Archive for May, 2010

A Summer of Opportunities

Well readers, despite being out of school, it has been an eventful two weeks since I last posted. Monday night, shortly after posting my last entry, I checked my college e-mail and found out that I had been offered a summer job! Actually, a lady working at the campus center had been trying to recruit me for this job every semester since I started college, but I had always turned down the offer because school kept me so busy and left me so exhausted that I didn’t want to add job responsibilities to the mix. But then toward the end of February, she offered me the job for the summer. Now I was tempted because as much as I loved the long summers of college, I will admit that last year, by August, I was starting to get pretty bored and in need of a purpose in my life. But then a part of me got to thinking that next summer, I will be eligible for an internship, and the summer after that, I will be a graduate and will have to start looking for a job, and in the adult world, there is no such thing as summer vacation unless you are a teacher, and I don’t want to be a teacher. So this summer might be my last totally carefree summer. So I told her I would think about it, and she said there was no hurry. By the middle of March, my need for a purpose won the battle in my mind, coupled with a desire to take on adult responsibilities, so I told her I would take the job if it wasn’t too late. She said it wasn’t and that she would work out some details and get back to me. It turns out the detail she needed to work out was how she was going to pay me. That’s kind of an important detail right? (grin). Anyway, a couple weeks later, I got an e-mail from her asking if I got services from the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, and if so, could I give her the contact information for my counselor. She wanted to contact her and see if this agency could provide funding for my job. So, I forwarded the contact information, but then didn’t hear a thing for two months. I had pretty much lost hope of getting the job when I still hadn’t heard anything once school got out because summer employment officially started May 10. But I guess I couldn’t complain too much because in an economy where millions of people are filling out applications for employment wherever they can get it, it was pretty amazing just to be handed a job without having to apply for it. Still, I was disappointed, and had resigned myself to another summer without a purpose, when on May 17, the lady from the campus center e-mailed me back and said they got their act together, and I had the job if I was still interested. I wrote her back saying I was, and the next day, she sent an e-mail with details like the fact that I would get four hours of training and that my position was parttime and I would need to wear khaki pants and they would provide a polo shirt. I told her my summer was wide open and the only time I couldn’t start was the week of Memorial Day since I will be out of town visiting relatives. I didn’t hear anything again after that until this past Friday, when I found out that I officially can start June 8, at 8:30. I will only be making $7.75 an hour, but hey, that’s something, and it will add up over a whole summer! More importantly though, I am just excited to finally get a chance to have work experience and feel like my sighted peers who have already had summer jobs, but which I have never had since so many jobs offered to people my age are in stores or restaurants, or babysitting, all of which would not be practical since I am totally blind. But a couple of other blind students before me have done this job, so the campus has already figured out how to make it accessible. I will definitely keep you posted on how it goes!

And then later that night when I went to choir rehearsal, there was an informal “job fair” put on by the choir leadership since they were in need of volunteers to help with several committees. Although I have only been an official member of this chorus for two months, I decided to take a chance and volunteer to chair the Public Relations Committee because for one thing, I am majoring in Communications, and since public relations is a related to the field of Communication, doing public relations for the choir would be a great experience that I could use to determine if public relations is something I would want to pursue for my real career after college. My responsibilities for this job will be contacting local media outlets to inform them of choir events, and help write press releases and fliers. I have already learned how to write press releases in an introductory news writing class last year, and in an advanced news writing class I took this year, I got lots of practice learning how to contact people, so I am really excited about this experience. More importantly though, I am excited to assist with public relations for this choir because I love it. I will have to tell you in more depth how cool this choir is in a separate entry, but I will tell you now that it is a chapter of Sweet Adelines International, an organization for women that sing four-part barbershop harmony! I hope that with my public relations position, I can spread the word about this choir since it seems like a lot of people out in the community have never heard of it. The choir board has also said that they would like to increase their membership and attract more young people. In fact, although you can join this choir at sixteen, I am the youngest singer in this choir, which is kind of cool, but also troubling because as with anything, if the younger generation does not step up to carry on this art form, it might not survive. Since I am young, I would know how to relate to the younger generation, so maybe I could be an asset in the area of recruiting younger members. With this in mind, on Monday, I had a revelation! This choir does have a facebook page, and a simple website that briefly talks about the kind of music they sing and encouraging people to come visit a rehearsal. But what this choir needed was a blog! Blogging is popular with my generation, and it would facilitate a more indepth picture of what the choir is all about because people could post things like testimonials about how they heard about this choir and why the love it, or even account their experience preparing for concerts and competitions. And the most exciting thing of all was even though I am young and new to this choir, people loved this idea when I proposed it! So on Tuesday, I went ahead and created an account for this blog. Nothing has been posted yet because the leadership team is still working out some logistical things like setting out guidelines for what we post and making sure we do not go against any Sweet Adelines International regulations. Also, I have sent out invitations to some of the members to join the blog, but thus far, no one has responded, and a couple have admitted that the internet is still new to them, so they are not sure they will post much to the blog. I will have to work on convincing them that blogging is not anything complicated that only the young can handle (smile). But when we do start posting, I will definitely post the link.

Then on Wednesday, since the dog trainer was going to be in the area, he wanted to check in on Gilbert and me, so we met at my college for lunch. It was a happy reunion, especially for Gilbert who was so excited he wagged his tail the whole time, and when we took a walk to one of the buildings where I had class last semester, he was constantly stopping and looking behind him to make sure he didn’t lose sight of the trainer. It was comical, but a little embarrassing because with me, he is so well-behaved on walks. My facebook status I wrote when I came home read “Gilbert, when the dog trainer comes to evaluate us, you are supposed to be especially good, not especially naughty!” Several of my friends loved that status. But the trainer understood that dogs get excited and knew he wasn’t like that all the time. Anyway, he said we were doing great, that he was happy with Gilbert’s weight, which got me excited to realize that our walks that we were able to take this year with the beautiful spring we had were paying off. But what really got me excited was when the trainer observed that I needed help finding an empty table in the dining room, he said that he could come in September and train Gilbert to find targets like that because that is now something that all dogs currently in the program are trained to do. I always thought that after the first year or two, dogs were too old to learn new tricks, but the trainer said this is not true. With target training, Gilbert will give me even more independence than what he has already given me, and I am looking forward to that.

