Novel Interactions

I am lucky to be surrounded by dedicated and diverse friends. Some accompany me to the symphony. Others sing near me on the risers. A few teach in the office beside mine. And most read a lot of books. Like all relationships, my friendships intensify when my friends and I share novel experiences. We discover an unknown author, an exotic restaurant, a place for nature walks and reading aloud, and we lose ourselves in conversation.

As we share interests, we experience moments when my vision changes the circumstances of a social interaction. Some friends have never been close to a disabled person before—they don’t have disabled relatives or classmates, they never volunteered with disabled kids, they’ve never even seen a blind person. New friends learn to verbalize important information, become adept sighted guides, and begin to join me in the lifelong process of laughing at those who are still baffled by my disability. To be clear, people who can’t bring themselves to utter, “See you later!” don’t make it past the acquaintance level. I make no apologies for this prerequisite to my friendship. I’m confident that I can offer a warm and accepting friendship to someone, so I expect the same in return.

Old and new friends witness the many servers who won’t hand me a menu, the symphony ushers who don’t ask if I’d like a program, and the strangers who offer – usually without tact – to pray for my healing. Sometimes, I’ll turn to a new friend and say, “Let’s see if the waitress gives me the braille menu.” My companion will hiss, “I wonder if she expects me to order for you. Joke’s on her, you’re ordering for me!”

In the unofficial tally of new and awkward situations, Crystal and I are in the lead. On any given day of errand-running, we experience a volley of unsolicited, misplaced, or inept assistance from strangers who fail to – in Crystal’s words – “treat you like a person.”

Amused by these encounters, we spend our travel time plotting ways to get revenge. One of my mentors, a good friend and devoted disability educator, often uses the mantra, “Educate, don’t retaliate.” In our fantasies, Crystal and I educate so precisely that the offending parties see the error of their ways and we all have a good story to tell. In real time, however, we can rarely enact these far-reaching civic maneuvers. It’s all we can do to hold in our laughter until we’re out of the shop and in the car.

Let’s begin at the bank.

Crystal and I have stopped at the bank so I can deposit some birthday money. We emerge from the car, and she makes one of her many “summoning noises”: bird calls, tongue clicks, and shouts of “Closer! Closer!” that tell me where she is and where to go. I take her elbow and we enter the bank, threading our way through the unsophisticated mess of ribbon that creates the lines. I mutter something about accessibility and irritation. I can’t imagine that anyone using a wheelchair or scooter digs these cramped rope lines with their abrupt corners. When we reach the counter, I present my debit card and my ID, striking up a conversation with the cheerful bank teller. She instructs me to swipe my card and enter my pin. I do so, enjoying the large, distinctive buttons on the pin pad.

“Wow, that’s impressive! You entered your pin.” There is a lot of smile in her voice as she watches my competent movements.

“You think that’s good? Wait till you see me buy something!”

As the teller turns away, Crystal hands me a lollipop from the small bucket on the counter. “For you, superstar.” She grins.

When I take Crystal’s arm to leave the bank, the teller calls a bit of encouragement: “Don’t worry, I run into walls all the time, too!”

A few hours later, we find ourselves at the nail salon, where I am having my eyebrows waxed. Real friends don’t let their blind friends pluck their own eyebrows. When the waxing is complete, I take Crystal’s arm and we stop at the counter to pay. The young Asian man prints my receipt and addresses Crystal:

“What happen?”

Crystal’s silence tells me that she is confused. “What?”

The man repeats his question, and Crystal replies, “What happened to what?”

In a hushed voice, he elaborates, “Her eye.”

“Oh um…”

Crystal’s voice fades, and I jump in. “I have low vision,” I explain. “I’ve had it since I was born.” I sign my receipt and return my card to my wallet.

“Ohhhhh.” The man takes his copy of my receipt and files it away. “My friend like that. My best friend.”

Later, when we pay for our groceries, we encounter the bank teller’s spiritual cousin, a surly cashier whose only comment comes when I successfully pay for my food and get cash back. After the brief series of beeps that signals the machine’s reception of my pin, she shouts, “GIRL THATS SO GOOD SHE CAN PUT IN HER OWN PIN!” This is her first, but not her final, comment to us. She places my receipt and the cash I’ve requested into my outstretched hand. Energized by my heroic act—the indomitable barrier I’ve overcome—she wishes us a good day.

Though most cashiers are more friendly than this notable example, few actually place the receipt and cash in my hand. Some never look at me, so they don’t see the cane and dark glasses. This means that my outstretched hand will remain empty as the cashier offers my receipt to a nonspecific place in the air. Other times, the cashier will hand my receipt and cash to the person I’m with, though I completed the entire transaction. Here, Crystal and I entertain devious fantasies: “One day, Em, when they hand me your cash, I’m just going to run away and leave you. ”

“I’ll stand here and look forlorn.”

Instead of implementing this particular fantasy, we’ve devised two strategies for dealing with unpleasant cashiers. In the first, Crystal simply steps away or feigns deafness and blindness when a cashier tries to hand her my things. Eventually the cashier gets the message and places the items in my outstretched hand. In the other scenario—when the cashier wordlessly offers my receipt to the empty air—Crystal announces in a very loud, serious monotone, “SHE’S HANDING YOU YOUR CARD.” This utterance helps the cashier to realize the miraculous effects of a verbal cue. After a sheepish apology, the employee places the stuff in my hand, and we can leave the store, knowing that we’ve helped carry one more grain of sand away from Ignorance Mountain.

