Temple Grandin Live at FSCJ!

Last night, I attended the final event of FSCJ’s 2016-2017 Author Series:  a live presentation by Dr. Temple Grandin! If you’re not familiar with Dr Grandin, she is an autistic animal scientist, famous for her humane redesign of U.S. slaughter plants. She has written several books on animal behavior, such as Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation. She has also written several books on living with autism—her latest being The Autistic Brain. My FSCJ students have been reading her book Thinking in Pictures, and it has inspired the best discussions of the semester!

Dr. Grandin’s presentation was an utter delight. She lectured on autism and learning differences and answered audience questions with patience and forthrightness. Her honesty had the audience laughing, nodding, and applauding the whole time.

Grandin began her presentation by profiling famous innovators such as Thomas Edison and Jane Goodall—and her refrain was, “What would happen to this person in our current educational system today?” Whether it was a designer of rockets, an inventor of light bulbs, or a famous film director, Grandin emphasized the commonalities among these extraordinary minds: early exposure to career interests, questionable performance in formal academic environments, and an indirect, “through the back door” entry into their field. The most compelling fact for me was that Dr. Goodall was originally hired to be another researcher’s secretary. A secretary! It’s thrilling to think of how she overturned this archetype of female exclusion!

Another of Dr. Grandin’s emphatic repetitions was the phrase “work skills”: she passionately insisted that autistic people need to be doing meaningful work where they can learn to collaborate, be on time, and complete routine tasks. To almost every parent who approached her with a question, she asked, “What does your child do? What do you do?” To help individuals on the spectrum, Grandin holds everyone accountable.

Despite her work as an autism advocate, Grandin declared her desire to “break out of the autism box.” She told us that her  priority, the identity she considers first, is her work with animals. This is a powerful statement for all disability activists who are often encouraged to work only with their population. People see a successful blind person and they say, “You should teach at the blind school.” They see a woman like Dr. Grandin, and they seem surprised that she doesn’t devote 100% of her time to autism lectures. But in putting her career first, Dr. Grandin is emphasizing the very privilege that some nondisabled people take for granted: the freedom to build your life around the passions and causes that you value most. Dr. Grandin’s outspoken career ambitions remind us what we’re all advocating for: increased self-determination for all members of society, regardless of their medical labels.

Dr. Grandin argued that medical labels can only stretch so far in helping us understand and accommodate individuals on the autism spectrum. She encouraged us to abandon the inflexible (and often confusing) medical jargon of diagnosis, to pick up the precise language of engineering in its place. She emphasized the need to “troubleshoot” each individual case, to look for “site specific” problems, and to avoid over-generalizations and abstraction. She described her own thinking as “bottom up,” and her comments and questions showcased a precise determination to sort out every issue.

Dr. Grandin’s presentation highlighted the importance of creativity and collaboration with all kinds of minds. She emphasized the importance of specifics, of treating each individual as an individual. For some in the disability community, the diagnosis is the necessary step to services and inclusion, but for others, it’s an unhelpful label that people get hung up on. If the label doesn’t serve you, she said, stop using it.

Grandin left the audience with a few guiding principles, applicable to people on and off the spectrum: less screen time, more hands-on activities, and greater exposure to different things. She reminded us that the most successful innovators have been exposed to art, theater, or hands-on work.  She reiterated how she made friends: through shared interests. For anyone who has been bullied or ostracized, she emphasized the importance of what Seth Godin would call “finding your tribe”—the people who are willing to work just as hard for the things you love.

October Interview: Faith in a Life After Loss

April Ogden, age 45, is a full-time manager with the Florida Department of Education in Northeast Florida. She enjoys reading and traveling. You can learn more about her on her LinkedIn page.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I was diagnosed with Glaucoma during December of 1989,shortly after graduating from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, a performing arts high school, in June of 1989. Previously, before December of 1989, I had not experienced such significant vision loss. Over the years, and more specifically, after the birth of my two children, my vision slowly began to decline. My depth perception began to fade, and later I experienced a severe decline in the loss of my central vision.

What was once seen with my eyes as thick black bold print on a sheet of paper, over time became a faded thin black line, which eventually became an all-white sheet of paper. No matter the number of characters on a page demanding my attention, my vision only allows me an opportunity to see a blank sheet of paper, at best on a good day. My vision fluctuates from day to day, and some days, I’m unable to even see the sheet of paper at all.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

I use both a white cane and sighted guide in order to assist me with my orientation and mobility needs. I use the white cane to travel independently and safely in familiar areas.  The sighted guide is used when I am in an unfamiliar area.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

I have certainly experienced my fair share of challenges. I would have to say the challenge that bothers me the most is a challenge I experience consistently in professional settings.

I am a very independent individual. In a professional setting, I require very little assistance. I call this level of independence my coat of colors. This phrase refers to a person’s inability to understand another person’s knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities, without focus on the vision limitations.

The challenge for me in the past was that I became aware that many sighted persons had low expectations of those who are blind or visually impaired. The majority of the individuals without vision limitations do not believe in this notion; however, there are enough individuals who think like this to perpetuate the lack of advancement of well qualified individuals who are able to contribute to a conversation, project, the progress of an agency, and so much more.

By communicating, demonstrating, and educating individuals more about me and the strengths that I possess and/or the areas in which I may want assistance, I’ve been able to work more closely to help others understand that people with unique abilities are just as deserving of an opportunity to be successful and live meaningful lives as their non-unique ability counterparts.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

I have found that having a great support system is key. You have to balance the use of your support system. Relying too much on your support system enables you to be more dependent and less independent. Your support system should be aware of the resources to assist you in being more independent. For example, a family member could contact the local State agency for the visually impaired or blind to learn more about resources to help an individual to become independent. Moreover, a member of your support team may contact a local Community Rehabilitation Program, to learn about resources for individuals with vision loss. There are so many resources available to educate families, support teams, and most importantly, the individual living with the vision loss.

As your independence grows, you should expect the structure of your support system to change. What I described above, is a support system for someone new to vision loss or who has experienced a decline in vision.

My husband, children, and family members have all been an excellent support system for me.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness?  How would you change this belief?

The most harmful belief that people have about blindness is that people who are blind are satisfied with mediocracy. We are not, and we want more than just an opportunity, but we want an opportunity to exceed the expectations of others.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

The Bible is a book that I could read over and over again. Throughout the pages, countless examples of changing one’s prospective is provided to the reader. Examples of how to recognize and face a challenge are displayed all throughout the Bible. The ability to face a challenge and overcome that challenge is so important to me.

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

For me, it is my Bible. My faith in God, has been a part of who I am before my sight loss as well as after my sight loss. It has not only encouraged me, but it’s allowed me the chance to encourage others.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

The many dreams that I will accomplish in the next 10 years is that I will work in a Senior Leadership role within the federal or state government. My work experience and education supports this goal. In this role, I will be able to create effective policies, procedures, and standards that will promote the advancement of individuals with cross disabilities. I will be able to be in a position where I’m evaluating overall agency programs and services. Most of all, I want to have a significant positive impact on the lives of others who are faced with what I’ve overcome

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?

