NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!

Well readers, for all practical purposes, I am halfway through my college career. There is so much I have to tell you about this crazy semester, and so much to reflect on in terms of how much I have learned about myself and my capabilities on this halfway point in my college journey. But recounting this crazy semester will require a long entry, which I should not write until I write my final 2,000 word paper for politics, and study for my environmental science exam, so that failure on an exam does not have to be added to the list of the events that defined this semester. So I would like to take this entry just to reflect on this milestone of being almost halfway through college, and pay tribute to a teacher without whom I might not have reached this milestone at all, or at least not as smoothly as I have. It is hard to believe that two years ago today, I was walking the halls of my high school. In some ways, it feels as though high school ended just yesterday because in many ways I am still the same person I was back then. But when I think about how much responsibility and maturity I have gained in these two years, it seems as though high school was in another life, a distant memory.

Now that I have Gilbert, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when I walked on sidewalks tapping my cane in front of me, feeling clumsy and lacking confidence. Now that college finally forced me to take the initiative to get computer training, it is hard to imagine a time when the thought of using a computer brought me to the verge of tears. My college classes have forced me to become more involved in the community through volunteer work for my American politics class, and talking to police chiefs, business owners, and the district attorney for a Journalism class. Therefore, it is hard to imagine a time when my interactions were mostly with other teachers and friends, people I felt comfortable with. But as much as my life has changed since high school, the fact is that I would not be where I am today without the motivation instilled in me all through school, but especially in high school. The experiences I had with teachers that encouraged and inspired me all through school are too numerous to mention them all here, though I hope at some point in this journal, I will have the inspiration to recount them all because each of these experiences have impacted my life. But I have to say there was one teacher who had an especially significant influence in shaping me in to a successful college student, and I couldn’t help thinking about her now as I approach the finish line of the first half of my college journey, a milestone that will be officially reached on Monday when I take my final exam for environmental science.

Last semester, I took an introductory creative writing class that my advisor said I could take in place of graphic communication since that would be way too visual, and a little more writing experience can never hurt. Anyway, for this class, there were three main assignments. The first assignment was to write a literary fiction story, and since fiction is not a genre I am good at, my story lacked creativity, so much so that I am not even going to embarrass myself farther by mentioning it in my blog. That my classmates had to read it and give me feedback was embarrassing enough (smile). The second assignment was to write a collection of poems. Although my teacher and classmates said I needed more imagery, I thought they were pretty good and very fun to write, so I will post them in my journal soon. But the last assignment was to write a creative nonfiction essay, my favorite genre. Creative nonfiction essays are supposed to recount an experience, place or person that influenced you, and then tell about the deeper meaning of this experience and how it changed your life. At first I had no idea what to write about. I didn’t want to write anything that had to do with my blindness because blind literature is already saturated with the typical sappy stories of how people inspired a blind person to not let their blindness stand in their way, and how blind people are just as capable as sighted people and all that. But every time I searched my memories for meaningful experiences that had nothing to do with blindness, I couldn’t shake from my mind the desire to write about this teacher. Perhaps, it was because I was almost finished with Statistics, and math was a struggle for me all through school that required constant motivation from this teacher when so many times, I had just about given up. But as yet another stressful semester comes to a close, I realize more and more that this teacher didn’t come to my mind simply to fulfill a school project requirement because during the toughest days and most exhausting assignments this semester, I swear her spirit was with me, continuing to urge me never to give up, and the more I think about it, I would not be the successful college student who has made the Deans list every semester if not for her influence on my life. Therefore, I thought this would be the perfect time to post the tribute I wrote to this teacher. I hope that it will inspire you as much as it inspired me because while obstacles to success are more apparent when a person has a disability, I have yet to meet a person, even a fully sighted academically successful person, who has completely escaped hardship, so I think the lessons this teacher taught me are lessons that can be applied to everyone.

 

“NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!”