From there, I went to a nearby elementary school where I am a volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters from 1:00 to 2:00 on Wednesdays. I will have to tell you all about that in another entry, but for now I will say it is a wonderful experience that has given me a sense of purpose beyond school, and has really made a difference in the life of the first grade girl I was matched with. Then Friday, I went to the annual barbecue for the blind kids in our area, that my vision teacher still invites me and another blind friend every year even though we are in college. It actually didn’t end up being a barbecue though because unfortunately, the beautiful weather we had on Thursday turned in to a dreary rainy day Friday, so we went bowling instead and had pizza for lunch. I confess I am not a big fan of bowling because it is visual in that someone has to tell me how many pins I knocked down, so there is not much reward for the tedium of walking from my chair up to the bowling lane and swinging a heavy ball twenty times. I still went to the alley with them, but instead of bowling, I just sat and talked to my friend and my old teachers, which was a lot of fun!

When I got home, I had planned to write, but because of the humidity, the braille display on my braillenote which I use to type these entries was going crazy, bringing up a whole bunch of extra dots making it too difficult to read or write anything. However, at the time, I didn’t realize this problem was due to the humidity, and feared that there was something internally wrong with the braille display. This fear was backed up by the fact that there were a couple instances last semester where certain dots would not show up. The first time it happened back in December, the issue resolved itself for some reason, and when it happened again in February, I cleaned it with a damp rag. But the manual said that the braillenote was supposed to be sent in occasionally to be professionally cleaned by the company, but I never did this because I use my braillenote for everything and I hate being without it. But I thought maybe it was time to suck it up, and give up my braillenote so that the braille display could be cleaned properly for school when I would really need it. So I called the local vendor who is in charge of braillenote issues and whose number was programmed in to the address book of the braillenote. When I told him about the problem, he said that my model, the Mpower was obsolete now, and no longer under warranty. He said that the problem I had described was an indication that the braille display would eventually go out, and they were no longer making replacement parts for it. This meant that for $2,000, I could get the braille display replaced, but if anything else went wrong, I could be out of luck. So he recommended that I talk to the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation about trading in the Mpower for the Apex, the best and latest thing that everyone else already has. Immediately, I had reservations about this because other than the braille display, my braillenote was still working fine, and somehow I knew that the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation would not want to spend that kind of money when this machine basically still worked. But before I could finish asking the question of what to do if they don’t want to spend the money, he assured me that they would because it would make more sense in terms of cost. I should have known he was just trying to sell me something, but I thanked him and on Monday morning, called the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. I wouldn’t worry about it until then.

Then on Saturday, I went to a fundraiser for my guide dog school called Puppies on Parmenter. This was the time of year when my program has done Jog for Guide Dogs the previous two years, but this year, they decided to do something different. Instead of walking on a park trail, we walked the city streets of a town near where the program is based. Along the route, we would stop by various stores and businesses, and get this sheet we were given at registration stamped. Then we met back at an outdoor restaurant where we just socialized, ate brats and hot dogs, and listened to a band all afternoon. The stamps we got were exchanged for raffle tickets. It was another happy reunion for Gilbert because we got to see the trainer again, and a lot of fun for me too because I got to meet another puppy raiser, and pet the cutest poodle with hair evenly cut on his body, but a big pile of hair on his head. When I was getting my dog, the program only used labs, but now they have expanded to shepherds and poodles. The turnout was also impressive because when I got Gilbert, the program was just starting, so there were only a few puppies, and a few people. But now, there are 24 puppies, and the dog trainer said this was their most successful fundraiser yet with over four hundred people. So it was really exciting to see how much the program has grown just this year. I was also excited about Gilbert’s excellent behavior. He walked a little faster than I would have liked on the walk because he wanted to keep up with my friend’s guide dog, but the dog trainer said when two guide dogs walk together, the dog that is following will walk faster to keep up with the lead dog, so it was a huge lesson in trusting Gilbert and not reprimanding him to slow down. I only slipped once, and it wasn’t Gilbert’s fault. Apparently, a dog pooped on the sidewalk and the owner must not have noticed, so that is what I slipped on. Needless to say, when we got home, my shoes got a good wash (grin). When he saw the other puppies, he still got excited, but not uncontrollable like he was last year. I don’t know if it was because memories of last year made me decide to use the pinch collar, or if he was maturing, but I have heard puppies do mellow out after a few years. By the end of the day, my dad and I were both falling asleep because it was a hot, sunny day, but it was worth it because we had a great time.