Usually the questions are limited to rehabilitation technology, and the discussion of how did I lose my vision. Rarely do I have an opportunity to discuss life after vision loss. It does exist!

What topics would you prefer to discuss?

I was satisfied with the list of questions presented. It provided me with an opportunity to express myself.

Appearing at SAMLA 88!

Literary scholars, mark your calendars for SAMLA 88! The South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s annual conference is coming to Jacksonville in November—with the theme of Utopia/Dystopia: Whose Paradise Is It?

And guess what?

They accepted my workshop proposal! Michele and I will be presenting a fabulous workshop you won’t want to miss! Don’t believe me? Check out our proposal below:

Insensible Paradise, Invisible Nightmare: Complicating Embodiment in the 21st Century Classroom

In this workshop, Emily K. Michael and Michele Boyette map the conflicts between literary and literal bodies, exploring the paradoxes and pleasures of disclosure. The safe distance of metaphor and the legality of red tape have contrived a minefield for academics—both disabled and nondisabled. We disabled faculty hardly expect nondisabled colleagues to be conversant with the latest activism, yet we seek the most productive and empathetic environment for our disabled students. This nebulous landscape harbors a failure of imagination; our colleagues and students have no guide beyond the literature they discuss.

Most academic encounters with disability occur in print or onscreen. Professors and students fathom disability through assigned course materials often created outside the disability community. When we experience disability as chiefly secondhand, we learn to view disability as a frame for analysis and interpretation, rather than a commonplace human condition. Disabled students and faculty become impromptu teachers regardless of their expertise or interest in teaching.

Once on campus, disabled students disclose their disability and learn to negotiate accommodations. However, the red tape that protects a student’s privacy can also foster silence and estrangement. The disabled instructor’s disclosure is equally fraught with complications. She travels in a department that regularly employs problematic representations of the disabled body.

Emily K. Michael, a blind adjunct instructor at the University of North Florida and Florida State College at Jacksonville, creates productive dialogue with disabled students and redesigns course language to invite disability into the classroom. She helps faculty to examine their syllabi, course texts, and assignments to produce an empathetic, three-dimensional understanding of embodiment.

Michele Boyette, instructional coordinator at the UNF Writing Center, speaks from her position as a nondisabled instructor who encounters the invisible and visible disabilities of students and staff. She complicates the uneven responsibility of disclosure by highlighting the impracticality of red tape in appointment-based tutoring sessions.

Together we open a space where faculty are unafraid to examine disability off the page. We target faculty who have found little occasion to research disability on their own. We offer practical strategies for widening academic imagination to welcome the disabled student or colleague. This workshop is an informal and informative playground for the tabooed bodies and minds appropriated by our academic environments.

October Interviews: Krista from FSCJ

Krista Waters, age 29, is a DeafBlind Human Services major at Florida State College at Jacksonville. She has found her passion working with other disabled people, and she currently holds two positions in disability services organizations. She enjoys discussing assistive technology, self-advocacy, and accommodations for disabled students and employees. She agreed to talk with me about her academic experiences.

Why did you choose to attend Florida State College at Jacksonville?

I chose this institution because the disability services are incredible. The staff really embraces the students they are in charge of educating.

What is the most significant access issue you’ve had in college? How was it resolved? Was this solution ideal?

I would say the most difficult access question has been access to materials in a timely manner. Because I am visually impaired as well as hearing impaired, things can take a while. I receive syllabi in advance, handouts in advance if available. However, computer software still leaves a lot to be desired. Its not always accessible for people who use screenreading programs like JAWS. I’m flexible though. I’ve realized when I’m fighting for accessibility for myself, it’s not always about me in the long run. It’s about my fellow students and peers as well.

If you could implement training for faculty or staff, what skills or concepts would you emphasize?

I would emphasize that all students are different. Just because you have had one blind student does not mean the second or third blind student will require the same things. Your student comes first, then the disability.

How do you judge whether a professor will be a good fit for you? What clues in the syllabus or in their personal communications let you know that they’re willing to collaborate with disabled students?

Whether a professor is a good match for working with our college’s disabled population is based on a number of well-defined factors. First of all, a lot is based on the student’s first meeting with the professor in question. Does the student email and ask for a meeting (something that is highly recommended)? Does the professor respond in a timely manner? Does the professor seem interested and open to your request for a meeting? Are you clear about your disabilities? Does the professor ask good questions related to you being in this class and how to make the environment as conducive as possible?

What’s the most satisfying project you’ve completed during college? Why do you feel this way about it?

The most satisfying project I’ve performed in college is my Cold War presentation in my American History class. I’m a quiet person by nature, especially in the classroom environment. I have difficulty speaking up in the classroom, and the professor in question took it upon himself to ensure I became comfortable. He did not ignore me; instead he engaged me. I did my presentation complete with PowerPoint.

What was the most challenging college course you’ve ever taken? Why was it so challenging?

I think the most challenging class I’ve taken thus far is my Integrating Educational Technology class. This class was all lab-based and completely 100% visual. As a visually impaired person, I like to be as independent as I can, and this class challenged my sanity.

What advice would you give to disabled students entering college for the first time?

I would say talk to other college students who have disabilities. Know what your rights are and understand the terminology related to disability accommodations. Try first and if you do not get anywhere, then ask for help. Talk to your professors: open and honest communication.

Divining the Catalyst: A Response to the Writing of Oliver Sacks

I have always been a front-row student. Drawn to the first row of desks or tables by temperament and visual disability, I preferred to be as close to the teacher—and presumably the action—as possible. I never questioned this self-placement: to me, the front row was a reverential space, sanctified by scholarship and enthusiasm.

Plus, the first row of desks was always easiest for me to find. Before I started traveling with a guide dog, I’d use my white cane to locate an empty seat. I hated threading through crowded aisles scattered with students’ bags. I could see the outline of the first row of desks—usually unoccupied—and claim my place without tangling my cane in the straps of someone’s lumpy Jansport backpack.

On the third day of my Honors Chemistry class, I was a curious sophomore, sitting in the first seat of the second line of desks nearest the door. Slightly offset from the teacher’s large desk on its elevated platform, my seat offered a clear view of the class’s main attraction: the magic tricks performed by our teacher. For the first two days, she had confined herself to modest tricks—minor explosions and colored flames. She had even made water disappear with the use of three Solo cups and the powder from inside a disposable diaper. So she met our cries for more tricks with a quiet smile and a phrase that complicated my front-row-philia: “All right, I will bring out the shatter shield.”

Two years later, the same teacher tried to begin our AP Chemistry class with more conventional housekeeping—going through the syllabus and explaining her policies. But we protested; most of us remembered the earlier displays of magic and were excited to see the more advanced versions. As she explained how each trick worked, she continually posed the question, “Is magic chemistry, or is chemistry magic?”

There were many things I loved about those chemistry classes—from the newspaper-y smell of our carbon lab notebooks to the balancing of redox reactions and the intense calculations of dimensional analysis. Perhaps because I was so enthusiastic about the academic side of the course, I found the laboratory experience to be painful and frustrating. I say this because I never experienced parallel frustrations in my biology courses.

