Unfolding my cane and donning my dark glasses, I leave the Writing Lab and walk to the lobby to collect our next tutoring appointment. I stand at the mouth of the lobby and call the student’s name. I wait, listening for the rustling and zipping that indicates a student gathering his or her things and moving toward me. When I can distinguish a tall, lanky boy coming my way, I say, “Come on back, what are we working on today?”
The student takes a seat at our round table and pulls out a notebook and papers. He hesitates as I fold my cane and place it beside my large blue water bottle. I take off the shades and repeat, “OK so what are we working on?”
“A paper,” he says quietly. “Um we are supposed to analyze this…this short story and talk about how the character changes…” Tentatively, he places a hand on top of his printed pages.
“Cool, what story?”
“Um…The Cathedral, by Raymond Carver.”
Who’s Raymond Carver? What is “The Cathedral” about? Well, I haven’t read it, but I’ve read analyses of it. Georgina Kleege mentions the story in Sight Unseen, her book about cultural representations of blindness. Thomas Foster cites it in How to Read Literature like a Professor; he discusses the famous meatloaf scene where the unnamed narrator sees Robert, the blind character, using a fork and knife like a normal person. The quick-and-dirty version of “The Cathedral” runs like this: a bigoted, narrow-minded drunk confronts his stereotypes of blindness (or “the blinds” as he calls them) when his wife’s blind friend, Robert, comes to spend the night. Robert and Narrator share the experience of eating a fantastic meatloaf, smoking dope, and drawing a cathedral—collectively, these experiences show Narrator that Blindies Are People Too!
(Please note, I am not knocking Carver at all. Actually, “The Cathedral” isn’t a bad story; it’s just responding to a cultural need.)
So the student sits across from me, fidgeting and fumbling with his school supplies, and I try to imagine the awkwardness of his inner dialogue. “I came to the center to get help with a paper about a guy confronting the negative stereotypes of blindness…and I got a blind tutor. Thanks, Fate! I wonder if she likes meatloaf…”
Slowly, I nod and smile at him. “What are some of your concerns with your essay?” When he doesn’t immediately respond, I gently prompt, “Style? Grammar? Structure? Do you have the rubrics or assignment instructions?”
“Grammar, I guess. No, I don’t have the rubrics.”
“OK, then we’ll just read through and look at everything,” I assure him. I slide his paper across the table and pick it up. I bring the pages close to my face to read the small, double spaced lines.
Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve come cane-to-cane with cultural representations of blindness. As a lover and writer of poetry, I’m always running into Homer and John Milton. As a singer, I’m forever meeting up with Stevie, Ray, and Diane Schuur. Know any blind painters? I can’t think of any. Good thing I’m not much of a painting enthusiast!
There’s a blind girl in a Dickens story that irritates me. She and her father live in poverty, but, to soothe or entertain her, he tells her false stories about their living conditions. Here, I think, Dickens, you didn’t know any real blindies, did you? I wouldn’t fall for a hoax like that! Couldn’t she tell their house was cold?
Literature is full of blindies who don’t act like blindies—characters probably written by people who couldn’t tell braille from Morse code! So I’m thankful for Robert, because he enjoys his meatloaf. I’ve enjoyed meatloaf before. All blindies have.
I’d certainly prefer to meet Robert in a student’s paper. I was once editing a novel-length work for another student, when she dropped the aphorism, “Blind people’s lives are so much simpler, because they can’t see the material concerns of the world.” Ah, that sounds rather like Dickens and his angelic little blind girl! She doesn’t care that Daddy can’t afford food or coal, because she’s blind! And blind people can’t see food or warmth, so they don’t worry about such things.
I took my revenge when I met my client face-to-face. Prior to our meeting, we corresponded only by email. She had no idea that her editor, recommended by English department faculty, was blind. When she approached me in the lobby, I stood up to greet her, unfolding my cane. Her initial silence and subsequent awkwardness were quite rewarding.
So, this is a thank you to the God of Literary Representations of Blindness. May He continue to cast the users and abusers of these caricatures into my path, because they bring me much laughter.