Future Reflections       Special Issue, Extracurricular Activities      STRETCHING THE LIMITS

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Finding My Niche

by Chris Nusbaum

Chris NusbaumFrom the Editor: The teen years are a time for questioning assumptions and exploring possibilities. For most teens, the quest to belong can be painful as well as exciting, and blindness may compound a teenager's concerns about fitting in. In this article, Chris Nusbaum, a high school student from Maryland, writes about his search for connection and fulfillment through extracurricular activities at school and beyond.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a niche as "a comfortable or suitable position in life or employment." Such a position is often quite difficult to find, as most of us can attest who are in the process of deciding on a career.

During the teen years the world quite literally opens up to us. From the time we enter high school our teachers and parents bombard us with a vast array of possibilities, asking again and again, "Which will you choose?" Not only do we face this array of choices regarding careers, we also can choose among a tantalizing range of extracurricular activities. Sports, music, service organizations, drama, summer camps, internships, work experience programs--all of these and many more become available to us on the day we enter that previously unknown universe of high school.

While it is comforting to know that we have so many opportunities to use our unique talents and interests, it can also become overwhelming. When blindness is a factor, it adds some issues that make the choices even more complex. In my experience, the excitement of these limitless possibilities is sometimes curbed by the low expectations of those in charge. Too often in my early years of high school, I joined an extracurricular activity with all the enthusiasm, passion, and ambitions of my sighted counterparts, only to have my determination squelched by those who, because of their ignorance about blindness, prevented me from becoming a full participant. I was left constantly searching for an activity where I truly could fit in and contribute.

My journey began in my freshman year. Each year our school has a period when all the clubs advertise their activities, and students can sign up for those that interest them. Encouraged by my middle-school teachers, I signed up for a number of clubs that appealed to me, from the Leo Club to the Student Government Association to the Future Educators of America. Through those activities came many friendships, some lasting to this day. I met students who shared my interests, talents, and passions. Having made these connections, I was often invited to hang out with friends after school and jam with my fellow chorus members during whatever down time we had in chorus class. Never was I alone at the lunch table that year. There was virtually no hesitation about accepting me for who I am, blindness notwithstanding. The teachers and club advisors were a bit harder to convince, but even they eventually came to realize that I could participate fully in all aspects of extracurricular life.

Meanwhile, I was becoming more and more active in the National Federation of the Blind. During middle school I attended a youth program at the Jernigan Institute. It changed my life and gave me an unquenchable passion for the organized blind movement, especially as it relates to students. In November of my freshman year I was elected to the board of the Maryland Association of Blind Students, and I continue to serve there today. My involvement in the Federation awakened me to the constant need to educate the public. I tried to do my part to change what it means to be blind, using my involvement in school activities to raise awareness about the true capacities of blind people. When my attempts to connect school clubs with the NFB failed, I formed my own club. Called the Braille Club, it was meant to respond to the curiosity sighted students have about Braille by giving them an opportunity to learn the code. I envisioned this club as a conduit for collaboration between my high school and the Federation.

At first, the response to this club was overwhelmingly positive. Twenty members were on the roster within two weeks. Attendance soon began to dwindle, however, and even those who at first seemed most interested lost their enthusiasm. To my disappointment, the club ceased to function. I remained undeterred, however, and kept up my busy extracurricular schedule. If freshman year was any indication, I thought, high school was going to be great.

The summer after my freshman year I attended the Summer Training and Employment Project (STEP) at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Brimming with new skills and fresh confidence, I returned to Maryland ready to take on the world. I thought my friends from freshman year would welcome me back with open arms, and others would gravitate to me because of my newfound independence. As I raised my expectations for myself, I also raised my expectations for my sighted peers.

Unfortunately, by sophomore year most of my peers had found the social cliques that are so characteristic of high school life. These exclusive circles always hung together, letting in no outsiders. I felt that my blindness, along with the many other characteristics that make up my personality, made me something of an anomaly in the high school community. I began to feel myself slipping into that awkward position known so well to many teenagers. I wandered around on the fringes of high school society, without a place I truly could call my own. I had lost any sense of belonging. I began to accept anyone who would accept me, even if it meant feeling that I was in the wrong crowd. Sociability and communication are among my greatest assets, and this was not a position I liked.

The most curious examples of my sudden shift in status came from the choir and the Leo Club. At the end of ninth grade I auditioned for and won spots in the two most advanced choirs in the school. I was very excited about this new opportunity. I thought I would be able to make new and more lasting friends. Here was a group of students with common interests. Clearly the choir members cared about cultivating their talents—after all, they had made it to the top of the musical ladder.