Though my instructor showed me the equipment with painstaking care, many of our experiments were inaccessible to me. I learned to distinguish round-bottomed flasks from erlenmeyer flasks and flat-bottomed flasks. I learned to identify the parts of a Bunsen burner, the pipettes, and the clamps. But I could not read the measurement lines on the flasks to report a precise meniscus. I could not identify the colors of the various flames during the flame test lab. And I had to rely on my partner’s goodwill during the tie-dye lab as I squirted purple and red coloring onto my scrunched and bundled T-shirt. (Incidentally, the tie-dye shirt came out rather well.)

So I took notes while my lab partner carried out the kinesthetic tasks. And perhaps because my experience of chemistry was chiefly literary, I was primed to value the first chemistry memoir I read.

For extra credit, my teacher invited us to report on Oliver Sacks’s book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. The book detailed Sacks’s intense love of chemistry, his fascination with the periodic table, his forays into the lab, and his family’s relationship with science. But Uncle Tungsten also offered something new to my 16-year-old self (in love with Jane Austen and James Joyce). It offered a glimpse into what nonfiction beyond the textbook could be—an organic wandering through memory in which discoveries are unbound by time. I realized that revelation was nonlinear, that truth didn’t always march so neatly across the page.

Unlike our conventional and unappealing course texts—and the labs that accompanied them—Sacks’s memoir made room for the student I was. I could understand and revel in his experience without feeling like an inadequate scientist. In the lab, I squinted at measurement lines on graduated cylinders, always conscious that such visual data was beyond my grasp. But in the pages of the memoir—where phenomena were rendered accessible through text—I could calculate, realize, conclude. I could bring all I had learned into one powerful, imaginative space.

Though I’ve read several of Sacks’s articles and books, I resonate most with his writings on chemistry and music. I adored Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, for its discussion of art and science, mystery and measurement.

These two books, more than Sacks’s other work, helped me come to terms with what felt like insurmountable exclusion from the scientific world. As a high school student, I was just beginning to understand disability rights: I didn’t know what I was allowed to ask for and what I was expected to put up with. Now I know several blind people pursuing careers in the sciences. Lab equipment can be adapted, colors identified. But when I was taking these courses, that terrain seemed so daunting. And in the same way that I coped with the difficulty of sightreading piano music, I did what I knew would work: I turned to writing.

In July, Dr. Sacks published a piece in The New York Times called “My Periodic Table”; in this piece, he explored the elements that made his life worthwhile—literal chemical elements and different human experiences, like a night filled with stars. Sacks wrote:

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s           words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

When I imagine my own night filled with stars, I realize that most of the lights have been literary—voices outside of time that I return to again and again. It is easier to be in love with the voices that are already gone—Austen, Joyce, Woolf, and most recently, Seamus Heaney. It is more heartbreaking to feel a voice moving out of our finite, knowable space, because it seems that all their brilliance will cross over, become unfathomable. There is something so necessary and vital in the pieces of life we can touch and smell, like the rough carbon pages of lab notebooks.

Immortal Welcome

In my freshman composition courses, the students read a variety of scholarly articles, poems, short stories, style guides, and essays. During our discussion of the writer-reader relationship, I like to work in a chapter from Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I choose the chapter “Communion: Nobody to Nobody,” in which Atwood attempts to answer three questions: 1) For whom does the writer write? 2) What is the book’s function or duty? and 3) Where is the writer when the reader is reading?

This chapter opens with a series of epigraphs about the nature of reading, writing, and stories. Introducing her guiding questions early on, Atwood takes the reader on a narrative meander throughout the text, stopping to smell the roses of several detailed examples before finishing with a personal anecdote about her first writer-reader relationship.

Atwood first suggests that writer and reader are both “nobodies,” each created by the other’s perceptions and expectations. The writer dreams of an ideal reader, the reader searches for clues about the elusive writer, and both communicate through the written text. With literary exploration and personal experience, Atwood arrives at the idea that writer and reader are, in fact, specific people with unique perceptions and motivations.

Though most students find the theory of Atwood’s chapter to be accessible, they are put off by its structure. Used to the solo lecturing voice of a thesis-driven essay, they become derailed by Atwood’s flowering examples and hefty epigraphs. They do not expect to find so many voices in one document, and they feel like strangers meeting strangers in the textual space.

I recognize the feature that alienates my students from Atwood’s writing as the one I treasure. The piece is an energetic, gloriously detailed conversation, the kind of talk I’d have with colleagues at a gathering for graduate students or the celebration of a poet’s birthday. Atwood’s piece accomplishes what all wholehearted English majors strive for; it creates a conversation space for the living and the dead. Her text is an endless party — the English major’s life-work in microcosm.

As an English major, I’ve never earned a reputation for wildness. I like to spend hours  with kindred spirits in musty used bookstores, fighting over the editions with the best old book smell. I wile away entire afternoons listening to grammar books with my assistive devices, annotating as I follow along in the print version. I write poems and share them with friends; we schedule revision dates where we read each other’s work and revise it line-by-line. I get excited about authors’ birthdays, especially Jane Austen’s in December. And now that I’m not taking classes, I beg my student-friends to tell me about the books they’re reading, the papers they’re writing. I want to hear fellow English majors describe their process of discovery – the in-class epiphany that stalls the note-taking pen, the sudden insight that interrupts the at-home reading, the excitement that accompanies a familiar pattern in a new context. I want to relive the moments of delight when I witnessed resonance on the page – when I discovered a contemporary theme in an ancient text.

In an essay from his book, Why Teach?: In Defence of a Real Education, Mark Edmundson describes the ideal English major as a person “unfinished,” constantly seeking transformation and “reincarnation” through the texts she reads. I see the work of the English major – if we even need to call it “work” – as an unfinished conversation, the determination to reanimate old or forgotten voices alongside the remembered ones. The desire to throw a good party across time and language.

Neither art nor the artist can make someone immortal; immortality belongs to the reader, the one who decides to welcome another’s work. By continuing to read, the English major bestows immortality on voices that have long since lost the need for breath. The attentive reader invites others to speak, to share her mind and body. While she lends her mind to another writer’s words, she recognizes who she is. No writer can ever overtake her because she is part of the conversation; her perspective expands, accommodates.

I’ve seen the same guests at my party for years – Austen, Tolkien, Woolf, Thoreau – but, like a good hostess, I try to expand my social circle. Recent partygoers include Vita Sackville-West, Amy Hempel, Laurie Colwin, E. M. Forster, and Jeanette Winterson—and they will definitely be invited again. Others, like Joseph Conrad or Daniel Defoe, will not.

Each of these authors has enriched me as a poet, an observer, a communicator. Still delighted and surprised by the timeless empathy of certain writers, I apply snatches of this ongoing conversation to my music or teaching. As writer and reader, I welcome the animating connection, the splendid life of texts.

Total Revision: Conversations in the Red

This semester, I am living out one of my long-cherished dreams: teaching a series of intensive grammar workshops for multilingual learners and struggling student writers. On Friday afternoons, my colleague and I face a group of students who willingly admit their bad relationship with grammar. So far, we’ve had four sessions, teaching anywhere from 2 to 16 students each time.

