Archive for July, 2010

Hello Mother, Hello Father–Memories of Overnight Camp

Alright readers, as promised in the last entry, now I will tell you about my experiences the three summers I went to an overnight camp for the blind. I didn’t exactly love overnight camp, and I will get to the reasons why in a moment. But this camp was definitely more true to the camp experiences my mom loved to recall from when she went to a church camp as a child, so I am so glad I got to have these experiences in my own childhood. On the third Sunday of July the summers after fourth, fifth and sixth grade, Mom and Dad helped me pack a suitcase, and then we drove three hours north to Lions Camp. The camp embodied many of the old fashioned characteristics of a camp, like the quiet nature setting, the dining hall, and the fact that all of the girls cabins were given tree names, and the boys cabins had names like the Explorers, or the Lumberjacks. Yet while the campsite was old fashioned in many ways, thankfully all of the cabins were air conditioned and had indoor plumbing! Everything on the campsite was also easily accessible for people with all kinds of disabilities since the whole purpose of this camp is to provide an old fashioned camp experience for children with disabilities. In addition to the two week camp for the blind (campers could choose whether they wanted to stay one week or both when registering, but one week was always enough for me), there was also a camp for deaf children, a camp for children with diabetes, and a camp for children with multiple disabilities. There may be other camps this site hosts, but those are the ones I remember hearing about. As much as I will complain about some of the aspects of camp, when I look back at my camp experience now with a more mature perspective, I realize that this camp really did do a wonderful job of creating the perfect good old fashioned camp experience that allowed us to just have fun and forget about the difficulties and disregard the rules both written and unwritten, that are imposed on us when we return to our ordinary lives, the same opportunity that keeps millions of sighted kids coming back to camp summer after summer.

I realized this a couple weeks ago when I happened to turn on National Public Radio, and they were doing a show about the fun and nostalgic memories of summer camp as a child. One thing the moderator of the show mentioned that really struck me was the fact that at camp, children can let lose and find joy in things that, once they get back to the reality of their school friends, they would see as stupid, and there were sure some of these instances in my own experience of camp. I mean, could you imagine the reaction you would receive if you invited school friends over, especially in middle school, to sit around a campfire and sing songs like “The other day, I saw a bear! A great big bear! Oh way out there!” But in the camp culture, it was perfectly acceptable to sing these songs, and sing them loud with genuine passion and laughter in our voices. At school when it is meal time, you are expected to sit down, behave, and wolf down your food so you can go back to class, and thus could never have silly shouted dialogue like this:

Maples: Hey willows!

Willows: What!

Maples: We wana hear you sing the Barny song!

Willows: No way!

Maples: We wana hear you sing the Barny song!

Willows: No way!

Maples: We wana hear you sing the Barny song!

Willows: Okay! I love you, you love me! We’re a happy family…

Cabins have also asked each other to sing other songs and even dance, making meals so much fun! Another thing you could do at camp that defied the rules of behavior we are so accustomed to at school was it was perfectly acceptable for children to playfully give adults a hard time! My favorite memory that demonstrates this was in my first year, when my vision teacher accompanied me to camp since she knew me well, and could be a support system if I got homesick or wasn’t handling camp well, something she feared might happen since I had never rally been away from home that long before. But actually, I really only would tear up and get homesick when I heard younger children crying at night, so maybe I was crying more because I felt bad for them. I must have been subconsciously homesick though because especially the first year, I would have weird dreams at night about coming home and finding the house completely different and with familiar furniture rearranged. But we really were kept busy most of the time, so I coped pretty well, and was actually getting to that age when it is kind of a thrill to be away from the parents. Anyway getting back to my story, one day, we were all eating lunch when my teacher inadvertently put her elbows on the table, and a table of teenagers with enough vision to see it brought her brief lapse in table manners to the attention of the whole hall with a rousing chant of “Kim, Kim, strong and able! Get your elbows off the table!” (name changed to protect the guilty) and then she had to take a walk of shame around the table as everyone sang “Round the table you must go, you must go, you must go! Round the table you must go, learn your manners!” When I have recalled that funny memory years later, she responds with a sigh, but if I could have seen her, I’m sure I would have seen a smile on her face in spite of herself.

Another silly camp tradition I always talked about with such excitement in the days leading up to camp that probably drove my parents crazy was the eager anticipation every morning at breakfast of finding out who had been paid a visit by Sneaky, and what fate he would bestow on them. I never saw for myself what Sneaky looked like because he never snuck up on me, but when my vision teacher described him, I think she said he was a stick figure man drawn on to a popsicle stick. But more importantly, if you got a visit from Sneaky, it either meant something really good, or something really bad! Sneaky was an equal opportunity sneak, and whoever has him last can sneak him in to the shoe or pocket of a camper or counselor who sneaks him to another victim by breakfast the next day. Once Sneaky’s victim for that day had been identified, the camp director would go up to a microphone and announce to a silent dining room sitting on the edge of their seats that Sneaky says this person committed a particular infraction. It was always a silly infraction, resulting in a silly punishment for one person or reward for another. I don’t even know if the infractions Sneaky accused his victims of were even true or if he was just being silly. One time for example, Sneaky accused a counselor of bringing deodorant on the annual tent campout night, an activity that was supposed to be about roughing it, so for their punishment, they couldn’t wear deodorant the rest of camp, or something silly like that. On another occasion, Sneaky accused another student, and a group of teenage friends he was with of not wearing life jackets when standing on the boat dock which is technically a pretty minor infraction since the water is pretty shallow under the dock if you did fall in, something I know firsthand because I trusted a low vision kid to do sighted guide with me on a dock once, and she misjudged how close I was to the edge. When I fell, I think the water only reached my waste, and while I think I got a couple bruises from banging against the edge of the dock as I fell, they were so minor, and I was so desperate not to miss any of the free swim time since it was a hot day that I refused medical attention in the health room for them. Now it’s one of those memories I cannot help laughing about every time it comes to mind. Anyway, for not wearing life jackets on the dock, I think Sneaky announced that after breakfast, these boys would have to stand on the dock wearing a whole bunch of life jackets at once so people walking by could laugh at how silly they looked.

In addition to this silly fun and giving each other a hard time, we also had a lot of fun doing the usual swimming, boating, art projects, archery (closely supervised by sighted staff of course), and even an annual evening hay ride through the woods where every year, the driver claimed there was something mysteriously wrong with the tractor because for some reason, it wouldn’t start unless we sang a song. Since I love to sing, the campfire, and this hay ride were probably my favorite memories of this camp, and in the case of the hay ride, I loved how we always ended up singing long after the tractor had started. My life has been blessed by countless joyous childhood memories that I would love to relive, but I think if I could choose one memory that I would love to relive most of all, I would have to say the utopian image of a whole bunch of kids riding through the woods, singing to our heart’s content without a care in the world as a cool evening breeze caresses our face and ruffles our hair, would be high on my list! In addition to all of these happy memories, looking back I realize that another thing I loved about these camps was that for the most part, they allowed me to almost forget that I was blind. The first year, I felt like my blindness stuck out a little more because I was placed in a cabin where everyone else met the legal criteria to be classified as blind, but could see pretty well when compared to me, a totally blind person, so they would often do visual activities together making me feel left out. I know that in my last entry, I mentioned how I always wanted to go to a normal camp for sighted children, and obviously in that kind of camp, all of my cabin mates would have been fully sighted and I would have experienced the same feelings. However, I went to a mainstream school, and had gotten used to feeling a little left out occasionally when in the company of fully sighted children. But I think that since this camp was advertised as a camp for the blind, I didn’t expect to have these feelings. But the following year, my parents requested that I be put in a cabin with other totally blind children, a wish that was granted so I felt like I could relate better with my cabin mates. While I am on that subject, I also liked how although there were some kids with cognitive disabilities at this camp, since this camp was for blind kids all over the state, I also had the opportunity to meet several people who were simply blind like me. I also loved the fact that most of the staff were not teachers of the blind, so I rarely felt like my independence was being judged. In the dining room all of the meals were cooked for us and the counselors always poured milk for all of us before we even had to ask. Most of the time, they were happy to do sighted guide, and when we did use our canes, it was pretty stress free because the walking areas of the camp were well maintained and it was perfectly acceptable to walk slow since the camp’s purpose was to foster a sense of leisure and fun, not urgency, which also meant of course, there were no busy streets to cross! I know some of you might be thinking the camp staff should have encouraged more independence, but the way I look at it, your independence is evaluated all school year by your teachers, and though my parents didn’t worry about my lack of confidence in cooking and using my cane since they knew I would develop this confidence when I was ready, I know there are some blind children whose parents set independence goals and spend all summer making their children practice independent walking and daily living skills. So is it really the end of the world to give children one week a year where they can escape reality and just be kids whose only goal is to make wonderful childhood memories? I am so glad that the camp staff seemed to agree with me.

So now that you have heard all of the silly camp traditions I loved and all of the happy memories and positive experiences I had, you are probably wondering why I mentioned at the beginning of the post that I didn’t exactly love this camp. Part of this displeasure was due to the simple fact that while I didn’t cry about being away from my parents, I longed for a bed where the mattress wasn’t hard as a rock and made of plastic, located in my own room where they weren’t five or six other girls snoring and talking in their sleep, or counselors coming back from staff meetings at all hours of the night and making noise as they got ready for bed. I longed for the freedom to get up when I wanted, and do what I wanted every day instead of every hour of the day being so structured. I longed for the nice organized drawers for my clean clothes and spacious hamper for my dirty clothes as opposed to having to figure out which clothes were clean or dirty in a cramped suitcase. There was a cabinet for each of the campers now that I think about it, but it was so small I couldn’t use it for all of my clothes and bathing items. I longed for a shower with nice spacious shelves for my soap and shampoo, and a door instead of a curtain I never could get to close all the way, and that always stuck to me since the showers were so small, so I never really felt clean. And while I wasn’t homesick in the sense that I couldn’t make it through the week and needed to get home to my parents, I longed for the chance to just call them on the phone, see how things were going at home and just rant for a couple minutes when I was exhausted or frustrated. But I didn’t have a cell phone back then, and even if I did, they weren’t allowed at camp and camp staff could only call parents if there was an emergency. At first, I rationalized that this inability to chat with my parents was giving me excellent practice for when I went to college and would be away at the dorm for months at a time. Little did I know of course that I would live in the dorm for less than a week, but even when I did live in the dorm, my parents could come and check on me every day, and if I had gone to school far away, I could call them any time. So in some ways, the separation from home was harder to handle at camp than in college. All of these inconveniences I can handle on short trips, but by the end of a whole week with these inconveniences, I was exhausted and more than ready to go home.

But more importantly, I might not have minded these inconveniences if that was the only source of frustration, but there was also the frustration of having to abide by stupid, stupid rules! For a case and point, let’s take the simple act of going swimming. At home, the process of going swimming involves quickly changing in to the swimsuit at home, driving ten minutes to the beach and heading straight from the car in to the water. And at camp, this process should have been even faster since getting to the lake was less than a two minute walk, right? Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple at camp. First, the counselors would take us all to this locked gate way earlier than when the swimming area was ready to open, and we all had to stand in line baking in the hot afternoon sun. In fact, one day when it was particularly hot, the usually peaceful well mannered crowd broke out in to chants of “Let us in! Let us in!” a chant which I too participated in, so an observer who didn’t realize they were on a camp ground probably would have thought they were witnessing an angry protest demonstration. Then, once the gate opened, we all had to choose a swimming buddy and once we got in the water, a whistle would blow every fifteen minutes and everyone had to stop what they were doing, stand with their buddies and raise their hands so everyone could be counted to assure that no one drowned. In addition, we all had to wear wrist bands and a staff member would tell us the same safety rules every day before we could get in the water, which basically were simple things like “don’t go in to a swimming area deeper than the one you were assigned to” which was based on your swimming ability which was tested on the first day of camp, and don’t do stupid things like dive off the dock in to the water or stuff like that. I understand the rationale and the need to be cautious because when I complained about this casually to my counselor one night when we were back in our cabins, she said how you have to take extra precautions because of the liability of caring for such a large group of kids. But for goodness sake, cannot you still be safe and cautious without having to make the simple process of going swimming complicated! But when I got home from camp, my mom said they had to do all of these safety precautions when she was at camp too, so I guess that is just standard camp procedure. But there were also other stupid and I thought arbitrary rules that didn’t have the rationale of safety behind them. Every night at home, I have to read before I can relax and fall asleep. But until the light were turned out at camp, there were always kids talking or walking around making it difficult to concentrate on a book. But that was no problem because I was totally blind so I would just read after lights out. But on the first night of camp, the counselor made me close my braille book out of fairness to the low vision kids who couldn’t read print once the lights were out! If some of you are siding with the counselor and see this as a fair rule, I won’t hold it against you, but the way I saw it, I’m sure my fidgeting and inability to relax on the squeaky mattress was more annoying for my fellow cabin mates than me reading when they couldn’t, and actually, if they needed to read after lights out to fall asleep, they could have brought flashlights to read under the covers. I forget if they were allowed or not, but our bags were never searched at camp, so they could have easily smuggled one in. As long as we are being quiet, I don’t think counselors should forbid us from doing whatever we need to do to fall asleep.