What I found, however, was wholly unexpected. Instead of an accepting community with a common purpose, I found the most cliquish group of people I had ever encountered. The choir members seemed to regard me as an alien species, completely separate from and unequal to themselves. They accepted some of the new choir members into their seemingly secret society, yet they ignored me as though I were not even there. What a disappointment! Even the teacher seemed to support their exclusivity. It appeared to me that the teacher created a gulf between the popular choir members and the outcasts, who were neither considered for solos nor asked to critique a performance. I began to feel completely cut off from the world I could most relate to—the world of vocal music. I even considered dropping the class.

Then I met another singer who felt that she, too, was a stranger in a strange land. She asked me to help her with a musical project she was working on in her spare time, and the rest is history. We are now actively dating and closer than ever before.

Even more disappointing was the Leo Club, the high school equivalent of the Lions. I joined the club in my freshman year because the tradition of Lion membership runs deep within my family. Furthermore, I thought the club would be the best avenue for collaboration with the Federation to educate the public about blindness. Shortly after the founding of the international organization, Helen Keller, the renowned deaf-blind advocate and author, issued a challenge to the Lions to be "knights of the blind," working on behalf of blind people everywhere. Our first Lion advisor recommended me for a position on the club's board, to which I was soon elected.

Things went very well until a new advisor was assigned to us at the beginning of my sophomore year. After this change, every attempt I made to do something beneficial for the blind was shot down. I heard the argument that the population of blind people in our area was too small to warrant any real service efforts by our club. Eventually I gave up these attempts, choosing to focus my efforts on the club's current service projects. Even then, however, I found myself relegated to an ever lower status in the club's work. When opportunities for volunteer work arose, I was told that, for safety reasons, a blind person should not serve in the same capacity as a sighted person. The blind, the advisor reasoned, were a population to be served by philanthropic organizations such as the Lions, rather than a population with the capacity and the desire to serve our fellow human beings. As our advisor told me in a particularly revealing conversation, "You're already missing out on enough in life because of your blindness. Just relax and let us serve you." When I ignored her paternalistic admonitions and showed up at service projects anyway, I was told to sit and wait to be given a job. That job, of course, never came.

It wasn't long before I decided that the life of a second-class Leo was not for me. I resigned my membership in the Leo Club to focus on more beneficial projects. However, I began to despair about my extracurricular involvement. I felt that virtually every school organization I had joined had been a disappointment. I wanted so much to serve my community alongside my classmates, but I seemed to encounter resistance, discouragement, or outright refusal at every turn. I began to wonder whether I would have to give up all school activities, focusing my energy on the Federation and my church.

Then came an opportunity I had been trying to earn since the beginning of my high school career. I was invited to apply for membership in the National Honor Society (NHS). NHS is an invitation-only organization for students who exhibit a commitment to the ideals of "scholarship, leadership, service, and character." With the help of the president of our Maryland NFB affiliate, who wrote one of my letters of recommendation, I was inducted into the organization in May of my sophomore year. In this organization I finally found a home in the extracurricular life of my high school. At long last I have found a group of students and adults who work together as a team, treating all members equally. I am now actively engaged in many service projects through the NHS, and I immensely enjoy my involvement in this organization.

As I write this, I am nearing the end of my junior year. Looking back on my past year of extracurricular activity, I observe that some things have changed, while others have remained the same. In school I have continued my involvement in the NHS, and I have found that the new year has had no adverse effect on my inclusion in our programs. I am no longer a member of the Leo Club, and I am much happier for it. In choir the other students have begun to accept me as one of their own, and I have had some fun experiences with those who ignored me the year before. There are still some times, however, when I feel like an outsider looking in during choir rehearsals and social times. I also have begun to take it upon myself to participate in some community activities, even if I am not doing it as part of a school club.

Through my entire high school journey, with all its ups and downs, one thing remains constant—the support and love of the extended family I find in the National Federation of the Blind. In this organization I have found a dynamic and diverse group of people who welcome me with generous hearts, accepting me for all that I am. I have found people who do not judge me because I am different or less knowledgeable than they are. They embrace the whole of my character, flaws and all. This extended family challenges me to raise my expectations of myself and realize my full potential. Seldom have I heard anyone in the Federation say "You can't," but frequently I have heard people tell me, "You can."

The most significant change that has come about this year is that finally I have found my niche. My niche is in mentoring blind children and their families, showing them by word and deed that it is respectable to be blind. My niche is in working with our future leaders to help them realize their full potential, challenging them as so many others have challenged me. My niche is in building our movement and proclaiming our message of hope. My niche is in the National Federation of the Blind.

I believe that everyone has a niche—a small part of this vast world in which we are meant to make a difference. None of us is destined to change the entire world, but we are called to change our own small part of it. Therefore, let all of us—student or parent, old or young, blind or sighted—find our own niche and begin to make a difference through whatever role we are called to play. Together we will transform dreams into reality.

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