Judgement Daycamp

Hello friends. Since going to camp is the highlight of summer, and of the general childhood experience for many children in America, and since this is about the time I used to come home from a week long overnight camp for the blind in Northern Wisconsin, I wanted to devote the next two entries to sharing some of my thoughts on my camp experience. Ever since I can remember, my mom would rave about how much she loved going away to a church camp when she was a child for two weeks of swimming, boating, being with friends and singing silly songs around a campfire. Hearing these wonderful stories about her camp memories, coupled with strong encouragement from a teacher who wanted to make sure that I got to have the same childhood experiences as any sighted child meant that I was packed off to both day camps and an overnight camp several times as a child. But while there were definitely some fond memories of camp that I am glad I got to experience, I cannot really go so far as to say I loved it. My first camp memory was going to Girl Scout Camp which I think was the summer after first grade. My memories of this camp are kind of vague, but I think this camp was a week long day camp that my mom only took me to for three days, and I forget if this was because of a family commitment, or if my mom was so outraged by the negative experience I was having at this camp that she had enough and pulled me out early. The camp was located in a nature area where we spent the whole day outside and had to use an outhouse. I also remember my mom staying with me at this camp every day which I think was due to the fact that I was little and needed more help with some of the more visual activities and walking from place to place, special needs she didn’t feel the staff at this camp would be willing or able to accommodate. Actually, I think it was more a matter of willingness than ability because my mom still fumes about how uncompassionate the people running this camp were.

One incident in particular that illustrated this lack of compassion was when one of those old fashioned ice cream makers was set up, and all of the children stood in line and when it was their turn, could turn this crank a few times to help make the ice cream. Well, when it came time for my turn, of course, I needed help figuring out where the crank was and what to do because being blind, I couldn’t watch the children ahead of me, and I had never seen these kinds of machines before, and of course, having to be shown what to do meant that I would need just a little bit more time for my turn, something my mom didn’t think would be a big deal. But before my mom had the chance to finish showing me what to do, one of the staff snapped something like “You need to hurry up! Other children need to have their turn!” When she said this, my mom was so appalled and stunned she just whisked me away. So all of the sighted children had a turn, but this staff lady couldn’t be bothered to get off schedule by just a few more seconds so I could have mine! I actually didn’t remember this incident until the subject of girl scout camp came up recently when my parents and I were having dinner, and she mentioned the incident. I don’t know if I had forgotten about this incident simply because it had been a small incident that happened thirteen years ago, whether it was because I was so unaccustomed to this total lack of willingness to accommodate me that I chose to block the incident from my mind, or if I was simply too young to notice or comprehend the implications of this incident. I have forgiven this lady because I think I did get to crank one of these ice cream makers a few years later at a party hosted by a wonderfully nice neighbor who had one. But this girl scout camp was the only camp for sighted children that I ever went to, and the few times I asked my parents if I could go to a sighted camp when I was older, they didn’t seem wild about it, and I never persisted because even once I had long forgotten about the negative experience I had at Girl Scout camp, I think the experience always stayed with me in my conscience, and I didn’t want to take the risk of going to a camp where I could run the risk of feeling that unwelcome again. But I soon discovered that my experiences with camps for the blind weren’t all positive either.

For several summers starting with the summer after fourth grade, I attended two day camps for the blind. One was a week long camp that met at a high school in my home school district in June, the week after school let out, and the other was a two week camp in August at the Badger Association for the Blind, a center that offered services like computer training or assisted living for blind adults, but also hosted the occasional youth day camp. Both of these camps were pretty much the same. Each day, we had a fun activity like going to a local beach, a movie, the state fair or the public museum where we went to a butterfly exhibit and where we each got headsets that described things as we walked. I think we even went horseback riding once at a ranch where horses are specially trained for people with disabilities. So don’t get me wrong. This camp really did give me a lot of wonderful memories. But in addition to the fun activities, these camps also were designed to incorporate orientation and mobility practice and daily living skills. Now of course, these skills are important, and deep down, I understood that practicing these skills would help me become the independent woman and contributor to society that I wanted to be. However, most of the other children at these camps had other cognitive disabilities in addition to being blind, so since they really couldn’t handle mainstream academic classes, their school curriculum focused a lot on daily living skills. But since I was fortunate that blindness was my only disability and since I was doing well in mainstream academic classes, my parents thought my education should focus more on academics. Additionally, we live in a suburban area where there are country roads but hardly any sidewalks, and to really get practice on city sidewalks would have required me being pulled out of school a lot longer for my orientation and mobility lessons since getting to a big city required a lot more travel time. My parents knew daily living skills were important too of course, but they felt like unlike academics subjects which I really only have the chance to learn when I am young to stay on track for college and the meaningful employment that I was capable of, and which my parents knew they wouldn’t know how to teach, travel and daily living skills were things they could practice with me on our own timeline since they are a lot easier to learn than academics, and since colleges and future employers will care a lot more about my academic abilities than my mastery of daily living skills. Since my vision teacher had worked with me since I was three years old and saw the academic promise in me, she fully supported my parents’ thinking too. So at the time I started going to these day camps, I had enough cane technique to walk independently and confidently through my school building, and I had been on a few tiny sidewalks relatively close to school where I had a basic grasp of shorelining with my cane. I had been on a few escalators at a nearby mall, and learned the basics of what was in each aisle of the grocery store as well as basic cooking skills like stirring and measuring. But since my parents and the teacher wanted me to focus on school and have time to do homework and enjoy extracurricular activities with my sighted peers after school, this teacher only pulled me out of school to work on orientation and daily living skills once or twice a week rather than every day like other children with cognitive disabilities. So when I would go to these day camps and we had to practice cane travel on unfamiliar sidewalks or inside overwhelmingly large unfamiliar buildings, I would fall way behind the rest of the group. When we were cooking, it always took me longer to spread peanut butter, and was scared to death when I was assigned to recipes that required pouring liquids from a huge jug in to a tiny measuring cup or standing over a sizzling stove. And since my vision teacher often had summer commitments that precluded her from attending these camps, I was stuck with vision teachers who didn’t work with me on a regular basis, and thus didn’t know me, or understand that my situation and long-term goals were different. This meant that without fail, every year, this camp which was supposed to be about having fun and enjoying new experiences, instead felt more like an evaluation, after which these teachers always seemed to judge me, my parents and my teacher. I felt this judgement when the rest of the children and teachers were way far ahead of me when we walked on our outings, and I was left lagging behind praying that I wouldn’t lose track of the sound of their voices, and when we were cooking and they would tell all of the other children what a good job they were doing while saying nothing to me. My parents, and even my older sister who had just gotten her drivers license when I started going to these camps and was thus responsible for picking me up when my parents had to work felt this judgement when teachers would lecture them about how I needed to start traveling more independently on streets and sidewalks, and cooking more at home. And I knew my teacher had been judged because when I would come back to school in the fall, she would report that she had been told I was the slowest person there which sparked a new pressure induced determination to get me walking faster and having more confident cane skills.

