What No One Tells You About What Really Matters in Life

Learning to Read Braille

Teaching Really Matters

Since teaching wasn’t my first choice in a career I didn’t fully realize the significance of my work. In 1989 I was recruited to take the position of Teacher of the Visually Impaired for two school districts who had established a co-op. This required that I return to college, yet again. I had already completed a master’s degree and this was with great effort and expense. So when I was asked if I would consider this new position I had to give it lots of thought. I spent October 31, 1989 visiting schools and meeting several children with visual impairments.

On January 20, 1990 I began a totally new career. Little did I realize how this turn would change my life. I met exceptional students and their parents. They inspired me!

An excerpt from my book, Living Learning Loving

On that introductory visit in October 1989, I met three year-old Amanda. She was exceptionally articulate, and with great expression, she recited a Halloween poem for me. Her golden curls rested lightly on her tiny shoulders, (shoulders that would carry many burdens in the years ahead). Her adorable attitude, at least in part, was what drew me to accept the position of teaching the visually impaired for two school systems including numerous students on various campuses.

Amanda was born totally blind, a result of Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. She was a bright student, and attended regular classrooms even though modifications had to be made in her lessons and materials. She was delightful most of the time, but other times she became frustrated with a world she couldn’t see and didn’t understand.

Her lack of understanding for the sighted and visual world caused her and the adults in her life problems. She didn’t have much patience with sighted people. For instance, when told she must wear the clothes her mother set out for her to wear, because they “matched,” she would grumble as she stomped upstairs to change, “Sighted people and all this matching stuff!”

It wasn’t easy for the elementary teachers who had Amanda in their classes, because Amanda lost her temper with teachers and classmates.  She wanted help immediately when she needed it, unaware of any other students’ needs or circumstances around her.  Often, I was called in to manage a difficult situation.  Because of this, she and I developed a lasting bond.

After colliding with a child in the gym, Amanda pleaded, “I just want to run free, like everyone else.” I explained that sighted people couldn’t always see her coming because we cannot see behind us. She replied, “That’s why I wish you had two sets of eyes.” I was intrigued that she didn’t see the issue as her inability to see at all, but that of the others inability to see more.  Amanda and I had daily sessions where she could vent and I just listened. This relieved her pent up emotions. She dealt with so many difficulties.

One day I attempted to convey to Amanda the vast distance between the sun, the stars, and us. After a little thought she replied, “The earth is really as small as a piece of sand and we just don’t know it.” ̶—Her sight may be lacking, but her insights were profound.

On another occasion when Amanda was in second grade, it started to snow. Since this is so unusual where we live, all the children were allowed to go out to see if they could catch a snowflake. The discussion in the classroom that followed was about snowflakes and how beautiful and unique they are.

When Amanda came to me for instruction that day, she was somber. She said, “I wish I could see, just once, so I would know what they are talking about.” I realized this independent little girl, was just that a little girl with wishes and dreams just like other little girls. Some days she just needed a hug and I gave her one.

I had the privilege of teaching Amanda to read, which of course, was Braille. One of her readers included the story of Stevie Wonder. As we read the story it told of his troubled childhood, how poor his family was and how prejudice affected his life. Afterwards Amanda asked me what prejudice was. 

Hoping to keep it simple I told her, “Some people have light colored skin and some have very dark colored skin. Often the people with light skin are not nice to the people with dark skin.”

She asked, “Why?”

“The light colored people think they are better.” I was wondering what meaning this would have for her. She thought for a bit then asked, “What color is my skin?” Answering her questions kept me alert. 

The end of Amanda’s first grade year she asked, “Do you think God made a mistake when He made me born blind?”

“I don’t think God makes mistakes,” I replied. “He knew you would be special just the way you are.”

“I am special, and I feel special,” Amanda said confidently. 

Over the years of answering Amanda’s questions, she opened my eyes to “see” life differently.  Her world had no skin color, only people, no outer beauty, only relationship.  She had to touch her world to be part of it, I too realized that I had to touch my world to be part of it, maybe not in the same way as Amanda did, but I had to touch the hearts of the people in my life if I was to experience life to the full. 

In spite of all Amanda’s difficulties over the years, she eventually became a tutor for calculus and physics and even worked with a professor to write software for teaching other blind college students. Amanda will graduate with a B.A. in Computer Science from U of TX Austin, with honors in 2016. As she says, “I struggle with many things.” However, when she was given an IQ test, it was suggested she join Mensa. (Mensa, the high IQ society, provides a forum for intellectual exchange among its members.) She thought they had made a mistake. They had not. Today most of her friends are Mensa members.

When I became Kimberly’s teacher she was in the third grade. Kimberly was born with a birth defect called microphthalmia.  She had tiny eyes that caused her to have extremely limited eyesight. Numerous surgeries were mostly unsuccessful. She wore a prosthesis (glass eye) in place of one of her eyes. The year after I began working with her she had another retinal detachment and she had her sixth surgery. All her remaining eyesight was lost. She was fitted for her second glass eye. 

My job was to see that she received all the necessary modifications in the classroom, especially Braille materials. Kimberly was excellent with Braille, but Braille math, called Nemeth code, is complicated.  If you have noticed the Braille in elevators, that is simple compared to the dots used in math.  Up until then we managed her math lessons with enlarged sheets and magnification, but now we had to use Braille. 

When Kimberly returned to school after her last surgery, I noticed she wasn’t as sure of herself as usual when it came to her new math lessons. I didn’t want her to become discouraged after all she had been through, so I began to say things like, “Don’t worry too much about catching on the first time through.” and “There is plenty of time.” and “No rush.” Maybe I was too obvious.