But that’s not my most memorable stupid rule story that infuriated me the most about camp. Every year, there is one night where all of the campers go out to this outdoor campsite and sleep on sleeping bags in a tent for one night. The first two years I went to this camp, the nurse excused me from this typically required activity because I had scoliosis, a disease that causes your spine to grow crooked. Since this condition would get worse since I was still growing, and since it can supposedly cause pain and mess up the placement of other organs as an adult if left untreated, the doctor wanted me to wear this bulky plastic brace thing twenty hours a day to hold my spine in the right position so it would grow properly. Since my parents didn’t want me to miss out on any of the fun, especially swimming since the brace wasn’t supposed to get wet, they said it was alright for me to have it off most of the day, but I still had to wear it at night. So the nurse said that since it would be tremendously uncomfortable to sleep on the ground when I was already sleeping with a hard brace under my back, she allowed me to sleep back in the cabin and another staff member would stay with me. But my third year, the counselor wanted me to get the camping experience, and I guess the nurse wasn’t feeling merciful that year, so I had to go camping. I enjoyed roasting the marshmallows for smores over the campfire, and I will admit I didn’t really mind sleeping on the ground as much as I thought I would since my sleeping bag was pretty well padded. It was kind of neat to wake up in the morning surrounded by nature sounds that you take for granted when sleeping indoors, even if the windows are open. But it wasn’t cool being bitten by a million mosquitoes all evening despite being sprayed down by insect repellant, and it wasn’t cool that when we got in to the tent, despite the fact that it had a screen, flies got in and were buzzing all around me. Last July, I wrote an entry about how much buzzing insects creep me out and I think I mentioned that because of them, camping is out of the question. Well, this was the experience that brought me to that conclusion, and I haven’t camped out ever since. Anyway, after a fitful night of sleep from these bugs, I was not in the mood to deal with counselors being stupid and irrational, but that is exactly what I had to deal with when we sat down at picnic tables for the traditional cereal breakfast. As you know from my entry about surgery, the only beverages I can really stand are milk and water, but I thought this would not be a problem because both these beverages were available. There was a pump just steps from our tables where we had drawn water the night before, and a gallon of milk had been brought out for the cereal, but since I preferred dry cereal, I could just have my milk in a cup. But the counselor would not let me get water, and said the milk could only be used on the cereal. The only beverage available for drinking was orange juice, so when I asked her to just pour some milk in the cup, she poured it in to my cereal and poured orange juice in my cup! So my breakfast that day was a soggy disgusting bowl of cereal which I managed to eat, and orange juice which I refused to drink, making my mouth water longingly to be in the dining room with a good breakfast of something like eggs or pancakes, and milk! Now, if there was no water pump out at the campsite, and no milk had been brought out, I still would not have drank the juice, but thinking about the incident would not fill me with such fury eight summers later that I feel steam coming out my ears as I write this. I do not expect people to cater to me and go out of their way to provide milk and water, but no one would have had to go out of their way! Both milk and water were practically right under my nose, but denied because of some stupid arbitrary thing that was probably about wanting me to try new things and all that. But come on! After sleeping outside with bugs buzzing around and biting me all night, is it too much to ask to just give me a darn glass of milk?! I also wasn’t a big fan of some of the daytime activities like rope swinging which involves swinging on a rope and then jumping off the rope and landing in the lake and canoe swamping which was about purposely tipping each other’s canoes. Since I lack confidence and coordination and thus feared a serious injury from rope swinging, and since I couldn’t swim very well, and would panic when tossed in to cold water after the canoe tipped even if I could swim, I was allowed to just stand on the sidelines and be excused from these activities, which my parents told me I could do because this was not school. This was camp which was supposed to be about having fun and not feeling forced to do activities I wasn’t comfortable doing. So to make this long story short, after the third year of having to sit on the sidelines a lot during these activities, and dealing with camp staff and their stupid rules, some of which were rational but many of which were arbitrary, I came to the conclusion that camp is just not a good fit for quiet, bookish and freedom oriented people like me. I am glad I went to this camp those three years because going to camp is a trademark of childhood and I didn’t want to grow up never knowing what it was like to go off to camp. But while overnight camp gave me many fun memories that would not have been made at home, I prefer a summer vacation where I can get up and go to bed when I want, or run straight from the car to the water without a care in the world. I prefer a summer where my days are not defined by crazy adventurous activities like rope swinging or camping out in a tent, but days where I am perfectly free to sit on my porch swing in quiet solitude reading a book all day and listening to the birds and cicadas sing if I choose. I prefer a summer vacation of sleeping in my own bed and having the freedom to try new things if I want to, but not be judged if I don’t. So although I am glad that I had the opportunity to experience camp, I no longer see it as a required experience for a wonderful and fulfilling summer vacation.

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Judgement Daycamp

Hello friends. Since going to camp is the highlight of summer, and of the general childhood experience for many children in America, and since this is about the time I used to come home from a week long overnight camp for the blind in Northern Wisconsin, I wanted to devote the next two entries to sharing some of my thoughts on my camp experience. Ever since I can remember, my mom would rave about how much she loved going away to a church camp when she was a child for two weeks of swimming, boating, being with friends and singing silly songs around a campfire. Hearing these wonderful stories about her camp memories, coupled with strong encouragement from a teacher who wanted to make sure that I got to have the same childhood experiences as any sighted child meant that I was packed off to both day camps and an overnight camp several times as a child. But while there were definitely some fond memories of camp that I am glad I got to experience, I cannot really go so far as to say I loved it. My first camp memory was going to Girl Scout Camp which I think was the summer after first grade. My memories of this camp are kind of vague, but I think this camp was a week long day camp that my mom only took me to for three days, and I forget if this was because of a family commitment, or if my mom was so outraged by the negative experience I was having at this camp that she had enough and pulled me out early. The camp was located in a nature area where we spent the whole day outside and had to use an outhouse. I also remember my mom staying with me at this camp every day which I think was due to the fact that I was little and needed more help with some of the more visual activities and walking from place to place, special needs she didn’t feel the staff at this camp would be willing or able to accommodate. Actually, I think it was more a matter of willingness than ability because my mom still fumes about how uncompassionate the people running this camp were.

One incident in particular that illustrated this lack of compassion was when one of those old fashioned ice cream makers was set up, and all of the children stood in line and when it was their turn, could turn this crank a few times to help make the ice cream. Well, when it came time for my turn, of course, I needed help figuring out where the crank was and what to do because being blind, I couldn’t watch the children ahead of me, and I had never seen these kinds of machines before, and of course, having to be shown what to do meant that I would need just a little bit more time for my turn, something my mom didn’t think would be a big deal. But before my mom had the chance to finish showing me what to do, one of the staff snapped something like “You need to hurry up! Other children need to have their turn!” When she said this, my mom was so appalled and stunned she just whisked me away. So all of the sighted children had a turn, but this staff lady couldn’t be bothered to get off schedule by just a few more seconds so I could have mine! I actually didn’t remember this incident until the subject of girl scout camp came up recently when my parents and I were having dinner, and she mentioned the incident. I don’t know if I had forgotten about this incident simply because it had been a small incident that happened thirteen years ago, whether it was because I was so unaccustomed to this total lack of willingness to accommodate me that I chose to block the incident from my mind, or if I was simply too young to notice or comprehend the implications of this incident. I have forgiven this lady because I think I did get to crank one of these ice cream makers a few years later at a party hosted by a wonderfully nice neighbor who had one. But this girl scout camp was the only camp for sighted children that I ever went to, and the few times I asked my parents if I could go to a sighted camp when I was older, they didn’t seem wild about it, and I never persisted because even once I had long forgotten about the negative experience I had at Girl Scout camp, I think the experience always stayed with me in my conscience, and I didn’t want to take the risk of going to a camp where I could run the risk of feeling that unwelcome again. But I soon discovered that my experiences with camps for the blind weren’t all positive either.

For several summers starting with the summer after fourth grade, I attended two day camps for the blind. One was a week long camp that met at a high school in my home school district in June, the week after school let out, and the other was a two week camp in August at the Badger Association for the Blind, a center that offered services like computer training or assisted living for blind adults, but also hosted the occasional youth day camp. Both of these camps were pretty much the same. Each day, we had a fun activity like going to a local beach, a movie, the state fair or the public museum where we went to a butterfly exhibit and where we each got headsets that described things as we walked. I think we even went horseback riding once at a ranch where horses are specially trained for people with disabilities. So don’t get me wrong. This camp really did give me a lot of wonderful memories. But in addition to the fun activities, these camps also were designed to incorporate orientation and mobility practice and daily living skills. Now of course, these skills are important, and deep down, I understood that practicing these skills would help me become the independent woman and contributor to society that I wanted to be. However, most of the other children at these camps had other cognitive disabilities in addition to being blind, so since they really couldn’t handle mainstream academic classes, their school curriculum focused a lot on daily living skills. But since I was fortunate that blindness was my only disability and since I was doing well in mainstream academic classes, my parents thought my education should focus more on academics. Additionally, we live in a suburban area where there are country roads but hardly any sidewalks, and to really get practice on city sidewalks would have required me being pulled out of school a lot longer for my orientation and mobility lessons since getting to a big city required a lot more travel time. My parents knew daily living skills were important too of course, but they felt like unlike academics subjects which I really only have the chance to learn when I am young to stay on track for college and the meaningful employment that I was capable of, and which my parents knew they wouldn’t know how to teach, travel and daily living skills were things they could practice with me on our own timeline since they are a lot easier to learn than academics, and since colleges and future employers will care a lot more about my academic abilities than my mastery of daily living skills. Since my vision teacher had worked with me since I was three years old and saw the academic promise in me, she fully supported my parents’ thinking too. So at the time I started going to these day camps, I had enough cane technique to walk independently and confidently through my school building, and I had been on a few tiny sidewalks relatively close to school where I had a basic grasp of shorelining with my cane. I had been on a few escalators at a nearby mall, and learned the basics of what was in each aisle of the grocery store as well as basic cooking skills like stirring and measuring. But since my parents and the teacher wanted me to focus on school and have time to do homework and enjoy extracurricular activities with my sighted peers after school, this teacher only pulled me out of school to work on orientation and daily living skills once or twice a week rather than every day like other children with cognitive disabilities. So when I would go to these day camps and we had to practice cane travel on unfamiliar sidewalks or inside overwhelmingly large unfamiliar buildings, I would fall way behind the rest of the group. When we were cooking, it always took me longer to spread peanut butter, and was scared to death when I was assigned to recipes that required pouring liquids from a huge jug in to a tiny measuring cup or standing over a sizzling stove. And since my vision teacher often had summer commitments that precluded her from attending these camps, I was stuck with vision teachers who didn’t work with me on a regular basis, and thus didn’t know me, or understand that my situation and long-term goals were different. This meant that without fail, every year, this camp which was supposed to be about having fun and enjoying new experiences, instead felt more like an evaluation, after which these teachers always seemed to judge me, my parents and my teacher. I felt this judgement when the rest of the children and teachers were way far ahead of me when we walked on our outings, and I was left lagging behind praying that I wouldn’t lose track of the sound of their voices, and when we were cooking and they would tell all of the other children what a good job they were doing while saying nothing to me. My parents, and even my older sister who had just gotten her drivers license when I started going to these camps and was thus responsible for picking me up when my parents had to work felt this judgement when teachers would lecture them about how I needed to start traveling more independently on streets and sidewalks, and cooking more at home. And I knew my teacher had been judged because when I would come back to school in the fall, she would report that she had been told I was the slowest person there which sparked a new pressure induced determination to get me walking faster and having more confident cane skills.