To be fair, I will admit that I was to blame for a lot of my poor demonstration of orientation and mobility because for some reason I have never always had the most confident self-motivated desire to learn these skills, and every psychologist whose advice you read or hear on television will tell you that a person cannot learn something or change a bad habit unless and until they have the right attitude and want to change themselves. I know this fact about myself is true because even though I have matured a lot since going to these camps, this lack of motivation still plagues me to this day. In fact, as I write this, my parents have been so busy refinishing cupboards for an unplanned need to replace our dishwasher and countertops, as well as helping my grandma clean up a basement flood, the result of a recent storm, that they haven’t had the chance to go to the grocery store. We have a pantry full of random cans of soup and vegetables, and a refrigerator stocked with milk and fresh fruit. But we ran out of bread and lunch meat, and all day, I have been craving a sandwich. I have three paychecks worth of money and a debit card to withdraw it. I could, and if my teacher were here I know she would say I should, look up the number of our grocery store and prearrange for someone to assist me in finding bread and lunch meat. In fact, way back in seventh grade, my vision teacher had me do this for one of my orientation and mobility lessons, and it went really well. For this lesson, the teacher drove me, but I can still remember her saying that if I wanted to go to the store on my own, I could look up the number of a local taxicab service and make the arrangements to get to the store. But what if this display of independence turned out to be a disaster when my teacher wasn’t watching from a distance ready to rescue me if I was really having trouble? What if the cab driver and I have a miscommunication and I am taken to a completely different place than I had intended? Or what if the cab driver seems like a nice guy when he pulls up, but only after I am in a moving vehicle do I find out he is drunk or a creep who now has the perfect victim, a captive blind woman? What if I had been promised assistance by a staff member at the grocery store over the phone, but when I got there, something came up and there would be no one available to assist me after all? Do I really want to go through so much arranging and potentially put myself at risk just for a sandwich? The answer is no, so I guess I will let my mouth water until my dad gets home from Grandma’s house and plead with him childishly to go to the grocery store. I know this is an extremely unhealthy attitude to have, especially when you realize that I have been blind since I was seven months old, basically my whole life, so I have no reason to be afraid of my blindness or lack so much confidence. But those psychologists you read about and hear on television also say that the first step toward changing a negative attitude is to acknowledge it, which I have just done, and I also meet the criteria for a person who really wants to change this attitude since the older I get, the more I find that I am tired of relying so much on my parents, and long to find out what it would be like to live on my own something I am planning another entry to rant about. Eventually, I know this longing for independence will become so intense that it will overshadow my negative attitude. But while I still don’t have the confidence and self-motivation I would like to have, I had a lot less confidence at the time I went to these camps.

While now I only lack the confidence to take on big endeavors like taking a cab to a grocery store, I used to lack the confidence for tasks as small as pouring a glass of milk. Even if I put my finger in to the glass so I could feel when it was getting full as I poured, and even though my teacher suggested putting the milk glass in the sink so that if I did spill, it would just go right down the drain, I hated the thought of spilling milk. So what was the harm in just asking my parents or one of my older siblings to pour it for me? It wasn’t until eighth grade that I decided I was tired of depending on others for a glass of milk, and thus got the confidence to pour my own milk. I did spill a few times, and still spill when the gallon has just been opened and is really heavy causing my hand to shake and therefore not be as coordinated. But I love that saying which says “Don’t cry over spilled milk” because it really isn’t the end of the world, so I don’t cry over it. I just get a paper towel, clean it up and move on. By the way, one advantage that will come with living on my own is that I won’t have to worry about politeness or sanitation for the sake of my other family members, so I plan to drink straight from the carton until it is light enough to pour without my hands shaking. If any of you friends come to visit though, don’t worry. I will wash the mouth of the carton off thoroughly before you get there, or buy a separate uncontaminated gallon of milk for you (smile). Wow, I really got off track there. But what I was trying to say was that while I didn’t develop confidence and self-motivation as quickly as some of the vision teachers wanted me to, I don’t view myself as a disappointing representation of the blind community, and wish I hadn’t been made to feel that way by these teachers just because I choose to develop confidence and independence on my own schedule.

But I was not only judged by the things I couldn’t do, but also on the things I could do, but chose to do differently than the way these teachers thought they should be done. Of course, there are things that need to be done properly like knowing how to swing your cane in a way that doesn’t threaten the safety of people around you for example. But for other things, like the technique for riding escalators, my teacher and I both agreed that there was a little more room for flexibility. However these feelings were not shared by some of the other teachers at these camps. I have always had issues with a lack of confidence and fear of loosing my balance on escalators, but one thing that helped tremendously in making me feel a little more balanced was after finding the start of the escalator with the tip of my cane and stepping on to it, I would stand with one foot a step above the other if I was going up, or a step below the other when going down. This method had two advantages. It made me feel more anchored while the escalator was moving, and when it was about time to step off, one foot would level off before the other, and that couple seconds of advance notice from having one foot level off first allowed the other foot to step off with more reassurance as opposed to having to frantically get both feet off the escalator with hardly any warning. But the teachers that ran these camps were the kind of people that insist everything be done by the book, and one of them insisted that I put both feet on the same step, turning one of the few things I was starting to do with confidence in to another situation that proved my lack of confidence.

I am not looking for pity by ranting about all of these frustrations. I am only trying to illustrate why despite the many fun experiences I had with these camps, to me they weren’t worth putting up with all of this judgement and criticism. Sometimes I also feel as though this judgement and criticism still affects my confidence today because even though I have developed a lot more confidence since the days of these camps with the help of Gilbert, who navigates me around obstacles and across streets more smoothly than I ever did with my cane, I still don’t have the confidence that so many other blind people my age have. City buses that seem to just drop you off in the middle of nowhere scare me so much even when I am being accompanied by a sighted person that I cannot imagine myself traveling alone on them yet, and though I learned through dog training that falling is not the end of the world, I still prefer to take it slow when going to unfamiliar sidewalks where my feet haven’t memorized the feel of the sidewalk and all of its dips and bumps and other tripping hazards to be aware of. So what if I go to an event for the blind where my lack of confidence with buses is exposed and I am made to feel like a disappointment again? What if my cautiousness is still construed by people as the result of being out of shape, or lacking confidence that I should have developed by now? To avoid this stress about what other blind people or teachers who don’t know me might say, I will go to events for the blind every now and then just to be sociable, but since I get so nervous in the days leading up to these kinds of events, I don’t participate in them very often, and I was actually almost glad that I did not win a scholarship for the National Federation of the Blind the last two years, so I wouldn’t have to face the stress of flying out to Dalas or Detroit all by myself to be judged by an even larger blind community, too high a price to endure just for a scholarship award. So while these camps were probably supposed to boost my confidence in my capabilities as a blind person, I actually think these camps lessened my confidence, at least in the presence of the blind community, so sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off staying home. Also, on a side note, another thing I didn’t like about these camps was the fact that since the vast majority of the other children at these camps had cognitive disabilities, while there were a lot of activities that are universally fun like going to the beach, there were also a lot of educational activities that the children with cognitive disabilities benefitted from but which were kind of insulting for me. For example, one day at camp the summer after fifth grade, we went to a fire station where I had to listen to a kindergarten level presentation on fire safety and the other children got to explore a fire truck. Now, I really don’t mean to sound like a snob or give the impression that I’m too good to be seen with children who have other disabilities. But I was at that age when I think all children want to feel grown up and start doing activities with children at their own level, and those were the moments when I desperately wished I could have gone to some of the camps my mainstream sighted friends talked about, and would have especially loved the chance to go to a music camp instead. But I guess it wasn’t meant to be, so I won’t dwell on what day camp experiences I missed when there is still a world full of other experiences that are not confined to the childhood years, not to mention the fun overnight camp experiences I have yet to talk about.