She picked up on my concern right away and replied, “Don’t worry. I can learn this. I’m young.” She approached most of life with this same optimism.  She amazes me.

Another former student of mine, Leah, had some useful vision during her formative schooling, but during her college days she lost what little vision she had.  It would be perfectly normal to feel like your life had just been derailed, but when she called me on the phone and told me of losing her remaining eyesight, I couldn’t help but feel sad for her, but she was quick to say, “It’s not so bad, I have a guide dog.” She is earning a B.S. degree in Emergency Management with a minor in public safety telecommunications (9-1-1 dispatching). She already holds several FEMA and Red Cross certificates.   Leah is so inspiring.

On days when life has taken a bite out of my enthusiasm, I think of how my students handled the setbacks life had dealt them, and I brush myself off and say, “It’s not so bad.”  The power of optimism can take what could be a debilitating situation and turn it into opportunity to become a super hero.

   In the school where I worked, we had aides who stayed with the students. They were highly compassionate women who loved children and were eager to be helpful. It was sometimes difficult for the aides not to do too much for the students. It was a constant concern that the students not lose independence, because an aide was assisting too much. The aides walked a tightrope; when should they let the student struggle, or when should they lend a hand.

   If you do too much for children, they develop something called, “learned helplessness.” They actually believe they aren’t capable of doing for themselves, and so they stop trying, paralyzing the natural growth of self-esteem. This can happen to all of us under the right circumstances. 

When Kimberly was in middle school, we would have our daily meeting in a small room where we housed the brailling equipment. On one such day she dramatically pleaded with me to talk to her parents saying, “My parents are going to ruin my life!” Then she told me about her parents’ plan to send her to a summer camp in Ruston, Louisiana where the National Federation of the Blind has facilities. 

Apparently, one of the things they do at this summer camp to encourage independent mobility is to drop the student off on the opposite side of town and tell them to walk back. When I learned this, it terrified me and I understood her panic. Granted the people in Ruston are accustomed to seeing blind students with white canes, but to imagine our little Kimberly walking across town all alone, well, that seemed like too much to ask of a child to me. 

Kimberly’s parents did send her to camp and she did have to walk back across town—as it turned out, it wasn’t too much for Kimberly to handle. Even though it was stressful, Kimberly managed just fine. It was a life lesson that prepared her to navigate the campus of Texas A&M University successfully—alone. This experience built her self-confidence and opened her mind to reach beyond her limitations.  Kimberly went on to earn a  degree in political science and psychology from Texas A & M University. She completed a policy internship  for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former United States Senator from Texas,  in Washington, D.C. and served a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA for the March of Dimes before earning a master’s degree. She is employed as a Research Associate at the Institute for Health Policy at UT Health Science Center Houston, and has recently been accepted into a PH.D program.

I could identify with Kimberly’s fear of having to do something you don’t think you can do, because when I became a single mom, I felt like someone had dropped me off on the other side of town and told me to walk back blindfolded.  I had no idea if I could do it or not, but with each step, I learned I was capable of things I never dreamed I could do.  Sometimes the hardest situations in life, build our self-esteem and a sense of independence that can’t be developed any other way. 

Laughter is good for us. As Proverbs 17:22 (NLT) reminds us, “A cheerful heart is good medicine.”  It is a stress reliever, stimulates organs, and can improve your immune system. If nothing in your life seems funny make it a point to watch funny movies. Pull your children or girlfriends into the fun. There is nothing better than hearing children laugh or laughing with friends.

When Kimberly was in high school, we often met in the mornings in the Braille room. One morning I noticed she looked especially attractive. She was wearing makeup, even mascara. (I didn’t realize it was the day for school pictures.) Wanting to encourage her I said, “You look great today. Your eyes are bright.” To which she quickly retorted, “Yes, I know, we scrubbed them this morning.”

Kimberly kept her quick wit that often took the edge off of awkward situations.  Learning to laugh, even at ourselves, is an important way to keep our emotional health intact. 

“Ah! It is a great thing to have a sense of humor.  To go through life without it. . . is life being in a wagon without springs.  It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.”

–Henry Ward Beecher

Being able to laugh can take away the heaviness of life. I have a paperweight on my desk:  “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” Humor and the ability of being able to laugh at yourself can be of real benefit when facing personal struggles. 

The students I taught who were blind demonstrated a courage that inspired me, that still inspires me to this day. They had an attitude of acceptance and faith. We often think of courage as bravery on a battlefield, and certainly, that is one type of courage, but facing an unknown future as a single mother, or a woman whose husband is not around to help, takes courage that rivals battlefield bravery.  

Yes, my students may have missed many things all around them, but they were acutely aware of the important things of life, because they had to face their fears and limitations. As they went on to live adult lives, some to marry and live independently, I witnessed courage that many sighted people do not possess.  For the most part, they had no other choice but to move forward.  The same could be true of raising children alone, your choices may be limited, but your option to move forward with a good attitude can carry you through the toughest times. 

I hold a degree from Lamar University in Speech and a Master’s from the University of Texas. I was an educator in regular and special education for twenty years, finishing my professional career as a Braille teacher. I am a Certified Professional Coach with Fowler International Academy. I married Sam after raising three children as a single mother. In 2007 I founded SMORE for Women. SMORE is a 501 (c)3 nonprofit whose goal is Single Moms, Overjoyed, Rejuvenated, & Empowered. My stories have been published in several books and magazines. My book, Living Learning Loving, Insights and Encouragement on the Path of Motherhood is available for purchase on Amazon.
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Gail Cawley Showalter

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