American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2015      TEACHING AND LEARNING

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Teaching Justin

by Heidi Musser

Heidi Musser and Justin sit at the piano.From the Editor: A native of Chicago, Heidi Musser is a triathlete who was nominated for the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame. In recent years she has reduced her training in swimming, biking, and running to focus on classical piano and volunteering to teach blind children Braille, piano, and swimming. This article is based on a composition she wrote for a class at Oakton Community College.

I have discovered that it is important to help people whom society thinks of as broken--children or adults--by helping them feel accepted, giving them a sense of belonging, and respecting them for who they are and what they have to contribute. The greatest emotional pain is caused by rejection and the feeling that nobody wants you. I experienced rejection and misunderstanding throughout my elementary and high school years.

Justin came into my life in October 2008 when he was twelve years old. I remember distinctly the first day he came to my home. My mother says she fell in love with him as soon as he and his mother walked into our living room. Justin was blind, autistic, and unable to speak. There was very little that he could do or wanted to do. He could walk and move around, but he showed no eagerness about doing anything.

At first I did not know how to interact with Justin. Then I started to play the piano for him. When he heard me play, our relationship started to take off. I played on my grand piano in the living room, and my mother guided Justin to my old upright piano in the dining room. When I pressed the middle C, Justin surprised me by playing the C one octave lower. That told me something! It told me that Justin has a good ear. It did not take long before he could find all seven Cs on the piano keyboard. Right then, my mother and I decided we would like to give him my old piano as a gift. A friend agreed to transport it from our Chicago home to Justin's home in the suburbs for no charge.

Justin started coming to my house once a week. His mother told us that his enthusiasm for daily practicing on the piano soared immediately. He would improvise and sound out songs on the piano by himself. He played songs he knew from school, such as our national anthem. He also played melodies he had stored away in his mind after hearing me play them for him or listening to them on TV, radio, or CDs. He had fun following his creative impulse like never before in his life.

Sitting together on my double piano bench helped Justin and me build a close bond, so important to healing social isolation. Over the next few months, I discovered that Justin could easily follow my hands as I played in major and minor keys. To my surprise, he figured on his own where the sharps and flats needed to be played. The only difference in our playing was that I used my ten fingers, while he used mainly the right index finger and, rarely, the right middle finger. He does not like to use his left hand. I assume this is due to a lack of coordination. I hope I will succeed in getting him to play with all the fingers of both hands in the future. Lately he has surprised me by using the index and middle fingers of his left hand without any coaxing.

Teaching Justin to write Braille was utmost on my mind. Many of the educators did not believe that he was capable of learning, and I was determined to prove them wrong. Justin's mother accepted my mother's suggestion that she teach herself Braille and then teach her son. In addition to holding two jobs, she became dedicated to helping her son learn Braille. She deserves big applause!

Heidi and Justin together outdoors.I also was determined to get Justin into the pool at my YMCA. I wanted to introduce him to swimming and physical exercise in the water to improve his coordination all around. Initially, his mother said she was afraid that Justin would catch cold. My mother and I persevered. We discovered that the real reason for her fear was that she was a non-swimmer and afraid of the water in the pool. Justin learned more quickly than his mother, and soon he could put his head underwater. Now they both enjoy swimming in the deep end of the pool. Justin swims length after length with me, holding onto my waist with both hands. He is very relaxed. My mother generally swims next to us to keep close watch. Because his kicking with his legs is still not strong, I help him put a pull-buoy between his thighs. His breathing is surprisingly regular and good. He can hold his breath for an unusually long time underwater.

At the start of the 2014-2015 school year, a new Braille teacher was assigned to Justin. About three weeks into the semester, Justin's mother informed us with great excitement that his new teacher agreed that Justin is doing well in writing Braille, including contractions. Wow! I have proved that Justin is intelligent! He can reason, and he is capable of learning Braille. His life will be very different from now on. He can express his feelings and wants by typing Braille, learning the correct spelling of words and usage of Braille contractions. That's big! He also uses a device called the Fusion that speaks the words he types.

Sadly, only 10 percent of blind children nationwide learn Braille. Couldn't this problem be solved by inviting blind adults who know Braille to come to schools as mentors for blind children? The common bond of blindness did the trick for Justin! Blind teacher/mentors could earn a paycheck working at the schools part-time. Why aren't there more workshops for parents of blind children to learn Braille? Many parents would enjoy helping their children with Braille just like Justin's mother and mine did.

I feel I have my work laid out for me, supporting Justin's Braille teacher. I plan on meeting with Justin in the pool and at my home at least once a week. In my home environment I can give Justin the opportunity to fine-tune his sense of touch. I give him a chance to handle items with which he is not familiar. Through touch blind children need to become familiar with items about which they are reading and learning. For example, during the previous school year, one of Justin's teachers was reading E. B. White's book Charlotte's Web to the class. I discovered that Justin had no idea what a baby bottle feels like or how a baby drinks from it. Yet he was expected to answer questions about Fern, the girl on the farm, feeding Wilbur, the baby pig, with a bottle.

What was my formula for success? While the educators made a long list of things Justin cannot do, Justin's mother, my mother, and I added up a list of things he can do. Six years ago, when we met, Justin's heart was filled with tension, fear, and loneliness. In his book From Brokenness to Community (Paulist, 1992, p. 13), Jean Vanier points out, "If a child feels unloved and unwanted, he or she will develop a broken self-image."

When he began visiting my home, Justin started to enjoy being part of a community, a community of my family and his. Often we ate delicious, home-cooked Burmese meals that his mother, who was raised in Myanmar, prepared for us. Justin loved my mother's banana bread and apple pie with lots of freshly whipped cream. We made sure he could take some of our dessert home for his father, proudly carrying the package himself. For Justin's birthday celebrations his father and my father joined us.

Justin's eye rubbing and arm flapping have become less frequent. When he starts a tune on the piano, I figure out what he is trying to play. Then I play back his melody with left hand accompaniment. Sometimes his smiles are as wide as back to his ears, according to my mother. I never know what he will come up with. Just recently he wanted me to play Verdi's "March of Triumph" from the opera Aída. Another time it was parts of the Brahms “Requiem.” Most often we end our piano sessions with the Brahms “Lullaby,” with which he is well acquainted. His mother sang it to him when he was in intensive care as a baby. He was born premature at twenty-six weeks gestation.

Being part of our community has helped Justin feel that he can contribute to the lives of other people. Justin sure helped me discover the immense joy of giving of myself. He has helped me heal some of the emotional wounds inflicted upon me by teachers who lacked training to work with a congenitally totally blind student and did not value my God-given gift for a classical music education.

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