Beware the Eve of Palm Sunday

Well readers, fear not! This journal hasn’t gone to the dogs permanently! But I hope you all enjoyed the entry Gilbert wrote. He has sure got opinions and an adorable personality hasn’t he? (smile) As Gilbert mentioned, I let him write his own entry to make amends because I felt guilty that my entries lately have been all about me with hardly a mention of him. I promised him I would be better about acknowledging his feelings when I write entries, but I think I will also let him write more entries himself in the future because man was his entry fun to read, and he proved his expertise in adding some cuteness and life to my often boring journal! In fact, he will be due for a vet appointment soon, and I am sure he will have a lot to say about that, as well as some volunteer opportunities we did last year that he enjoyed, so stay tuned! But right now, I bet that from my subject line, you are all wondering “What the heck is this entry going to be about?” So without further ado, let me explain.

     First however, maybe I should include a disclaimer. I am Catholic, and every year, I love going to church on Palm Sunday which is the week before Easter, holding a palm branch in my hand, and listening to the wonderful bible reading about Jesus marching in to Jerusalem and being welcomed by people waving palm branches, and the solemn reading of the Passion which is the story of Jesus being betrayed and crucified. So my point is, I take Palm Sunday observances seriously, so the purpose of this subject line is not to offend anyone, or make a mockery of Christianity for any of you readers who are also Christian. But I am of the belief that if God created animals like Gilbert and Snickers who are constantly doing silly things, and of course created a sense of humor in humans, He must have a sense of humor Himself. So I used this subject line because I cannot help but laugh and wonder if God is trying to tell me something. Why else after all, have scary things happened to me the last two years the night before Palm Sunday?

     Last year, I was taking Gilbert outside to relieve himself one more time before bed. When I took him out, it was about 12:30 and my parents, and the whole neighborhood for that matter were already asleep. But I wasn’t worried about anything happening because it is not unusual for me to take him out that late since I am a night owl. In fact, I was so confident that nothing could possibly happen that I didn’t even bring my cell phone. What I had forgotten to anticipate however was that this was Gilbert’s first spring with me, and as I am sure you readers who are dog owners already know, spring is full of irresistible temptation for dogs with all the new smells, wonderful mud piles and baby animals to investigate. I should have anticipated naughtiness because this early spring season was when Mojo and Indy, Gilbert’s predecessors, and actually even our cat Snickers, get that itch to run away. But I think I was still a believer of the misconception that guide dogs are angels because that night, I just went along and followed Gilbert further and further in to the grass thinking he was just looking for the perfect spot to poop. But after awhile two scary things occurred to me. The first was that if Gilbert had to poop, even a finicky dog should have made up his mind on a place by now. The second was that we were far far away from the edge of the driveway where we started, and were in fact, were in a cluster of trees I had never seen before. This could only mean one thing. We were severely lost, and unlike the day when the dog trainer did a drop-off near my college campus, tonight, no good samaritan would be passing on the sidewalk to rescue us. I tried turning around and pointing my feet straight, hoping to retrace my steps back to the driveway, but Gilbert must not have been walking straight because when I tried walking straight, I only found more trees. So, I ended up doing what all of the survival experts tell you never to do. I panicked and just started randomly scrambling around, only to be met by more trees! I tried shouting for help, but no one heard me. After what seemed like hours more of scrambling around, I began to consider having an impromptu campout. It was not terribly cold, maybe fifty degrees, but it would have been nice to have a jacket, something else I hadn’t brought since this was originally intended to be a quick outing. But I could huddle against Gilbert to stay warm, and then the next morning when Mom or Dad noticed that Gilbert and I weren’t slumbering in our respective beds and they called a search party to look for us, I would at least be doing one thing right according to the survival experts by staying where I am. I wished I had paid more attention at an Earth Keeper’s camp when I was in fifth grade where a survival expert showed how to make a shelter using sticks, or remembered some survival scenes from “My Side of the Mountain” and “Hatchet” two of my favorite books when I was younger, but books I never thought would be applicable to me in real life! But maybe Gilbert and I could make do and have some special bonding time in the process. But man, our nice warm house and soft bed sounded so much more appealing than a campout, so I wasn’t going to give up yet! That was when it occurred to me that in my panic, I hadn’t noticed the sound of cars in the distance. If I pointed myself and Gilbert in the direction of the sound of traffic, we should end up back in civilization eventually. So that is what I did, and finally, I had made a smart decision. I don’t think words can describe how excited I was when I felt concrete under my feet. I think I actually stopped and gave Gilbert a huge hug. I still had to get my bearings because instead of going to the driveway, we had ended up on the patio by the porch swing, but I was back on familiar ground so that didn’t take long at all! We had made it home to sleep the sweetest most appreciative sleep in our own beds! The next morning when I told my dad about our adventure, we must have subconsciously realized that maybe God was telling me I needed to be a more responsible dog owner when I am taking him out at night because we decided to put a few precautions in place that I still follow today, like taking Gilbert out while my parents are still awake, or carrying a cell phone with me if they are asleep. My dad also suggested bringing his harness so that I could put it on him if I got lost, and being on duty might mean he could get me home, and maybe some of you guide dog owners are thinking the same thing. But I refuse to swallow my pride and risk a neighbor looking out the window and noticing that I am so geographically challenged that I need Gilbert to guide me through my own yard! More importantly though, this ordeal taught me the importance of keeping my feet firmly planted on concrete so Gilbert understands I am on to his naughty exploring ways now! My dad did install a rope outside the back door by hooking one end to our porch swing, and the other to a tree in the grass, so that if Gilbert ever insisted on pulling me in to the grass, I would have a rope to follow back. But actually, I never ended up needing to use this rope because now I take him out the front door. I used to prefer taking him out either the garage door in the winter since the patio door freezes shut in the winter for some reason, and then the patio door in late spring through fall. I preferred these doors because they gave me a straight shot to grass without any steps to worry about. But last summer, my parents did some remodeling of the house, so now there is a new deck built with posts that stick out in the perfect place to clunk my head if I am not slow and careful, as well as landscaping rocks along the edge of the grass where I used to stand, so I quickly decided that having to climb up on these rocks in summer was way more annoying than going down the two steps outside our front door. But I soon discovered two advantages to the front door. The grass is closer to the house, and since the front door is right by our living room, I can hear the television while I am outside, so even if Gilbert did want to go in to the grass a little further, as long as I can hear the television, there should be no possible way to get lost, and sure enough, I haven’t gotten lost once since using this door! But if I thought getting seriously lost was scary, that scare was nothing compared to this past night before Palm Sunday when I almost died.