Sunday was a nice quiet day of going to church, and then out to lunch, the calm before the storm called dealing with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. My normal counselor it turned out was on leave, so when I called at 9:00 Monday morning, I was transferred to the person substituting for her. I left her a message introducing myself and telling her what the braillenote vendor said. She did not call back the rest of the day, but when I checked my e-mail, she said I had not been keeping in touch with them by e-mail on a monthly basis like I was supposed to. As a result, my file could be closed, so she wanted me to call and make an appointment. My parents and I were livid. My regular counselor had briefly mentioned how I should touch base once a month, but I had no idea failure to do this could potentially close my file, and school keeps me so busy that the months get away from me. And what am I supposed to say each month when I am just going about my business and nothing has changed? My parents and I had a lot of fun joking about what I could say in these monthly updates. “Hello. I just wanted to let you know I am still blind, and will probably still be blind next month too. Bye.” So my dad helped me craft an e-mail response saying I wanted to work things out, and I would call the next morning. The next morning, I called and made an appointment for Wednesday at 9:30, and she told me to bring another copy of my grades from this semester and my schedule for next semester because she had not received the copies I mailed to my regular counselor, as well as some training grant letter I hadn’t realized I had gotten because it was in print. What am I going to do when I am on my own and my mother isn’t there to keep track of my print mail? I probably should ask for these documents in braille or via e-mail, but that’s a separate issue. Anyway, the next day, I was told that at this point the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation does not want to spend the money on a new braillenote when this one is only two years old. This was actually perfectly fine with me because the braille display works fine now, but my dad pointed out that now would be the time to get this new machine because if something goes wrong with it during the school year, it would be catastrophic because I rely on it in class to which the person filling in for my counselor said I should have a backup plan. I don’t know how successful we were, but doing our best to keep steam from coming out of our ears, we tried to point out that if my computer with Jaws that was purchased for me were to crash, I could easily just go to my college and use a computer there because almost all of them are equipped with Jaws. But I don’t have a laptop, the school computers are not portable so they would be of little use since most of my classes are in old classrooms with tiny desks not intended for large computers and of course, mainstream colleges don’t have spare braillenotes lying around. So I was told to go home, find the exact cost of repairing the braillenote versus getting the new model, and present a formal list of these price quotes and a justification for why I need this computer. I called the vendor as soon as I got home, and haven’t heard from him yet. I may make a followup call on Tuesday, or I may just forget it. This machine does work fine now, and I just don’t want to deal with this bureaucracy anymore until I have to. I also found out that the reason they want monthly updates is because the federal agency that they get funding from does not like a long gap in contact with clients, and that I should just shoot them a quick e-mail telling how school is going, if all my technology is working, or even if I have started a new extra curricular activity or fall in love! Seriously, can’t I just go about my own life and not have to share every detail of my life with Big Brother? I swear, as soon as I get a stable job and make enough money, I am closing my file with the state and buying my own technology. Anyway, I had a headache when I got home from dealing with this bureaucracy, so after making the quick call to the vendor, I was ready for lunch and rest.

But the day took a turn for the better when my vision teacher came to our house after school to give me some assignments she had gotten at the last minute that needed to be brailled for another student. Believe it or not, I can type braille faster than the teacher who taught me braille, so I was happy to do her this favor for all that she and the school district did for me. While there, she also brought Geyser, a puppy that she is raising for the same program I got Gilbert from. Gilbert and Geyser didn’t play long because it was hot outside, but they did play some in our livingroom and seemed to have a great time, especially Gilbert who is an only dog in our house so doesn’t get much socialization with his own kind.

Then yesterday, I went to my little cousin’s eighth grade graduation which brought back so many memories about my own apprehension when leaving the security of middle school for the uncharted territory of high school, so I tried to provide encouraging words. Then tomorrow, we are leaving for Indiana to visit my grandma and some other aunts, uncles and cousins for one more week of carefree days before I start my summer job. When summer first started, it had been such a crazy semester that I had no ambition, and would have been fine with another carefree summer with no responsibilities that I loved as a child. But now that all of this opportunity has been given to me in my choir, my summer job, opportunities to help others and even the chance to speak up for my own interests with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and the continuous opportunities for Gilbert and me to become a more skilled and confident team, I actually don’t mourn the loss of childhood as I thought I would, but instead am feeling a sense of excitement. I suppose my tune could change when I am fully emersed in the working world, maybe with a husband and children depending on me, trying to cope with one stressful situation after another. This is how I have heard a lot of adults describe the real world. But for me being young, the adult world is new and exciting, and I feel as though I have the maturity now to not mourn for what is over, but take a leap of faith and embrace new challenges, and seize new opportunities. Vestiges of childhood do still remain. I still live at home with my parents, who I depend on for food, shelter, health insurance and transportation to school and extra curricular activities. When school starts again, it is likely that I will be kept so busy with schoolwork that I won’t have time to hold a job or pursue as many opportunities. But I am so excited that at least for the summer, I will get a small taste of the adult world and explore new opportunities, so that when I enter in to the adult world for good after college, I will enter it already having some experience.

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Reflections on My Blog and the Art of Writing

Well readers, at approximately 1:00 on the morning of Tuesday May 4, I clicked send on the final paper for my political theory class, which was also the final assignment for the first half of my college career. Monday morning, I took my last final exam in Environmental Science, so sending this paper was a sort of ribbon cutting ceremony to welcome summer vacation! And after such a crazy and challenging year, you cannot imagine how blissful these first two weeks of summer have been. My days have been filled with sleeping in, going to bible study with my mom, reading a Jodi Picoult book, listening to some awesome music from the 1960s and 1970s that my dad got from the library especially the Jersey Boys soundtrack, taking walks on park trails, socializing on facebook, and just enjoying not having to go anywhere or do anything. I apologize for the fact that writing in my journal was absent from this list of leisure activities, but as usual, I am ready with an excuse (smile). As silly as it sounds, and as excited as I have been all semester to finally have time to write in my journal, the crazy amount of school writing I had to do last semester drained me of any ambition to write. I sat down at my computer several times intending to write an entry, but then couldn’t think of anything to say, and would end up reading instead.

A couple of years ago, I started the tradition of writing my parents letters of appreciation for all they have done for me in the past year for Mothers Day and Fathers Day. My parents look forward to their letters every year now because it is a gift that is from the heart, so I did not want to break tradition this year by not having a letter for my mom because she deserved my expression of love and appreciation this year more than ever since I don’t know how I would have made it through all of the academic and medical difficulties that came my way this year without her love and support. But even writing this letter was mentally taxing because I just couldn’t find the right words to express myself since I was so accustomed to academic writing which does not encourage creativity or emotion. In the end, it was a nice letter, and Mom loved it, not that she would ever tell me if she didn’t (smile), but I haven’t felt like writing since.