By Allison Nastoff

(The teacher’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

“This is my present for you,” Mrs. Johnson said at my high school graduation party. Even though I couldn’t see her, I could sense in her voice that she was beaming with the excitement one gets when they have found the perfect gift for someone. And a perfect gift it was. It was a beautiful polished ceramic plaque, and I only had to piece together the first word of the message engraved with giant print letters to know what the rest of the message would say. This message was a mantra that Mrs. Johnson drilled in to my head every chance she got from the time I started working with her in fifth grade: “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!”

Being blind since I was seven months old has meant that getting through school has not always been easy. While the other students in my math class could quickly glance at a graph, and glean the information necessary for a problem, I had to meticulously feel every line on the graph, and the way graphs were reproduced for me often confused me, and making my own graph was another story. I have fond memories of wanting to scream as I tediously put little dot stickers on the appropriate lines of the graph, and connected them with tape, with the knowledge that my classmates, with the magic of the pencil, had finished this assignment hours ago. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for me to start an assignment one day, and not get to bed until the next. The last thing I ever wanted was for people to pity me, and whenever a new teacher would ask how they should treat my situation, I always answered with the standard “Treat me the way you would treat anyone else”. However I must confess that sometimes, I secretly wanted teachers to have some empathy for how hard some assignments were for me, and assign me less homework, an attitude which I suppose one could consider pity. But there was an unspoken understanding between Mrs. Johnson and me that pity would not be tolerated, because it wasn’t.

Only once did Mrs. Johnson ever show any signs of pity for me. When I was in fifth grade, the class was reading Johnny Tremaine. I had the book in braille, but the book was long and boring, and before I realized it, I was way behind in the reading. I found this out on a Friday morning, and the teacher had announced there would be a quiz that afternoon. So Mrs. Johnson pulled me out of class, and got me caught up by reading out loud. I did manage to get caught up just in time for the quiz, but I will never forget what she said when the reading was done, and it was something she reminded me of years later. She would never ever help me like that again and that pledge would apply through high school if she was still working with me. She kept her word. I did not realize it then, but I realize now that what she wanted me to take away from that incident was that she would give me a break this once, but bailing me out in the future would amount to pity, and pity might help me in the short term, but would only hurt me longterm. The fact that I had fallen behind in my reading had nothing to do with my blindness, and if I was to have any chance of being successful in life, I had to learn that blindness is no excuse for failing to work hard, and meet your obligations.

Even for difficulties that were related to being blind, pity would not be an option. While other teacher aides believed in giving blind students just half of the math problems that the rest of the students had, Mrs. Johnson insisted I have the same amount of homework. I will confess that when assignments were particularly tough, or when I was simply exhausted from multiple nights toiling over math, my mind was filled to bursting with a mixture of self-pity, which resulted in anger, and occasionally brought me to tears. But in the toughest of times, she still saw the potential in me. Whenever I needed motivation, she liked to talk about another blind friend she had who went blind as an adult, and even though being blind later in life meant a lot of relearning and adjustment, he lived independently, and took the bus every day to his job as an engineer. The underlying message was clear. Maybe I was a blind person, but that did not have to define me. I too had the potential to live independently, and the career possibilities were endless for me. But first I needed a strong foundation of motivation, and determination, so with determination and hope in her voice she would remind me “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!” because if I was allowed to give up on school, what is to say I wouldn’t give up in life? For this reason, she never allowed me to give up on school.

I will never forget one particular incident that happened in sixth grade. It was towards the beginning of the year–I believe it was sometime in October–so I suppose maybe I subconsciously thought that since it was the beginning of the year, and a new school with a new teacher who didn’t know me, I could use this to my advantage. Anyway, math was particularly difficult for me that year, and after getting a low score on my first test, the teacher wanted me to correct the problems I got wrong for homework. To be honest, when it came to math, I already had the attitude that most students usually don’t get until the end of the year: I just didn’t care, and wanted to be done. So after briefly glancing over the problems, I went back to school the next day, and gave some lame excuse like “I couldn’t find anything wrong with them.” But by that time, maybe the new math teacher didn’t know me well, but Mrs. Johnson did, and she knew that I hadn’t really looked at them. After Mrs. Johnson and the teacher conversed briefly, the verdict was delivered by the math teacher. “I’m giving you a detention,” she said, and it was a verdict that Mrs. Johnson fully supported. It was the only detention I ever received because from then on, if I ever thought about slacking off, I would remember the humiliation of a detention, and realize that if I slacked off, Mrs. Johnson would make sure I was shown no pity. Despite the fact that I had learned my lesson in sixth grade and made sure I did my math homework, often staying up all hours of the night to finish an assignment, it was not uncommon for me to go to school the next day to learn that all of the problems on the assignment were wrong. This was an especially common occurrence when it came to making graphs.