     It so happened that this year Palm Sunday coincided with the weekend of my birthday. So the Friday before which was my birthday, I woke up to get ready for another busy day of school, but instead of the same old eggs that I usually eat for breakfast just because they are quick to prepare and keep me satisfied until lunch, my mom kept a birthday breakfast tradition we started last year and made potato pancakes, my favorite breakfast item that I only eat on a rare basis since I am sure they are very greasy and unhealthy. But eating healthy is not supposed to be the priority on your birthday right?

     Then I went to school as usual, and after my politics class when I had some study time, I had hoped to take my birthday off and post an entry to this journal, but decided that even on my birthday, I should be a responsible student, so I think I worked on politics homework that I had fallen behind on. At 11:00 when I had my lunch before my next politics class and science lab, I thought nothing of it as I filled up on baked fish, and actually thought eating this fish was a smart decision since it was the only healthy thing I planned to eat that day. The other politics class was uneventful, but then it so happened that my birthday had to be the day we went to the creek to collect bugs for the science lab, an event which Gilbert mentioned in the last entry. As Gilbert mentioned, walking through the mud wasn’t my idea of a fun surprise for my birthday, but what Gilbert didn’t mention was that when we reached a clearing near the creek and were all standing listening to the professor give us directions for how to go about collecting our bug samples, a student mentioned that Gilbert was eating grass, which she heard dogs will do if they have an upset stomach. That was ironic because at that moment, it occurred to me that my stomach was a little upset too. It wasn’t bad, just a mild twinge of pain in my stomach, but any stomach pain is ominous when you are wearing a constricting one piece wader suit thing that goes from your chest all the way down to boots for your feet, and you are far away from any man made bathrooms. But the excursion through the creek had ended without a hitch, my dad had picked me up from school to take me home as planned, and still it was nothing more than a mild twinge. It was so mild that I insisted we go to Texas Roadhouse as planned, where I had a blast sitting on a saddle and getting my picture taken as the other diners said “Yeehaw!” to me. I even ordered and ate a steak and baked potato loaded with cheese, butter and sower cream, not to mention the free ice cream the restaurant gives diners on their birthday, and of course a generous slice of my mom’s delicious layered cake which is a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting of course! I had pretty much forgotten this pain as I opened my presents which included the usual clothes from Grandma, but also a beautiful gardenia bush whose pot took up the entire center of the kitchen table and whose fragrance once it started blooming was so heavenly I actually kind of looked forward to doing my homework near it, and letting its aroma soothe and relax me! My stomach pain was a distant memory when, after the party, I went to read all the birthday wishes written on my facebook wall, and then take a walk on the treadmill to try and burn off at least a couple hundred of the thousands of extra calories I am sure I ate that day.

     But the next day, my stomach pain was back with a vengeance. Actually, most of the day went well. I got up, heated myself some leftover potato pancakes for breakfast, and a small fajita made with leftovers from Texas Roadhouse before going to a local chapter meeting for the National Federation of the Blind that I was invited to by two other blind students who went to my college last year. I don’t usually go to these meetings because since I spend most of my time with sighted people, I actually feel kind of funny and out of place at gatherings for the blind. I know that probably sounds weird coming from a person who is blind herself, but it’s the truth. However since I was invited and encouraged to come by the blind students at my college whom I had sat with for lunch one day, I thought I should go and I had a good time meeting some new people. Best of all though, they had pizza, and I had a piece of this tomato basil pizza that was really good. My dad picked me up from this meeting and I enjoyed a typical carefree Saturday evening listening to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio, and when my mom came home, my dad made a wonderful dinner of baked fish and this rice dish from Trader Joe’s that has curry and vegetables in it, topped off with a slice of leftover birthday cake of course. But then, shortly after this dinner, my stomach pain returned and I even got slightly sick, meaning, without going in to too much detail, let’s just say, I had to get rid of some of my dinner. But since I still thought it was relatively mild, I decided I really should go ahead and walk on the treadmill since the guilt of this weekend of unhealthy eating was really starting to take hold, and despite all of the experts who advise people to take it easy when they are feeling sick, I decided my need to burn some serious calories was more important than taking it easy given the circumstances, so I pushed myself to the limit, setting the treadmill a little faster than usual. I was hoping to walk through ten songs of the Toby Keith album I was listening to thinking that should come out to about half an hour, but after only six songs, I started to feel kind of nauseous and uncharacteristically tired, so decided I better stop. I thought maybe I could get off the treadmill, but still march in place slowly for the remaining songs, thinking that maybe just slowing down would settle my stomach. But my nausea only got worse, and in addition, my heart rate also seemed unusually fast, even considering that I just finished a workout. So as quickly as I could, I turned off my music, walked upstairs and sat down. The next thing I remember was my mom sitting me up and shouting “Allison! What happened?” It turns out that she had been upstairs watching television when she decided she wanted to give me my medication so that she could go to bed. But when she called my name repeatedly, I wasn’t answering, and then she thought she heard a thud downstairs. When she found me I was completely passed out and unresponsive. Even once my mom had woken me up, I was still in a fog, so a lot of what happened was a blur, but I guess my mom had shouted for my dad to come quick, and he was standing over me trying to keep me talking so I wouldn’t pass out again while my mom called 911. Needless to say, despite being in a fog, I was scared witless. The only times I had ever been in an ambulance were the times when I was little and firemen would come to the school to talk to us and let us explore the fire trucks. I never imagined I would see an ambulance from the perspective of a patient, or at least not until I was elderly or something. But as I mentioned in my entries about the surgery I had in October, I was finding out once again that life is full of uncertainties. So alas, the paramedics came, checked my vital signs and loaded me in to an ambulance on a stretcher. The paramedics did not use the sirens which was probably a combination of the fact that my vital signs were stable despite being unconscious, and the fact that it was late at night. Also since I had managed to sit down in a safe area before passing out, I did not sustain any injuries, making me luckier than a lot of people who pass out. This was a relief to me because it made me feel better that while passing out is nothing to take lightly, at least my condition wasn’t so grave that I had to be rushed to the hospital with sirens blaring. But it was pretty cool not to have to stop for red lights, and after the paramedics put an IV in, I was actually feeling better enough to joke with the paramedics that being an ambulance driver must be a pretty cool job since they can legally speed and run red lights!

     Mom rode in the ambulance with me and Dad drove to the hospital separately after taking Gilbert out and putting him in his cage. My mom would later tell me that since the paramedics had trouble finding a vein for my IV, she knew exactly why I had passed out. When I had gotten rid of my dinner earlier that evening, I hadn’t realized that I also got rid of a lot of my fluids. Add to that the fact that my brain tumor destroyed my pituitary gland which monitors my electrolytes, the loss of even more fluid through my sweat on the treadmill, and the fact that I purposely drank less water than usual that day since it embarrasses me to have to ask where the bathroom is at a total stranger’s house where the NFB meeting was held, and as the emergency doctor who took care of me that night put it, it was the perfect storm that led to severe dehydration.