And as silly as it sounds, I could not fully relax and enjoy summer until Thursday when my grades came out because while I am usually confident that I did well, for some reason, I couldn’t help worrying that I might not do as well this semester because this semester was the most demanding semester I have ever had. It turned out that I had nothing to worry about. I got an A in my American Politics class despite the fact that I never did fully read many of the federalist papers and textbook chapters that were assigned. I got an A in my Journalism class despite the fact that I had a difficult time finding people to interview for assignments, and therefore had a couple of stories that were pretty onesided and boring to read. I got an AB in Environmental Science despite the fact that I think there was a typo in the course catalog that classified it as a level 1 course because there was so much work in that class. And I got a B in my political theory class despite the fact that we had to read an article a day from theorists like John Rawls, Thomas Pogge and Charles Beitz. If you have never heard of any of these people, don’t feel bad because until this class, I had never heard of them either. But all you need to know is that they don’t know how to write clearly and concisely, and if everyone in America read their work, there would no longer be a market for sleeping pills (smile). Anyway, getting back to my grades, my career grade point average was 3.66, so I would be on the Dean’s List again, but the anxiety of possibly having to retake a course if I didn’t earn all of the required credits made me too nervous to write. Today though, perhaps due to the fact that it is finally sunny outside instead of cold and rainy like it has been all week, I feel inspired to write.

There is so much I need to update you on regarding this eventful semester, but first, I wanted to reflect on this blog itself because although it may not seem like I am passionate about this blog since I do not update it very often, the truth is that finding out about livejournal, and keeping this blog has ben such an exciting experience for me that has renewed my passion for writing. If some fortune teller had come up to me in kindergarten or first grade and told me that I would one day have an online journal about my experiences with college and a guide dog, and that I would love it, I would have told them they were crazy because back then, I actually hated writing. I don’t know if it was because when you are a child, you don’t have the vocabulary, or for that matter, the patience and discipline to think of anything worth writing in a journal, or if the dread of writing was unique to me because back then, I had to use a manual metal braille writer that required you to push hard on the keys to make the braille dots, and the fatigue in my fingers overpowered my ability to see any reward in writing. Actually, both of these factors probably played a role in my dread of writing. In any case, when the teacher told the class to write in their journals, and I just sat in front of my braille writer for what felt like hours not wanting to write, my assistant would allow me to use the journal to simply practice writing random braille words, just so that I would be writing something. Eventually, I was able to write simple entries about random things like a fun trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, but I still never really enjoyed writing these journals. Writing stories was even more difficult for me because I had enough trouble putting in to words the events of my own life that trying to create a fictional character and a fictional experience was overwhelming. Looking back on the fictional stories I did manage to write when I got older, I realized that the plots made absolutely no sense. One story for example, and to make matters worse, it was a story the teacher published by putting a fancy hard cover on it, was about a school with no kids that magically turned in to a crayon. I really ought to find that book and throw it in to the next fire my dad makes for burning leaves (smile). But despite the fact that I hated the writing process, even in first grade, the honor of being published, even if the only readers of the book were my teachers and my family, was thrilling, so maybe even then, I subconsciously knew I would get over my hatred of the writing process. By fourth grade, writing became more serious and teachers no longer put a fancy hard cover on stories, but instead just handed them back with a grade and it would sit in a folder somewhere collecting dust until it was eventually thrown away, so once again, I dreaded writing because the expectations were higher, and there was no reward for my efforts.

But then one day in fifth grade, I was lying in bed flipping through Stone Soup Magazine. This is a mainstream children’s magazine that my vision teacher subscribed me to in braille from the National Library Service. It was a bimonthly magazine filled with short stories, poems and book reviews. I loved these stories because many of them were beautifully written, and though some of them were fictional stories about other planets or the future, many of them were about real experiences in the author’s own life. What I hadn’t realized until this night however was that these stories were written by children, and on the front page of the magazine were instructions for how you could submit your own work that could be published in the magazine. How had I not noticed such an exciting opportunity? I asked myself. And in that instant, my passion for writing was renewed because if I could write a story that was accepted by the magazine, it wouldn’t just mean that one copy of the story would be made with a hard cover on it. It would be published in the true sense of the word because thousands of children, and maybe even their parents all over the world would read my work. On top of that, a lot of children write letters to the editor complementing particular stories, so I could get feedback from total strangers about my work. That would be so exciting! So immediately, I began brainstorming a story. The story idea that I was most passionate about and ended up writing was called Violet’s Woods. It was a pretty dumb story looking back on it now, but at the time, I was in love with it. It began with me reflecting back on a wonderful vacation to a cabin in the woods of Northern Wisconsin when I was in fourth grade, and how I longed to go back again and get away from the stressful city life. Then, I think I talked about how when my mom took me to an area way in the back of our yard that was known as Violet’s Woods because it used to belong to a sweet elderly neighbor named Violet, the silence and serenity that permeated this woods brought back the wonderful memories of this vacation. Then, the story looks to the future where I imagine myself with a child of my own, living in the north woods and bringing her up to appreciate the wonders of nature. I wrote the rough draft of the story in braille, which took me thirty braille pages, and almost a year to write because of the length and complexity I had in mind for the story, and the fact that since I was limited to the manual braille writer, it was hard to get inspired knowing that it was a lot harder to erase words or rewrite sentences, and the fact that I could only write on weekends and vacations because of school responsibilities. Then my mom helped me type it up and gave me suggestions for how I could revise it. Just before Christmas in sixth grade, I mailed the manuscript to Stone Soup Magazine. The instructions said to include a self-addressed stamped envelope with my submission, and they would send a letter in four to six weeks saying whether or not they would be able to use my story. The exciting realization that I had sent a story to a magazine where it could be published was all I could think about for the five weeks of waiting. My mom reminded me not to take it personally if my story did not get published because magazines often get a lot more stories than what they are able to publish, and sure enough, the letter in that envelope five weeks later was a rejection letter saying just that, and inviting me to keep writing and try again.

