Future Reflections        Summer 2013

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What Worked and What Didn't

by Rick Fox

From the Editor: Rick Fox is an instructor at the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, a program affiliated with Baruch College of the City University of New York. With his wife, Debbie, he runs B&F Teaching and Technology, a business that provides access technology training and Braille instruction. He serves as vice president of the Northern Chapter of the NFB of New Jersey. This article is based on Rick's presentation on January 31, 2013, to a group of aspiring teachers of the visually impaired in the NFB's Teachers of Tomorrow Program.

Rick FoxIt is an honor to speak to future Braille teachers. Reading is not only a key to my educational and professional productivity, but one of my life's greatest pleasures. I have many dedicated Braille and classroom teachers to thank for this.

Though I have spent fifty-eight years on this earth, I don't claim to know the keys to success in this mystery we call life. But I can point to a few guiding principles that my parents and teachers, in their best moments, laid down for me: self-respect, independence, self-confidence, and high expectations. Whatever they did to uphold these principles helped prepare me for a happy and productive adult life, and anything they did to undermine them was a hindrance. I will describe events in my early life, some that helped me and some that did not.

We have a motto in the NFB: It is respectable to be blind. I believe that being comfortable in your own skin is the cornerstone to a mature and well-adjusted personality. The respectability of blindness needs to be reinforced in our children repeatedly, through word and deed, since it runs counter to our cultural assumptions and to our natural desire to be like everyone else.

The Road to Confidence

I was born two months premature, and I lost my sight at birth due to retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). Children love to hear happy stories about their origins, and I was no exception. At my repeated nagging, my mother would tell me about her fear for my very life when she went into early labor. She would tell me how my father, college football hero and US Marine during World War II, came into the delivery room to check on her and proceeded to pass out on the floor. She would describe how she was befriended by the pastor of the church our family joined and attended throughout my childhood, and how I grew from a tiny wrinkled thing to the handsome big boy I was today. This happy story, linking my birth and my blindness to a unique bond with my mother, a sense of humor, and the love of God, was the basis of my budding childhood self-respect. For this, I owe my mother an eternal debt of gratitude.

In the home where I grew up, there were certain words that we just didn't say. Most of these words had four letters, but one had five: the word blind. When my mother presented me to a salesperson to help me try on an article of clothing, she would say, "He doesn't see." This fear of the word blind corroded my self-respect. If there was something wrong with blindness, there must be something wrong with me.

When I entered fifth grade, the New Jersey Commission for the Blind wanted to introduce me to cane travel training. At first my parents were hesitant. They associated the cane with blind beggars. Their boy was getting around just fine--notwithstanding a few bloody bruises and knocked-out teeth. They were not sure they wanted their son to look blind.

A mobility instructor came to our house and spoke about my need to travel independently in college, to take buses and subways by myself, and to travel to and from work. After the instructor left, I heard some intense whispering from behind my parents' closed bedroom door. My father emerged and uttered words he would repeat many times thereafter, "Ricky, your mother and I will not always be around to provide for your well-being and security. You must learn to be independent so you can provide for yourself." From then on my parents were more than supportive concerning my travel training. On velvety spring evenings, my mother would walk with me and ask me to show her what I had learned in recent mobility lessons.

I considered my mobility instructors to be some of my greatest coaches. Spatial intelligence was not my strongest suit. My instructors challenged me to practice and improve, and I thrived under their tutelage.

By the end of my sophomore year of high school, I had completed nine months of weekly mobility lessons in Asbury Park, a small city near my school and home. I had grown pretty confident handling a busy downtown with public transportation, plenty of retail and commercial businesses, and some busy intersections controlled by traffic lights.

That summer my family sold the only house I knew and rented an apartment in Asbury Park while we awaited the completion of our new home. I told my mother that I wanted to practice what I had learned in all those mobility lessons by taking solo excursions through the city. As far as I remember, she didn't seem at all concerned, and just told me to be careful.

