As the roar of applause informed me, I was speaking before a full house, I asked myself, “When I’m finished speaking, will they truly know who I am?” “I doubt it,” was my answer. How could someone living in a sighted world understand what it’s to live in what they call darkness? Still, if want if get this audience to open their wallets, I needed to sell them an inspirational story, one of hope and glory, one that’s a total lie as to how I live. If I had my way and not the American Association of the Blind, this the story I would tell them.
My mother said I was born with Primary Congenital Glaucoma, PCG, a disease which rendered me completely blind before my first birthday. Any visual memories I had in my early childhood were eradicated leaving me a clean slate of what is and what looks like. So, like all children, I learned about the world surrounding me.
At first, my world was small. I had a brother Stevie, who was two years older than me, Mom of course, but that was it. When my dad learned of my diagnosis, he left, leaving us the house and two hundred dollars in the bank. The house had three bedrooms and mine was eight steps by twelve steps big. Stevie said my room was painted sky blue, but I had no idea what he was talking about. The sky I knew was the untouchable space above me, but as for blue and for any other color, these words were meaningless to me. People think I live in a world of darkness, but that isn’t so. To know darkness, one must first know what light is. As for me, my sense of vision has been turned off, like a light switch. No power, no light, total nothingness, my blindness.
During my youth, I lived my life behind the sheltered walls of my house. Surrounded by the love of my family, I enjoyed life. Each morning I woke up and sat at the table, to eat CAP’N CRUNCH cereal smothered in cold milk, and after washing it down with a tangy glass of orange juice, I would start my day.
Brail lessons were the first order of the day. Mom would sit down with me and teach me the basics. She said, “Though you’re only four years old, you’ll need to be ahead on the power curve. You’ll never know what will get between you and a good education.”
Fortunately, it wasn’t all work. There were fun and games too. Between Mom’s warm hugs and kisses, she used to whisper to me how much she loved me. Yes, I was safe behind those four walls, but then I went to school.
I didn’t have to see the expressions on all the children’s faces to know what they were thinking. The shifting of feet and their rapid shallow breathing told me they were afraid of catching what I had, but after a week all that changed. When my classmates realize, they weren’t going to die from blindness, they turned on me like jackals to their prey. The girls taunted with chants like, “Blind man, blind man, you must be out of your mind man.” But as for the boys, it was more physical. They would constantly push or trip me, but the worst thing they did was knock my books out of my hands. Along with the embarrassment of so easily being a victim of their pranks, I was further humiliated by having to get on my hands and knees, trying to recover my lost possessions. As I swiped my hands on the floor searching for my books, occasionally someone would come along and kick a book down the hallway. It was at these times I would lose all hope.
I would tearfully go home and fall into my mother’s arms, exclaiming what had happened. As she tenderly brushed my hair with her fingers, she would say, “My dear boy. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there for you. I know it’s difficult being around people who think they’re better than you, but you know what? It isn’t true. The truth is they’re afraid of you because you’re different and exist in their world.” Then she would pull me into her bosom. “Now I want you to be strong, my son, because someday I won’t be here to protect you. But until then, I will give you strength to persevere and go on in your life.” After releasing me from her grip, I would go to my room and ponder what my mother said and marvel at her wisdom.
The next day and each day after, I met my foes, making them realize I was there to stay, and not long after, they began to leave me alone.
As for my classes, they were another struggle I learned to deal with. My schoolbooks were written in brail and the teacher recited everything she wrote down on the chalkboard, but still certain descriptions eluded me. Along with colors, descriptions of animals and objects which I’ve never encountered were difficult for me to grasp. Occasionally, the teacher would hand me a model of whatever she described, but usually I was left to my own imagination.
One afternoon, after school, I asked Mom, “What does an elephant look like?”
Mom, with all her wisdom, said, “Just a moment and I’ll show you.”
Anticipating questions like this, Mom had bought several containers of Play-Doh and began to utilize them. Twenty minutes later, she said, “Here. Take this.”
When I felt the object in my hand, I instantly recognized it. “It’s one of my army men,” I exclaimed.”
“That’s right, my son. I want you to imagine this is a real-life size man. Now, take a hold of this.”
What Mom handed me was a large glob of Play-Doh in the shape of an animal. With my fingers, I felt how large the ears were and along with four flat footed feet, it had an extremely long nose.” Is this what an elephant looks like?” I asked.
“Yes dear, it is.”
I was struck with awe. “Compared to the army man, it’s huge!”
“Yes, it is, son, but do you know what the largest animal in the world is?”
Knowing the answer, I shouted out with glee. “The Blue Whale!”
As I heard Mom pop open another can of Play-Doh, she said, “Let me show you.”
A few minutes later, I was touching a creature that dwarfed the size of an elephant. “How can something so big be alive?”
When Mom’s voice rose slightly in pitch, I knew she was smiling. “Well, it swims in the ocean and eats like a vacuum cleaner. Can you feel its tailfin? This is what makes it go. Feel how big it is.” For the rest of the day, Mom created and crushed dozens of animals, permitting me to see the world around me.
Throughout school and college, my mother was always there. I’m not saying the American Association of the Blind and other nonprofit groups have helped me. In fact, they were an immense help in teaching me to maneuver in a sighted world, but in truth it was my mother's eyes I learned to see through, and I wouldn't be speaking to you here today if it weren’t for her. So, when you open your wallets or write your checks, remember to make out to all those mothers and fathers in the world, who was there for their children. Thank you.