For me, the best part of these interactions comes during the ride home, when we’re rehashing the day’s experiences. Though I do my best to be plucky and self-reliant, the sheer frequency of these situations can leave me feeling undervalued and ignored. These strangers who believe that I can’t complete the simplest tasks, who insist that my life is some kind of modern tragedy, who refuse to speak to me directly—they don’t know about my degrees, my publications, my performances. By their calculations, I’m not much of anything.

Here, Crystal enacts a vital role of friendship: she reminds me of my own worth, and the proper way to measure it. When I remember to calculate my value from her loyalty and understanding, we can turn these unfortunate encounters into good stories.

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The Pen and the Playground

My favorite teaching duty is course design. Though I hardly control every aspect of the courses I teach – the text choice, the policies, the measurable learning outcomes – I can arrange the order of readings and daily activities. I particularly enjoy asking my students to draw connections between seemingly unrelated texts. I’ll take a 2008 TED Talk and a political essay from 1849 and ask my pupils, “What can a student gain from studying these texts in tandem?” I urge them to synthesize something new by closely examining each text’s objectives.

For today’s class, they read Northrop Frye’s “The Vocation of Eloquence,” the final chapter of his book, The Educated Imagination. In this essay, Frye insists that the study of literature nourishes the imagination, and the imagination helps us adapt and survive – transforming the world we experience into the world we desire. Imagination, says Frye, lets us test-drive our futures; if we want to be doctors, we must be able to imagine ourselves as doctors. Thus, literature – playful, expressive, and versatile – allows us to train our creative minds.

During class, my students viewed Dr. Stuart Brown’s TED Talk, “Play Is More Than Fun.” With the help of countless adorable animal pictures, Brown argues for the importance of play. Debunking the idea that play only serves as a rehearsal for adult life, Brown suggests that play promotes adaptability, learning, and trustworthiness. He urges his audience to contemplate their own “play histories,” thinking back to their happiest, most playful memories in order to connect with their real passions.

So here is my play history – or a brief excerpt from it. I know my current passions: poetry and music. But I want to see what a playful exploration of my past delights will uncover.

Inside my childhood bedroom, there is a mirrored closet with glass shelves. For several years, the shelves hosted a sprawling miniature village. Houses constructed from popsicle sticks sheltered action figures of miscellaneous origin, each villager no more than a few inches tall. Star Wars characters resided alongside Disney princesses in perfect harmony, their world accessorized with everything from tiny teapots and potted plants to a music box shaped like an upright piano. One lucky family even owned a petite bookshelf, stocked with colorful and anonymous volumes.

My friend Caitlyn and I spent hundreds of hours, kneeling or sitting in delighted absorption before this layered village, moving its people in and out of elaborate plots. We created character voices and dialogues – conflicts, love stories, comedies, and seemingly incongruous tragedies – sacrificing previous plot lines for the whimsy of the moment. Caitlyn’s bedroom contained an analogous structure – the same playground with different architecture. She was particularly proud of a complex popsicle-stick bridge that joined the two halves of her city, and a glittering waterfall she skillfully constructed from layers of aluminum foil and blue plastic wrap.

The chief companion of my elementary school years, Caitlyn joined me in a thousand variations on imaginative play. We spun scenarios from the extraordinary material in books and the ordinary stuff of classrooms. A lesson on Jupiter’s volcanic moons transformed us into intergalactic lunar mountain climbers. A chapter from an American Girl book hurled us back in time; we became sister settlers on the prairie, or a merchant’s daughter and her governess in colonial Williamsburg. One particularly demanding English teacher swapped the traditional book reports with a radio play option, daring our creativity to new extremes. With a keyboard and unsophisticated tape recorder, we documented fictional talk shows and radio plays — long after we completed the initial school project.

Though we grew older, we refused to surrender our love of make-believe. As our schedules filled with homework and after-school club meetings, we took our play onto paper. No longer able to spend hours crouched before our miniature villages or dressed in costumes of our own creation, we traded the physically active play of our childhood for its mental representation. Caitlyn picked up a drawing pencil, I selected a ballpoint pen, and we filled notebooks with cartoons and stories. Like the improvisational radio dramas of our middle school years, this play began to keep its own record.

Our playground moved onto paper, its character uncompromised. Between classes, we exchanged a decorated spiral notebook, leaving each other notes. This play honed the art of stealth: while we scribbled the latest installment in a parody or comic strip, we appeared to be taking diligent notes in class.

As a self-proclaimed nerd and enthusiastic student, I am almost ashamed to admit that I took this deceptive “note-taking” beyond the notebook Caitlyn and I shared. I often traveled with two non-academic notebooks in my backpack – the one I exchanged with Caitlyn, and another in which I began a trilogy of fantasy novels. I carried the habit beyond high school into my undergraduate and graduate classes. My low vision always helps me in this private wordplay; I bend so low over my writing in any situation that people can’t tell whether I’m creating poetry or prose.

I look to Northrop Frye and Stuart Brown to justify this play on paper. Frye asks us to engage with the imagination – does he really want me to ignore the wisps of inspiration that always seem to arrive during faculty meetings or uninteresting speeches? Brown says that play will keep me young and help me learn – wouldn’t he encourage me to keep a notebook, a private playground, with me always?

That’s the way I choose to join Frye and Brown’s texts. But, like a good teacher, I’ll leave you to make your own connections.