In our first class, I introduced the difference between grammar and style—a distinction often conflated even by literature teachers. The principles of grammar describe the inherent structure of a language; they explain how a language behaves and help speakers and listeners understand the text. Style encompasses how we use the language in a given situation—whether we dress it up or dress it down. Where grammar entails certain rules—though not as many as most people think—style is created through a person’s choices.

A few weeks ago, a student came for writing tutoring to improve her grammar. Handing me her essay, she explained, “My professor says my grammar is terrible.” As I looked over her work, I noticed a handful of grammatical mistakes: one issue with pronouns, a forgotten apostrophe, and a typo that Spell Check wouldn’t catch. However, her writing was far from appropriate for the formal assignment; she frequently slipped into second person, using lots of “you” and “your,” and she chose informal words, like “kids,” “guys,” or “great.” I noted, too, that she used contractions, which are usually discouraged in formal academic writing. Her writing displayed stylistic issues, not grammatical mishaps: her paper was trying to wear a bathing suit to the opera.

Because this student was writing for a sociology professor, I was unsurprised by the misinformation she received. I don’t expect instructors beyond the realm of composition or linguistics to handle writing feedback with such nerdy precision. Still, I am irritated by this mix-up. I cringe when I hear about comments that are critical and erroneous; I know how damaging professors’ feedback can be. As a writing tutor, I often hear students say, “I’m an awful writer” or “My teacher says I have the worst grammar,” and I hear similar sentiments from my own students.

Even positive feedback reveals students’ lack of confidence: after I praised one of my students for her excellent summary assignment, she said, “I’m just so glad you don’t think I’m dumb!” This student emails me with questions, comes to my office, tries her best on all assignments, but, like countless others, she has been labelled a bad writer. Her years of teacher-centered education have taught her one prevailing lesson: the teacher-authority will always judge you more accurately than you judge yourself. If she believes in herself but her grades don’t confirm this belief, then she defers to the grades. She lets the letters and numbers assess her gifts and learns not to trust herself. Thus, even though she claims to enjoy creative writing and journaling, she insists, “I’ve always been a bad writer.”

Of course, “bad writer” is an umbrella term that catches all kinds of writing struggles: grammatical confusion, misinterpreted assignment instructions, late-night drafting, learning disabilities, the influence of other languages, procrastination from serious writer’s block, lack of coherent grammar instruction. Some of these issues can be handled directly in the classroom while others require special one-on-one attention. In my courses, I address process issues like writer’s block by devoting an entire class session to planning for an upcoming paper. Students claim that they don’t know what to write about, so I design activities that help them gather quotes from their text. Once students have collected enough evidence, they feel empowered to write the essay.

Too many students are intimidated by the challenge of producing “good” writing, so I encourage students to think of grammar and style as “final draft concerns.”* Because of my passion for grammar, I can’t easily suspend my grammatical awareness when drafting. However, I recognize that my best work comes when I have a clear idea of where I want to go—even if all the components of a piece are drifting lazily through my conscious mind like the globules in a lava lamp.

It takes a long time for my students to understand that grammar and style are not priorities of the planning stage. I suspect that their undue apprehensions about these features stem from previous classes, where their grammar errors earned them the label of “bad writer” or “careless student.” I’ve heard of nefarious practices that colleagues use to assess students’ grammar: some calculate individual deductions for every error while others remark on the quality of the grammar without offering advice. These techniques only intensify grammar’s reputation as a fearsome and mysterious power—flaunted by instructors and withheld from students.

I do believe in grammar as a kind of magic. In classical and medieval education, understanding the grammar of an object meant that you could have power over it: if you wanted to fix a broken horseshoe, you had to know the grammar of iron. My students think I’m stretching the truth here, but the etymologies of grammar and glamor are connected.** Therefore, understanding English grammar gives people the ability to weave magic with words—to have an influence. Effective texts can breed empathy and awareness: miracles worthy of sincere faith.

When I think of grammar as a kind of magic, I realize that my expectations change. I don’t expect everyone who picks up a violin to become a world-famous musician. I don’t expect everyone who can walk to have a masterful or confident gait. I realize that my grammatical understanding is a privilege fostered by my personal interest, solid education, and leisure time—which I fill with the reading of grammar books.

If grammar is magical, then the study of grammar cannot be remedial. Like the mastering of any other craft, grammar skills require lifelong dedication and practice. When we free grammar from the realm of the remedial, the slow, the sloppy, we begin to understand that we can all be bad at it, and we can all be good at it. Then we lose the need to punish without empathy those who break grammatical rules—to destroy the confidence of student writers because of a dangling modifier and a misplaced comma.

So my series of workshops are a dream come true. They offer me the chance to teach the magic of effective writing to those who want and need to learn. In these classes, deliberately placed outside courses where students focus on a grade, I can create a safe and mirthful space for exploring the structure of language.

 

* Though I practice this advice regularly, I did not invent it; Peter Elbow and Nancy Sommers articulate higher-order concerns  in their texts on the writing process.
** This discussion of grammar can be found in David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

Fear and Form

As a blind woman, I do not court silence. The absence of sound in the presence of other people often makes me apprehensive. With no audible messages, I’m left to wonder what others are thinking and doing. This anxiety intensifies when I stand before my students. Are my students texting? passing notes? sleeping? While they produce no sound, I cannot judge their mood or level of attention to my class.

But as a blind teacher, I must set aside my discomfort and learn to trust in silence, in its power to make students access their own thoughts and voices.  When I pose a question, I force myself to wait, to endure the swell of soundlessness that fills the room. I must be willing to exchange one kind of knowledge—the audible signals of my students’ activities—for the quiet in which ideas percolate. If I wait long enough, a student will speak.

Today’s lesson will put my resolutions to the test. My students are exploring the concept of metaphor through poetry, the genre that renders them mute and uncomfortable. I have given them a packet of eight poems:

My students rarely react positively to poetry. Intimidated, irritated, or apathetic, they resist all kinds of poems—from William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow” to Adrienne Rich’s “What Kind of Times Are These.” So I expect silence today; I pass out the poems, knowing that I’ll hear more groans than anything else.

Despite their resistance, I insist on teaching poetry because poetry uses language beautifully on a budget. The poems I choose are brief, employing metaphors in memorable ways. The nine lines of Plath’s poem each contain at least one metaphor, and Heaney’s “A Drink of Water” weaves metaphorical and narrative language so closely that students have difficulty pulling the strands apart.

In my morning class, I ask for student volunteers to read the poems aloud. We begin with Atwood’s four-line poem, in which she uses each new line to subvert the meaning of the previous one. After a student reads the work aloud, I ask, “So what is this poem about?” The predicted silence occurs, throwing the pen-clicking and paper-shuffling into high relief. I wait. I let the silence grow; I imagine that it fils every corner of the room, snaking around the desks and climbing up the walls. Eventually, a student responds—and the attitude of her comment overshadows its content. She offers half-sentences, stumbles over her words, backs up.