To be fair, I will admit that I was to blame for a lot of my poor demonstration of orientation and mobility because for some reason I have never always had the most confident self-motivated desire to learn these skills, and every psychologist whose advice you read or hear on television will tell you that a person cannot learn something or change a bad habit unless and until they have the right attitude and want to change themselves. I know this fact about myself is true because even though I have matured a lot since going to these camps, this lack of motivation still plagues me to this day. In fact, as I write this, my parents have been so busy refinishing cupboards for an unplanned need to replace our dishwasher and countertops, as well as helping my grandma clean up a basement flood, the result of a recent storm, that they haven’t had the chance to go to the grocery store. We have a pantry full of random cans of soup and vegetables, and a refrigerator stocked with milk and fresh fruit. But we ran out of bread and lunch meat, and all day, I have been craving a sandwich. I have three paychecks worth of money and a debit card to withdraw it. I could, and if my teacher were here I know she would say I should, look up the number of our grocery store and prearrange for someone to assist me in finding bread and lunch meat. In fact, way back in seventh grade, my vision teacher had me do this for one of my orientation and mobility lessons, and it went really well. For this lesson, the teacher drove me, but I can still remember her saying that if I wanted to go to the store on my own, I could look up the number of a local taxicab service and make the arrangements to get to the store. But what if this display of independence turned out to be a disaster when my teacher wasn’t watching from a distance ready to rescue me if I was really having trouble? What if the cab driver and I have a miscommunication and I am taken to a completely different place than I had intended? Or what if the cab driver seems like a nice guy when he pulls up, but only after I am in a moving vehicle do I find out he is drunk or a creep who now has the perfect victim, a captive blind woman? What if I had been promised assistance by a staff member at the grocery store over the phone, but when I got there, something came up and there would be no one available to assist me after all? Do I really want to go through so much arranging and potentially put myself at risk just for a sandwich? The answer is no, so I guess I will let my mouth water until my dad gets home from Grandma’s house and plead with him childishly to go to the grocery store. I know this is an extremely unhealthy attitude to have, especially when you realize that I have been blind since I was seven months old, basically my whole life, so I have no reason to be afraid of my blindness or lack so much confidence. But those psychologists you read about and hear on television also say that the first step toward changing a negative attitude is to acknowledge it, which I have just done, and I also meet the criteria for a person who really wants to change this attitude since the older I get, the more I find that I am tired of relying so much on my parents, and long to find out what it would be like to live on my own something I am planning another entry to rant about. Eventually, I know this longing for independence will become so intense that it will overshadow my negative attitude. But while I still don’t have the confidence and self-motivation I would like to have, I had a lot less confidence at the time I went to these camps.

While now I only lack the confidence to take on big endeavors like taking a cab to a grocery store, I used to lack the confidence for tasks as small as pouring a glass of milk. Even if I put my finger in to the glass so I could feel when it was getting full as I poured, and even though my teacher suggested putting the milk glass in the sink so that if I did spill, it would just go right down the drain, I hated the thought of spilling milk. So what was the harm in just asking my parents or one of my older siblings to pour it for me? It wasn’t until eighth grade that I decided I was tired of depending on others for a glass of milk, and thus got the confidence to pour my own milk. I did spill a few times, and still spill when the gallon has just been opened and is really heavy causing my hand to shake and therefore not be as coordinated. But I love that saying which says “Don’t cry over spilled milk” because it really isn’t the end of the world, so I don’t cry over it. I just get a paper towel, clean it up and move on. By the way, one advantage that will come with living on my own is that I won’t have to worry about politeness or sanitation for the sake of my other family members, so I plan to drink straight from the carton until it is light enough to pour without my hands shaking. If any of you friends come to visit though, don’t worry. I will wash the mouth of the carton off thoroughly before you get there, or buy a separate uncontaminated gallon of milk for you (smile). Wow, I really got off track there. But what I was trying to say was that while I didn’t develop confidence and self-motivation as quickly as some of the vision teachers wanted me to, I don’t view myself as a disappointing representation of the blind community, and wish I hadn’t been made to feel that way by these teachers just because I choose to develop confidence and independence on my own schedule.

But I was not only judged by the things I couldn’t do, but also on the things I could do, but chose to do differently than the way these teachers thought they should be done. Of course, there are things that need to be done properly like knowing how to swing your cane in a way that doesn’t threaten the safety of people around you for example. But for other things, like the technique for riding escalators, my teacher and I both agreed that there was a little more room for flexibility. However these feelings were not shared by some of the other teachers at these camps. I have always had issues with a lack of confidence and fear of loosing my balance on escalators, but one thing that helped tremendously in making me feel a little more balanced was after finding the start of the escalator with the tip of my cane and stepping on to it, I would stand with one foot a step above the other if I was going up, or a step below the other when going down. This method had two advantages. It made me feel more anchored while the escalator was moving, and when it was about time to step off, one foot would level off before the other, and that couple seconds of advance notice from having one foot level off first allowed the other foot to step off with more reassurance as opposed to having to frantically get both feet off the escalator with hardly any warning. But the teachers that ran these camps were the kind of people that insist everything be done by the book, and one of them insisted that I put both feet on the same step, turning one of the few things I was starting to do with confidence in to another situation that proved my lack of confidence.

I am not looking for pity by ranting about all of these frustrations. I am only trying to illustrate why despite the many fun experiences I had with these camps, to me they weren’t worth putting up with all of this judgement and criticism. Sometimes I also feel as though this judgement and criticism still affects my confidence today because even though I have developed a lot more confidence since the days of these camps with the help of Gilbert, who navigates me around obstacles and across streets more smoothly than I ever did with my cane, I still don’t have the confidence that so many other blind people my age have. City buses that seem to just drop you off in the middle of nowhere scare me so much even when I am being accompanied by a sighted person that I cannot imagine myself traveling alone on them yet, and though I learned through dog training that falling is not the end of the world, I still prefer to take it slow when going to unfamiliar sidewalks where my feet haven’t memorized the feel of the sidewalk and all of its dips and bumps and other tripping hazards to be aware of. So what if I go to an event for the blind where my lack of confidence with buses is exposed and I am made to feel like a disappointment again? What if my cautiousness is still construed by people as the result of being out of shape, or lacking confidence that I should have developed by now? To avoid this stress about what other blind people or teachers who don’t know me might say, I will go to events for the blind every now and then just to be sociable, but since I get so nervous in the days leading up to these kinds of events, I don’t participate in them very often, and I was actually almost glad that I did not win a scholarship for the National Federation of the Blind the last two years, so I wouldn’t have to face the stress of flying out to Dalas or Detroit all by myself to be judged by an even larger blind community, too high a price to endure just for a scholarship award. So while these camps were probably supposed to boost my confidence in my capabilities as a blind person, I actually think these camps lessened my confidence, at least in the presence of the blind community, so sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off staying home. Also, on a side note, another thing I didn’t like about these camps was the fact that since the vast majority of the other children at these camps had cognitive disabilities, while there were a lot of activities that are universally fun like going to the beach, there were also a lot of educational activities that the children with cognitive disabilities benefitted from but which were kind of insulting for me. For example, one day at camp the summer after fifth grade, we went to a fire station where I had to listen to a kindergarten level presentation on fire safety and the other children got to explore a fire truck. Now, I really don’t mean to sound like a snob or give the impression that I’m too good to be seen with children who have other disabilities. But I was at that age when I think all children want to feel grown up and start doing activities with children at their own level, and those were the moments when I desperately wished I could have gone to some of the camps my mainstream sighted friends talked about, and would have especially loved the chance to go to a music camp instead. But I guess it wasn’t meant to be, so I won’t dwell on what day camp experiences I missed when there is still a world full of other experiences that are not confined to the childhood years, not to mention the fun overnight camp experiences I have yet to talk about.

Beware the Eve of Palm Sunday

Well readers, fear not! This journal hasn’t gone to the dogs permanently! But I hope you all enjoyed the entry Gilbert wrote. He has sure got opinions and an adorable personality hasn’t he? (smile) As Gilbert mentioned, I let him write his own entry to make amends because I felt guilty that my entries lately have been all about me with hardly a mention of him. I promised him I would be better about acknowledging his feelings when I write entries, but I think I will also let him write more entries himself in the future because man was his entry fun to read, and he proved his expertise in adding some cuteness and life to my often boring journal! In fact, he will be due for a vet appointment soon, and I am sure he will have a lot to say about that, as well as some volunteer opportunities we did last year that he enjoyed, so stay tuned! But right now, I bet that from my subject line, you are all wondering “What the heck is this entry going to be about?” So without further ado, let me explain.

     First however, maybe I should include a disclaimer. I am Catholic, and every year, I love going to church on Palm Sunday which is the week before Easter, holding a palm branch in my hand, and listening to the wonderful bible reading about Jesus marching in to Jerusalem and being welcomed by people waving palm branches, and the solemn reading of the Passion which is the story of Jesus being betrayed and crucified. So my point is, I take Palm Sunday observances seriously, so the purpose of this subject line is not to offend anyone, or make a mockery of Christianity for any of you readers who are also Christian. But I am of the belief that if God created animals like Gilbert and Snickers who are constantly doing silly things, and of course created a sense of humor in humans, He must have a sense of humor Himself. So I used this subject line because I cannot help but laugh and wonder if God is trying to tell me something. Why else after all, have scary things happened to me the last two years the night before Palm Sunday?

     Last year, I was taking Gilbert outside to relieve himself one more time before bed. When I took him out, it was about 12:30 and my parents, and the whole neighborhood for that matter were already asleep. But I wasn’t worried about anything happening because it is not unusual for me to take him out that late since I am a night owl. In fact, I was so confident that nothing could possibly happen that I didn’t even bring my cell phone. What I had forgotten to anticipate however was that this was Gilbert’s first spring with me, and as I am sure you readers who are dog owners already know, spring is full of irresistible temptation for dogs with all the new smells, wonderful mud piles and baby animals to investigate. I should have anticipated naughtiness because this early spring season was when Mojo and Indy, Gilbert’s predecessors, and actually even our cat Snickers, get that itch to run away. But I think I was still a believer of the misconception that guide dogs are angels because that night, I just went along and followed Gilbert further and further in to the grass thinking he was just looking for the perfect spot to poop. But after awhile two scary things occurred to me. The first was that if Gilbert had to poop, even a finicky dog should have made up his mind on a place by now. The second was that we were far far away from the edge of the driveway where we started, and were in fact, were in a cluster of trees I had never seen before. This could only mean one thing. We were severely lost, and unlike the day when the dog trainer did a drop-off near my college campus, tonight, no good samaritan would be passing on the sidewalk to rescue us. I tried turning around and pointing my feet straight, hoping to retrace my steps back to the driveway, but Gilbert must not have been walking straight because when I tried walking straight, I only found more trees. So, I ended up doing what all of the survival experts tell you never to do. I panicked and just started randomly scrambling around, only to be met by more trees! I tried shouting for help, but no one heard me. After what seemed like hours more of scrambling around, I began to consider having an impromptu campout. It was not terribly cold, maybe fifty degrees, but it would have been nice to have a jacket, something else I hadn’t brought since this was originally intended to be a quick outing. But I could huddle against Gilbert to stay warm, and then the next morning when Mom or Dad noticed that Gilbert and I weren’t slumbering in our respective beds and they called a search party to look for us, I would at least be doing one thing right according to the survival experts by staying where I am. I wished I had paid more attention at an Earth Keeper’s camp when I was in fifth grade where a survival expert showed how to make a shelter using sticks, or remembered some survival scenes from “My Side of the Mountain” and “Hatchet” two of my favorite books when I was younger, but books I never thought would be applicable to me in real life! But maybe Gilbert and I could make do and have some special bonding time in the process. But man, our nice warm house and soft bed sounded so much more appealing than a campout, so I wasn’t going to give up yet! That was when it occurred to me that in my panic, I hadn’t noticed the sound of cars in the distance. If I pointed myself and Gilbert in the direction of the sound of traffic, we should end up back in civilization eventually. So that is what I did, and finally, I had made a smart decision. I don’t think words can describe how excited I was when I felt concrete under my feet. I think I actually stopped and gave Gilbert a huge hug. I still had to get my bearings because instead of going to the driveway, we had ended up on the patio by the porch swing, but I was back on familiar ground so that didn’t take long at all! We had made it home to sleep the sweetest most appreciative sleep in our own beds! The next morning when I told my dad about our adventure, we must have subconsciously realized that maybe God was telling me I needed to be a more responsible dog owner when I am taking him out at night because we decided to put a few precautions in place that I still follow today, like taking Gilbert out while my parents are still awake, or carrying a cell phone with me if they are asleep. My dad also suggested bringing his harness so that I could put it on him if I got lost, and being on duty might mean he could get me home, and maybe some of you guide dog owners are thinking the same thing. But I refuse to swallow my pride and risk a neighbor looking out the window and noticing that I am so geographically challenged that I need Gilbert to guide me through my own yard! More importantly though, this ordeal taught me the importance of keeping my feet firmly planted on concrete so Gilbert understands I am on to his naughty exploring ways now! My dad did install a rope outside the back door by hooking one end to our porch swing, and the other to a tree in the grass, so that if Gilbert ever insisted on pulling me in to the grass, I would have a rope to follow back. But actually, I never ended up needing to use this rope because now I take him out the front door. I used to prefer taking him out either the garage door in the winter since the patio door freezes shut in the winter for some reason, and then the patio door in late spring through fall. I preferred these doors because they gave me a straight shot to grass without any steps to worry about. But last summer, my parents did some remodeling of the house, so now there is a new deck built with posts that stick out in the perfect place to clunk my head if I am not slow and careful, as well as landscaping rocks along the edge of the grass where I used to stand, so I quickly decided that having to climb up on these rocks in summer was way more annoying than going down the two steps outside our front door. But I soon discovered two advantages to the front door. The grass is closer to the house, and since the front door is right by our living room, I can hear the television while I am outside, so even if Gilbert did want to go in to the grass a little further, as long as I can hear the television, there should be no possible way to get lost, and sure enough, I haven’t gotten lost once since using this door! But if I thought getting seriously lost was scary, that scare was nothing compared to this past night before Palm Sunday when I almost died.