     Of course, just to be cautious, the doctor wanted to do some other tests that included a blood test, an EKG which was a special type of scan to make sure I hadn’t developed a heart problem, and a CT scan to make sure I hadn’t passed out from a seizure which could mean another brain tumor. There was also this test where they took my blood pressure three times, first laying down, then sitting and finally standing. I forget what the point of this test was, but I remember the standing test had to be redone three or four times because I think I felt so faint and my blood pressure dropped so quickly that the blood pressure machine couldn’t register it. When the EKG and CT scan came back showing no other problems, the doctor ordered two huge bags of IV fluids to restore my electrolytes, and then at 4:30 in the morning, I was released from the hospital and walked out feeling tired from the long night of tests but otherwise, good as new! The doctor’s orders were to stay off that treadmill for awhile, and drink lots of fluids like water, but also sports drinks that are high in electrolytes. Once again, my disgust for other drinks besides milk and water that I mentioned in the first entry about my surgery had come back to bite me. But since I was able to tolerate bland food the next day, which also has electrolytes, my parents agreed it was fine for me to just drink water. But the next Thursday when I was all recovered, my dad wanted me to try a sports drink so that if I was ever starting to get dehydrated again, they could give me something to restore my electrolytes before I reached the point of passing out. The drink he thought was the most mild, PowerAid made me gag when I tried to drink it. But if I eat it with a spoon like soup, for some reason I could tolerate it that way, and actually even kind of liked its gentle sweet taste, not enough to add it to my beverage regimen, but enough that I would use it to avert any future dehydration disaster!

     But anyway, on Sunday morning as we reflected on the eventful night, my mom said she believed God was watching over us last night, since she said if she had given me my medication before I went on the treadmill and went to bed, I might not have been found until the next morning by which time I might have died. But despite our immense gratitude for God’s protection, I slept until 11:00 that morning, too late to go to church for Palm Sunday. And just like last Palm Sunday, we discussed precautions to put in place like making sure to always go on the treadmill earlier in the day so that my parents are awake to check on me and ensure that I would be found sooner should I pass out and to never ever go on the treadmill if I feel sick to my stomach. My parents also broke down and bought me this medic alert necklace with my name, medications and allergies engraved on it that I wear every time I leave home in case I am knocked unconscious and my parents are not around to tell the paramedics of my special medical circumstances. My parents wanted to get me one of these necklaces when I was younger. But my protest at having to wear such a necklace that could potentially be ugly and scare people away, combined with the fact that since my brain tumor, I have been so healthy we didn’t think such a necklace was necessary meant that we never went ahead and ordered one. But after this medical scare, even I relented and agreed to wear one since I finally appreciated the truth behind that saying that life is fragile. But the necklace they ordered actually looks like it would be pretty. My information is engraved on a metal dog tag, but this tag is on a gold chain with an angel charm that I like to think of as my guardian angel watching over me. Hardly anyone has seemed to notice it, and those who do probably think it is just a normal piece of pretty jewelry. In addition to these precautions, I added one more. After getting sick a few days later when once again, the school cafeteria served fish, I will only eat fish from places that specialize in fish like Red Lobster where you can be a little more confident that the fish is fresh, and weird stuff wasn’t added to preserve it because I have never gotten sick from the fish at these kinds of restaurants.

     So I don’t mean to be superstitious, but can you see why after the increasingly scary things that happened the past two years on the night before Palm Sunday, I would wonder what God has in store for me next year before Palm Sunday? I mean, there is only one thing worse than almost dying! Does God have a “three strikes, you’re out” plan for me? Just in case, maybe next year, I should drink lots of water, take Gilbert out before dark and spend the night in the basement, or somewhere far away from any windows where a meteor could crash through and knock me in the head or something! I am just being silly of course, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt if next year, you could all pray for me!

The Dog Days of School

Hey readers, it’s Gilbert here! Have you noticed that my mom titled this journal “Gilbert and Me”, but lately all her entries have been all about her, with hardly a mention of me? Well, Mom apologized, admitting that she gets so passionate about some things she gets carried away and doesn’t think about me. So to make up for it, she is letting me write an entry about my thoughts and feelings on life, and she won’t even screen my entry, so I can say whatever I want! Don’t worry. I won’t write a long boring rambling entry like Mom does because I want to get back to sleep as soon as possible, but this is such an exciting opportunity she gave me that I had to take her up on it. So as long as my mom has been on a tangent about how crazy this school year was, especially second semester, I have to say that as stressful as it was for her, she forgot to mention that it was kind of stressful for me too.

I know what you readers are probably thinking. “Quit complaining! Once you get Mom to class, your work is done, and you get to sleep and often get pets from other students.” Alright, I’ll admit this is true. But getting her to class was pretty stressful because unlike every other semester where there is some resemblance of a routine, it seemed like every day was different. One day, we would start at Rankin Hall, and after class there, I would think I was being such a good boy taking her to the campus center so she could study like she did yesterday, only to be reprimanded and directed to Lowry Hall or Main Hall or any number of places. I guess she did have a routine with one set of places on Mondays and Thursdays, another for Tuesdays and another for Fridays. But I wasn’t trained on the days of the week, so how was I supposed to know where she was going when? After a while, I would just take her down the steps of Rankin and wait for her to give me directions. The silver lining of it was that it forced my geographically challenged, incompetent mom to know her darn campus better. I mean we’ve been traveling this campus two years now. It’s about time she did what the trainer said and directed me instead of relying on me to lead the way! But I still felt guilty because my breed is so eager to please, and I so desperately wanted to please, but didn’t know what she wanted.

And then, if she was especially swamped with homework, boy was she cranky! I am a social butterfly, so I will occasionally do naughty things like steer Mom toward the dining room when I know it is not mealtime yet, or stop and say hello to a person who has pet me in the past, or even a stranger who has another dog’s scent on them. Usually, she will make an irritated sigh, give me a gentle correction, and firmly but calmly, and with a smile say no. But this semester, I have really learned to be careful when I push her buttons, because if she is stressed, her corrections are still gentle because she is wimpy and would never want to hurt me no matter how stressed she is, but instead of retaining her calm smiling demeanor, her face gets all scrunched up and I can sense that it is all she can do to restrain herself from screaming at me. But I know she loves me, and when we get home, she always takes a moment to rub my belly and talk sweetly to me, apologizing for her irritation with me.