As we move through the poems, I notice the same reticence in other student responses. When we read “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” a student says, “I guess it’s about a guy talking to his father…or something…because his father is dying?” The student is right—and it seems like an obvious interpretation to me—but he doesn’t feel right. Something about the text alienates him, and I suspect it’s because we call this text a poem.

When we label these  texts as “poems,” students handle them with certain assumptions. Poems should be difficult. Poems should advance ambiguous meanings—meanings that directly oppose a student’s intuition. Convinced that some phantom authority knows “what the poem is really about,” students learn to distrust their gut reactions to poetry. And where there is no trust, there can be no love. Why should I be surprised that they don’t want to get to know these texts? They’ve been told that Poetry stands aloof: she won’t give you her number, she won’t ask you to dance, you’ll always look foolish when you approach her.

Even if my students aren’t preoccupied with being wrong about the poems, I consider that they may be overwhelmed by the task of interpretation. So I change the plan of action for my afternoon class. I divide the project of engaging with the poem into four key tasks: 1) reading the poem aloud, 2) identifying the prominent metaphors, 3) identifying the genre conventions (what makes this poem a poem), and 4) explaining “what the poem is about. A group of 4-7 students will handle each task, and students can place themselves in the group that best suits their skills. The first three groups fill quickly, but few students want to be in the fourth, where they are most likely to display their lack of interpretive skill.

We approach the poems in the same order, beginning with Atwood. After an eager volunteer  from Group 1 reads the poem aloud, I notice an immediate upsurge in student conversation. Group members are conferring, reacting, forgetting to be self-conscious in the presence of an instructor and an unknowable genre. We discuss Atwood’s four lines in a disorderly fashion, students from each group chiming in before I can call on them. A voice from Group 2, who should be identifying metaphors, goes for the poem’s meaning: “So, this isn’t a love poem! It’s like a hate poem! She’s irritated with this other person, right?” Other voices sound their agreement without waiting for me to verify the student’s interpretation.

After the reading of Plath’s “Metaphors,” where the speaker describes herself as “a riddle in nine syllables…an elephant, a ponderous house,”the room falls silent. Plath’s layered metaphors can be overwhelming, cryptic. But it’s not long before a student from the read-aloud group bursts through the quiet: “She’s writing about being pregnant!” While her peers react with loud disbelief, I ask, “How do you know that?” and the student takes the class through every line of the poem, pointing to Plath’s fruit and body imagery, use of “nines” (it’s a nine-line poem, and each line has nine syllables), and creation metaphors.

Though the group exercise does not transform all quiet students into fearless interpreters, I feel that it changes the mood of the classroom. Students are eager to complete their group’s task, to do right by their group members, and this solidarity distracts them from the habitual intimidation that poetry inspires. I hear more excitement in their observations. They are proud of locating obscure metaphors, of understanding that poems use stanzas, repetition, and unconventional word order. As they delight in fanciful interpretations, I enjoy listening to them play with poetry.

Blind Teacher II: The Saga Continues

Just before lunchtime, I receive an urgent call. The colleague, whose class I’ll be taking over in two weeks, needs me to start tomorrow. Tomorrow!? I’d planned to go in and observe tomorrow; I’d given the assigned poems a cursory reading. I wanted to sit in the back and be unobtrusive. I must dispense with these half-plans and begin new ones.  Luckily, I know where the classroom is; another colleague helped me find it when we were activating our electronic keys.

I begin the process of making the materials accessible. I send a series of emails to our department secretary, asking him to enlarge the poems for tomorrow’s class. In their current state, they’re dingy photocopies – not as grungy as some I’ve seen, but far too small to be legible. The photocopies were made in the usual manner of English professors: Open the thick book and mash it, pages down, onto the copier glass. The thicker the book, the more the professor resists copying each page to its own sheet of paper – so the text slips and curves into the graying vortex of the book’s spine and the edges of each page are muddy and dark.

To make these texts accessible, someone – usually our meticulous secretary – will have to apply OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to the existing PDFs. OCR will change the way that the computer interacts with the PDF. Instead of treating the PDF as a giant picture, OCR will allow the computer to recognize individual letters. Then using the text-to-speech function, my computer will read the texts aloud to me. This accounts for half of the ideal accessible text.

The other half of accessibility is visual; I must be able to visually interact with texts. Here is where I usually clasp my hands and stare woefully at the ceiling – Why oh why did I choose a profession that demands such intense interaction with texts? – but it can’t be helped. I know that any career I choose will present its own challenges.

Because I will thoroughly annotate each text and later read it silently or aloud under the variable lighting of a classroom, I require a larger font than I would use at home or in my office, beneath the cozy mood lighting I like best. This means that the dreadful 2-pages-per-sheet photocopies must be printed so that one book page covers one 8.5×11 sheet of paper. Occasionally people take it upon themselves to enforce “bigger is better,” enlarging my work to fit on 11×14 paper, but this measure begins a textual misadventure. Because my visual fields are limited, I work better with smaller areas, like the 13-inch screen on my laptop. To work with a larger screen up close, I would have to scan it more frequently. If I stand a few feet away, my central vision can accommodate larger areas.

My use of text in class is intimate and specific. I need a clear font with serifs, like Times New Roman or Cambria, and I need the text printed on a manageable area – standard letter-size paper. For longer texts, I need clear (enlarged) page numbers and a solid system for organization, whether it’s staples, binders, or tabs. Fortunately, for this class, I am dealing with two short packets of poems – each packet is about 15 pages long.

Because of the short notice, I worry that I will end up teaching without accessible copies of the poems. I am unfamiliar with the two poets, and I can only reason that I’ll ask students to read some of the text aloud. This will be my first time teaching these students, and I know the need to appear confident and capable.

Just hours before my class begins, my colleague and I briefly discuss the poems. She describes major themes, and I suggest possible directions for the class. Our secretary manages to enlarge them in the nick of time, and I shove the two packets in my bag on my way to another meeting.

All too soon, I stand before a low table at the front of my new classroom. Though I have folded my white cane, I have not removed my burgundy-framed sunglasses – the overhead lights are intense. My colleague introduces me briefly and asks the students to introduce themselves. My hands slide idly along the edge of the table. I feel my fingers start to tap the table, and I stop myself. I remember that, though I can only see parts of them – fuzzy heads, colorful blurs of clothing, dark lumps that must be schoolbags – they can all see me. I refuse to think about the loose bow on my shirt (is it straight?) or the shine that a warm classroom and two pairs of glasses add to my face. I smile, grateful that I remembered to apply lip balm.

Even before I’ve given the blind professor spiel, introductions flow smoothly. All the students speak clearly, and most speak cheerfully, giving me their name, major, and an interesting fact about themselves. Once my colleague has fielded a handful of questions about past assignments, she leaves me alone with the new class. I take a breath and begin The Talk.