     It so happened that this year Palm Sunday coincided with the weekend of my birthday. So the Friday before which was my birthday, I woke up to get ready for another busy day of school, but instead of the same old eggs that I usually eat for breakfast just because they are quick to prepare and keep me satisfied until lunch, my mom kept a birthday breakfast tradition we started last year and made potato pancakes, my favorite breakfast item that I only eat on a rare basis since I am sure they are very greasy and unhealthy. But eating healthy is not supposed to be the priority on your birthday right?

     Then I went to school as usual, and after my politics class when I had some study time, I had hoped to take my birthday off and post an entry to this journal, but decided that even on my birthday, I should be a responsible student, so I think I worked on politics homework that I had fallen behind on. At 11:00 when I had my lunch before my next politics class and science lab, I thought nothing of it as I filled up on baked fish, and actually thought eating this fish was a smart decision since it was the only healthy thing I planned to eat that day. The other politics class was uneventful, but then it so happened that my birthday had to be the day we went to the creek to collect bugs for the science lab, an event which Gilbert mentioned in the last entry. As Gilbert mentioned, walking through the mud wasn’t my idea of a fun surprise for my birthday, but what Gilbert didn’t mention was that when we reached a clearing near the creek and were all standing listening to the professor give us directions for how to go about collecting our bug samples, a student mentioned that Gilbert was eating grass, which she heard dogs will do if they have an upset stomach. That was ironic because at that moment, it occurred to me that my stomach was a little upset too. It wasn’t bad, just a mild twinge of pain in my stomach, but any stomach pain is ominous when you are wearing a constricting one piece wader suit thing that goes from your chest all the way down to boots for your feet, and you are far away from any man made bathrooms. But the excursion through the creek had ended without a hitch, my dad had picked me up from school to take me home as planned, and still it was nothing more than a mild twinge. It was so mild that I insisted we go to Texas Roadhouse as planned, where I had a blast sitting on a saddle and getting my picture taken as the other diners said “Yeehaw!” to me. I even ordered and ate a steak and baked potato loaded with cheese, butter and sower cream, not to mention the free ice cream the restaurant gives diners on their birthday, and of course a generous slice of my mom’s delicious layered cake which is a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting of course! I had pretty much forgotten this pain as I opened my presents which included the usual clothes from Grandma, but also a beautiful gardenia bush whose pot took up the entire center of the kitchen table and whose fragrance once it started blooming was so heavenly I actually kind of looked forward to doing my homework near it, and letting its aroma soothe and relax me! My stomach pain was a distant memory when, after the party, I went to read all the birthday wishes written on my facebook wall, and then take a walk on the treadmill to try and burn off at least a couple hundred of the thousands of extra calories I am sure I ate that day.

     But the next day, my stomach pain was back with a vengeance. Actually, most of the day went well. I got up, heated myself some leftover potato pancakes for breakfast, and a small fajita made with leftovers from Texas Roadhouse before going to a local chapter meeting for the National Federation of the Blind that I was invited to by two other blind students who went to my college last year. I don’t usually go to these meetings because since I spend most of my time with sighted people, I actually feel kind of funny and out of place at gatherings for the blind. I know that probably sounds weird coming from a person who is blind herself, but it’s the truth. However since I was invited and encouraged to come by the blind students at my college whom I had sat with for lunch one day, I thought I should go and I had a good time meeting some new people. Best of all though, they had pizza, and I had a piece of this tomato basil pizza that was really good. My dad picked me up from this meeting and I enjoyed a typical carefree Saturday evening listening to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio, and when my mom came home, my dad made a wonderful dinner of baked fish and this rice dish from Trader Joe’s that has curry and vegetables in it, topped off with a slice of leftover birthday cake of course. But then, shortly after this dinner, my stomach pain returned and I even got slightly sick, meaning, without going in to too much detail, let’s just say, I had to get rid of some of my dinner. But since I still thought it was relatively mild, I decided I really should go ahead and walk on the treadmill since the guilt of this weekend of unhealthy eating was really starting to take hold, and despite all of the experts who advise people to take it easy when they are feeling sick, I decided my need to burn some serious calories was more important than taking it easy given the circumstances, so I pushed myself to the limit, setting the treadmill a little faster than usual. I was hoping to walk through ten songs of the Toby Keith album I was listening to thinking that should come out to about half an hour, but after only six songs, I started to feel kind of nauseous and uncharacteristically tired, so decided I better stop. I thought maybe I could get off the treadmill, but still march in place slowly for the remaining songs, thinking that maybe just slowing down would settle my stomach. But my nausea only got worse, and in addition, my heart rate also seemed unusually fast, even considering that I just finished a workout. So as quickly as I could, I turned off my music, walked upstairs and sat down. The next thing I remember was my mom sitting me up and shouting “Allison! What happened?” It turns out that she had been upstairs watching television when she decided she wanted to give me my medication so that she could go to bed. But when she called my name repeatedly, I wasn’t answering, and then she thought she heard a thud downstairs. When she found me I was completely passed out and unresponsive. Even once my mom had woken me up, I was still in a fog, so a lot of what happened was a blur, but I guess my mom had shouted for my dad to come quick, and he was standing over me trying to keep me talking so I wouldn’t pass out again while my mom called 911. Needless to say, despite being in a fog, I was scared witless. The only times I had ever been in an ambulance were the times when I was little and firemen would come to the school to talk to us and let us explore the fire trucks. I never imagined I would see an ambulance from the perspective of a patient, or at least not until I was elderly or something. But as I mentioned in my entries about the surgery I had in October, I was finding out once again that life is full of uncertainties. So alas, the paramedics came, checked my vital signs and loaded me in to an ambulance on a stretcher. The paramedics did not use the sirens which was probably a combination of the fact that my vital signs were stable despite being unconscious, and the fact that it was late at night. Also since I had managed to sit down in a safe area before passing out, I did not sustain any injuries, making me luckier than a lot of people who pass out. This was a relief to me because it made me feel better that while passing out is nothing to take lightly, at least my condition wasn’t so grave that I had to be rushed to the hospital with sirens blaring. But it was pretty cool not to have to stop for red lights, and after the paramedics put an IV in, I was actually feeling better enough to joke with the paramedics that being an ambulance driver must be a pretty cool job since they can legally speed and run red lights!

     Mom rode in the ambulance with me and Dad drove to the hospital separately after taking Gilbert out and putting him in his cage. My mom would later tell me that since the paramedics had trouble finding a vein for my IV, she knew exactly why I had passed out. When I had gotten rid of my dinner earlier that evening, I hadn’t realized that I also got rid of a lot of my fluids. Add to that the fact that my brain tumor destroyed my pituitary gland which monitors my electrolytes, the loss of even more fluid through my sweat on the treadmill, and the fact that I purposely drank less water than usual that day since it embarrasses me to have to ask where the bathroom is at a total stranger’s house where the NFB meeting was held, and as the emergency doctor who took care of me that night put it, it was the perfect storm that led to severe dehydration.

     Of course, just to be cautious, the doctor wanted to do some other tests that included a blood test, an EKG which was a special type of scan to make sure I hadn’t developed a heart problem, and a CT scan to make sure I hadn’t passed out from a seizure which could mean another brain tumor. There was also this test where they took my blood pressure three times, first laying down, then sitting and finally standing. I forget what the point of this test was, but I remember the standing test had to be redone three or four times because I think I felt so faint and my blood pressure dropped so quickly that the blood pressure machine couldn’t register it. When the EKG and CT scan came back showing no other problems, the doctor ordered two huge bags of IV fluids to restore my electrolytes, and then at 4:30 in the morning, I was released from the hospital and walked out feeling tired from the long night of tests but otherwise, good as new! The doctor’s orders were to stay off that treadmill for awhile, and drink lots of fluids like water, but also sports drinks that are high in electrolytes. Once again, my disgust for other drinks besides milk and water that I mentioned in the first entry about my surgery had come back to bite me. But since I was able to tolerate bland food the next day, which also has electrolytes, my parents agreed it was fine for me to just drink water. But the next Thursday when I was all recovered, my dad wanted me to try a sports drink so that if I was ever starting to get dehydrated again, they could give me something to restore my electrolytes before I reached the point of passing out. The drink he thought was the most mild, PowerAid made me gag when I tried to drink it. But if I eat it with a spoon like soup, for some reason I could tolerate it that way, and actually even kind of liked its gentle sweet taste, not enough to add it to my beverage regimen, but enough that I would use it to avert any future dehydration disaster!

     But anyway, on Sunday morning as we reflected on the eventful night, my mom said she believed God was watching over us last night, since she said if she had given me my medication before I went on the treadmill and went to bed, I might not have been found until the next morning by which time I might have died. But despite our immense gratitude for God’s protection, I slept until 11:00 that morning, too late to go to church for Palm Sunday. And just like last Palm Sunday, we discussed precautions to put in place like making sure to always go on the treadmill earlier in the day so that my parents are awake to check on me and ensure that I would be found sooner should I pass out and to never ever go on the treadmill if I feel sick to my stomach. My parents also broke down and bought me this medic alert necklace with my name, medications and allergies engraved on it that I wear every time I leave home in case I am knocked unconscious and my parents are not around to tell the paramedics of my special medical circumstances. My parents wanted to get me one of these necklaces when I was younger. But my protest at having to wear such a necklace that could potentially be ugly and scare people away, combined with the fact that since my brain tumor, I have been so healthy we didn’t think such a necklace was necessary meant that we never went ahead and ordered one. But after this medical scare, even I relented and agreed to wear one since I finally appreciated the truth behind that saying that life is fragile. But the necklace they ordered actually looks like it would be pretty. My information is engraved on a metal dog tag, but this tag is on a gold chain with an angel charm that I like to think of as my guardian angel watching over me. Hardly anyone has seemed to notice it, and those who do probably think it is just a normal piece of pretty jewelry. In addition to these precautions, I added one more. After getting sick a few days later when once again, the school cafeteria served fish, I will only eat fish from places that specialize in fish like Red Lobster where you can be a little more confident that the fish is fresh, and weird stuff wasn’t added to preserve it because I have never gotten sick from the fish at these kinds of restaurants.

     So I don’t mean to be superstitious, but can you see why after the increasingly scary things that happened the past two years on the night before Palm Sunday, I would wonder what God has in store for me next year before Palm Sunday? I mean, there is only one thing worse than almost dying! Does God have a “three strikes, you’re out” plan for me? Just in case, maybe next year, I should drink lots of water, take Gilbert out before dark and spend the night in the basement, or somewhere far away from any windows where a meteor could crash through and knock me in the head or something! I am just being silly of course, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt if next year, you could all pray for me!

The Dog Days of School

Hey readers, it’s Gilbert here! Have you noticed that my mom titled this journal “Gilbert and Me”, but lately all her entries have been all about her, with hardly a mention of me? Well, Mom apologized, admitting that she gets so passionate about some things she gets carried away and doesn’t think about me. So to make up for it, she is letting me write an entry about my thoughts and feelings on life, and she won’t even screen my entry, so I can say whatever I want! Don’t worry. I won’t write a long boring rambling entry like Mom does because I want to get back to sleep as soon as possible, but this is such an exciting opportunity she gave me that I had to take her up on it. So as long as my mom has been on a tangent about how crazy this school year was, especially second semester, I have to say that as stressful as it was for her, she forgot to mention that it was kind of stressful for me too.

