I am standing at the front of the classroom, a black dry-erase marker clutched in my hand. As the class settles down, I pop the marker’s cap on and off, enjoying the satisfying click of the plastic. My colleague, Chris, has just handed the lesson over to me. The room fills with the sound of rustling paper as students pull out the text we are going to discuss.
Before coming to the front of the room, I sat at a long desk close to the door, my cane folded in front of me. When I stand up, I leave the cane folded – I am only traveling a few feet over even ground. I step around the desk and find the panel of light switches on the wall. I flip three of the four switches, bringing my educational space into cozy dimness. At this point in the semester, our students understand my preferences: dim lighting, no hand-raising, and lots of auditory cues.
Like the students, Chris understands my need to alter the classroom’s atmosphere. During the lessons I teach, my needs have become “rules,” and he collaborates with me to enforce them.
As the students quiet down, Chris rearranges some papers on his desk, sends the projector screen to its resting place in the ceiling, and prepares to walk to the back of the room. He passes in front of me, stopping by the light switches, and asks, “Do you want me to turn off the lights?”
“No thanks, I already did that,” I reply calmly. I find myself wondering how he hasn’t noticed that the room is 75% darker. This is a life-altering change for me; perhaps others are not as sensitive to changes in light.
“Oh okay,” he passes in front of me again, stopping at the whiteboard this time. “If you need anything written on the board, I can write it for you!” He picks up a marker and stands, poised for dictation.
“No thanks, I’m fine,” I answer calmly. “I can do it.” Again, I wonder what it must be like to be fully-sighted. I am holding a marker in my hand – can he not see it? I think about the way my fingers curl around the marker and realize that very little of the marker shows. OK so maybe he can’t see the marker…
“Are you sure? I’ll write for you!” His tone is eager, helpful. He raises his hand with the marker ever-so-slightly, as though he wants his body language to read, “I’m ready and waiting at your disposal.”
“NO. I want to write for myself!”
My tone sounds strong! I revel in the assertion of my own authority, until the students utter a long, meaningful, “Oooooooh!” and I realize…I may have been a bit harsh.
Chris takes a step away from the board and says, in a slightly deflated tone, “I was just trying to be helpful.”
“You were being over-helpful,” I insist. “I want to do things for myself.”
“Okay…” Chris leaves the front of the classroom and finds a place toward the back. Giggles from our audience tell me that the students find our exchange thoroughly entertaining.
As the lesson continues, I take the lead, and Chris fades into the background, occasionally venturing a comment or clarifying a point in the text. I answer students’ questions and ask for their observations, reminding them to give me their names when they speak. I use the whiteboard minimally, though I continue to click the marker’s cap during quiet moments. It’s not that I can’t write on the board – I prefer to focus on the discussion at hand. I write only when I need to spell something for the class.
Near the end of the discussion, we reach a contentious point in the material, and I have to defer to Chris. His comments are extensive, and, in working through them, he declares, “I’m going to write this on the board…AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME!” He dashes to the board and hastily scrawls something – a book title, author, quote – I have no way of knowing what he writes. The students laugh as I feign annoyance.
After class, Chris and I discuss the situation. I explain how much I appreciate his willingness to assist me, but that I must learn to do things for myself. I must try to write on the board, so that I can assess my own abilities. If he writes for me, I’ll never know whether I can really do it. And unless he intends to follow me to every classroom in my teaching career, I’ll need to master these skills.
I also explain that it’s important for his students to see that I can do things. I may be their first experience of a blind instructor. What will they think if I can’t even write on the board? Turn off the lights for myself? Recognize which student is speaking? I need to radiate competence.
I tell Chris about the spectrum of assistance I’ve encountered – from my friend Javier, who had to learn that his chivalrous technique of pulling out chairs didn’t really help me (“Um, Javi, where did the chair go?”), to Crystal, who continues to come up with helpful solutions to daily frustrations. (She’s the one who wouldn’t let me buy the orange oven mitt because I couldn’t see it.) I explain the principle of asking before doing, actually checking with me to see if I even want the kind of assistance you’re offering. I tell him, “Sometimes you’re so busy offering your assistance that you can’t even hear my refusal…and you’re not alone in that.”
He understands and attempts to internalize. He readily gives me permission to write about the experience. And I continue to calmly refuse his assistance when I don’t need it.
I begin to see signs of progress. Now, when Chris offers to assist me, he waits half a second and then says something like, “Oh you probably don’t want help with that.” We stand outside my office door and I fumble with the electronic key. “I hate these stupid keys,” I mutter, and, right on cue, he asks, “Do you want help?” Before I can respond, he answers himself, “You probably want to do it yourself.” Yes! I have to resist the urge to cheer – I am so excited that he has come to this conclusion.
I do not expect everyone to memorize the situations in which I want assistance. My abilities are fluid and the quantity of my usable vision changes depending on the environment. There is one constant: if I am able to do something for myself, I want to do it for myself. I do not want to be banished from my own experiences, just because it looks like I am struggling. Remember the struggle is something you see, not something I feel.
Instead, I insist that you ask before doing, and that you respect my refusal.