“The children’s story time begins in fifteen minutes,” the young assistant said, glancing over at the head librarian expectantly.
“That’s right,” the woman replied, calmly shifting books back and forth, sorting them into neat stacks. “Is the room prepared?”
“Yes, but our reader hasn’t arrived yet, and there are already several children and their parents waiting in the hall.”
“You may let them in,” the older woman answered, “Oh, and Emily, try to keep them settled until we’re ready.”
Oh sure, she thought to herself as she drew closer to the chatter of children’s voices. It always falls on me to keep things under control when we get off schedule.
Herding several rambunctious youngsters into the community room, Emily began plopping beanbag cushions in a semi-circle in front of a comfy armchair. The seat was still empty, and there wasn’t anyone in the room whom she could identify as today’s reader.
Every Tuesday morning, throughout the summer months, a member of the community would come and read to the children who came for story hour. Sometimes it would be a person of prominence, but more often it was someone from the neighborhood, usually one of the older residents, who had the time to come for an hour to read books and eat cookies, while the library staff helped the children with a craft related to the story they had just heard.
Yes, it could be anyone, and usually by this time they were settled into the chair, greeting the children as they came in. Only today, so far, no one.
Mentally, Emily was preparing to pull a few books from the children’s reading room. Better to be ready, just in case.
But she wasn’t sure what the topic was. She could usually get an idea of what they were going to be doing by looking over the craft supplies, but today it was simply sheets of white card stock and crayons. Not much to go by.
Looking up, she was startled to see a man of middle age stepping cautiously into the room, his red tipped cane swaying back and forth as he carefully felt his way along.
Dashing forward, Emily tried to stop him before he got too far, concerned that one of the children might run past and trip him by accident.
Honestly, she thought in frustration, how did he get in here? As far as she knew, the library didn’t have a section of braille books, but perhaps he had come for some other form of media, a book on tape, or a movie perhaps.
“Sir,” she called out as soon as she was close enough to be heard over the children’s noises, “I think you’re in the wrong room.”
Pausing, the gentleman raised his head in the direction of her voice.
“Is this the library story hour,” he questioned, tilting his head slightly?
“Yes,” she replied, tentatively touching his arm in an attempt to turn him back toward the door, “but the circulation desk is a bit further down the hallway. If you'll follow me, I’ll show you.”
“Emily,” Miss Henderson’s voice came from the doorway, “Where are you taking Mr. Mead?”
“Um, to the front desk,” Emily stammered, beginning to sense from the librarian’s tone that she had made a mistake, and feeling like she would have been better off leaving him alone.
Shaking her head gently, and smiling, Mrs. Henderson stepped forward.
“Welcome, Marcus, we are so glad you could join us,” she greeted him, turning him back toward the chair.
“Emily, would you get everyone seated please, our guest has arrived.”
“Good morning, children,” the man called out to the room as he felt around the edges of the chair before sitting down in it. “Today we are going to read a book about animals.”
Placing his cane on the floor beside the chair, he reached into his bag and pulled out a large, thick book with a picture of a zebra on the front.
“Mommy,” a young voice whispered loudly, “he needs to take off his sunglasses.”
“Hush,” the mother admonished her child.
“But you always make us take our sunglasses off when we’re inside,” the child insisted.
“Jeremy,” his mother warned. “Sorry,” she apologized to the group as every eye in the room turned toward them.
“It’s quite all right,” the man assured her. “Jeremy is correct, and normally, young man, a person would take off their sunglasses to read indoors, but I am legally blind, and bright lights hurt my eyes, so you see, it won’t bother me to read with them on.”
“But how can you read to us if you’re blind,” another voice chimed in?
“Children,” Mrs. Henderson interjected, “Mr. Mead has a special book that he is going to share with us. A book written especially for people who have lost their sight, but he can’t read it if you keep interrupting him.”
Stepping back, Mrs. Henderson swept the room with her eyes meaningfully, and the children fell silent.
“So, let us begin,” Mr. Mead said as he opened the book.
Turing the book toward the children, he showed them a brightly colored page with several different pictures on it. After they’d had a chance to look at it, he turned the book back toward himself and placed his hand on the page. Moving his finger across the paper, he read to them about the different kinds of primates, several of the children giggling as he described the antics of Capuchin Monkeys, Gibbons, and Chimpanzees.
When he finished he turned the page and showed them another set of beautiful pictures, then turning it back to himself, he continued reading.
Emily had never seen the children so attentive before and realized that Mr. Mead was a natural with kids.
When he finished, several of the children ran up, wanting to see the book up close, but Mrs. Henderson waved them back to their seats and called for their attention.
“Now,” she said, “we have all enjoyed Mr. Mead’s stories, but there is something special that I am sure you have noticed about his book.”
Several of the children began bouncing up and down, hands raised in the air, trying to get her attention.
“Yes, Janet,” Mrs. Henderson called on a quiet, dark-haired girl in the back. “What can you tell us about this book?”
“It doesn’t have any words in it,” she replied. “How can he read a book that doesn’t have words in it?”