One particular unit that gave me lots of headaches was graphing inequalities. For this unit, not only did I have to graph two equations on one graph correctly with dots and tape, but also use a crayon to shade in the appropriate spot indicating whether one equation was greater than, less than, or equal to the other equation. But as confusing as this, and other units were for me, Mrs. Johnson never had pity on me, or exempted me from the unit. Sometimes, she would spend the lunch hour trying to explain a concept to me, which she would laugh and say was like pulling teeth, but most of the time, she wanted me to find the answers for myself, by looking at examples in the book, reading and rereading notes thoroughly, or asking the teacher directly. Now I realize that insisting that I advocate for myself, and solve my own problems was the perfect way to teach me to “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!”

For Mrs. Johnson, never giving up also meant never letting teachers think I was incapable of doing something. One particularly memorable event in which I learned this lesson occurred in my senior year of high school, the last semester Mrs. Johnson worked with me. Towards the end of the semester, we were learning how to multiply matrices, and this required a special kind of calculator. I will never forget the day before this unit started when Mrs. Johnson told me what was coming and said, “I want you to think about how you could do this unit.” I did think about it, and came to realize that Mrs. Johnson was probably referring to an internet site with an online calculator program I could use, but at the time, the internet overwhelmed me so much that the thought of exploring it to find a calculator website seemed too overwhelming, so I never put the thoughts in to action which I discovered the next day was what she wanted me to do. The next day when I got to math class without investigating particular websites where I could find a calculator, I could tell she was very disappointed in my lack of initiative. So she gave me the name of the website, and said I was responsible for figuring out the calculator program and completing the assigned homework. I should have opened up the laptop computer in my resource room and used windoweyes, the talking computer program for the blind that I used at that time to explore the website, but I think my top two biggest fears back then were not death or public speaking but using windoweyes and using windoweyes.

Since other people used the computer, it was set up so that when you turned it on, you had to log in and open the program before it would start talking, something Mrs. Johnson taught me how to do, but inevitably something always went wrong. If I went through the steps wrong, or typed in my password wrong, or even brushed the sensitive mouse pad with my shirt sleeve, everything got messed up and I didn’t know how to fix it since the computer did not talk. So even the thought of opening the computer filled me with dread, and navigating internet sites with windoweyes was another tediously long story. So I went home and desperately tried to get the website to work with my braille notetaker, my computer of choice, but had no luck. So the next day, I went to school early, and had a talk with my regular math teacher, telling him that the website Mrs. Johnson gave me didn’t work, and there were no calculators for the blind that could work for the assignment, and therefore, I would not be able to do the assignment, and of course, he took pity on me and said that was fine if I couldn’t do the assignment. But once again, there was no pity from Mrs. Johnson. When she got to school, she had a talk of her own with my math teacher, and then she pulled me out of class and took me down to the resource room where she told me directly, in no uncertain terms that she was very disappointed in me. She then walked me through how to start up windoweyes again, and said that she expected me to practice using the website myself because I would be accountable for the calculations on the test. That was on a Thursday, and I would be taking the test Monday. Though I came home in tears every night, and I was extremely furious with Mrs. Johnson for a while, I realize now that that experience was a valuable lesson that gave me confidence I could have never survived college without. By forcing me to discover that I really was capable of learning technology, she gave me the confidence to learn how to use Jaws, another computer program for the blind, and use it to navigate the online resources of Carroll’s library. In fact, at the end of my freshman year, the person who used to fear navigating web pages created a web page of her own to blog about college experiences, a true testament to the rewarding experiences that can be gained from the inspiration of a teacher who never pitied me, and never allowed me to give up.