I never had a more exhilarating time than that summer of freedom. I had a steady summer job playing the organ in a gin mill by night, and I roamed through my newly adopted town by day. I strolled the boardwalk near the ocean, with stops to sample Belgian waffles. I took the bus to meet friends and teachers, and I met friends and relatives for lunch at my favorite restaurants. What freedom and growing self-confidence!

Since then, I have lived, studied, and worked in Rhode Island, California, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, New York again, and finally New Jersey once more. I owe my independence and confidence to my parents' decision on that night when I was in fifth grade and their committed support as I grew up.

Undermining the Foundation

I was born and raised in a family of high achievers. My father went to school with a blind man who became a successful judge, and he hoped I would do something similar. As I've said earlier, I had wonderful Braille instruction and good travel training. Yet, there were consistent forces and influences in my early years that conveyed messages of shame, incompetence, and inferiority due to my blindness. These forces were strong and consistent enough to impair the growth of my character, hamper the acquisition of vital skills, and blow a gaping hole in my self-confidence as I reached adulthood.

Because I was blind, a few of my teachers silently conspired with me to give me grades I did not earn. They knew it and I knew it, though we never spoke about it. My sixth-grade teacher tested me orally at times when the rest of the class took a quiz in their seats. I usually did pretty well, but if not, she all but told me the correct answers with hints and her tone of voice.

During the first week of school, my eighth-grade math teacher asked me how I proposed to take his tests, which he handed to me in print. "No problem," I said. "I'll do the test with a reader at home."

The system worked fine until I was out sick for a couple of days and missed learning a key concept. Too embarrassed to ask for extra help, I found a buddy, an A student, who agreed to fill out all of my subsequent math tests for me. My math teacher must have been aware that something like this was going on. Though I failed all properly proctored tests, such as finals and midterms, and couldn't participate effectively in class, I ended up with a C at the end of each marking period. My math buddy stayed with me in classes until the end of my pathetic math career, and he was always there to lend a "helping hand." All future math teachers were similarly cooperative.

By the time I approached high school graduation, I had been taught two diametrically opposed philosophies of blindness and ways to look at myself, philosophies that would compete inside me for supremacy for years. The positive philosophy said I would go on to college, where I would get ready for a job, a family, a home, and all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. When my parents and most teachers expected high standards of achievement and behavior from me and held me accountable for falling short of those standards, they were telling me they had faith in my abilities to function effectively as an adult and to live a full and happy life. When I succeeded, my self-confidence got a boost, and their faith in me became my belief in myself.

The negative philosophy said that blindness would prevent me from reaching my potential in every area of life. When some teachers gave me grades I did not earn and did not hold me accountable for bad behavior, they were teaching me that my blindness prevented me from meeting their usual standards, and that I wouldn't be able to cut it in the real world as an adult. Whenever that lesson was taught, it eroded my self-confidence, not to mention the skills I was supposed to learn.

In college, my self-doubts often overpowered my self-confidence and sense of adventure, resulting in a paralyzing depression. "What makes you think you can succeed here or anywhere else?" the negative voice would sneer derisively. "Whenever the going got tough, somebody was always there to give you the right answer or erase your zero or take your test for you. You're a fake, a phony, a fraud. Your idea that you can compete effectively as a blind person is a sham, so don't even try."

A Positive Philosophy

The road to recovery from depression is often circuitous, but the NFB was prominent in mine. Who would be more qualified to help me sort out my feelings about blindness than other blind people with similar experiences and a tested, successful philosophy? When my self-confidence was at its lowest and I was about to give up, the NFB's insistent message of optimism, high spirits, high standards, and love for one another helped me hold on and keep going.

I finally learned that forgiveness—of myself and others—is the best way to be free from the shackles of the past. I learned to live in the present and concentrate my energies and hope upon the future.

My parents never knew about these actions of mine. It never would have occurred to them that some teachers would behave as they did. Please guard the future of your blind students by knowing what kind of work they're doing and how they're doing it. Are their teachers holding them to the same standards as the rest of the class?

I hope you can profit in some small way from my experiences. Thanks for listening. My best wishes for your success and happiness and for the success and happiness of your future students.

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