I explain that I’ll be identifying them by their voices: “If I don’t hear you, you’re not here. So you’ll want to speak up often.” I say that I’ll be asking them whether the whiteboard is clean before I write on it. “It’s a pain to write over some previous math class,” I intone seriously. When I am greeted with silence, I grin, “That’s a joke. You can laugh.” They oblige – my first clue that they’ll be a fun and cooperative group. Lastly I ask, “Where’s the lightswitch in here?” A male student leaps to his feet, offering to turn off the lights for me, but I resist.  “No, I’ll do it – just direct me.” I explain that this is an informal test of their ability to communicate clearly and use direction-specific words. That gets a genuine laugh. Several voices chime in with succinct and accurate directions, and I flip off three of the four switches. Lastly, I add that they’ll need to submit their assignments in 18-point font. “And if your printer is running out of ink,” I pause dramatically. “Do us both a favor and print from the library. Faded ink is not fun to read.”

The students receive this information stoically, though they chuckle in all the right places. There are no questions or complaints; they seem to digest what I’ve said without a problem. I can’t believe I’m at the end of my “this is how your professor is different” talk already. Don’t I have more to say? DId I forget anything?

After my introduction, I lay out the plan for that day’s class – a length of 3.5 hours with three 10-minute breaks. As we move through collective and individual peer review, an informal lecture on poetics, and an interactive annotation exercise, we subtly amend the course plan. The students readily answer my questions about the course procedures and the day’s material. At one point, they can’t remember the criteria for individual peer review, so we invent a new procedure. During the final break, students chat about the feedback they’ve received. “We don’t get a lot,” they tell me. “We don’t get graded.”

“Do you know why?” I ask, knowing full well that my colleague has explained her methodology to them. But because it’s so new and foreign, they don’t remember it.

I offer them an explanation, and they indulge me, letting me pontificate for ten minutes on the value of the teacherless writing class. I scrawl Peter Elbow’s name on the board and explain, with more zeal than eloquence, the need to make writing a daily habit, the virtues of freewriting, and the growing confidence and command of words that accompanies such a pedagogy. I finish by saying that they’ll always read more willingly the material that interests them – but there is also value in learning to read texts that don’t interest them. Like the daily practice of musicians and athletes, writing takes rigor and commitment before you can expect to perform, to produce something of value.

I doubt my speech pleases them, but I can sense that they are happier knowing what philosophies structure this course. I am excited to watch them grow as writers, curious how much they will choose to develop. And I feel I’ve accomplished something for myself. I expected the class to be chaotic: I imagined myself stumbling through unfamiliar poems, trying to articulate someone else’s theories, while students unaccustomed to the quirks of my instruction gave stilted responses or none at all. I feel an intense gratitude for the cooperation that brought us all success – a powerful appreciation for my colleague’s guidance, my secretary’s resourcefulness with the myriad and confusing features of Adobe Acrobat, and my students’ willingness to help me settle into the new rhythm of our course. Yet again, I find myself amazed at how quickly challenges disappear when people decide to work together.

Blind Teacher

On final exam day, I sit at the front of a quiet classroom, listening attentively for the sound of my students writing. Pens are a lot quieter than they used to be; I can barely hear them marking their papers. The test, four pages of literary terms and grammar exercises, is free response, so I should be able to hear something—maybe a student loudly tossing his pen onto the desk in frustration, another sighing heavily, or a third compulsively clicking her retractable pen as she ponders the difference between active and passive voice.

As I sit at the low table at the front of the room, I think about the many silences that have occurred across the semester. They usually represented a discussion in the making, a classroom of students waiting for me to answer my own questions or afraid to venture their own opinions. On the first day, the silence was unique—pregnant with nervous energy. I remember sitting behind the large teacher’s desk, checking the time on my phone, not wanting to start class too early. I could barely see over that desk; I felt small and inadequate behind it. Soon I started dragging one of the student tables toward the dry erase board and positioning the large teacher chair behind it.

Sitting at this shorter table, I can see my students as a collective group. I can distinguish body shapes but not individual features. I can observe posture. I watch them taking their exam and realize that their backs are straight. None of them hunch over the desk, their noses inches from the paper, as I would have done—as I still do when I write at a desk. Up until now, I’ve equated that hunched posture with concentration. The more intensely I concentrated, the lower I bent over the desk. I only leaned away, only sat up straight, when I had finished reading or writing. I sat, back straight, when I discussed course material or answered questions—these behaviors were a breeze for me.

Watching my students, I can’t help but wonder how I looked as a student, bent over my paper in ardent concentration. What did my teachers think seeing me doubled over the desk? What changed when I sat up? Did they think, “Oh that’s just how she has to do it?” Could they see what that posture meant for me?

Twenty minutes pass in relative silence, with the occasional sound of a student scratching out his answer and rewriting it. Finally, the quiet breaks as a student flips her exam over, stands, gathers her things, and zips her bag. My ears place her on the right side of the room, and I hear her traveling toward me. She calmly offers me her test paper, and I track the flash of white, extending my hand to take it. She wishes me a relaxing winter break and leaves the room.

These sounds repeat as other students finish the exam and bring me their papers. At my desk, some pause awkwardly, unsure which of us will speak first. A student says, “Here,” and hands me her paper. I thank her and smile. She waits half a second and then blurts out, “I’ve had an amazing semester—you’re a great teacher!”

I am stunned. I stammer a grateful reply and she hurries away. Other students repeat similar remarks as they drop off their exams.

“I really enjoyed your class.”

“I hope we can keep in touch.”

“I learned a lot from you.”

“I appreciate all you’ve done to make me a better writer.”
I am shocked, not because I feel diffident about my abilities, but because I don’t remember making declarations like these as a freshman. I remember turning in exams and getting out of there, desperate for a coffee and some holiday shopping. I don’t remember thinking to compliment my instructors until I reached my upper level courses.

I think about all the things that worried me—not seeing their hands in the air, writing over my own writing on the board, being unable to find what I’d written, not seeing them texting or using their computers during class, being unable to read their body language and facial expressions—an endless list of incompetencies. I was sure that these things would make me a bad teacher, one that students would mock. A teacher they would ignore. A teacher they wouldn’t take seriously. I was afraid that all my individual struggles would amount to a pathetic reputation—that I wouldn’t be able to demonstrate my skills because I regularly made gaffes in small, everyday ways.

Then students stopped at my desk. One student gave me a loaf of pumpkin bread and a handwritten letter of appreciation. Another lingered, even after turning in his exam. He said that I was different from the instructors at his previous school, that I cared. The handwritten letter, which I read later in my office, reiterated this gem; the student said that she was touched by my enthusiasm. She was amazed that I wanted to share my love of the material with students. She said that’s what mattered.

So many of my first-semester concerns can be laid to rest now. My students don’t mind printing their work in size 18. They have learned to tell me when I’m writing close to the board’s edge. My inability to detect their raised hands doesn’t make me a bad instructor. In my classroom, students were willing to suspend the conventions that have been a part of their education since kindergarten—Don’t interrupt! Raise your hand! Be quiet!—and respect my unconventional space.

Three Little Things

If you are a student in my freshman composition class, you will be asked to analyze the title of any given reading on the syllabus. I tell my students, “Titles mean a lot; writers choose them deliberately.” I don’t say this because I’ve read extensive theory validating this claim. I say it because I, as a writer, have agonized over almost every title I’ve  created.

