and dark sunglasses. My hair is pulled into a high bun.

I step to the side to avoid colliding with exiting students. Some students linger, asking the instructor questions. A guy walks out of the room and leans against the door: “Hey, are you waiting for this room?”

“Yes, I have a class at 3. I’m a few minutes early.”

“What’s the class?”

“It’s an introductory writing course.”

He glances into the classroom and turns back to me. “Would you like help finding a seat?”

“No thanks, I’ll be using the teacher’s desk.”

Once the remaining students have left, I enter the classroom. The teacher’s desk is a narrow table, close to the whiteboard. I set down my bag and begin to unpack. The professor stands at the computer, putting away student papers. “Can I help you find a seat, hun?”

“No, I’m the instructor.”

“Oh!” Like the student who held the door, she cannot hide her surprise.

Despite several semesters of teaching English at the same university, I’ve encountered this reaction countless times. Students, staff, and faculty don’t expect me to be the teacher – even when I start handing out syllabi. There is always a moment of hesitation, a “Really?” hanging in the air.

I attribute this disbelief to my visible identity: I’m a short 26-year-old blind woman. I walk with a white cane and wear dark glasses. Observers – who sometimes assume that the cane helps me with fainting spells – can’t miss these signs of physical difference.

Early in my teaching career, I had to accept that I would be a “first” for most students who have never even had a blind acquaintance. On rare occasions, students shyly approach my desk to share their brushes with disability: a grandmother who lost her vision, the time they volunteered with cognitively impaired teens, or “the blind guy at our church who reads a braille Bible.” I understand that my writing courses are indirect courses in the larger human experience – disability.

During the first class of each semester, I explain that I’ll be recognizing voices, not faces. I discourage hand-raising, because I can’t see raised hands. I ask students to identify themselves by name when they speak, to print their papers in 18-pt font, to tell me when I’m writing near the whiteboard’s edge.

“How will you grade our essays?” one student asks.

I reply with my most serious face: “Very harshly.”

By semester’s end, most students learn to discard their initial reservations. They have watched me diagram sentences and guide class discussions. They’ve received papers with extensive feedback and attended voluntary conferences in my office. They drop off their final papers and utter the highest compliment, “I recommended your class to my friends.”

But the path from incredulity to confidence offers many detours. How I manage each class meeting can encourage or dismantle a student’s growing belief in my abilities.

I recognize these daily tests of my teacher’s authority. The first test comes on Day 1 when I disclose my blindness and its effects on our classroom procedures. I resist my habitual full disclosure – the urge to tell students exactly what I can and cannot see. In the face-to-face classroom, where I choose the role of grammar magician and writing coach, I find such full disclosure irrelevant, even cumbersome. Detailing every aspect of my blindness places me in an overly medical context. On the darker side of disclosure, I feel that my students will find ways to take advantage of my low vision if they understand it fully. I’d rather direct their attention to the course concepts, and away from me.

There are many factors I cannot control in the classroom, where I emphasize discussion in a technology-free environment. I must accept that I cannot tell when a student is silently texting. If students in the back are whispering, I won’t be able to identify their voices. If students have their laptops open, I may not see them.

Even when I can see an open laptop, I can’t find a productive way to address it. If I announce to the room, “Whoever’s using that MacBook should put it away,” I will open a discussion of my precise visual circumstances (“How could she possibly see that laptop when she can’t read size 12?”).

I neutralize disruptive behaviors by redirecting attention to the task at hand. Using my cane, I walk around the room, stopping near the whisperers – whose identities are still a mystery. Sometimes, I casually write snippets of whispered conversations on the board, and students often take several minutes to recognize their private dialogue in our grammar exercise. I want my students to manage their own behavior, to realize that they alone decide how their in-class attitude will affect their learning.

My comfortable classroom dynamic shifts entirely when I teach with Oliver, a nondisabled colleague. We deliver a series of intensive grammar workshops, and my current students are often in attendance. At each workshop, Oliver and I trade duties every few minutes. When I stand to explain a complex linguistic concept, Oliver writes examples on the board.

After our most recent session, Oliver tells me how he silently disciplined some students. “While you were talking, two of your students were passing notes,” he says. “I knew you couldn’t see them, but I could.” He explains how he gestured at the students, pointed to his own eyes, and shook his head – letting them know that their behavior was unacceptable.

Oliver’s revelation awakens an old grief. I feel suddenly inept, insensible. Next to a sighted teacher like Oliver, who can visually manage the class, my own inventive pedagogy seems a cheap substitute. I begrudge Oliver’s intervention because he wields an authority I can never have. Tall, bearded, and broad-shouldered, Oliver easily commands the students’ attention. He towers over me and looks the part of the English professor. No one ever assumes that he’s a student.

When I vent to friends and colleagues, they tell me that I have a different teaching presence. “You’re accessible,” they say. “Friendly. The students like you.” A colleague in his sixties says, “Enjoy being a young teacher. You have a unique kind of influence now.” But I’m tired of “friendly” and “young.” I long for “formidable.”

Others can appreciate my teaching abilities while I am stalled, seeing myself as the inferior model. It’s easy to believe in my passion and pedagogy when I’m the only teacher in the room, but in collaborating with a “more able” teacher, I recognize the ephemeral texture of my confidence.

I notice how swiftly the figure of my colleague is transformed by a cherished teacher’s mythology. For me, Oliver doesn’t embody a typical teacher with unique expertise. The myth casts him as an ideal being whose right to teach is never doubted. Beside him, I am incomplete, unfinished.

I can accept these terms only when I remember the writing I teach. A writer talks on paper until she has nothing more to say. Then she calls the work “final” and gives it to a reader, who completes it in her own head. No writer can operate unquestioned, shaping the text with mythic authority. Immeasurable collaboration between writer and reader, student and teacher, makes all my work unfinished.

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3 Comments

  1. Emily, this is a very well-written piece. While I just completed my last introductory writing course to get into ENC 1101, and I truly enjoyed and valued my professor. I think I would’ve benefited strongly by having a teacher with a visual impairment as well.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Krista! I never had a blind professor either, and I think it would’ve been cool.

      Reply
  2. Oh the detours. Great piece, as usual.
    You are a trailblazer, an educator in many ways. My instinct here says you’re not giving yourself enough credit. It’s easy to be physically commanding. It’s not easy to command attention without that crutch of a glance, a stare. And yet, you manage it, bravo.
    I pretended to be a student in your class, taking advantage and passing notes and whispering. The moment you wrote whispered conversations on the board, BAM, I would feel like a jerk. Years later, I would remember that moment in class, whether I was the whisperer or another silent witness to the disrespect.
    Your method of walking around is a good idea. My dad was a Jr. High school reading teacher and he always felt that leaving the desk/dais up front and walking around neutralized disruptive students. Even just standing in the back of the room put certain students on notice that this is a learning environment, not social hour.

    Reply

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