I felt bad for all of the homework Mom had to do. It must have been a lot since she would turn off the television and put me to bed at 1:30 on many nights and wake me up at 6:30. I didn’t feel the effects of this sleep deprivation of course since I can pretty much sleep all day, but I think I would die with only five hours of sleep a day! Boy am I glad I’m not a human in that regard! Human food is so much more delicious smelling than my food, but I’ll save that lament for another day. But another positive to my not being human is that since I didn’t have any homework to do after school like Mom did, I was in a better position to appreciate the many fun times we had last semester, like when we went to a creek to collect bugs for a science lab, and I actually got to walk through thick mud that came up to my chest, in harness! Well, my mom didn’t find that as fun as I did because she almost lost her balance a couple times and had to have two students on either side of her to hold her up and clear branches and stuff out of the way. But we both enjoyed spending a weekend with a former teacher of hers who has a house on a lake. She enjoyed catching up with this teacher and another blind friend who was also invited, but I enjoyed hanging out with eleven others of my own kind! Well, at first my mom wasn’t sure if this would be fun either because she knows how wild and excited I can get around my own kind, since I am an only child at home. She even busted out the pinch collar which she hadn’t made me wear since training, and held on to my leash so tight the first few hours that if she had held it any tighter, I would have had to yelp “You’re choking me!” But after awhile, when she sensed I was calming down, she eased up, and we all had a blast. Actually, I was only allowed to play with two of the dogs because the other dogs were tiny maltese dogs, poodles and miniature rat terriers, and the teacher and Mom feared that I wouldn’t know my own size around these dogs and would inadvertently kill or injure them. They say I’m so sweet and mellow, yet they still don’t trust me. You humans have such little faith in us, I tell you! (sigh) But I had a blast with the two friends I was allowed to play with. One was a german shepherd, the guide dog of my mom’s friend, and the other was a puppy in training to be a guide dog. They called him Geyser, and he looked like me only he was black instead of yellow. I can only play with him for small amounts of time at once because he exhausts me since he is young and wild, and hasn’t learned how to act professionally yet. I thought about cuddling up to Mom and saying “I’m getting too old for this!” But it was fun to let off some steam with my own kind, and relive memories of when I was a puppy, though I’m sure I was never that wild and mischievous when I was a puppy (smile).

Those were the big highlights of my semester, but I also found little moments to have fun while my mom was absorbed in homework. Sometimes if the weather was nice and it wasn’t too muddy, Mom would agree to let Grandpa take me out to our two acre yard and let me chase a ball and lie in soft grass for a few minutes. And since the weather warmed up a lot earlier this year than last year, even my mom would pull herself away from homework, and Grandma and Grandpa would accompany us for wonderful peaceful walks on our country road. Now that it is so hot and humid outside, my tail goes between my legs when I sense we are about to go for a walk, but back in the school year, it was warm enough to walk, but still relatively cool outside so we could return from a two mile walk feeling exercised but refreshed, not like now when Mom is dripping in sweat and I am panting a mile a minute. And, since half the purpose of the walks during school was to relax and refresh, she wasn’t overly concerned with going fast and she would let me slow down and sniff the flowers sometimes since she likes to do that herself when she is stressed. When the weather wasn’t very nice, I had some good times indoors too, like standing at attention while Grandpa was cooking meat on the stove in case he needed help cleaning up anything that splattered on to the floor, or looking out the window and barking and wagging my tail at dogs walking down the street.

This semester, I also got on more friendly terms with my sister Snickers, the cat. Did I mention that I was the only child earlier in this entry? Well, that was because at first, I didn’t think the cat should count as a sister because the rules of my dog culture say that we are supposed to be enemies, and that dogs are way cooler than cats! But I was taught as a puppy that I must be nice to them, so I am gentle around her, even though I cannot stand it when she sits in Mom’s lap and Mom talks all sweet to her instead of me! If I am really feeling jealous, I will come up to Mom and stick my nose under her chin, my way of saying, “She is my mommy! Beat it, cat!” With that, she will meow like such a baby you would think I bit her, and then run off. Mom tries to tell me no, but deep inside, I know she thinks this vice of mine is cute because she will sigh, but then reach down and pet me. Yet despite these fights over Mom, we had a lot of fun playing together. She loved to come right up to me and instigate a wild chase all over the house, and we both discovered common ground in the pleasure of standing at the window barking and meowing at animals. And, despite the fact that she is less than one sixth my size, she actually had the nerve on several occasions to sit in my cage if I was lying on the floor outside of it, and just stare at me. Grandma and Grandpa especially found this hilarious, and when they described it to Mom, they said it was like the cat was taunting me saying “Ha! Look at me! I’m in your room! What are you going to do about it?” I pretty much ignored her because I am not going to give that bully of a sister the attention she wants, and there is nothing valuable kept in my cage like food or anything. But I admit it was pretty funny. However, the big thing that proved the cat kind of liked me for a brother despite her bad experiences when her cousin Mojo used to visit was when Mom and I would be chilling out in her room with the door closed, and she would scratch at the door asking to come in too! Isn’t that sweet?

But actually, my favorite times at home were the times when I could just fall asleep on the floor leaning against the couch, so I looked almost like a human asleep in front of the television without a care in the world. Most importantly though, my mom tells me that last semester, I was more than just her guide dog. I was an unofficial therapy dog who kept her going when times were tough, and brought joy to the lives of all students, faculty and even people in the general public that we came in to contact with. I want to tell her that I almost enjoy this unofficial part of my job description even more than my official job of guide dog because I had to be trained for my guide dog duties, but I am just so cute and sweet that being a therapy dog comes naturally to me. So if Mom was sitting in class feeling blue about all the homework that awaited her when class ended, she would reach down beside my chair and pet the top of my head or scratch behind my ears, and even if I was in a deep sleep, I would always lift my head and look at her with loving eyes my best effort to say “No matter how stressful life gets, I am here for you and love you.” If she is feeling this way in the car on the way to school, I can sense it, and will stretch to rest my nose in her lap because my mom is so carefree she doesn’t mind if I leave a slobbery spot on her pants. And if she is really feeling down, I have become an expert in using well timed mischief for medicine. If a politics lecture is especially boring, and Mom is staring at the clock on the braille display of her computer, I loved to let out a huge sigh or groan, or better yet, snore so loud that Mom’s friends tell her they thought it was a chain saw outside until they looked over and realized it was me. Mom would wake me up and pretend to reprimand me so that she wouldn’t get a bad reputation for having a disruptive dog, but I saw that smile in the corner of her mouth, and the whole class, including the professor couldn’t help laughing! If my mom had groaned or snored in class, she might have gotten in trouble, but since humans think us dogs cannot help it or don’t realize the rude implications of such noises, I can tell the professor what I think without getting in trouble.

But Mom’s favorite mischief story that she still laughs about when she pets me was a day in Environmental Science when I let on to the class that I know more english than they thought I did. It was an especially boring day in that class where the teacher was rambling on about global climate change, and to make it even worse, speaking of climate, it was an absolutely gorgeous day outside, way too gorgeous for man or beast to be sitting in a stuffy classroom. What a perfect day for some mischief! But snoring and sighing was getting kind of old. I was at a loss for mischievous ideas at first, but then the perfect opportunity presented itself. After watching a short and very boring video with a teacher demonstrating how the locations of animals could shift as climate gets warmer, the professor elaborated by explaining how jaguars, who live in more southern climates could shift to northern climates where people are not accustomed to seeing them. I was just about to tune out the rest of this lecture and go to sleep, but then the professor mentioned that if jaguars are more commonplace where people are living, you could have new problems like jaguars eating dogs! What? Oh no! I didn’t know my kind was at risk of being eaten! I’m supposed to eat, not be eaten! I knew I had no real reason to worry because my mom loves me and would keep any jaguar monsters away from me. But since I am never one to pass up an opportunity for mischief, upon hearing this news, my head jerked up and I let out a mournful groan that set the whole class laughing. I let the teacher finish the class without any more mischief, but it was not as boring because the whole class was smiling at me, and after class, I was showered with pets and a whole bunch of students, Mom and the teacher assured me they would protect me from those jaguars. And actually, this mischief that put the whole class in a happy mood may have contributed to the teacher dismissing class half an hour early so we could spend more time outside, a rare special occasion that I celebrated with even more mischief.