A few weeks earlier, I had allowed my vision teacher to read the story, and when I told her the next day about the rejection letter, she confided to me that the story wasn’t a very strong story because there was no conflict. With all of the story writing practice I have had through school, I kicked myself for forgetting the importance of conflict in a story, and when I thought about it, I have never read a published story that did not have conflict. But then there was a part of me that wondered “why can’t people just write and publish what is in their heart without having to follow some arbitrary conventional wisdom about writing?” After all, the real world is full of conflict. Why are stories only marketable if they create fictional conflict? Just as writers view writing as an escape, as a way to express themselves and temporarily forget about the problems in their real lives, shouldn’t the same be true for readers? Wouldn’t readers enjoy a simple story about what makes this world wonderful and beautiful despite its problems? Of course, when I was in sixth grade, I was too young and immature to ponder philosophical questions like these, and instead just became a little defensive toward this teacher’s criticism. But looking back, I think these were the questions I was already subconsciously thinking about even if I did not have the maturity to articulate them.

I continued to struggle with these questions through high school and college when I took creative writing classes. I had no problem when it came to writing essays or news stories for the student newspaper, but in my creative writing endeavors, I have always felt that arbitrary rules stood in my way. I was even told by the teacher of the creative writing class I took first semester of this year that a poem I had written about the peaceful lullaby of a warm breeze gently caressing wind chimes on a summer day would be better if it had some sort of conflict. This suggestion was made during a peer editing workshop, and one kid suggested that when he imagines those kinds of days, he finds them kind of boring. I politely listened to these suggestions, but my soul was screaming “there is absolutely nothing boring about those kind of days, and I do not want to make a conflict out of such a wonderful image.” In the end, I modeled my poem loosely after the song “These are A Few of my Favorite Things”, a song Julie Andrews sings in The Sound of Music, and one of my absolute favorite Christmas songs. The song, if you have never heard it, ends by saying “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.” I ended my poem by saying “And when the snow falls, and school makes life restless again, I think of this summer lullaby, and my heart is filled with a divine sense of peace and joy.” I love the fact that the song, and my poem end this way because it acknowledges that conflict is an inescapable fact of life, but keeps the main imagery of the poem beautiful and conflict free, the way I think it was meant to be. I never actually found out what my final grade was for this poem, or any of the other pieces I wrote because I turned in the final portfolio on exam day and never had a chance to pick it up from the teacher’s office last semester. But frankly, grades are so subjective when it comes to creative writing, so I am not going to worry about the grades. Creative writing should be about expressing what is in your heart, and that is what I did.

Anyway, I have struggled all my life with the question of how I could publish what was truly on my mind without having to follow some arbitrary requirements for imagery or character development or conflict. I attempted to keep a personal diary a couple of times but although it would give me complete freedom to write what I wanted, it too would eventually just sit in a box somewhere collecting dust. Heck, even if someone found it in an attic someday, I would have to read it to them since hardly anyone knows braille. If they didn’t find it until after I die, I guess they would be out of luck if they were curious as to my childhood thoughts (smile). As silly as it sounds, I have always found it hard to find the motivation and discipline to write when I knew no one would ever read it. Now let’s fastforward to April 30, 2009, the day before my last exam for my freshman year of college. On that day it hit me that the year that began with so many changes in my life, was coming to an end and had gone smoothly, and it occurred to me that I wanted to have a record of this eventful time in my life, one that people I was close to, as well as strangers could read and experience with me. That was when I remembered that a couple friends of mine had online journals reflecting on their guide dog training. The year before, I never would have dreamed of keeping a blog because I didn’t have enough confidence with computers to enjoy the experience. But last year, I had been equipped with a computer that had Jaws on it, and through some training at the Badger Association of the Blind, and the practice I got when I had to type essays and do research for school, my confidence had grown exponentially, making me realize that I could start my own blog!

After doing some google searches, I found that a lot of blind people I knew were on livejournal, so it must be somewhat easy to navigate for blind people. So the next day, May 1, I took a leap of faith and created my account. The only thing I needed help with was typing the security code because Jaws wouldn’t read it, and I couldn’t understand the audio of the website. Then I was a little overwhelmed because when I went to try and post an entry, there were links for html posts, rich text, and voice posts. All I wanted was a straight forward edit box to type my message in, hit submit and have it be posted in a readable form! I began to wonder what I had gotten myself in to, and if I should just delete this account and forget it. My computer confidence was not as improved as I thought it was after all. But that small voice inside me reminded me that this was something I could figure out, and that if I didn’t give up, I would be rewarded. So I expressed my frustration to the Wisconsin guide dog users list, and a wonderful friend who already used the site boosted my confidence again by saying that there was an edit box for just a simple post, below the subject box, and that my confusion was understandable because there was no prompt indicating that it was the box for the message. Sure enough, on May 2 when I went back to look, I found it, and my lack of confidence evaporated. I was on track again with a renewed excitement for this uncharted territory called the blogosphere. I have a policy of not mentioning names in this journal so as not to embarrass anyone, but I want to tell this friend thank you for your support! You know who you are.

