Future Reflections Spring/ Summer 1986, Vol. 5 No. 2

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Introduction: Occasionally my children will ask me, "What was it like when you were a little girl, mom?" So, I tell them some stories about my girlhood. Often they are amused and intrigued by experiences that are foreign to them (What's an outhouse!?). But they are always pleased, and somehow comforted, when they discover that some things never change. Little boys didn't like to sit next to "girrrllls!" then either and, yes, mom too was teased because she wore glasses.

This interview takes us back to the school, days of Ruth and Wally Schroeder (Mrs. S and Mr. S), both of whom have been blind since birth and were educated in residential schools in the twenties and thirties. They are both staunch federationists of many years. Ruth taught homemaking and cooking at the Iowa Commision for the Blind many years. She wrote an excellent article entitled, "Let Your Blind Child in the Kitchen, Mom" for Future Reflections several years ago. Doris Willoughby (Mrs. W), teacher of blind children and prominent author of literature for parents and educators of blind children, conducted the interview for this article.

I suggest that parents and teachers share this with their school-age blind children. Like my children, they will have fun comparing the "old" days with today. I think you'll find it enjoyable and instructive, too.

By the way, the title comes from an old rhyme which somehow seemed appropriate for this occasion.

"School days, schools days, Good old golden rule days. Reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic Taught to the tune of a hickory stick."

Mrs. W: You had started learning Braille at the Iowa School for the Blind in 1919, and then in third grade you moved to Illinois and went to the residential school there.

Mrs. S: Yes. By that time I knew Braille. And of course I started Braille music in the third grade, because if you wanted to take piano you had to have Braille music.

I was using "English Braille." Now, that's something I want to tell you about. you see, the problem was, in Philadelphia they were using "American Braille." Now, American Braille had dots like English Braille, but they wanted to have fewer dots in the letters that were used most frequently. So it was just like English Braille to feel, and yet you couldn't read it.

Mrs. W: You mean that the same dot arrangement would mean something different in the two kinds of Braille?

Mrs. S: Yes, yes. So when I was at the Illinois school I was taught English Braille, but they were were also using American Braille. In some places they used mainly American Braille. But in Boston, they used Boston Line Type. In New York they used New York Point--and you know, when I was at the Iowa school some of their older students were still using New York Point. And you see, that was the problem--if you went from Boston to New York to Philadelphia, the blind person couldn't read!

Mrs. W: Oh, my! Now I know what New York Point was. As I understand it, it was two dots high instead of three dots high as we have it now. And as you moved along from left to right, different letters and things might be different widths?

Mrs. S: Yes, that's right. You made your own divisions.

Mrs. W: O.K. , but what was Boston Line Type?

Mrs. S: Well, it was raised print and very hard to read.

Mrs. W: Oh. The same as Moon Type? I've seen that.

Mrs. S: No, not really. Moon Type was another kind of raised print, using parts of the shapes of the print letters. I'm not just sure where they were using that. And, you know, although any kind of raised print is hard to read, the worst thing is that there's no way for the blind person to write it.

Mrs. W: You learned to write Braille, of course.

Mrs. S: Yes. We used a board slate and stylus, really the same as we use today, some people had Hall Writers, but I never used one. And the Perkins Braillers came in much later.

So, anyway...in the early thirties they had a big conference in Europe. I remember Mr. Rhodenburg was our specialist in Braille printing--the Illinois school was a leader in Braille production, and sent things out to other states too. Well, Mr. Rhodenburg was sent to Europe to represent the United States. And when that conference was over, everybody had to give up all the old systems and use "Standard Revised English Braille." I can remember them throwing those American Braille books out the window, from fourth floor down onto the patio!

Braille music stayed the same. But the words were still in American Braille. So we could read the music, all right, but the words wouldn't mean anything to us.

Mrs. W:Now, when did recorded material come in?

Mrs. S: I remember when Eber Palmer came out from Batavia, New York with the first Talking Book. It was big and heavy, and it didn't have perfect sound like they do today. And you needed a new needle for each record. But we thought it was really something. The whole school was called in to the auditorium for a demonstration. That was in 1932 or 1933. But I never tried to get one myself until they became popular in about 1940.

Mr. S: But I used talking books from about 1934 to 1938.

Mrs. W: Did you learn to type?

Mrs. S: Yes... I must have learned in about the seventh grade.

Mrs. W: Were you taught to write your signature, with a pen?

Mrs S: No. You know who taught me? My husband. Or, I should say, the boy who became my husband. We were in English together, and he always carried a pen or pencil. I would borrow it and write "Ruth"--I guess my parents and taught me to write that. And he would say.« "Why don't you write 'Ericson' too?" So he taught me to write "Ericson." I think it's terrible not to be able to sign your own name.

Mrs. W: I take it you had a pretty wide curriculum. You've mentioned some science courses , and math, and Home Economics. Was Industrial Arts offered?

Mrs. S Oh, yes. But it wasn't like our present-day shop. It was chair caning, and basketry, and weaving, and piano tuning--I don't know of anything else. Land, no! They wouldn't let you near a saw.

Mrs. W: ...Now, how about travel, cane or otherwise?

Mrs. S: Oh, no. As kids we weren't even shown canes. We just fought our way around school.

As I remember, you could not go downtown, if you were a totally blind person, unless a "partial"--that is, someone with partial sight--took you. So you had to go on somebody's arm. Of course, girls could hardly ever go downtown anyway.

Mrs. S: "Partials" were really the "King Tuts."

Mrs. S: Yes, that got to be bad. They were depended upon.

Mrs. S: Yes, I can see that now, but I didn't at the time.

Mrs. W: Now, you mentioned that girls were not allowed to go to town as often as boys. Tell me more about the differences in rules for boys and for girls, and seperation of boys and girls.

Mrs. S: Well, at the Illinois school, the high school girls would line up outside the classroom door while the guys just went in and sat down. We were kept out until the teacher got in there. But when I moved back to the Iowa school, I really was shocked and happy because you just came to class, from different directions, and sat down. And that's when you got a chance to learn how to write "Erickson." And you sat where you wanted. You did not at the Illinois school--the girls sat on one side, and boys on the other. And you didn't even direct a question--say, if Victor said something, you couldn't say, "Victor, did you do such-and-such?" You would say, "Mr. Flood, did Victor..."

Mrs. W: Oh, my!

Mrs. S: But then in Iowa we had skating parties and Halloween parties, and our classes were together. At that time the Iowa school was much more liberal than the Illinois school. Of course, we didn't ever go downtown together, and the girls could go much less often.

Mr. Palmer wanted us to have a regular life. I remember that when we were small--before I moved to Illinois and back--he used to teach us to play. You know, blind children--especially in an institution--they didn't really know how to play in the usual ways. So he bought us coaster wagons and sleds, so that we could learn how to go down a hill on a sled or coaster wagon. And he taught me how to play jacks and jump rope. He would come out and make sure we learned.

Mrs. W:Was this the same Mr. Palmer you mentioned earlier?

Mrs. S: They were father and son. Eber Palmer was the young man. He was the superintendent of the New York school, and he was the one who came out with the Talking Book. His father was Francis Eber Palmer, and he was the head of the Iowa School. My, we do remember him with such respect and affection.

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