I know what you readers are probably thinking. “Quit complaining! Once you get Mom to class, your work is done, and you get to sleep and often get pets from other students.” Alright, I’ll admit this is true. But getting her to class was pretty stressful because unlike every other semester where there is some resemblance of a routine, it seemed like every day was different. One day, we would start at Rankin Hall, and after class there, I would think I was being such a good boy taking her to the campus center so she could study like she did yesterday, only to be reprimanded and directed to Lowry Hall or Main Hall or any number of places. I guess she did have a routine with one set of places on Mondays and Thursdays, another for Tuesdays and another for Fridays. But I wasn’t trained on the days of the week, so how was I supposed to know where she was going when? After a while, I would just take her down the steps of Rankin and wait for her to give me directions. The silver lining of it was that it forced my geographically challenged, incompetent mom to know her darn campus better. I mean we’ve been traveling this campus two years now. It’s about time she did what the trainer said and directed me instead of relying on me to lead the way! But I still felt guilty because my breed is so eager to please, and I so desperately wanted to please, but didn’t know what she wanted.

And then, if she was especially swamped with homework, boy was she cranky! I am a social butterfly, so I will occasionally do naughty things like steer Mom toward the dining room when I know it is not mealtime yet, or stop and say hello to a person who has pet me in the past, or even a stranger who has another dog’s scent on them. Usually, she will make an irritated sigh, give me a gentle correction, and firmly but calmly, and with a smile say no. But this semester, I have really learned to be careful when I push her buttons, because if she is stressed, her corrections are still gentle because she is wimpy and would never want to hurt me no matter how stressed she is, but instead of retaining her calm smiling demeanor, her face gets all scrunched up and I can sense that it is all she can do to restrain herself from screaming at me. But I know she loves me, and when we get home, she always takes a moment to rub my belly and talk sweetly to me, apologizing for her irritation with me.

I felt bad for all of the homework Mom had to do. It must have been a lot since she would turn off the television and put me to bed at 1:30 on many nights and wake me up at 6:30. I didn’t feel the effects of this sleep deprivation of course since I can pretty much sleep all day, but I think I would die with only five hours of sleep a day! Boy am I glad I’m not a human in that regard! Human food is so much more delicious smelling than my food, but I’ll save that lament for another day. But another positive to my not being human is that since I didn’t have any homework to do after school like Mom did, I was in a better position to appreciate the many fun times we had last semester, like when we went to a creek to collect bugs for a science lab, and I actually got to walk through thick mud that came up to my chest, in harness! Well, my mom didn’t find that as fun as I did because she almost lost her balance a couple times and had to have two students on either side of her to hold her up and clear branches and stuff out of the way. But we both enjoyed spending a weekend with a former teacher of hers who has a house on a lake. She enjoyed catching up with this teacher and another blind friend who was also invited, but I enjoyed hanging out with eleven others of my own kind! Well, at first my mom wasn’t sure if this would be fun either because she knows how wild and excited I can get around my own kind, since I am an only child at home. She even busted out the pinch collar which she hadn’t made me wear since training, and held on to my leash so tight the first few hours that if she had held it any tighter, I would have had to yelp “You’re choking me!” But after awhile, when she sensed I was calming down, she eased up, and we all had a blast. Actually, I was only allowed to play with two of the dogs because the other dogs were tiny maltese dogs, poodles and miniature rat terriers, and the teacher and Mom feared that I wouldn’t know my own size around these dogs and would inadvertently kill or injure them. They say I’m so sweet and mellow, yet they still don’t trust me. You humans have such little faith in us, I tell you! (sigh) But I had a blast with the two friends I was allowed to play with. One was a german shepherd, the guide dog of my mom’s friend, and the other was a puppy in training to be a guide dog. They called him Geyser, and he looked like me only he was black instead of yellow. I can only play with him for small amounts of time at once because he exhausts me since he is young and wild, and hasn’t learned how to act professionally yet. I thought about cuddling up to Mom and saying “I’m getting too old for this!” But it was fun to let off some steam with my own kind, and relive memories of when I was a puppy, though I’m sure I was never that wild and mischievous when I was a puppy (smile).

Those were the big highlights of my semester, but I also found little moments to have fun while my mom was absorbed in homework. Sometimes if the weather was nice and it wasn’t too muddy, Mom would agree to let Grandpa take me out to our two acre yard and let me chase a ball and lie in soft grass for a few minutes. And since the weather warmed up a lot earlier this year than last year, even my mom would pull herself away from homework, and Grandma and Grandpa would accompany us for wonderful peaceful walks on our country road. Now that it is so hot and humid outside, my tail goes between my legs when I sense we are about to go for a walk, but back in the school year, it was warm enough to walk, but still relatively cool outside so we could return from a two mile walk feeling exercised but refreshed, not like now when Mom is dripping in sweat and I am panting a mile a minute. And, since half the purpose of the walks during school was to relax and refresh, she wasn’t overly concerned with going fast and she would let me slow down and sniff the flowers sometimes since she likes to do that herself when she is stressed. When the weather wasn’t very nice, I had some good times indoors too, like standing at attention while Grandpa was cooking meat on the stove in case he needed help cleaning up anything that splattered on to the floor, or looking out the window and barking and wagging my tail at dogs walking down the street.

This semester, I also got on more friendly terms with my sister Snickers, the cat. Did I mention that I was the only child earlier in this entry? Well, that was because at first, I didn’t think the cat should count as a sister because the rules of my dog culture say that we are supposed to be enemies, and that dogs are way cooler than cats! But I was taught as a puppy that I must be nice to them, so I am gentle around her, even though I cannot stand it when she sits in Mom’s lap and Mom talks all sweet to her instead of me! If I am really feeling jealous, I will come up to Mom and stick my nose under her chin, my way of saying, “She is my mommy! Beat it, cat!” With that, she will meow like such a baby you would think I bit her, and then run off. Mom tries to tell me no, but deep inside, I know she thinks this vice of mine is cute because she will sigh, but then reach down and pet me. Yet despite these fights over Mom, we had a lot of fun playing together. She loved to come right up to me and instigate a wild chase all over the house, and we both discovered common ground in the pleasure of standing at the window barking and meowing at animals. And, despite the fact that she is less than one sixth my size, she actually had the nerve on several occasions to sit in my cage if I was lying on the floor outside of it, and just stare at me. Grandma and Grandpa especially found this hilarious, and when they described it to Mom, they said it was like the cat was taunting me saying “Ha! Look at me! I’m in your room! What are you going to do about it?” I pretty much ignored her because I am not going to give that bully of a sister the attention she wants, and there is nothing valuable kept in my cage like food or anything. But I admit it was pretty funny. However, the big thing that proved the cat kind of liked me for a brother despite her bad experiences when her cousin Mojo used to visit was when Mom and I would be chilling out in her room with the door closed, and she would scratch at the door asking to come in too! Isn’t that sweet?

But actually, my favorite times at home were the times when I could just fall asleep on the floor leaning against the couch, so I looked almost like a human asleep in front of the television without a care in the world. Most importantly though, my mom tells me that last semester, I was more than just her guide dog. I was an unofficial therapy dog who kept her going when times were tough, and brought joy to the lives of all students, faculty and even people in the general public that we came in to contact with. I want to tell her that I almost enjoy this unofficial part of my job description even more than my official job of guide dog because I had to be trained for my guide dog duties, but I am just so cute and sweet that being a therapy dog comes naturally to me. So if Mom was sitting in class feeling blue about all the homework that awaited her when class ended, she would reach down beside my chair and pet the top of my head or scratch behind my ears, and even if I was in a deep sleep, I would always lift my head and look at her with loving eyes my best effort to say “No matter how stressful life gets, I am here for you and love you.” If she is feeling this way in the car on the way to school, I can sense it, and will stretch to rest my nose in her lap because my mom is so carefree she doesn’t mind if I leave a slobbery spot on her pants. And if she is really feeling down, I have become an expert in using well timed mischief for medicine. If a politics lecture is especially boring, and Mom is staring at the clock on the braille display of her computer, I loved to let out a huge sigh or groan, or better yet, snore so loud that Mom’s friends tell her they thought it was a chain saw outside until they looked over and realized it was me. Mom would wake me up and pretend to reprimand me so that she wouldn’t get a bad reputation for having a disruptive dog, but I saw that smile in the corner of her mouth, and the whole class, including the professor couldn’t help laughing! If my mom had groaned or snored in class, she might have gotten in trouble, but since humans think us dogs cannot help it or don’t realize the rude implications of such noises, I can tell the professor what I think without getting in trouble.

But Mom’s favorite mischief story that she still laughs about when she pets me was a day in Environmental Science when I let on to the class that I know more english than they thought I did. It was an especially boring day in that class where the teacher was rambling on about global climate change, and to make it even worse, speaking of climate, it was an absolutely gorgeous day outside, way too gorgeous for man or beast to be sitting in a stuffy classroom. What a perfect day for some mischief! But snoring and sighing was getting kind of old. I was at a loss for mischievous ideas at first, but then the perfect opportunity presented itself. After watching a short and very boring video with a teacher demonstrating how the locations of animals could shift as climate gets warmer, the professor elaborated by explaining how jaguars, who live in more southern climates could shift to northern climates where people are not accustomed to seeing them. I was just about to tune out the rest of this lecture and go to sleep, but then the professor mentioned that if jaguars are more commonplace where people are living, you could have new problems like jaguars eating dogs! What? Oh no! I didn’t know my kind was at risk of being eaten! I’m supposed to eat, not be eaten! I knew I had no real reason to worry because my mom loves me and would keep any jaguar monsters away from me. But since I am never one to pass up an opportunity for mischief, upon hearing this news, my head jerked up and I let out a mournful groan that set the whole class laughing. I let the teacher finish the class without any more mischief, but it was not as boring because the whole class was smiling at me, and after class, I was showered with pets and a whole bunch of students, Mom and the teacher assured me they would protect me from those jaguars. And actually, this mischief that put the whole class in a happy mood may have contributed to the teacher dismissing class half an hour early so we could spend more time outside, a rare special occasion that I celebrated with even more mischief.

After class, Mom and I went with one of her friends to sit under a tree and chat for awhile until our next class. Since we were outdoors, Mom decided to treat me to a few minutes out of harness so I could sprawl out, get higher quality belly rubs and soak up the sun. Usually, I stand still and patient until Mom has fully unbuckled the harness and lifted it from my back. But that day, I was so excited to be out of harness that she had only gotten as far as unbuckling the strap and had not even pulled the strap through the loop on the other part of the strap when I did a belly flop on to the lap of Mom’s friend who was already sitting in the grass, and rolled myself the rest of the way out of the harness making sure Mom and her friend knew that despite my newfound fear of jaguars, I was still as happy and carefree as ever.

Wow, this entry turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would be, so I think I will stop because I am about ready to fall asleep and drool at the computer. I know Mom always ends her entries with some sappy or philosophical thing about how the experiences discussed in the entry have impacted her life, or what her dreams are for the future. But I will just end by saying that I really don’t care what kind of routine she has next semester, or where her career path leads, just as long as she takes me with her.

My Decline in Journalistic Excellence

Well readers, as interesting as some of the things I learned in Politics were, I expected those courses to be boring and demanding at times; not quite as boring and demanding as they ended up being, but boring and demanding nonetheless. I didn’t think Environmental Science would be as difficult as it was, but going in to last semester, I expected it to be a little difficult, and knew I would hate it at times because I just don’t really care for science since it is so visual. Speaking of Environmental Science, I forgot to mention in the last entry that if you wanted to see my finished product on wikispaces, it is still available. If you couldn’t care less about my research, I understand, but if anyone is interested in reading it, my wiki page is at http://enviornmentalhealth.wikispaces.com. But anyway, Investigative Reporting, the class I took last semester to earn my last four credits was a course that I thought would be my dream class, the class that I would breeze through. Not only that, but with all of the Journalism experience I have had in the past, I thought I would be the star student of the class, with each assignment bringing me more and more confidence that I could become the next Chris Hansen or Brian Ross. Chris Hansen and Brian Ross are television journalists of course, and even though I am blind, I still would get extremely nervous thinking about all of the people listening to me and possibly judging me if I had to speak on television, so that is out of the question. But as I mentioned in an entry about a month and a half ago, as long as I can write stories that are completely true and not have to invent a character and a life for that character, I love to write, and I imagined myself doing for a newspaper or an online written publication what Journalists like Chris Hansen and Brian Ross have done for television: exposing the truth, righting injustice, and being a totally awesome representative for that fourth, and I believe most important branch of the government whose responsibility it is to keep society informed and hold businesses and governments accountable. But maybe I should back up a little bit and tell you readers the story behind my Journalistic ambitions.