After class, Mom and I went with one of her friends to sit under a tree and chat for awhile until our next class. Since we were outdoors, Mom decided to treat me to a few minutes out of harness so I could sprawl out, get higher quality belly rubs and soak up the sun. Usually, I stand still and patient until Mom has fully unbuckled the harness and lifted it from my back. But that day, I was so excited to be out of harness that she had only gotten as far as unbuckling the strap and had not even pulled the strap through the loop on the other part of the strap when I did a belly flop on to the lap of Mom’s friend who was already sitting in the grass, and rolled myself the rest of the way out of the harness making sure Mom and her friend knew that despite my newfound fear of jaguars, I was still as happy and carefree as ever.

Wow, this entry turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would be, so I think I will stop because I am about ready to fall asleep and drool at the computer. I know Mom always ends her entries with some sappy or philosophical thing about how the experiences discussed in the entry have impacted her life, or what her dreams are for the future. But I will just end by saying that I really don’t care what kind of routine she has next semester, or where her career path leads, just as long as she takes me with her.

My Decline in Journalistic Excellence

Well readers, as interesting as some of the things I learned in Politics were, I expected those courses to be boring and demanding at times; not quite as boring and demanding as they ended up being, but boring and demanding nonetheless. I didn’t think Environmental Science would be as difficult as it was, but going in to last semester, I expected it to be a little difficult, and knew I would hate it at times because I just don’t really care for science since it is so visual. Speaking of Environmental Science, I forgot to mention in the last entry that if you wanted to see my finished product on wikispaces, it is still available. If you couldn’t care less about my research, I understand, but if anyone is interested in reading it, my wiki page is at http://enviornmentalhealth.wikispaces.com. But anyway, Investigative Reporting, the class I took last semester to earn my last four credits was a course that I thought would be my dream class, the class that I would breeze through. Not only that, but with all of the Journalism experience I have had in the past, I thought I would be the star student of the class, with each assignment bringing me more and more confidence that I could become the next Chris Hansen or Brian Ross. Chris Hansen and Brian Ross are television journalists of course, and even though I am blind, I still would get extremely nervous thinking about all of the people listening to me and possibly judging me if I had to speak on television, so that is out of the question. But as I mentioned in an entry about a month and a half ago, as long as I can write stories that are completely true and not have to invent a character and a life for that character, I love to write, and I imagined myself doing for a newspaper or an online written publication what Journalists like Chris Hansen and Brian Ross have done for television: exposing the truth, righting injustice, and being a totally awesome representative for that fourth, and I believe most important branch of the government whose responsibility it is to keep society informed and hold businesses and governments accountable. But maybe I should back up a little bit and tell you readers the story behind my Journalistic ambitions.

I definitely was not a Journalism child prodigy. I wasn’t following the news before I could talk, or telling my parents “I want to be a Journalist when I grow up!” at the age of two or three the way some kids do. Well, I actually don’t know if there has ever been such a thing as a Journalism child prodigy like there are for sports and music, but you get my drift. Anyway, my story is nothing amazing like that. Like any child, my dreams for what I wanted to be when I grew up changed day by day. If we read a children’s book in school about doctors or hospitals, I thought it would be fun to be a nurse. If we were doing fun things in school, I would imagine myself as a teacher when I grew up and play school with my dolls. And every time an author came to speak to us in elementary school, I would think how exciting it might be to be a famous author, but of course since my creative writing skills have always been pretty mediocre, I soon decided not to waste my time on that dream, and when I got to high school and my essay writing skills really started to develop, I briefly thought about being an essayist, but decided I wasn’t going to contribute to the torture of future high school and college students, probably the only audience essayists have and an unhappy audience at that, by writing essays. So toward the end of my sophomore year of high school when it started to dawn on me that I only had two more years of school before I was off to college, and I still had no concrete idea what to study in college, which would determine what I do with my life, I was getting scared.

Then, in late March or early April of that year, I found out that junior year, I would be eligible for a mentorship program coordinated by my high school where a select group of students could spend forty hours with a person actually working in a career field that they think would interest them. At an informational meeting for students and parents interested in this program, the lady who coordinates the program said it is very competitive and they often are not able to accommodate everyone who applies. But my grades, which were a large factor in determining who was accepted in to the program, were excellent, so I decided it couldn’t hurt to apply because the coordinator said that it has been a wonderful experience for students in the past by allowing them to get firsthand knowledge of a career, the best way to determine whether or not it is the career for them. So I filled out the application, and when it asked for my first, second and third choice of career fields to explore and showed a huge list of possibilities, I was drawn to newspaper reporting. I actually didn’t know much about newspaper writing at that time because I actually hadn’t read that many newspaper articles in my life since the only method of reading that I was open to was braille, and our local newspapers are not available in braille. Now of course, I am reading a lot more newspaper articles because I subscribed to NFB Newsline, a service that makes the main stories of hundreds of newspapers all across the country available either for listening over the phone in a computer voice or on an easy to navigate website that is completely accessible using my braillenote. If I want to read an article that is not on NFB Newsline, and to my frustration, there are a lot of interesting columns that my parents tell me about which are not available through this service, I have gotten much more comfortable with accessing newspaper websites using Jaws. But for much of my life, my parents had to read articles to me, and since I didn’t want to impose on them to read to me, I didn’t read newspaper articles very often. But since I loved writing by the time I filled out this application, I knew that the newspaper writing style was something I could quickly learn, and since I had been getting Reader’s Digest in braille since I was in eighth grade, I wrote on my application essay how much I loved reading this columnist, Michael Crowley who has a column called “That’s Outrageous” in this magazine every month, where he discusses an anger arousing event like congress wasting taxpayer money or kindergartners being suspended for having a toy gun in their backpack. I also mentioned in the essay how I could see myself doing some kind of news related writing like that for a career. I didn’t mention this in the essay, but I also felt like I would do well in this kind of career because despite my lack of knowledge about the newspaper writing style, I have been fascinated by news and politics ever since September 11, an event that was my first real understanding of how much more there was to worry about than just what was in my little world of school, homework and childhood, and since I watched the news on television a lot, I couldn’t help paying attention to how these Journalists reported the news. So before I had even taken a Journalism class, I was starting to be aware of some of the mechanics of news reporting like being completely unbiased and backing everything up with statistics from credible sources or through the use of direct quotes and interviews. Television reporting is different from writing of course, but these basic principles are applicable to both, so I knew newspaper writing would be something I could easily learn. Anyway, for my second choice on the application, I put radio broadcasting because although I wasn’t comfortable with speaking, I would have been alright trying out this field because maybe I could discover that radio broadcasting isn’t as scary as I imagined it being, and the coordinator said that even if students leave the program and decide that the career field they explored was definitely not something they wanted to pursue further, coming to this realization would still make the experience valuable and worthwhile. I don’t remember what I marked as my third choice, but that doesn’t matter because I ended up getting my first choice, newspaper reporting.

