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.

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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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Blind Magician

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s extensive epic, The Lord of the Rings, much attention is given to the One Ring, a powerful weapon that changes the hearts and minds of men, dwarves, elves, and wizards. After encountering the Ring of Power, many characters discover a hunger for ability, a yearning to wear and wield this small gold weapon that can reshape the world. Though the Ring claims the spotlight throughout the three books, other magical implements exist – working for good and evil within the story. My favorite of these is a staff belonging to Gandalf, the tale’s wise and cantankerous wizard. The staff sometimes appears as a humble walking stick. At other times, it is the light in dark places. Gandalf rarely appears without the staff in hand – it banishes demons, conjures fireworks, and harnesses his magical abilities.

As an admirer of Tolkien’s work and a blind woman, I feel affinity for this magical accessory. My desire to visit Tolkien’s Middle-earth compels me to parallel the White Wizard’s weapon with my own commonplace talisman – a slender, foldable creation, wrapped in white reflective tape. For me, the white cane is a wizard’s staff in humble costume. It transports me to unforeseen environments, grants me helpful attentions from others, and allows me to change my world by presenting an active, capable picture of blindness.

In each tale of magic and self-discovery, a moment of epiphany and acceptance opens the world of an ordinary person to fantastical possibilities. Arthur sees and retrieves a sword from a stone; Frodo steps forward and offers to destroy the One Ring; Harry Potter opens the impressive letter from Hogwarts. In an ordinary world, a protagonist must decide to accept the magical token – a cloak of invisibility, a victorious sword, a lucky feather – before his or her life can become extraordinary.

As the heroines and heroes of fantasy accept wise council and magical heirlooms, the ordinary blind person accepts the cane. This acceptance is far from easy. When I was ten, I started training with the cane, but I was reluctant to use it in all environments. Afraid that the cane would set me apart, I convinced myself I could travel without it. I did not fully accept its power until I was fifteen. Confronted by necessity, I pulled the sword from the stone, put on the cloak, tucked the lucky feather in my pocket. I decided to embrace the magic that had been waiting for me for five years.

Like a mystic word that opens locked doors or answers riddles in invisible ink, the cane carries me to unknown realms. With a cane in hand, I feel confident enough to travel independently. The cane is a far-seeing crystal that extends my knowledge of the world – if only by 48 inches. It sweeps the ground before me, describing changes in my environment – steps, curbs, piles of leaves, signs, golf carts, boxes, and people whose existence I cannot visually detect. With cane in hand, I wield a prophetic power that prepares me for safe travel.

While some magical tools gain prestige by rendering their user invisible, the presence of the cane makes me more visible. The cane marks me out as an exception to the rule. In most groups, I alone sweep the white staff as I walk. This rare, bright implement of independence catches the eyes of passersby and works spontaneous miracles. Doors swing open, people step out of my way, friendly greetings fall on my ears.

A powerful symbol, the cane signifies many kinds of existence. Some see it as a crutch, a sign that indicates my weakness and vulnerability. To them, the cane is not a single staff but a heavy cross. I wield it like a biological scarlet letter – a signal of my deplorable and inferior life. Surely I, with this heavy cross in hand, cannot enjoy the pleasures that the observers enjoy.

For others, the cane is more than a powerful symbol: it is a symbol of power. They see the cane as a mark of my fierce drive to be independent, present, and successful; they recognize the work that prepared me for its use. They understand the hours of toil that fit a person for carrying a magical device. Perhaps they too have trained with their own symbols of power; they know the cost, the upkeep, the discipline needed to use such a staff as mine.

A third group of observers sees the cane as a sign of mystery. Unsure of its powers or uses, the courageous approach with questions. The cowardly stand aloof and gossip, their voices louder than they realize. With these people, the cane’s protective powers are amplified – it grants me a quick method for determining a person’s character. Even when the questions or comments are clumsy, those who bring them have a ready stock of goodwill for me. Those who would rather speculate from afar will not prove themselves worthy friends.

Gandalf’s staff marks him as a wizard, and my cane marks me as a blind woman. This mark allows me to carry the idea of blindness into new and exciting realms. Often, I must create the place for my talisman, because it is the first to appear in these frontiers. Onstage with my chorus, my magic staff changes shape, becoming slimmer and more compact. A long, slender pocket on the side of my chorus costume – the creation of our chorus seamstress – accommodates the compact ID cane I use during performances. The seamstress’s masterful addition keeps the cane from rolling around underneath the risers or getting misplaced backstage. This measure ensures that I won’t be parted from my talisman.

If a cane user cannot realize the power residing in the slender dimensions of a white cane, I recommend a healthy dose of whimsy and an understanding of metaphor. The everyday magic of canes is impossible to ignore. I first accepted the cane for its superficial powers, its compensations for my low vision, but, like the Ring that creates the Fellowship or the external magic that reveals internal strength, the cane continues to unfold new powers. To accept the cane, I had to accept myself. To embrace its power, I had to decide who I wanted to be. Now, my cane is a portable charm against diffidence and fear. I carry courage in its 48 inches.

My daily existence rarely offers me the experience of traveling with another cane user. I treasure the handful of times I’ve spent strolling beside someone whose familiar tapping and sweeping echoes or prefigures my own. Like a secret handshake or code word, the sound of another cane in use grants me a sense of kinship, a spiritual resonance. I rejoice that another carries the quiet power in the white staff, and I hope he or she uses it with care.

