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.

“How does it feel?”: Exploring touch and texture

A few years ago, my brother and I were doing a bit of grocery shopping, and, as we wandered through the produce section, he abruptly stopped the cart. Trying to suppress a mischievous laugh, he reached for something on a shelf and said, grinning, “Feel this!” When he put it into my hand, I immediately understood his mirth. What he handed me was a fist-sized fruit, whose relatively round shape was disrupted by small, pointy protrusions. I laughed too and he informed me that I was holding a Peruvian horned melon, a specimen separated from the conventionally smooth or modestly bumpy ranks of fruits by its hilarious strangeness. A fruit with horns! I had never touched anything like that before.

I should mention that the grocery store is often a place where I was told, “Look, don’t touch!” – the supervising adult’s way of keeping a curious, tactilely-oriented child from pulling every item off the shelf. Now that I am an adult and can be trusted not to break things for the sake of understanding physics, I touch everything. Especially the fruit.

But the most sublime textures, the ones in which I revel unequivocally, are not to be found at the grocery store. They’re found in a variety of places, and my encounters with them are often unexpected. After all, I can’t see them approaching.

The textures I notice most are probably clothing-related. I walk with so many different sighted guides during the week and they all change their clothes relatively frequently, so I get to experience something new each time I reach for an elbow. Sometimes it’s bare skin (and I can tell whether the person uses a moisturizer or drinks enough water), and sometimes it’s the smooth supple pleasurable leather jacket. My friend Nick has a particularly nice leather jacket; it’s so thick that I can barely discern his elbow beneath it. But most of the time, in this hot Florida climate, it’s some light form of cotton, which is not at all unpleasant.

If I’m lucky, it’s corduroy. Oh how I delight in corduroy! The kind with the tiny ribs, crammed close together, or the kind with the big, soft ribs spaced a quarter-inch apart. There’s something about corduroy that I just love.

And then of course there are the scarves – smooth, soft cashmere or the rough, intricate weave of a crocheted scarf. I have 3 crocheted scarves that I particularly adore – two made for me by my mom’s good friend Suzanne and one from my dear friend Katie. The ones from Suzanne are soothingly soft; I can tell she picked the yarn especially for its texture. The one from Katie is a rougher yarn, more interesting than soothing to touch. She chose an intricate crochet pattern with tiny holes and plenty of features for my busy fingers to explore. And that business is in its own way very soothing to me.

In the presence of these soft delightful textures, I am reduced to the nonverbal cooing of an infant. I love things that are soft and inviting, things you want to rub gently against your cheek.

In his book, Busy Body: My Life with Tourette’s Syndrome, Nick van Bloss writes about his “Touretty” compulsion to touch certain textures, even textures that wouldn’t seem inviting – like a friend’s oily nose! I don’t usually feel drawn to explore oily noses, but I do experience a similar urge to touch things, especially if I can’t make visual sense of them. Or if a friend is wearing a vibrantly-colored shirt, I want to touch it to understand it better. Texture is such an important dimension of my perception.

I don’t think I could choose a favorite texture, but there are a few contenders, delivered in no particular order.

  1. The smooth surface of a piano, especially the part that closes over the keys – I am ashamed that I don’t know what this part is called. Also, the keys. Piano keys can feel so different from instrument to instrument. I personally like the weathered smoothness of older keys, but I wouldn’t turn down a chance to brush the keys of a brand new baby grand.
  2. The gritty smoothness of my Macbook. Gritty smoothness? Yes. I can’t seem to articulate it another way. The aluminum of the outer casing isn’t silky smooth, but it is smooth. It still has that quality that sort of drags at your fingertips as you touch it. Unlike the little apple cutout on the Mac’s lid – which I love for its silky smoothness.
  3. Golden retrievers! My god. They’re incredible! I spoke at a meeting for the Foundation Fighting Blindness back in November and they had two guide dog puppies there. One was a lab, who was adorable in his own way, but the other was a big, lovey, fluffy golden. I had never petted a golden retriever before. I guess people who can see them know what they are getting into; they can behold that inviting fur and think, “It is going to be so soft and fluffy!” But I had no idea. And I am now forever changed. It was so soft…
  4. Corduroy.
  5. A new cane – but that’s an entry in and of itself.

This list is by no means complete. For one thing, I’m talking here about the textures I feel with my hands. This doesn’t take into account the textures I feel anywhere else, the textures that brush my skin or the textures of food, or even the texture of the ground.

In music, the word texture is used to denote the way that melodic lines are arranged within a piece. For example, a piece with polyphonic texture has several melodies of equal importance playing at the same time. Mood-related characteristics like bright, dark, or light refer to a piece’s timbre – its tone color. I run into problems when I start talking about the texture of music, because I mean something more akin to texture in our conventional sense. If a piece of music sounds gritty, smooth, thick, rigid, airy — what word can I use? To me, these are all tactile qualities; I’m describing how the music feels in a sense other than emotionality. But, as I said, the texture of music refers elsewhere. So I am now on the search for a new way to talk about the characteristics of music I’m describing.