I definitely was not a Journalism child prodigy. I wasn’t following the news before I could talk, or telling my parents “I want to be a Journalist when I grow up!” at the age of two or three the way some kids do. Well, I actually don’t know if there has ever been such a thing as a Journalism child prodigy like there are for sports and music, but you get my drift. Anyway, my story is nothing amazing like that. Like any child, my dreams for what I wanted to be when I grew up changed day by day. If we read a children’s book in school about doctors or hospitals, I thought it would be fun to be a nurse. If we were doing fun things in school, I would imagine myself as a teacher when I grew up and play school with my dolls. And every time an author came to speak to us in elementary school, I would think how exciting it might be to be a famous author, but of course since my creative writing skills have always been pretty mediocre, I soon decided not to waste my time on that dream, and when I got to high school and my essay writing skills really started to develop, I briefly thought about being an essayist, but decided I wasn’t going to contribute to the torture of future high school and college students, probably the only audience essayists have and an unhappy audience at that, by writing essays. So toward the end of my sophomore year of high school when it started to dawn on me that I only had two more years of school before I was off to college, and I still had no concrete idea what to study in college, which would determine what I do with my life, I was getting scared.

Then, in late March or early April of that year, I found out that junior year, I would be eligible for a mentorship program coordinated by my high school where a select group of students could spend forty hours with a person actually working in a career field that they think would interest them. At an informational meeting for students and parents interested in this program, the lady who coordinates the program said it is very competitive and they often are not able to accommodate everyone who applies. But my grades, which were a large factor in determining who was accepted in to the program, were excellent, so I decided it couldn’t hurt to apply because the coordinator said that it has been a wonderful experience for students in the past by allowing them to get firsthand knowledge of a career, the best way to determine whether or not it is the career for them. So I filled out the application, and when it asked for my first, second and third choice of career fields to explore and showed a huge list of possibilities, I was drawn to newspaper reporting. I actually didn’t know much about newspaper writing at that time because I actually hadn’t read that many newspaper articles in my life since the only method of reading that I was open to was braille, and our local newspapers are not available in braille. Now of course, I am reading a lot more newspaper articles because I subscribed to NFB Newsline, a service that makes the main stories of hundreds of newspapers all across the country available either for listening over the phone in a computer voice or on an easy to navigate website that is completely accessible using my braillenote. If I want to read an article that is not on NFB Newsline, and to my frustration, there are a lot of interesting columns that my parents tell me about which are not available through this service, I have gotten much more comfortable with accessing newspaper websites using Jaws. But for much of my life, my parents had to read articles to me, and since I didn’t want to impose on them to read to me, I didn’t read newspaper articles very often. But since I loved writing by the time I filled out this application, I knew that the newspaper writing style was something I could quickly learn, and since I had been getting Reader’s Digest in braille since I was in eighth grade, I wrote on my application essay how much I loved reading this columnist, Michael Crowley who has a column called “That’s Outrageous” in this magazine every month, where he discusses an anger arousing event like congress wasting taxpayer money or kindergartners being suspended for having a toy gun in their backpack. I also mentioned in the essay how I could see myself doing some kind of news related writing like that for a career. I didn’t mention this in the essay, but I also felt like I would do well in this kind of career because despite my lack of knowledge about the newspaper writing style, I have been fascinated by news and politics ever since September 11, an event that was my first real understanding of how much more there was to worry about than just what was in my little world of school, homework and childhood, and since I watched the news on television a lot, I couldn’t help paying attention to how these Journalists reported the news. So before I had even taken a Journalism class, I was starting to be aware of some of the mechanics of news reporting like being completely unbiased and backing everything up with statistics from credible sources or through the use of direct quotes and interviews. Television reporting is different from writing of course, but these basic principles are applicable to both, so I knew newspaper writing would be something I could easily learn. Anyway, for my second choice on the application, I put radio broadcasting because although I wasn’t comfortable with speaking, I would have been alright trying out this field because maybe I could discover that radio broadcasting isn’t as scary as I imagined it being, and the coordinator said that even if students leave the program and decide that the career field they explored was definitely not something they wanted to pursue further, coming to this realization would still make the experience valuable and worthwhile. I don’t remember what I marked as my third choice, but that doesn’t matter because I ended up getting my first choice, newspaper reporting.

It took a while for arrangements to be made, but starting in January of my junior year, I would report to the office of the editor in chief of a small local newspaper. Though this program only lasted four months, I have never felt more grown up in my life than I did in those months. The editor I mentored with had absolutely no reservations about the fact that I was blind, and I didn’t just observe him. I got to do cool stuff, like sit in on an interview with the governor and ask my own questions, sit in on a town hall meeting and a school board meeting and most excitingly, interview students at my high school and the other high school in my district to write a story about people’s opinions on a costly referendum to renovate these schools. This story was actually published in the newspaper with my own byline, and only minimal editing! This mentor gave me so much encouragement, and amazed me by telling me that my writing was better than the writing of many college interns he has worked with, so when I completed this program, I was one of the glowing students who had found the career for them. This experience gave me the confidence to write for the school newspaper my senior year, and I was one of the first to show up for the first staff meeting to write for my college newspaper. Writing for the college newspaper proved to be a little more difficult because unlike high school where I pretty much knew and was comfortable approaching every student and teacher I needed to interview for a story, in college, everyone was a stranger, and I was surprised to find that college was a lot more like the real world than I thought it would be, meaning that some of the administration that I needed to interview for stories didn’t want to give me the time of day. So my confidence wavered at times, but was boosted after I took an introductory news writing class where I got more formal education about how to write concise, relevant and informative stories, as well as gain more experience with interviewing and being comfortable talking to strangers. I was a star student in this class, and the professor actually told me about the advanced news writing class that I took last semester at the end of my freshman year before it was officially offered in the course listings, and recommended I take it. My confidence was boosted to the heavens when I wrote a story for my college newspaper last September about some housing offered to students that was in terrible condition, a story the student editor said she absolutely loved and it was the best story I had written for the paper! I had found my calling as an Investigative reporter!

But as they say, every star must fall. Actually, my star didn’t really fall because I still got an A in the class. But to get that A, I had to endure so much frustration, exhaustion and confidence deflation that the feelings of excitement and fulfillment that I was training for a noble profession, and the confidence that I had my life all figured out at the beginning of the class were replaced by feelings of discouragement and uncertainty by the end of the class. So what was behind this disappointing transformation? Well, to start with, as I mentioned back in January, this class was the first night class I had ever taken, and while I have been going to evening choir rehearsals since seventh grade, I was correct about my fear that choir rehearsal where there is a lot of standing and activity, is a lot different from a class where you are just sitting at a desk. I do love to write in the evenings, so I was absolutely fine if I was engaged in an in-class writing assignment. But these assignments were few and far between since most of our writing was based on research and interviews that we had to do outside of class. A lot of the class time was very interesting because the professor who was actually an investigative reporter at a large local newspaper, would regularly have other reporters he worked with come in and speak to the class about their experiences. For example, one reporter was a multimedia journalist which meant that he didn’t do as much writing, but was in charge of taking stories reporters wrote, and adding a creative angle to it, usually by making videos to supplement the story on the newspaper’s website. To illustrate the effects of a heat wave one summer, he made a really funny video about people roasting hot dogs on top of their cars. We also had a police reporter, and a women who won a prestigious journalism award for an investigative series published in our paper about daycare owners that were receiving state money that was supposed to be used to care for the children of poor working parents. But it turned out that many of these daycare owners were instead billing the state for kids they didn’t care for, or they would have employees of the daycare send children who could have been in school to daycare so that they could bill the state for more children and get rich. The fraud uncovered by this investigation was of such a massive scale that our state passed new laws to reform that program. The professor himself had a lot of wonderful experiences to share about the power Journalists had to initiate reform and right injustice. He even had the opportunity to investigate a man who was wrongfully convicted for murdering a woman, and when he showed us a huge box of documents he had to read for that investigation, and told us how many interviews he had to do and all of the hurdles he had trying to get these interviews, it was fascinating and a true testament to how rewarding the profession can be. But since my other classes kept me up so late every night, by the time I got to this night class, which of course had to be held in a cozy carpeted room with soft computer chairs, I was too burnt out and sleepy to really engage in the class, ask questions and show this professor, who my advisor told me would be an excellent person to use as a reference when I start looking for jobs, that I really did care about this class, and this potentially noble profession. It was even harder to stay awake when the professor spent a couple of weeks talking about computer assisted reporting, something which many professional journalists aren’t comfortable with, but something he believes will be extremely helpful for us when we get in to the field. Computer assisted reporting involved learning how to access things like court records online, and analyze data on spreadsheets. I had Jaws on the school computer, so at the beginning of the class, I was excited that I would be able to participate fully in the class activities, and follow along when the professor demonstrated things. But by the end of each class, it became clear that having Jaws, and being able to keep up with the class using Jaws are two different stories because the professor had so much he wanted to cover each class that he would just tell the other kids to click on stuff with the mouse, which they could do in an instant, and forget to show me how to find it with the keys. So it wasn’t long at all before I was left behind in a cloud of dust. Once it became clear that keeping up was out of the question, I knew I should listen and take notes so that maybe I could figure things out at my own pace when I got home, but would catch myself dozing off instead. Fortunately, my professor was wonderfully understanding and would let me do computer assignments with a partner, but I still don’t feel like I would be prepared to be a really good journalist because I never did have time to fully master these skills on my own.

But we didn’t just listen to reporters talk about their work and how they used computers to do it for this class. We had plenty of work of our own. The first couple of weeks were pretty easy since the professor gave us some assignments to just review what we had learned in the introductory news writing class which was a prerequisite to this class. So I wrote a profile of a stranger which was still a little awkward, but not too bad since I had done it before. The week after that, we were asked to take a topic in the national news, and cover it from a local angle, so I wrote a story about the Toyota recall and how it was effecting local dealerships. Of course, for public relations reasons, I could only find one person at a local dealer who would agree to an interview, and it was kind of stressful for me, and my dad who had to drive me all over creation looking for Toyota dealers. But I have experienced similar issues for other stories, so I handled it pretty smoothly in the end. But that all changed when it came time for beat reporting. For those of you unfamiliar with Journalism terminology, beat reporting basically means that you are assigned to a category like police reporting, government reporting or court reporting just to name a few, and then that category basically becomes your specialty, and most of the stories you write are for that category. I actually did get to do beat reporting in my introductory news writing class, but there were two key differences to reporting in that class versus this class. First, in the introductory class, we got to choose what beat we wanted to cover, whereas in this class, everyone had to draw from a hat, and whatever beat they drew, they had to cover, no trading allowed. And second, in the introductory class, we were simply learning how to write news stories, so someone on the government beat would just do a straight forward story about what was covered at a student senate meeting, or a police beat person would just write a story giving the who, what, where and when of a petty crime near campus like a car being broken in to or something. But for this class, being that it was an investigative reporting class, we had to find investigative stories. That, it turned out, would prove to be easier said than done. Remember a few pages ago when I told you about the awesome investigative story I wrote for the campus newspaper about the poor condition of some student housing? Well, what I took for granted at the time I wrote that story was that my editor had already done half the work for me by simply finding that story! And when I think about it now, the same was true for pretty much all of my previous Journalism experiences. Once a month when I went to my high school and college newspaper meetings, the format of these meetings was the same. The editor for each section of the newspaper would stand up and rattle off a list of story ideas they had compiled, and then, once all of the editors had presented their story ideas, writers would find the editor that had a story they were interested in, and sign up for that story. In my high school mentorship, the editor would tell me what story to write. In my introductory news writing class, we had to look for stories sometimes, but since the stories were so straight forward, they hardly required any effort to find. It turns out that often, that is not how Journalism works in the real world. The textbook chapters and the professor gave plenty of guidance on potential places to find stories, such as reading other newspapers and crime briefs, which is where I went for all of my stories, as well as just paying attention to your surroundings and getting out in the community to talk to people. But since I had to do so much research for other classes, I didn’t have a lot of time left to research story ideas, and this research actually proved to be even more difficult than the research for my politics and environmental science classes because while researching story ideas did not require ten scholarly sources, it was almost easier to face the drudgery of finding scholarly sources on a concrete topic like environmental racism than it was to research when I didn’t know what I was searching for. So often times, I wouldn’t be able to find an idea for my beat story until the very last minute. Fortunately, the professor required us to email him our story idea the week before the story was due, otherwise my procrastination habit could have really gotten me in to trouble since I don’t think I could research a story idea, get the three required interviews, and write the story in one night.