Mind Over Matter

Yesterday, on the trail of poets with disabilities, I came across the following book review. For poet Craig Romkema’s collection, Embracing the Sky: Poems Beyond Disability, Amazon.com had this to say:

“In this collection of poems, Craig Romkema describes the daily journey of an individual whose body is encumbered with the symptoms of autism and cerebral palsy, but whose mind and spirit are relatively unaffected. Forcing the barriers aside momentarily, he shares his life experience, offering insights into a life beyond disability. Writing of his hopes, fears, and aspirations, as well as his everyday reality, his poetry will speak in particular to others on the autism spectrum, their families, and those who work with them.”

I am thoroughly irritated by this review and have no desire to add the book to my Wish List. I don’t mind Romkema’s desire to connect with others on the autism spectrum or to share his experiences with cerebral palsy. In fact, the last sentence of the review is perfectly acceptable to me.

It’s this first part, about his “mind and spirit” being “relatively unaffected.” How can this be?

Of course, this reviewer (Amazon doesn’t specify whether the review was provided by the publisher or created by the site itself) employs the classic mind/body dualism that accompanies most discussions of disability. It’s the age-old aphorism, “The mind is willing, but the body is weak.” In the case of disabled people, especially public figures or disabled artists, the body is decrepit, but the mind!—the mind is indomitable. These sentiments usually lead to discussions of the “indomitable human spirit.”

I make no criticism of the indomitable human spirit here. I believe very strongly in the power of the human heart and the intensity of the human spirit.

But where would the spirit be without the body? How would we know about the triumph of the human mind, the virtues of the human soul, and the power of the human heart without the body? It is the body that translates these virtuous, invisible messages for us. It is the body that renders our beautiful thoughts into beautiful actions.

Of course, in order to credit our bodies, we must love them—and that is a challenge many of us fight daily. We must accept ourselves, our flabby, out-of-shape selves; our glasses-wearing selves; our freckled, awkward selves; the selves that need help going to the bathroom; the selves that rely on walkers, new hips, orthopedic shoes. And this we cannot do in the present culture of youth and beauty, the society that tells us we must be ashamed to exist in “broken bodies.”

Originally, I think, disabled people must have advocated the brilliance of their minds as a way to the public ear. Perhaps there was no other way to make themselves heard or felt; perhaps they had to convince the world that the spirits fluttering around inside their broken bodies were just as human, just as kind, just as loving and capable of human innovation.  So they, or their publicists, said things like, “I may live inside this crippled body, but my mind is strong and healthy” or “Despite my physical deficit—my deafness, blindness, or inability to walk, I can still carry on an intellectual conversation.” Somewhere in the corridors of disability history, people had to denigrate their bodies in order to elevate their minds. You can’t lift something up without putting something else down.

Or so I thought.

But now, as I reread this book review and get angry all over again, I want to change my mind on this issue. Rather, I want to give voice to a change that I’ve been feeling for some time.

Your mind cannot “remain unaffected” by disability. Disability, as with any other characteristic, touches every part of you—and that means your mind and body. Your spirit, mind, and body work together to form one entity, one individual. There is no way to separate yourself from your experiences, to draw a big red line that puts the physical weakness on one side and the mental strength on the other. To draw such a line is to make war on yourself, to say that parts of you are not worthy of recognition. Yes, your body may be broken, disabled, inept, wobbly, inconsistent in its strengths, but it is your body. And broken bodies, like “whole” bodies, have a valuable lesson to impart.

During my chorus rehearsals, our director often asks us to perform strange, kinesthetic exercises in order to free the voice and help us sing better. When I first started singing in choruses, about 10 years ago, I thought I was above such rudimentary gymnastics. “I don’t need to do that,” I regularly told myself, as I halfheartedly attempted the technique. My resistance came from a combination of denial and pride. I didn’t want to admit that it was difficult for me to understand the exercises, which were usually taught in a visual way, so I pretended that I was already good enough—that they weren’t any use to a talented singer like me.

Eventually I was forced to acknowledge that the exercises worked. I came across a persistent director who walked over and physically guided me through the movements—or I started to understand and perform the exercises on my own—or a fellow singer reached over and moved my hands correctly—and I heard a difference. As I leaned forward, standing on the balls of my feet, my heels off the ground, and my arms stretched out in front of me, I heard my voice change. It became stronger, more centered, and more agile. I started to create and hear a sound that I dreamed about: a thick, rich, capable voice. Yes, my mind decided to adopt these exercises, but it was my body that performed them. I have to credit both parts here.

Maybe it’s my bad vision that makes my ears so good. Maybe because I can’t see too well, I hear really well, so I can detect small changes in my own voice. Maybe this is so—but it’s not really what this blog is about.

It’s about a holistic understanding and appreciation of the self. It’s about loving who and what you are and realizing that you can’t banish any part of yourself. You don’t have to overcompensate for your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your size, your shape, your abilities or disabilities. You don’t have to tell the world, “I know you can’t appreciate that part of me, but this part of me is worth it.” Everything about you is worth it.

Someday I hope to have books of poetry for sale on Amazon. I hope to have books of prose and scholarly work up there as well. And I hope to have a book reviewer who won’t use the “tragedy” of my blindness to enhance the brilliance of my mind.

I am a writer. Not a blind writer or a female writer or a writer with brown hair or a young writer. I am all of these things at once. And if that seems overwhelming, if that sounds like too much, maybe you should examine yourself. Decide who you will be.