I tell my students that the title of a piece can act as a calling card, shaping a reader’s expectations before the text “begins”—of course, the text “begins” with the title. But often, titles are ignored, considered the product of that “Oh crap, I forgot to put a title on this thing” moment. Gently, I remind my students that their writing habits may not align perfectly with the habits of professional, passionate writers. It’s not that my students can’t be professional or passionate writers—or even that they don’t like writing—it’s that, so far, they aren’t as obsessed with the written word. Writers are on fire with love of language, and they meticulously arrange and re-arrange their words, which feel more like children, until they can claim proximity to perfection.

Certainly, a title can be the work of afterthought or hasty summation; it can be the suggestion of an overzealous editor or inspirational friend. It can be a preview of the text itself, or it can stubbornly refuse to conform to our confining idea of what a title should be. A title can be a maverick and refuse to relate to the impending text; it can stand apart, make no sense, be inscrutable. But it must be there.

Maybe by this point, you have forgotten what my title is. Or perhaps you’re the meticulous type who keeps scrolling up to remind yourself. “Three Little Things,” you quietly recite. You hope that this recitation will act as a unifying mantra that helps you internalize and understand the title’s significance.

Don’t worry, there is no magic here. I will place the three small things in plain sight; they are a hand, an open door, and an email.

The first, a hand, fits neatly over mine. During captivating conversations, it comes to rest warmly on top of mine, emphasizing the speaker’s words. With quiet, modest rhythm, the hand pats mine, conferring reassurance. Sometimes it lingers, covering mine for the space of four seconds; other times, it presses quickly and lifts away, exposing the back of my hand to an abrupt rush of cool air. The gesture suggests benevolence, intimacy, inclusion. I imagine that its warmth mirrors the sensation of making eye contact, a phenomenon I have never experienced. The hand willing to touch mine conveys the presence and attention of my companion. In the palm warmly covering my own, I read sincerity and a reaching-out; someone is willing to consider the nonvisual perspective. The gesture answers the question, “How can I let her know that I am here—that I am listening?”

I find the second object, an open door, waiting for me when I walk downstairs. As I approach the coffee shop, I feel the open door first. Long before I can see it, I sense air rushing through the large open space. As I approach, I can see straight into the uncrowded  coffee shop, my view is not obstructed by the black bars that cross the glass-fronted door. The absence of these bars affirms my theory that the door is open. I imagine that the door is propped ajar with some kind of doorstop; it does not move and no one exits or enters. I cannot confirm this because a doorstop is too small for me to see.  I step closer to the door and, following a flash of color, turn my head to the right. I can see a person holding the door for me. He wears a green or yellow shirt; it contrasts with the black of the doorframe. I thank him—and realize that he has been holding the door this whole time, waiting for me to approach.

The third object, an email, appears in my inbox a week after a quick conversation with a previously-unknown colleague. Before our chat, I had only heard of him by reputation. He talks to me about being a first-semester instructor, assures me that I will quickly learn the policies that best suit me, and promises to send me his syllabus. He reminisces about his early semesters and assures me that all instructors go through the bumpy phase I currently occupy. He promises to email me, and I give him one of my snazzy business cards (purple with white lettering). A week after our chat, I check my mail and find his message. I’ve customized the accessibility settings on my computer to enlarge most fonts to a comfortable size (18 or so) and, with my 10x magnification, most emails are easy to read. Unless a sender has deliberately chosen a different font and size, my email program will change their text to meet my specifications.

When I open his message, I am greeted by large, bold sans serif letters. His font must be size 26 or more; it is much larger than my default setting. Because my computer does not default to larger sizes, I know that this text signifies a deliberate choice, a nod to my difficulties with small text.

My three objects come from three meaningful interactions: one with a friend of four years, one with a new acquaintance, and the last with a complete stranger. In each situation, someone extended to me an incredible gift, a palpable consideration for my perspective. In each case, the person stepped outside her or his own senses and thought about my experience of the situation. I doubt whether each participant can estimate the sense of value I find in these three gestures.

Blind Student

Before time pulls a fine, shimmering mist over my academic experiences, I must write from the perspective of the blind student. Though my studies pass beyond each graduation, I find myself in a new role, the teacher’s role, and my ideas about students are changing.

So, meet me at the door of all my classrooms, and let’s wander through the experiences of a student like me.

First, you’ll notice that I arrive early. I’m here a few minutes before you, running my fingers over the braille at the classroom’s entrance. Paranoid that I’ll enter the wrong class, I want to appear competent. Let’s walk through the door that our instructor has just unlocked. I’ll want to find a seat close to the front of the room. I’ll fold my cane, place my large schoolbag under the desk, and pull out my notebook and pen. Depending on the classroom’s lighting, I’ll either remove my shades or keep them on. I’m hoping for dim lighting; I’d rather take off the shades.

No doubt, our instructor will begin passing out a syllabus. Two things about this process will make me anxious: 1) I won’t be able to tell that the instructor is handing me a paper unless he or she announces this, and 2) I won’t be able to read the syllabus, since the instructor has probably printed it in size 11 or 12.

Of course, each circumstance has its exception. When I choose classes with an instructor I’ve experienced before, I can count on some measure of accommodation on the first day. In one such case, a Rhetoric & Composition professor printed my syllabus in size 24! When he placed it before me, I felt surprised and gratified. I immediately flipped through it, delighted that I could hold the paper farther from my face.

In most cases, however, I endure the first class without accommodation. I cannot expect instructors to intuit my needs before I introduce myself. After that first class, I hurriedly shove my books into my bag, whip out my letter from the Disability Resource Center, and attempt to catch the instructor in conversation.

Most professors are kind, willing to assist, and welcoming. I’ve never had an instructor refuse me accommodations. I tell them, “If there’s something on the board, I won’t be able to read it.” I say, “If you’re calling on me, you have to use my name—otherwise, I won’t know that it’s my turn to speak.” I explain, “Any materials you pass out in class need to be enlarged for me, to size 18, Times New Roman.” (I tell them how I hate Courier New, that it was handcrafted in Satan’s workshop as the bane of all visually-impaired students.) Finally, I tell them that I am excited for the class and that I readily speak up for myself. “I won’t let you ignore me,” I insist with a smile.

My professors ask me for basic reminders and offer benevolent disclaimers:

  • “Could you shoot me an email the night before the exam, so I’ll remember to print yours?”
  • “You’ll have to remind me to call on you—I might forget! And it will take me a while to learn everyone’s name.”
  • “I’ve never had a blind student before. I’m happy to help, but I might take a while to get used to what you need.”

“Don’t worry,” I want to assure them. “I’ll actively participate in class! I will be so talkative and engaged that you won’t be able to forget I’m here. I’ll muster enthusiasm for texts I don’t enjoy, attend carefully to your lectures, and attempt to make brilliant observations—all in the hope that you won’t forget to enlarge my tests or use my name.”

But of course, they forget. They show up on exam day with an armful of copies printed in size 12. They look at me with confusion or embarrassment and ask sheepishly, “Is there any way you could just use the regular copy?” Inclined to say yes, I learn to say no. I answer, “I’m sorry, that would be really difficult for me to read.”