And then, once I found an idea that I thought showed promise for making an interesting investigative story, the story would fall flat once I had gotten more information from the interviews. For example, one day in March, I went to check my college e-mail when I noticed an e-mail thanking me for registering with linkedin.com. I have heard of this site before. I think it is a site where professionals can post their profiles and network with other professionals. But being that I am still a student who has not officially entered the professional scene yet, I never registered with this site. I started to panic, fearing that someone had hacked in to my e-mail account, until I realized that this e-mail was sent from the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship list serve, so everyone on this e-mail list had gotten this message. I remember thinking it seemed a little out of character for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship to register everyone with this kind of site without our permission, and sure enough, a short while later there was an e-mail from a student on the leadership team who said she had no idea what was going on either, and that Intervarsity did not do anything on linkedin.com. And then I remembered that while this was the first time a whole list serve had received spam, I have occasionally received other spam messages in the past, usually from pharmacies wanting to sell me drugs online, and it occurred to me that the spam I get, and the spam sent to the Intervarsity e-mail list could be just the tip of the iceberg on a huge problem that could potentially pose a threat to internet security at the college. What a perfect idea for a story, and I didn’t even have to comb crime reports to look for it! This incident happened right before spring break, and the story was due two weeks after we got back from break. So on the first day back from break, when I still had not heard what had become of this issue, I e-mailed the team leader and asked her if I could interview her about the incident, thinking that since she was a student, I would have no problem getting her to talk to me. But to my frustration, she had already perfected the public relations attitude just like the toyota dealers and the school administration, and said the issue had been resolved and she would rather not talk about it. That left me no choice but to simply write about spam in general, and that wasn’t much of a story. I managed to get an interview with the chief officer in the Information Technology Department who said they have software to filter out most spam, but there is no perfect software out there that can filter out everything, and how students can forward spam to the department who can try to tell the senders to stop. I also interviewed a student who said she hated receiving spam, but that she has not received any this year, and it took me two more weeks when the revisions were due to get the third source, my politics professor who I quickly interviewed at the end of class one day, and who basically said the same thing. When my professor made a comment on this story basically saying there wasn’t much of an investigative component to it, I couldn’t have agreed more, but by the time I chased down enough interviews to realize this, it was too late in the game to find a different topic.

All of my stories turned out like this, and it didn’t help that I was unlucky enough to draw the police beat, a beat which I found out from one of the guest speakers, is the beat which is often given to the least experienced reporters right out of college precisely because it is difficult and less desirable for people who have earned seniority. I was quickly discovering how right they were, and not just because a lot of cops aren’t especially friendly and don’t like talking to real Journalists, let alone students for a silly school assignment, but also because at my college, the occasional car break-in, or underage drinking in the dorm is pretty much the extent of crime, which is a good thing of course, but sadly, this lack of crime was pretty disappointing when I depended on crime for story ideas. On the due date of every story, the professor would randomly partner us up to read and edit each other’s stories, and I was always so envious of my partners who always had better beats, and much better story ideas. One partner with the business beat wrote a story about a law that would allow farmers to sell raw milk, something that has sparked passionate controversy in our state because of safety concerns, and another partner who had the government beat investigated the controversy behind the mayor’s plan to get city water from another lake since the wells the city currently uses for water have too much radium which is unsafe according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The contrast between these stories and my stories was pretty discouraging, but these beat stories were only part of the workload of this class.

In addition to knowing how to write investigative stories, the professor also believed it was important to read other people’s investigative stories with a critical eye, a skill which I would have agreed was important, if only perfecting this skill didn’t have to add another layer to Homework Mountain. Every week, in addition to our current beat story and any revisions due for past stories, we were expected to read our local newspaper regularly because just like with my American politics class, every class began with a current events quiz about local happenings. In addition, sometimes the professor would assign us an investigative series to read, which was always a lot longer than the typical newspaper article, and then answer twelve questions about the series, such as listing what primary and secondary sources were used, strengths and weaknesses of the investigation, and if there were other stories we could write that were similar to that story. These questions weren’t too hard, but since I had so much other work to do, and since even in this class, I made the beat stories my top priority, I found myself scrambling every week to answer these questions, and cram as many newspaper articles down my throat as I could, hoping that for once, I could maybe do well on the quiz, but it never worked. Inevitably, there were always two or three questions I had to leave blank or guess on simply because I didn’t have time to read everything, once again giving this teacher the impression that I didn’t care about this class, though deep inside, I cared about this class the most of all my classes. Just like with Statistics, I sometimes find myself wondering if my professor just gave me an A because he felt sorry for me, or because he was impressed with my effort, even if the fruit of this effort was nothing to write home about. I know I wasn’t alone in my discouragement because I heard other classmates complain constantly, especially about the late hours of the class, and the professor purposely made the class a little difficult so that we would experience the same frustrations and deadline pressure that real Journalists face. For doing this, I actually commended him in a reflection paper he asked us to write about the course because I would rather know what difficulties people working in a field face now rather than have classes sugar coated, and then be in for a shock when I actually got my first job in the field.

But after all of that stress and all those discouraging moments when writing my beat stories, I hate to say it, but I sort of feel the same way I did in high school before the mentorship program, uncertain of what I will do with my life. I know that in the real world, the demands of journalism will be a lot less stressful when I don’t have three other classes competing for my time. I love the fact that Journalists have the potential to right injustice and spark reform. But I have also come to the realization that for every one story that releases an innocent man from prison, there are a million stories that are pursued with vigorous excitement that is dashed by the end of the story for so many reasons, from interview sources whose public relations training only allows them to skirt around issues instead of facing them, and sources who are not public relations focused but simply won’t answer your phone calls and take your work seriously, to the fact that so much of the profession is centered around deadlines making it difficult to pursue stories with thoroughness. Add to that the fact that you are constantly hearing about journalism jobs being cut, and I am left with the disappointing feeling that a profession that is so underappreciated, with public relations people constantly standing in the way of your efforts to uncover the truth, and with so much pressure to investigate stories with such little time that I am beginning to wonder if this is really the right profession for me. I am not the kind of person that lets one class turn me off to a potentially wonderful profession, so I am going to continue pursuing this major. Maybe I am not cut out for Investigative Journalism, but even if I just wrote the straight forward story saying that a fire occurred at a house, or this is what was covered at a government meeting, I would still be doing good work by keeping the community informed, even if information alone doesn’t have the exciting potential to change the world. My parents constantly remind me that I am young so I don’t have to plan my life yet, and that there are so many career possibilities I would be wonderful at if I decide Journalism isn’t right for me. My mom and dad have even said I should think about law school because my mom especially has been impressed by some argumentative essays I have written, something she says lawyers do a lot. For awhile, I kind of halfheartedly said I might think about it, but now that I have gotten a real taste of the difficulties in Journalism, I have started to take this advice more seriously and keep my options open. And if all else fails, my love for singing is still alive and well, so I could always take the Brad Paisley route: find a few good buddies, and start a band. I’m just kidding about that. But no matter which career path life takes me down, I agree with the attitude that things always have a way of working out, so rather than fret about the uncertainty of life, I am starting to appreciate the excitement and potential rewards of a life that is not centered around getting to a concrete destination, but about enjoying the journey, or maybe even straying from the path I planned to take and not worry if it takes me to a new destination because I am finding more and more truth behind that saying which says “It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.”

Environmental Stress

Alright readers, now it is time to fill you in on the other eight credits that made second semester the craziest one ever for me! Looking back on my semester now, I realize that while my politics classes were extremely demanding, which I talked about in last Monday’s entry, one advantage to the politics classes that made them a little more manageable was the fact that they met four times a week for fifty minutes. The fact that these classes met so regularly meant that even though they still kept me up all hours of the night, at least with these classes, it was a little easier to pace myself and not fall behind because even if there weren’t assignments due everyday, just being in the class and seeing the teacher almost every day reminded me what was due when so I could stay on track. But my other two classes last semester were a different story. My environmental science class met two days a week for about two hours, and my Investigative Journalism class only met once a week from 6:00 to 9:35 in the evening. Having class less frequently meant that it was all too easy for me to forget that I had assignments for these classes until the last minute, and these teachers immediately dashed my hopes that meeting less frequently would mean less work in the class. As I mentioned in last Monday’s entry, my teacher for environmental science sent an e-mail the Saturday before the start of classes telling us to have chapter one read for the first class because there would be a quiz. I didn’t have any books sent to me from the disability services office at that time, but that was alright with me because I had no intention of starting to read the chapter until Tuesday anyway, the day when classes officially started, and my first environmental science class was on Thursday. After all, classes keep me so insanely busy as it is during the semester that I don’t think I should have to devote one second of my vacations to schoolwork. Besides, the catalog number for this course was Env120, a level 1 course, so even if I couldn’t get the chapter read, I figured the quiz shouldn’t be that hard to guess on.

Because I really am a serious student despite how much I vent about school in this journal, I sent an e-mail to the teacher telling her that I would be in her class and that I was blind. She replied right away and we arranged a meeting in her office Tuesday afternoon to discuss accommodations. I also e-mailed the disability services office and told them to make chapter one of the environmental science book a priority, and try to send it as soon as possible. The office sent it right away Monday morning, and as much as I was dreading getting back to the grind of schoolwork, vacations always help me to clear my head and forget about the stresses of the previous semester so I can start the new semester with renewed motivation. So I detached chapter 1 from the e-mail, ready to hit the ground running on it during a break between my politics classes from 10:00 to 12:00 the next morning. I shouldn’t have expected this plan to go so smoothly when this semester already promised to be a stressful one, or maybe I shouldn’t have ruined my last day of vacation with my decision to open the files after they were detached to make sure they read properly. Anyway, to make a long story short, the files that opened and read perfectly my first year and a half of college chose this semester to be weird. File after file that I opened gave me this weird message saying something about an “exception violation” and “data misalignment” whatever the heck that means. So I sent an e-mail to the disability services office informing them of this issue, and the lady who scans my books said she didn’t do anything different than what she has always done when converting the files, but tried something else and sent them again. Again they didn’t work, so the next morning instead of reading chapter 1 of environmental science on my braillenote, I had to have it read by the obnoxious Jaws man on a school computer. Actually, I take that back. By the end of the first paragraph of the chapter, I had enough of the Jaws man, so I selected the text of that file and a couple of others and pasted the text in the body of an e-mail, and for some reason, then I was able to read the files on my braillenote once I got home. Eventually the problem was resolved. I guess the original textbook files were PDF files which had to be converted in to microsoft word files, and we figured out that when the disability services lady converted the files and sent the original file, that caused the problems, but when she converted the file, and pasted the text in to a new word file, it seemed to work, or something like that. Anyway, that was the beginning of my semester. When I got home from that first day at about 1:30, I started reading chapter 1, but couldn’t get much read because I was overwhelmed and exhausted as I always am at the beginning of a new semester with new teachers and expectations. And I still had to go back to school that night for my first Investigative Reporting class.