Then, there was the whole issue of apprehensiveness about sharing personal information online. I had watched enough news programs about the dangers of the internet to not give out things like my address and social security number, but since my internet confidence had just come about in college, I was paranoid that I would write something that a future employer would view as immature, or worse, that some crazy stranger would send death threats if they didn’t agree with some arbitrary thing like the guide dog program I had chosen or something, which I now realize is pretty unlikely, but you can see it in some of my early entries when I am very guarded as to what I share, and in fact, a lot of the early entries about my experiences were friend protected. Actually, my original intention was to only update this blog through last summer because the sole purpose of it was going to be for mature reflection about my graduation from high school, and my transition from a cane user to a guide dog handler. But it wasn’t long, and actually I think it was while I was writing my second entry about my dream of one day having a guide dog, a dream that was inspired by bedtime stories about guide dogs, that it occurred to me that with this blog, I had found what I have always wanted: a place where I could write whatever was in my heart, unencumbered by rules, and anyone could read my thoughts. The only person who was limiting the scope of what I write about was myself! So here I am today, still blogging, and loving it as much as ever! Of course, this blog most likely will never be a bestseller, but if I was offered all of the money in the world, or so much popularity that people were camping outside bookstores to be the first to buy my book at midnight on the day of its release, I would decline the offer if it meant having to write what some editor thought was marketable instead of what was really in my heart. I read a wonderful quote somewhere a couple months ago in which someone compared their diary to a canvas that they could paint any way they wanted. I have also heard analogies comparing writing to sculpting with clay, and although I am not an artist, these are wonderful examples of imagery to describe how I feel about writing. Just like in art, true writers don’t worry about rules. I have written entries recalling obstacles I have had to overcome in guide dog training, and unexpected hardship like my surgery. But I have also written entries simply recalling why I love life, and even a couple entries like “A Tale of Flatulence”, written for the sole purpose of having fun and brightening the day for readers with a good laugh. Like an artist, I started with the intention of painting one thing on my canvas, strictly reflecting on my guide dog training, but then took a whole new direction, deciding that the canvas would be a lot more interesting and colorful if it had no restrictions as to what could be painted on it. In the same way that some painters simply paint for the love of the craft and never enters their work in to an art show, I write simply for the freedom this craft gives me to express whatever is on my mind, and I think I have joined the ranks of many writers and artists who have come to realize with maturity that publicity, fame or fortune are meaningless if they inhibit your enjoyment of the craft. I know a lot of my entries have been really long, since I don’t like having to subscribe to length requirements either (smile), so I understand if some of you no longer follow my entries because they ramble so much. But for anyone who is still reading my entries, I just want to say how much I have enjoyed the process of painting this canvas, and I hope you will continue to enjoy reading this canvas as it becomes more detailed and vibrant in the years to come.

NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!

Well readers, for all practical purposes, I am halfway through my college career. There is so much I have to tell you about this crazy semester, and so much to reflect on in terms of how much I have learned about myself and my capabilities on this halfway point in my college journey. But recounting this crazy semester will require a long entry, which I should not write until I write my final 2,000 word paper for politics, and study for my environmental science exam, so that failure on an exam does not have to be added to the list of the events that defined this semester. So I would like to take this entry just to reflect on this milestone of being almost halfway through college, and pay tribute to a teacher without whom I might not have reached this milestone at all, or at least not as smoothly as I have. It is hard to believe that two years ago today, I was walking the halls of my high school. In some ways, it feels as though high school ended just yesterday because in many ways I am still the same person I was back then. But when I think about how much responsibility and maturity I have gained in these two years, it seems as though high school was in another life, a distant memory.

Now that I have Gilbert, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when I walked on sidewalks tapping my cane in front of me, feeling clumsy and lacking confidence. Now that college finally forced me to take the initiative to get computer training, it is hard to imagine a time when the thought of using a computer brought me to the verge of tears. My college classes have forced me to become more involved in the community through volunteer work for my American politics class, and talking to police chiefs, business owners, and the district attorney for a Journalism class. Therefore, it is hard to imagine a time when my interactions were mostly with other teachers and friends, people I felt comfortable with. But as much as my life has changed since high school, the fact is that I would not be where I am today without the motivation instilled in me all through school, but especially in high school. The experiences I had with teachers that encouraged and inspired me all through school are too numerous to mention them all here, though I hope at some point in this journal, I will have the inspiration to recount them all because each of these experiences have impacted my life. But I have to say there was one teacher who had an especially significant influence in shaping me in to a successful college student, and I couldn’t help thinking about her now as I approach the finish line of the first half of my college journey, a milestone that will be officially reached on Monday when I take my final exam for environmental science.

Last semester, I took an introductory creative writing class that my advisor said I could take in place of graphic communication since that would be way too visual, and a little more writing experience can never hurt. Anyway, for this class, there were three main assignments. The first assignment was to write a literary fiction story, and since fiction is not a genre I am good at, my story lacked creativity, so much so that I am not even going to embarrass myself farther by mentioning it in my blog. That my classmates had to read it and give me feedback was embarrassing enough (smile). The second assignment was to write a collection of poems. Although my teacher and classmates said I needed more imagery, I thought they were pretty good and very fun to write, so I will post them in my journal soon. But the last assignment was to write a creative nonfiction essay, my favorite genre. Creative nonfiction essays are supposed to recount an experience, place or person that influenced you, and then tell about the deeper meaning of this experience and how it changed your life. At first I had no idea what to write about. I didn’t want to write anything that had to do with my blindness because blind literature is already saturated with the typical sappy stories of how people inspired a blind person to not let their blindness stand in their way, and how blind people are just as capable as sighted people and all that. But every time I searched my memories for meaningful experiences that had nothing to do with blindness, I couldn’t shake from my mind the desire to write about this teacher. Perhaps, it was because I was almost finished with Statistics, and math was a struggle for me all through school that required constant motivation from this teacher when so many times, I had just about given up. But as yet another stressful semester comes to a close, I realize more and more that this teacher didn’t come to my mind simply to fulfill a school project requirement because during the toughest days and most exhausting assignments this semester, I swear her spirit was with me, continuing to urge me never to give up, and the more I think about it, I would not be the successful college student who has made the Deans list every semester if not for her influence on my life. Therefore, I thought this would be the perfect time to post the tribute I wrote to this teacher. I hope that it will inspire you as much as it inspired me because while obstacles to success are more apparent when a person has a disability, I have yet to meet a person, even a fully sighted academically successful person, who has completely escaped hardship, so I think the lessons this teacher taught me are lessons that can be applied to everyone.

 

“NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!”