“I think I’ll let Mr. Mead answer that one.”
“Ah, Janet,” he replied smiling, “there are many words in my book. Come up and I’ll show them to you.”
“Go ahead,” her mother encouraged when she hesitated.
Shyly standing beside Mr. Mead, Janet waited expectantly as he reopened the book.
“Do you know what it means to be blind,” Mr. Mead asked?
She nodded, but said nothing.
“Being blind,” began Mr. Mead, “can mean different things to different people. Some people are born blind, and some lose their sight later in life. Some see nothing at all, and others might have the ability to see some things, but not enough to be able to read or drive a car like other people do. In my case, I can see blurry shapes around the edges of my vision, but nothing in the middle, so I cannot read like other people can.”
Opening the book to the first page, he continued, “I began to lose my sight about twenty years ago. The doctors said there was nothing they could do, and little by little, I was able to see less and less.”
Laying the book out flat so everyone could see, he asked her, “Do you see these bumps on the page above the pictures?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Those are words,” he explained, slowly moving his finger over the line of raised dots before them, “Instead of reading with my eyes, I read with my finger by touching these bumps on the page.”
“Why don’t you try it,” he said, turning the book toward her.
Hesitantly, Janet touched the page. “I can feel them,” she gasped!
“Now close your eyes and touch them,” Mr. Mead suggested.
Closing her eyes, she reached out again.
“I can’t find them,” she said
“That’s okay,” Mr. Mead replied, “it takes some practice. Just feel around until you find them, and then move across the page as if your fingers were your eyes.”
Patting her hand around until she found one, Janet began moving her finger slowly along the lines of raised dots.”
“Very good,” Mr. Mead praised her, “do you feel a pattern?”
Bobbing her head, Janet smiled, “I do feel something, but it’s all bumpy and weird. It doesn’t feel like words,” she said opening her eyes as her smile faded.
“That’s okay,” he said, smiling, “It took me a long time to learn to read this way. In fact, I can only read with the index finger on my left hand. If I tried to read with any of my other fingers, I would be just as lost as you are. Even now, I read very slowly. The only reason I was able to read this to you at a normal pace today was because I practiced it over and over before I came.”
“Children,” Mrs. Henderson called out, stepping forward, “what Mr. Mead has been reading to us is a form of writing for the blind called Braille. People make it by creating different combinations of raised dots, and each combination represents a different letter of the alphabet. Mr. Mead will be here to answer any questions you may have, but we also have an activity at the craft tables for you to begin working on.”
Several other library workers moved forward as the children gathered around the tables.
“I want each of you to color a picture of one of the animals that Mr. Mead read to us about,” Mrs. Henderson instructed them, “but only use the bottom half of the paper. When you are done, take your paper to Mr. Mead. Tell him what animal you chose. Using a special Braille slate, he will write about your animal at the top of your paper. Under that, one of us will help you write what it says with visual letters.”
Emily helped the younger children with their drawings, then one by one they took them up to Mr. Mead.
Slowly he slipped the top of the paper into a metal device he called a slate. The slate was made of two thin metal pieces, approximately a foot long and a little over an inch tall, hinged together on one side.
First he put the paper into the slate back side up, clamping it shut so the paper wouldn’t slide around. Then, he asked each child what they wanted it to say about their animal.
The top layer of the slate contained a series of forty small rectangular openings, with ridged sides, called cells. Taking a slim metal tool, called a stylus, he placed it into one of the cells on the right-hand side of the page and began pushing back and forth into the paper, leaving behind a combination of small dents. That was one letter.
Then he moved to the next cell and did it again, pushing back and forth, making a different pattern this time, until he had filled all of the cells that he wanted to use, continuing until he had created a variety of different dot formations.
When he finished, Mr. Mead took it out of the slate, turned it over, and told Emily what he had written, so she could print the words underneath in black crayon. Then, he showed each child how to read the words on the page while feeling the braille letters with their finger at the same time.
While they worked, Mr. Mead told the children of his work at the local zoo. Before he lost his sight, he had been one of the zookeepers in charge of the primates. He had brought that book so he could share with them his love for animals, and let them see a little bit of the world he loved so much through the eyes of a person who now saw the world only by touch, smell, and sounds.
As the children were leaving, Janet ran up to Mr. Mead.
“I’m sorry you can’t see the animals anymore,” she said sadly.
“It’s okay,” he answered, giving her hand a squeeze. “I’m still able to work with them as a volunteer, and you know what?”
“What?” she asked looking up at him.
“Somehow, I think they know,” he answered thoughtfully, “they’re more gentle with me now than they were when I had my sight. It’s like we’re friends now, instead of me just being the worker and them merely the animals at the zoo.”
“I feel blessed actually,” he continued, softly, “because now I am being allowed to see them with different eyes.”
Holding up her picture of a Capuchin monkey with a big crayon smile on its face hanging from a vine covered branch, Janet looked back and forth from the words, both handwritten and in Braille, and said, “So am I, Mr. Mead.”