Wednesday, I had no classes, so I should have devoted that day to reading Environmental Science, but there are only so many hours in a day, and not wanting to fall behind in my politics classes, I spent the whole day reading Chapter 3 of my American Politics textbook “Keeping the Republic”, and looking for copies of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence,, Federalist Papers, and the Gettysburg Address in braille. So, I walked in to my first Environmental Science class, already falling behind. It only got more stressful from there. One of the things I had come to like about college classes is that even though there is a lot of reading, there are generally only a few written assignments, and only one major project that you have the whole semester to work on, making it pretty manageable. But in Environmental Science, I felt like I was back in high school because there was a new assignment to do every day, and every assignment was a research project! In a biodiversity unit, despite the fact that the textbook had a lengthy description of dead zones where an excess of nitrogen from the use of fertilizers in agriculture depletes oxygen in water, and a detailed description of the most wellknown dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, everyone had to find another scholarly article about this dead zone and answer some questions about it. Another project for the same unit required us to do our own “self study” project by doing more research on biodiversity and presenting it in a creative way. I did some research on the Galapagos Islands and slopped together a brochure, which I got a B on because I didn’t present enough information, and possibly because I made no effort to get help to make it interesting with pictures or charts or anything. I just didn’t have the time, and frankly, was not going to devote all of my time to a class that was just for the university’s general science requirement, and neglect the other three classes that I would actually need for my major. There was also an assignment for that unit requiring research on the history and evolution of life on earth, using a website that was so overwhelmingly packed with links and information that my dad had to help me with the assignment. In the water unit, despite the fact that we had watched countless videos about water scarcity around the world, and read about countless situations in the textbook, we had to research three examples of water scarcity and steps that were being taken to address it, writing a detailed paragraph about each. And to add fuel to my frustration, this assignment was due the day we got back from spring break. For the unit on global climate change, we had to pick a country and complete a lengthy worksheet about the effects of global climate change in that country using research. In addition, this teacher assigned four reflective journal assignments where we were supposed to write about how we were doing on various aspects of our research for these projects, why we chose the topic we did for the “semester project”, which I will get to shortly, even how cohesive our group was for this project. Now in the grand scheme of things, writing these reflective journals wasn’t that hard, but it just seemed annoying to have to set aside time for reflecting, when I could have used that time actually doing the project. In addition, this teacher also had a “lifelong learning” requirement which meant we had to devote three hours to environmental science related activities outside class. I had no problem fulfilling this requirement because I went to a two hour presentation done by an advocate for plasmic gasification, a technique where garbage that would otherwise go to landfills can be incinerated using a special method where the energy can be converted to electricity. For the other hour, I went to a film presented by the United Nations Film Festival which comes to our college every year. The film was a documentary called “Seed Hunters”, and talked about how the vast majority of the food supply today comes from crop seeds that agriculture scientists bred to increase their yield, which they thought would address the famine issues that so many developing countries face. An unintended consequence of this however was that while breeding increased yield, it decreased the ability for plants to resist harsh climate conditions like heat, droughts and flooding, conditions that are becoming ever more severe and common because of global climate change. Some countries are already facing famine because of global climate change, and in an effort to address the issue before it gets worse, as well as save the world in the even of other catastrophes like nuclear war, there is an underground bunker which would be safe from any calamity, where the seeds for millions of grain, fruit and produce are collected, frozen and preserved. It is the goal of a small group of scientists to hunt down seeds for plants that modern farmers have stopped using years ago when they were encouraged to use seeds that produced a higher crop yield. These forgotten seed varieties could withstand harsher conditions, and with a little genetic engineering, scientists believe they could create seeds that can withstand harsh conditions and produce a high yield to continue feeding the growing human population worldwide. I suppose you readers could have done without all that explanation, but the moral of it is that these lifelong learning hours were interesting I guess. I just could have done without another thing I had to do that only exacerbated my mountain of assignments all semester.

Then, there was the science lab which I complained about having to take briefly in my statistics entry back in January, but it actually was not as horrible as I thought it would be. The worst aspect of it was the time it was held, 1:00 to 4:00 every Friday afternoon, so I had to listen to my friends talk excitedly about being done with their classes and going home to start their weekend at 11:00 in the morning while I ate lunch, knowing I still potentially had five more hours of class to go. There were a lot of boring visual activities like identifying bacteria under a microscope, and using kits to test the chemistry of water. But there were some fun times too, like when we went outside to count how many kinds of trees there were on the campus grounds, and I got to feel all kinds of samples of tree bark, or when I got to wade out in a muddy creek with some friends to kick bugs in to a net, and later feel the bugs we had caught. In a wonderful contrast to the teacher of the regular class, this teacher never gave homework and let us out an hour or so early almost every week. He was also a lot of fun to talk to after class while waiting for my dad to pick me up because he shared my enthusiasm for music, something that most science teachers in the past never seemed to care about, or at least never talked about. I also found plenty of time during this lab where I was not needed for recording and the activities were too visual for other students to describe to me, and this time I put to good use doing homework for other classes! But I couldn’t bank on getting this work time every week, so as much as I liked the teacher, and parts of the class, it was yet another annoying requirement in a schedule that was crazy enough already, almost like having an additional class, accept that since it was part of the Environmental Science class, I didn’t get any additional credit for this extra time! But the annoyance of having an extra class was nothing compared to the annoyance of the “semester project”.

The project consisted of three components. On the first day of class, the teacher gave us a survey asking about our interests and what we hoped to get out of this class. Based on our responses to this survey, we were divided in to four groups. One group would focus on issues related to waste and recycling, another group would focus on food production and land use, and another would focus on energy. My group focused on environmental health and toxicology. Then there was a day in class when each group was to come to class having read different textbook chapters that related to their topic, and each of the four groups had a different reading quiz to take. The environmental health and toxicology chapters talked about all of the chemicals present in our everyday lives, in every product that we use, and how for many of these chemicals, their effects on longterm human health are still largely unknown. The chapters also talked about chemicals that scientists already know are harmful like mercury, lead and chemicals found in plastics like baby bottles that mess up hormones. After the quiz, each group had to get together, condense all of the information from these chapters, and put it in to our own words. Then we had to use this information to create a “wiki” on this website called wikispaces.com. Wikispaces is kind of like wikipedia, but it caters to a more academic audience, so a lot of colleges and universities use this site for students to educate the general public about what they are studying. Anyway, our wiki would be graded by the teacher, and a small group of other students based on the accuracy of our information, our clarity in how it is presented on the web page, and again, creativity through the use of pictures, or links to videos to emphasize important points. Fortunately, this part of the project wasn’t too demanding for me because we got time to work on it in class, and while I helped with brainstorming and condensing information, the other group members took care of laying out our wiki page. But that was only the first component of the project. The second and third components were a different story. For the second component of the project, each group member was given a list of questions related to their topic based on current environmental issues in the news. From this list of questions, each of us had to select one question to investigate on our own. The question that I thought would be most interesting was “is a disproportionate amount of industrial waste dumped in areas where minorities and people of a lower socioeconomic status live?” The second component of the project required each group member to create an individual wiki page addressing this question using evidence from ten, yes ten, scholarly sources! To put it in perspective, a communication course I had to take first semester had a major research project, but that course number was 150 which should have been more demanding than a course numbered 120, and yet that course only required six scholarly sources! When we were given a chance to ask the teacher questions about what we needed to do for the project, a couple of other students clarified with the teacher that they had read the project instructions correctly, and unfortunately, that number was read correctly, and was not a typo. Despite the fact that I had two months to work on this project, the sheer number of sources I had to find on a college online library that takes forever to navigate with Jaws, on top of the other research assignments for this class, and the assignments for my other classes meant that research which should have been interesting and somewhat enjoyable could only be described as frantic. But I obviously wasn’t alone in my desperation because just before spring break, about halfway through the semester, the teacher announced that she had found an environmental science tutor who would be available on Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday mornings in the learning center. As embarrassed as I was to admit that I needed a tutor for a subject other than math, I swallowed my pride and went to this tutor twice. The first time I went because there was only one month left to work on the project, a point in time when I hoped to have five or six sources of information, but only had two. I couldn’t just go in to the environmental science database, search environmental racism and pick the first ten articles I saw because a lot of them weren’t relevant to what I needed for the assignment, and because when I told my teacher about the articles I had found in a reflective journal entry, she said that I had a good start, but I needed articles that supported the argument that no, minorities and people of a lower socioeconomic status are not subjected to more industrial pollution. I looked in several databases, but every single article presented evidence that there was environmental racism, so I realized I needed the tutor. The tutor was wonderful, but she could not find any evidence disputing the presence of environmental racism in the college databases either, so she pointed me to a really good article on google scholar, a database of academic articles on google. The article talked about how committees who make decisions about industry location, like zoning boards and land developers, are predominantly comprised of white people, so the interests of minorities are often unrepresented. She also pointed out some articles that I had skimmed over before because I wasn’t sure if they were relevant enough, and gave me advice on how I could use those. So, by the end of the tutoring section, I was feeling a little better. The score now was five sources, four arguing that environmental racism is present in society, but only one disputing this argument. As demanding as this class was, I will give my teacher credit for being extremely helpful because when I told her that even the tutor couldn’t find much evidence disputing environmental racism, she agreed that there is not as much disputing evidence out there, and then she actually sent me three articles that she found her own, two of which I was able to use bringing my source total to seven! One article didn’t exactly dispute the presence of environmental racism, but argued an interesting angle, which is that if too much legislation is passed that make it difficult for industries to operate in urban areas where poor people often live because of lower housing prices, and if industries do move to more rural or wealthy areas, minorities and poor people would actually be negatively impacted. This is because these people often depend on these industries for jobs, and if industries relocated to rural or wealthy areas, the jobs would leave too. The author made an argument, backed up with statistical data, that poverty shortens a person’s lifespan a lot more than the negative health effects of industry. The other article used statistical data to point out that in some areas of the United States, white people are actually the ones located closer to industries with potentially harmful health effects. So now, with only three sources left to go, I was feeling a lot more optimistic about being able to complete this project and not fail the course. I gathered a couple more random articles from the library database, and a chapter from a book I found on bookshare, an online library for people with print disabilities which I am a member of. But once I had all of my sources gathered, I was faced with another problem.

As silly as this may sound, I did not anticipate how long it would take to fully read all of my sources because when I was looking for them, I was in fullfledged gathering mode, so I had really only read the abstracts for each article. I was so relieved to have gathered all of my sources that I had let myself become complacent about staying on top of the project, and it wasn’t until the week after Easter when I realized I only had a week and a half to go before everything was due that it occurred to me I better get going. But with all that I had to do for other classes, getting these articles read was easier said than done. I did the bare minimum amount of reading to get by in my politics classes. I read late in to the evening at the kitchen table so I would not fall asleep or be as distracted by the television. I read in the car on the trips to and from school, and I read when I got to class early until the professor started talking, and even then, sometimes I would keep reading a little bit. Reading for pleasure was out of the question, even on weekends, and every night was a late night. I felt guilty if I stopped too long to eat meals, take walks or enjoy little things like when Gilbert would flop down on the floor next to me and roll on to his back with his mouth hanging open, his way of saying “rub my belly Mommy!” But I knew that if I didn’t stop and savor these moments of pleasure, I would have lost my mind because those articles were long, and often so packed full of terminology and data analysis that my brain was fried when I got to bed each night. My individual wiki page, along with an annotated bibliography with a paragraph under each source telling about the kind of information we got out of it, and a glossary with ten terms related to our topic defined in our own words were due on tax day, but on April 13 when I still had four sources to read, I was frantic again, because even I was smart enough to realize that I could not put together a wiki page, annotated bibliography and glossary in one night. So on Tuesday morning on my two hour break, I whipped up a glossary based on the sources I had read. Tuesday night, I tried to finish the articles, but with my Journalism class that night, I didn’t have time, and after class, all I could think about was sleep, so Wednesday morning, I frantically read a couple pages of each source and decided that I would have to make do with that. That was also the morning I realized that I had no idea how to format my bibliography because the style manual the teacher wanted us to use was not available electronically for me yet, so back to the tutor I went. Once again she was extremely helpful, and I was able to type up the bibliography relatively quickly. I asked my parents if I could stay at school until my wiki was done because a couple of my group members and I wanted to ask the teacher a few last minute questions, but also because I so desperately needed to get this project done that if my home computer decided to do something stupid like not access the internet, or erase my work, my mood would not be pretty. Sure, there could still be issues with the school computers, but at least I would have access to professionals who would know how to resolve the situation or at least keep me calm better than myself or my parents could, and computer issues often effect a whole system so I would not be alone in my frustration. So I stayed at school until 6:30 that evening on a day that was usually a peaceful day at home since I didn’t have classes, writing up all of my research findings, putting them in to bullet points, and pasting it in to my wiki page along with my bibliography. Once again, my wiki wasn’t spectacular because despite all of the time I had put in to it, I had no time or energy left to care about my creativity grade. But I had reached that point in the semester where all that mattered was that it was done, a weight off my shoulders! In a week and a half, there would be one more component of the project, an oral presentation for the class, but I slept a beautiful sleep that night because the hardest work was done! Now I am always excited at the end of a semester, or when I finish a huge project for a class. But since this class took the meaning of demanding classes and huge projects to a whole new level for me, I was so excited, I was almost giddy as I sat down after my presentation. There was a final exam for this class a week later, but I had no ambition left to study, and I think that for the first time all semester, the teacher felt sorry for those of us who were misled by the course number because the test was a breeze. Well, I apologize that this entry has gotten longer than I meant for it to, and I still have four credits to go! So don’t go away readers. I guess this crazy semester still necesitates one more entry because on top of the political pressure, and the environmental stress of a level 1 course that all of my friends and I agreed should have been classified as a level 3 course, I still had to make time for Investigative Journalism.