By Allison Nastoff

(The teacher’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

“This is my present for you,” Mrs. Johnson said at my high school graduation party. Even though I couldn’t see her, I could sense in her voice that she was beaming with the excitement one gets when they have found the perfect gift for someone. And a perfect gift it was. It was a beautiful polished ceramic plaque, and I only had to piece together the first word of the message engraved with giant print letters to know what the rest of the message would say. This message was a mantra that Mrs. Johnson drilled in to my head every chance she got from the time I started working with her in fifth grade: “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!”

Being blind since I was seven months old has meant that getting through school has not always been easy. While the other students in my math class could quickly glance at a graph, and glean the information necessary for a problem, I had to meticulously feel every line on the graph, and the way graphs were reproduced for me often confused me, and making my own graph was another story. I have fond memories of wanting to scream as I tediously put little dot stickers on the appropriate lines of the graph, and connected them with tape, with the knowledge that my classmates, with the magic of the pencil, had finished this assignment hours ago. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for me to start an assignment one day, and not get to bed until the next. The last thing I ever wanted was for people to pity me, and whenever a new teacher would ask how they should treat my situation, I always answered with the standard “Treat me the way you would treat anyone else”. However I must confess that sometimes, I secretly wanted teachers to have some empathy for how hard some assignments were for me, and assign me less homework, an attitude which I suppose one could consider pity. But there was an unspoken understanding between Mrs. Johnson and me that pity would not be tolerated, because it wasn’t.

Only once did Mrs. Johnson ever show any signs of pity for me. When I was in fifth grade, the class was reading Johnny Tremaine. I had the book in braille, but the book was long and boring, and before I realized it, I was way behind in the reading. I found this out on a Friday morning, and the teacher had announced there would be a quiz that afternoon. So Mrs. Johnson pulled me out of class, and got me caught up by reading out loud. I did manage to get caught up just in time for the quiz, but I will never forget what she said when the reading was done, and it was something she reminded me of years later. She would never ever help me like that again and that pledge would apply through high school if she was still working with me. She kept her word. I did not realize it then, but I realize now that what she wanted me to take away from that incident was that she would give me a break this once, but bailing me out in the future would amount to pity, and pity might help me in the short term, but would only hurt me longterm. The fact that I had fallen behind in my reading had nothing to do with my blindness, and if I was to have any chance of being successful in life, I had to learn that blindness is no excuse for failing to work hard, and meet your obligations.

Even for difficulties that were related to being blind, pity would not be an option. While other teacher aides believed in giving blind students just half of the math problems that the rest of the students had, Mrs. Johnson insisted I have the same amount of homework. I will confess that when assignments were particularly tough, or when I was simply exhausted from multiple nights toiling over math, my mind was filled to bursting with a mixture of self-pity, which resulted in anger, and occasionally brought me to tears. But in the toughest of times, she still saw the potential in me. Whenever I needed motivation, she liked to talk about another blind friend she had who went blind as an adult, and even though being blind later in life meant a lot of relearning and adjustment, he lived independently, and took the bus every day to his job as an engineer. The underlying message was clear. Maybe I was a blind person, but that did not have to define me. I too had the potential to live independently, and the career possibilities were endless for me. But first I needed a strong foundation of motivation, and determination, so with determination and hope in her voice she would remind me “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!” because if I was allowed to give up on school, what is to say I wouldn’t give up in life? For this reason, she never allowed me to give up on school.

I will never forget one particular incident that happened in sixth grade. It was towards the beginning of the year–I believe it was sometime in October–so I suppose maybe I subconsciously thought that since it was the beginning of the year, and a new school with a new teacher who didn’t know me, I could use this to my advantage. Anyway, math was particularly difficult for me that year, and after getting a low score on my first test, the teacher wanted me to correct the problems I got wrong for homework. To be honest, when it came to math, I already had the attitude that most students usually don’t get until the end of the year: I just didn’t care, and wanted to be done. So after briefly glancing over the problems, I went back to school the next day, and gave some lame excuse like “I couldn’t find anything wrong with them.” But by that time, maybe the new math teacher didn’t know me well, but Mrs. Johnson did, and she knew that I hadn’t really looked at them. After Mrs. Johnson and the teacher conversed briefly, the verdict was delivered by the math teacher. “I’m giving you a detention,” she said, and it was a verdict that Mrs. Johnson fully supported. It was the only detention I ever received because from then on, if I ever thought about slacking off, I would remember the humiliation of a detention, and realize that if I slacked off, Mrs. Johnson would make sure I was shown no pity. Despite the fact that I had learned my lesson in sixth grade and made sure I did my math homework, often staying up all hours of the night to finish an assignment, it was not uncommon for me to go to school the next day to learn that all of the problems on the assignment were wrong. This was an especially common occurrence when it came to making graphs.

One particular unit that gave me lots of headaches was graphing inequalities. For this unit, not only did I have to graph two equations on one graph correctly with dots and tape, but also use a crayon to shade in the appropriate spot indicating whether one equation was greater than, less than, or equal to the other equation. But as confusing as this, and other units were for me, Mrs. Johnson never had pity on me, or exempted me from the unit. Sometimes, she would spend the lunch hour trying to explain a concept to me, which she would laugh and say was like pulling teeth, but most of the time, she wanted me to find the answers for myself, by looking at examples in the book, reading and rereading notes thoroughly, or asking the teacher directly. Now I realize that insisting that I advocate for myself, and solve my own problems was the perfect way to teach me to “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!”

For Mrs. Johnson, never giving up also meant never letting teachers think I was incapable of doing something. One particularly memorable event in which I learned this lesson occurred in my senior year of high school, the last semester Mrs. Johnson worked with me. Towards the end of the semester, we were learning how to multiply matrices, and this required a special kind of calculator. I will never forget the day before this unit started when Mrs. Johnson told me what was coming and said, “I want you to think about how you could do this unit.” I did think about it, and came to realize that Mrs. Johnson was probably referring to an internet site with an online calculator program I could use, but at the time, the internet overwhelmed me so much that the thought of exploring it to find a calculator website seemed too overwhelming, so I never put the thoughts in to action which I discovered the next day was what she wanted me to do. The next day when I got to math class without investigating particular websites where I could find a calculator, I could tell she was very disappointed in my lack of initiative. So she gave me the name of the website, and said I was responsible for figuring out the calculator program and completing the assigned homework. I should have opened up the laptop computer in my resource room and used windoweyes, the talking computer program for the blind that I used at that time to explore the website, but I think my top two biggest fears back then were not death or public speaking but using windoweyes and using windoweyes.