I didn’t have the wisdom, even in my senior year of high school, to understand how any good could ever come of all those hours spent on math, and all of the tears of frustration over windoweyes, but now that college has introduced me to the adult world, I feel as though I have gained some adult perspectives on past experiences in my life. Of course, I would never want to go back to those days, but I realize now that her reasoning was noble. If I had gone through school only doing half the homework, or never having to learn things that were difficult and frustrating, the cost would have been entering college, and even working life, believing that doing a job halfway is acceptable, that I could simply give up if something wasn’t easy, or worst of all, that since I am blind, I have an excuse to slack off. Is that any way to approach life? Thanks to Mrs. Johnson’s strict insistence on putting in to practice the mantra of “treat me the way you would treat anyone else”, I may have missed out on childhood experiences like carefree outings with friends, or enjoyed study halls reading for pleasure or chatting with friends, but the short-term price I paid has already resulted in huge dividends that I might never have benefitted from if taking the easy way out had been an option. In a statistics class I had to take this semester, the familiar math struggles of understanding visual concepts returned. With Mrs. Johnson’s voice in my head, I went to the tutor, talked to my teacher, studied more than I ever used to for math tests. But I never excepted failure, and I never gave up. When I had to do research, but could not find the information I needed, I got so frustrated, I did literally scream occasionally, but I never gave up. Officially, Mrs. Johnson’s job description was to make sure that I had the adaptations I needed to succeed in my classes, a job which entailed everything from ordering my textbooks, to brailling assignments, adapting graphs, even transcribing my braille homework in to print for the teacher. But I am only now beginning to appreciate how far beyond her official job description she went. She not only reproduced the graphs for me, but gave me motivation when I wanted to give up on them. She did not simply transcribe my homework, but made sure I knew when she thought I had not performed at my fullest potential on the assignment. There are so many other jobs she could have chosen, jobs with better pay, or more prestige than sitting in a stuffy office scanning worksheets and laboring over graphs. She could have quit any time, but the fact that she stayed with me through first semester of senior year proved that she was not in it for the paycheck or the prestige, but because she wanted me to be as independent and ready for the world as I could possibly be, and because she herself never gives up. Before Mrs. Johnson had worked with me, she had a job building circuit boards for computers, a job which I could tell she loved because she talked about it a lot. Second semester of my senior year, she got another job offer building airplane equipment, and decided to leave to take advantage of this exciting opportunity. But by then, I knew her well enough to know that she was not leaving because she had given up on me, but because she knew that she had taught me well, knew that I had the foundation necessary to advocate for myself and show teachers that I was capable of being independent, knew that I would never never never give up. It has only been two years since I finished high school, and though college has taught me a lot, and given me numerous opportunities and challenges, I probably haven’t even scratched the surface of all the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead for me. With each new chapter of my life, whether it be graduate school, succeeding in a real job, or even finding an employer who can see beyond my blindness, I know the road will be bumpy at times. But all of the frustrations and long nights that I thought were pointless at the time, I now see as Mrs. Johnson’s investment in my future, an investment worth more than all of the money in the world. The plaque that was simply a thoughtful graduation gift when I first received it, I now see as a tangible reminder of Mrs. Johnson’s investment in my future. The plaque is now prominently displayed on a shelf in the room where I do my homework, and whenever I am in need of encouragement when life throws frustrations and discouragement my way, I love to hold that plaque in my hand, and feel how solid, shining and beautiful it is, symbolic of Mrs. Johnson’s beautiful, and unyielding determination to see me succeed. Although I have been out of high school for two years now and have already forgotten many of the academic lessons, there is one lesson that I will never forget, because whenever I hold that plaque, I can almost hear her voice, reminding me to “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP!”

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