When they don’t forget to enlarge my copy, they forget to bring it. They say, “Oh gosh, I left your copy in my printer! Let me just run to my office and get it!” Meanwhile, they don’t collect the copies they’ve already passed out. Around me, students begin the exam, and I wait for my test. My anxiety mounts—I’m painfully aware that other students are completing their exam while I don’t even have mine. I’m aware that it will take me longer to read the test. I worry that I won’t finish on time, not because of my reading speed, but because my instructor takes 20 minutes to dash to her office and return with my exam.

In these moments, I cannot panic, pontificate, or patronize. I cannot say, “Why don’t you put a sticky note on your computer, reminding you to print my exam in size 18?” Just between you and me, I can read size 14, but I’ve since learned this valuable lesson: when you ask for size 14, professors try to give you 12. They say, “Well, I mean—it’s close, isn’t it? Can’t you just make it work for today? I’ll print your next one larger, I promise. I won’t forget.”

Occasionally, the forgetfulness sparks a creative solution. A professor who forgets to enlarge poems for me begins reading them in a slow, sonorous voice. When he reads, I don’t miss the print copies; I easily follow the poem. His reading precipitates an excellent discussion and furthers my blatant preference for the oral approach to poetry.

Another professor rushes across the room to narrate scenes of a film for me. He crouches by my desk and whispers (not very quietly) into my ear, describing an important scene. I assure him that this isn’t necessary – the classmate sitting beside me excels at audio description – and, reassured, he hurries back to his desk.

When I feel frustrated with my professors’ absent-mindedness, I remember the inclusive efforts of a certain Dr. Rae. She treats me so well that I take five courses with her. After the first day of class, and across those five courses, she forgets to enlarge one assignment. ONE assignment. When she realizes her mistake, she insists on typing the homework, a piece of Old English prose that we must translate, by hand. I find it waiting in my inbox just two hours after class.

She doesn’t tell me, “You’ll have to forgive me—I’ve never done this before.” She doesn’t say, “Oh dear, I’ve left your copy in my office.” She says, “I have a disabled sibling; I know what it’s like. I’m going to do my best for you.”

She spoils me for other instructors. When they forget to accommodate me, I remember that she rarely forgets. I begin to measure them against her, thinking, “If she can remember, why can’t others?” Surely, she has the same workload, amount of courses, lists of names to memorize, and piles of articles to read. But I never have to fight for anything in her class. I never receive a sigh of frustration, confusion, or embarrassment. When the rest of the class easily navigates a text that hasn’t been enlarged for me, she understands my acute feelings of exclusion. And I suspect that she gets my bravado as well. She helps me feel the value of my whole self,  mind and body connected.

I intend to model myself on Dr. Rae. Already, I have adopted her circular classroom arrangement and short response papers. Now, I am waiting for my population of disabled students, so I can extend her fervent consideration to them. I cannot wait to accommodate!

A Cane-User’s Education: First Lessons

Today I began my first experience of teaching independently at the college level. I’ve spent several semesters as a TA and delivered seminars and presentations to younger students, yet I was untried as the authoritative educator in a college classroom. I considered myself prepared for the opportunity: I had a plan for the day’s lesson (simple alliterative introduce-yourself ice breaker and going over the syllabus), I had set up my office (lavender-vanilla plug-in and cute silver-gray lamp), and I had practiced the route to my classroom and tried my key in the lock. I had planned my outfit—an a-line vibrant floral skirt, tailored black blazer, and sensible black shoes—twirled my hair into a bun at the base of my neck, and donned my pearl earrings for good luck. Normally I don’t believe in luck—I think you make your own by surrounding yourself with good people and being open to new ideas—but, when I touch the smooth round pearls, I am reminded of the people that support me through love and incandescent  belief.

I packed my navy school bag, cramming a 3-pocket folder with copies of the syllabus, slipping my laptop into its red sleeve, and finding a place for my portable video magnifier and aluminum water bottle. I had lunch in a separate bag, made of bright paisley material so it would be easy to spot in the crowded fridge when I was ready for it. I set up camp in the office and checked a few emails. I wrote responses. I flipped the crystal of my braille watch open. 10:04am. I snapped it shut. I waited, inhaling deeply. I checked the watch again. And again.

When the long hand finally rounded the 6, I stood, packed my bag, switched off the lamp, and locked the office. I walked down a hallway, took a left, and walked down another hallway, taking another left. I emerged into the humid, bright morning, surprised by the proliferation of sunlight that muddied the path I was supposed to take. I remembered the mantra my mobility teacher used to recite insistently: “Think up and out.” She meant, of course, that I should focus on my destination and let my intuition guide me—that I should not get distracted by the increase in light or space, that I should be mindful of the route I knew rather than baffled by the current situation.

So I lifted my head and I aimed myself at where I imagined the double doors of Building 2 should be. I walked, wishing I could trail the low concrete wall with my hand, but refusing to do so. What if the wall ended abruptly? What if the wall sloped downward? It would distract me, and, anyway, I knew this route!

As you walk away from Building 8 and toward Building 2, you can feel the ground sloping beneath your feet. It’s a very slight incline, but it lets you know whether you’re heading in the right direction. When you cross the threshold of the entrance into Building 2, you feel a strange, ridged material on the floor. It makes an odd, metallic scraping as you walk on it. After the strange, striped material, you find tile an elevator and the left turn that will lead you to my classroom.

When I reached the set of double doors, I stepped inside—and immediately felt carpet beneath my feet. Wrong turn, I told myself, confused. I thought I had correctly followed the straight path across the way! Where am I?

Deciding that I did not have the energy to panic, I turned around and traced the sun-drenched walkway back to Building 8. I explored, finding the door I had used to exit (the building has several entrances), and I began to retrace my steps. As I did so, I became aware of another walkway, and, as I looked, I saw familiarities. The way the light played across the pavement’s surface, the looming darkness where the building stood, the curve of the walkway as it filled up the space in front of me, a trash can placed near the stairs…I noted these things and walked forward. My cane thudded sonorously against a glass-fronted door and I reached for a handle. I had to grope for a few seconds before finding a smooth, rounded entity I could pull.

I opened the door. I stepped inside, My sensible shoes crunched metallically across the ridged floor surface. I saw tile and an elevator! Again, I took note of where I was. I had learned!

Several times over the course of the day, I walked this route between the two buildings—from 8 to 2 for class, from 2 to 8 after class, from 8 to 2 for tutoring, from 2 to 8 leaving tutoring. Over and over I made the same wrong turn and experienced an instant of pure bafflement. Each time, I reversed my erroneous path and found where I should have ended up. Each time I noted something about the wrong turns I took. In lighting, space, and contours of motion, these paths felt very different from the route I was supposed to take. I know now that there is a fabric mat in front of the entrance to some unknown building that is not Building 2. If I take the wrong walkway when exiting Building 2, I know that there is a brick building that lacks the wacky trapezoidal edges of Building 8. I don’t know the names of these new locations, and I’m not sure I need to. I think it suffices that I understand where I am and where I want to be. When these two locations—my actuality and my aspiration—differ, I continue to learn about myself by happening upon the wrong place.