Since other people used the computer, it was set up so that when you turned it on, you had to log in and open the program before it would start talking, something Mrs. Johnson taught me how to do, but inevitably something always went wrong. If I went through the steps wrong, or typed in my password wrong, or even brushed the sensitive mouse pad with my shirt sleeve, everything got messed up and I didn’t know how to fix it since the computer did not talk. So even the thought of opening the computer filled me with dread, and navigating internet sites with windoweyes was another tediously long story. So I went home and desperately tried to get the website to work with my braille notetaker, my computer of choice, but had no luck. So the next day, I went to school early, and had a talk with my regular math teacher, telling him that the website Mrs. Johnson gave me didn’t work, and there were no calculators for the blind that could work for the assignment, and therefore, I would not be able to do the assignment, and of course, he took pity on me and said that was fine if I couldn’t do the assignment. But once again, there was no pity from Mrs. Johnson. When she got to school, she had a talk of her own with my math teacher, and then she pulled me out of class and took me down to the resource room where she told me directly, in no uncertain terms that she was very disappointed in me. She then walked me through how to start up windoweyes again, and said that she expected me to practice using the website myself because I would be accountable for the calculations on the test. That was on a Thursday, and I would be taking the test Monday. Though I came home in tears every night, and I was extremely furious with Mrs. Johnson for a while, I realize now that that experience was a valuable lesson that gave me confidence I could have never survived college without. By forcing me to discover that I really was capable of learning technology, she gave me the confidence to learn how to use Jaws, another computer program for the blind, and use it to navigate the online resources of Carroll’s library. In fact, at the end of my freshman year, the person who used to fear navigating web pages created a web page of her own to blog about college experiences, a true testament to the rewarding experiences that can be gained from the inspiration of a teacher who never pitied me, and never allowed me to give up.

I didn’t have the wisdom, even in my senior year of high school, to understand how any good could ever come of all those hours spent on math, and all of the tears of frustration over windoweyes, but now that college has introduced me to the adult world, I feel as though I have gained some adult perspectives on past experiences in my life. Of course, I would never want to go back to those days, but I realize now that her reasoning was noble. If I had gone through school only doing half the homework, or never having to learn things that were difficult and frustrating, the cost would have been entering college, and even working life, believing that doing a job halfway is acceptable, that I could simply give up if something wasn’t easy, or worst of all, that since I am blind, I have an excuse to slack off. Is that any way to approach life? Thanks to Mrs. Johnson’s strict insistence on putting in to practice the mantra of “treat me the way you would treat anyone else”, I may have missed out on childhood experiences like carefree outings with friends, or enjoyed study halls reading for pleasure or chatting with friends, but the short-term price I paid has already resulted in huge dividends that I might never have benefitted from if taking the easy way out had been an option. In a statistics class I had to take this semester, the familiar math struggles of understanding visual concepts returned. With Mrs. Johnson’s voice in my head, I went to the tutor, talked to my teacher, studied more than I ever used to for math tests. But I never excepted failure, and I never gave up. When I had to do research, but could not find the information I needed, I got so frustrated, I did literally scream occasionally, but I never gave up. Officially, Mrs. Johnson’s job description was to make sure that I had the adaptations I needed to succeed in my classes, a job which entailed everything from ordering my textbooks, to brailling assignments, adapting graphs, even transcribing my braille homework in to print for the teacher. But I am only now beginning to appreciate how far beyond her official job description she went. She not only reproduced the graphs for me, but gave me motivation when I wanted to give up on them. She did not simply transcribe my homework, but made sure I knew when she thought I had not performed at my fullest potential on the assignment. There are so many other jobs she could have chosen, jobs with better pay, or more prestige than sitting in a stuffy office scanning worksheets and laboring over graphs. She could have quit any time, but the fact that she stayed with me through first semester of senior year proved that she was not in it for the paycheck or the prestige, but because she wanted me to be as independent and ready for the world as I could possibly be, and because she herself never gives up. Before Mrs. Johnson had worked with me, she had a job building circuit boards for computers, a job which I could tell she loved because she talked about it a lot. Second semester of my senior year, she got another job offer building airplane equipment, and decided to leave to take advantage of this exciting opportunity. But by then, I knew her well enough to know that she was not leaving because she had given up on me, but because she knew that she had taught me well, knew that I had the foundation necessary to advocate for myself and show teachers that I was capable of being independent, knew that I would never never never give up. It has only been two years since I finished high school, and though college has taught me a lot, and given me numerous opportunities and challenges, I probably haven’t even scratched the surface of all the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead for me. With each new chapter of my life, whether it be graduate school, succeeding in a real job, or even finding an employer who can see beyond my blindness, I know the road will be bumpy at times. But all of the frustrations and long nights that I thought were pointless at the time, I now see as Mrs. Johnson’s investment in my future, an investment worth more than all of the money in the world. The plaque that was simply a thoughtful graduation gift when I first received it, I now see as a tangible reminder of Mrs. Johnson’s investment in my future. The plaque is now prominently displayed on a shelf in the room where I do my homework, and whenever I am in need of encouragement when life throws frustrations and discouragement my way, I love to hold that plaque in my hand, and feel how solid, shining and beautiful it is, symbolic of Mrs. Johnson’s beautiful, and unyielding determination to see me succeed. Although I have been out of high school for two years now and have already forgotten many of the academic lessons, there is one lesson that I will never forget, because whenever I hold that plaque, I can almost hear her voice, reminding me to “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!”