Chatting with Charlie

My friend Charlie (whose name has been changed for the purpose of this blog) is a master of uncommon courtesies. When we spend time together, I find myself startled by his thoughtful attentions. Often he asks questions—or offers theories—that show how deeply he is considering my experience of the world, my perspective.

Today, as we walk around his car and across the parking lot of a local Jacksonville restaurant, he remarks, “I bet this surface is difficult with your cane; it’s so uneven!’

With surprise, I reply, “Yes, my cane gets caught in these little cracks and behind these bumps, especially on cold days.”

“That would make an interesting blog,” he says, opening the restaurant’s door with his left hand. I step behind him and catch the door with my left arm. “All the surfaces that cause you trouble.”

We order our food, and the cashier places our drink cups on the counter. Taking them, Charlie says, “I’ve got your cup.” Offering me his arm, he guides me to the soda fountain. “Ice?” he asks, and I nod. “How much?”

“Just a little.”

I hear him position my cup underneath the ice dispenser. After a few seconds of noise, Charlie asks, “Do you want to hold the cup and make sure it’s the right amount?”

I take the cup from him and weigh it in my hand. The amount of ice is ideal, so Charlie fills my cup with water—(Just try to get the drink you want when you can’t read the little signs above each button)—and we find a booth. As usual, I sit with my back to the window to avoid staring into the glare.

Charlie places my cup in front of me, explaining, “Your cup is in front of your seat. Your straw is on the table to the right of the cup; it still has the paper on. Your napkins are to the left of the cup.”

I thank him enthusiastically. “When someone leaves the paper over the tip of the straw without telling me, I end up with a mouthful of soggy straw wrapper.” He laughs, and I remember, but do not mention, my habit of running a finger around the rim of a cup to find the straw. When the cup has a lid, I run a finger along the straw to check whether it still has its wrapper.

Our pagers vibrate, and Charlie gets the food, placing my plate in front of me. He offers me ketchup, which I refuse. Over his hamburger and my portabello sandwich, we begin to discuss the downside of self-deprecating humor—when you laugh at yourself just to get others to laugh with you.

“I often make fun of myself,” I tell him. “To make people more comfortable. When I can sense that someone feels awkward around me, I think laughter helps.”

He agrees, sipping his drink. “But it can go too far—it can become all you’re known for.”

“Yes, when you believe that the only way others will accept you is through making fun of yourself. It feels juvenile after a while.”

“Hey,” he says decisively.  “That’s another blog topic.”

“You’re a goldmine!”

I finish the last bite of my portabello and drink some water.

“You have something in your teeth,” Charlie announces calmly. “Swish around.”

I obey, sipping more water. “Is it gone?”

“Yes.” He hesitates, then continues, “Sorry if that’s weird…but I’d like to know if I had something in my teeth.”

“Unfortunately I can’t return the courtesy.”

On the topic of unsolicited advice, I tell Charlie about all the unwelcome “assistance” I receive, especially from random strangers. “Sometimes it’s difficult to be a blind woman, because women are taught to market their physical, visual appeal. I get a lot of ‘help’ from people who think that I have no understanding of color or style because I’m visually-impaired.”

He asks for examples.

Well there’s the time I asked a sales assistant to tell me the color of some earrings, and she said they were “grapefruit.” (They later turned out to be a dark purple.) Then, without any prompting from me, she declared reprovingly, “I wouldn’t wear them with that top you’ve got on.” Oddly enough, the earrings weren’t for me; they were a gift.

Or the time I asked a cashier for a reusable fabric shopping bag and she started to ask which color I preferred. At the word “color,” she cut herself off, presumably realizing that blind people don’t have color preferences. Holding up a bag without describing it, she changed “color,” mid-word, to, “Is this one OK?” Irked by her awkwardness, I wanted to shrug off my eggplant-colored wool swing coat—slowly, button by button; to show her my caramel-colored turtleneck and dark jeans; to hoist a leg up on the counter and display my shoe, a latte-colored closed-toe wedge with a delicate silver buckle; to reach up and tweak one of my earrings, a creation of brown and amber beads that Katie made. I did none of this. Mindful of the long line behind me, I said, “Yes that’s fine.”

Charlie laughs at these vignettes. “Do you understand color?”

“Not in a practical sense,” I confess. “I understand colors in theory. I can’t identify them visually. But I’m drawn to the same colors over and over—reds, dark purple, forest green. Anything but pastels.”

I tell Charlie about the various times people have asked me how I do my hair, because I often wear it in a low bun. Sometimes I say that my lady’s maid does it. Other times, I innocently ask, “Can you see the back of your own head?”

“But you gotta understand,” Charlie intones reverently. “They do that stuff with mirrors. No, they can’t see the back of their own heads; they use mirrors to see that stuff.”

“Why go to all that trouble? Just do it by feel! It’s so much easier.”

“For you.” He piles used napkins on our dirty plates.

I pull on my black cardigan and slide out of the booth. “Want to get coffee?”

“Sure.” He offers me his arm, and we walk to the car.

“I hope my cheerleader isn’t working today.”

“The one who thinks you’re Superwoman? If she is, I’ll just be really horrible to you,” he promises. “I’ll call you incompetent and shout, ‘Can’t you do ANYTHING?’ Then she’ll come running around the counter—”

“—On fire with righteous anger. She’ll chase you out of the store.”

“I’ll never be allowed back again.”

“And I’ll have to find a new coffee companion.”

A little help

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.