It took a while for arrangements to be made, but starting in January of my junior year, I would report to the office of the editor in chief of a small local newspaper. Though this program only lasted four months, I have never felt more grown up in my life than I did in those months. The editor I mentored with had absolutely no reservations about the fact that I was blind, and I didn’t just observe him. I got to do cool stuff, like sit in on an interview with the governor and ask my own questions, sit in on a town hall meeting and a school board meeting and most excitingly, interview students at my high school and the other high school in my district to write a story about people’s opinions on a costly referendum to renovate these schools. This story was actually published in the newspaper with my own byline, and only minimal editing! This mentor gave me so much encouragement, and amazed me by telling me that my writing was better than the writing of many college interns he has worked with, so when I completed this program, I was one of the glowing students who had found the career for them. This experience gave me the confidence to write for the school newspaper my senior year, and I was one of the first to show up for the first staff meeting to write for my college newspaper. Writing for the college newspaper proved to be a little more difficult because unlike high school where I pretty much knew and was comfortable approaching every student and teacher I needed to interview for a story, in college, everyone was a stranger, and I was surprised to find that college was a lot more like the real world than I thought it would be, meaning that some of the administration that I needed to interview for stories didn’t want to give me the time of day. So my confidence wavered at times, but was boosted after I took an introductory news writing class where I got more formal education about how to write concise, relevant and informative stories, as well as gain more experience with interviewing and being comfortable talking to strangers. I was a star student in this class, and the professor actually told me about the advanced news writing class that I took last semester at the end of my freshman year before it was officially offered in the course listings, and recommended I take it. My confidence was boosted to the heavens when I wrote a story for my college newspaper last September about some housing offered to students that was in terrible condition, a story the student editor said she absolutely loved and it was the best story I had written for the paper! I had found my calling as an Investigative reporter!

But as they say, every star must fall. Actually, my star didn’t really fall because I still got an A in the class. But to get that A, I had to endure so much frustration, exhaustion and confidence deflation that the feelings of excitement and fulfillment that I was training for a noble profession, and the confidence that I had my life all figured out at the beginning of the class were replaced by feelings of discouragement and uncertainty by the end of the class. So what was behind this disappointing transformation? Well, to start with, as I mentioned back in January, this class was the first night class I had ever taken, and while I have been going to evening choir rehearsals since seventh grade, I was correct about my fear that choir rehearsal where there is a lot of standing and activity, is a lot different from a class where you are just sitting at a desk. I do love to write in the evenings, so I was absolutely fine if I was engaged in an in-class writing assignment. But these assignments were few and far between since most of our writing was based on research and interviews that we had to do outside of class. A lot of the class time was very interesting because the professor who was actually an investigative reporter at a large local newspaper, would regularly have other reporters he worked with come in and speak to the class about their experiences. For example, one reporter was a multimedia journalist which meant that he didn’t do as much writing, but was in charge of taking stories reporters wrote, and adding a creative angle to it, usually by making videos to supplement the story on the newspaper’s website. To illustrate the effects of a heat wave one summer, he made a really funny video about people roasting hot dogs on top of their cars. We also had a police reporter, and a women who won a prestigious journalism award for an investigative series published in our paper about daycare owners that were receiving state money that was supposed to be used to care for the children of poor working parents. But it turned out that many of these daycare owners were instead billing the state for kids they didn’t care for, or they would have employees of the daycare send children who could have been in school to daycare so that they could bill the state for more children and get rich. The fraud uncovered by this investigation was of such a massive scale that our state passed new laws to reform that program. The professor himself had a lot of wonderful experiences to share about the power Journalists had to initiate reform and right injustice. He even had the opportunity to investigate a man who was wrongfully convicted for murdering a woman, and when he showed us a huge box of documents he had to read for that investigation, and told us how many interviews he had to do and all of the hurdles he had trying to get these interviews, it was fascinating and a true testament to how rewarding the profession can be. But since my other classes kept me up so late every night, by the time I got to this night class, which of course had to be held in a cozy carpeted room with soft computer chairs, I was too burnt out and sleepy to really engage in the class, ask questions and show this professor, who my advisor told me would be an excellent person to use as a reference when I start looking for jobs, that I really did care about this class, and this potentially noble profession. It was even harder to stay awake when the professor spent a couple of weeks talking about computer assisted reporting, something which many professional journalists aren’t comfortable with, but something he believes will be extremely helpful for us when we get in to the field. Computer assisted reporting involved learning how to access things like court records online, and analyze data on spreadsheets. I had Jaws on the school computer, so at the beginning of the class, I was excited that I would be able to participate fully in the class activities, and follow along when the professor demonstrated things. But by the end of each class, it became clear that having Jaws, and being able to keep up with the class using Jaws are two different stories because the professor had so much he wanted to cover each class that he would just tell the other kids to click on stuff with the mouse, which they could do in an instant, and forget to show me how to find it with the keys. So it wasn’t long at all before I was left behind in a cloud of dust. Once it became clear that keeping up was out of the question, I knew I should listen and take notes so that maybe I could figure things out at my own pace when I got home, but would catch myself dozing off instead. Fortunately, my professor was wonderfully understanding and would let me do computer assignments with a partner, but I still don’t feel like I would be prepared to be a really good journalist because I never did have time to fully master these skills on my own.

But we didn’t just listen to reporters talk about their work and how they used computers to do it for this class. We had plenty of work of our own. The first couple of weeks were pretty easy since the professor gave us some assignments to just review what we had learned in the introductory news writing class which was a prerequisite to this class. So I wrote a profile of a stranger which was still a little awkward, but not too bad since I had done it before. The week after that, we were asked to take a topic in the national news, and cover it from a local angle, so I wrote a story about the Toyota recall and how it was effecting local dealerships. Of course, for public relations reasons, I could only find one person at a local dealer who would agree to an interview, and it was kind of stressful for me, and my dad who had to drive me all over creation looking for Toyota dealers. But I have experienced similar issues for other stories, so I handled it pretty smoothly in the end. But that all changed when it came time for beat reporting. For those of you unfamiliar with Journalism terminology, beat reporting basically means that you are assigned to a category like police reporting, government reporting or court reporting just to name a few, and then that category basically becomes your specialty, and most of the stories you write are for that category. I actually did get to do beat reporting in my introductory news writing class, but there were two key differences to reporting in that class versus this class. First, in the introductory class, we got to choose what beat we wanted to cover, whereas in this class, everyone had to draw from a hat, and whatever beat they drew, they had to cover, no trading allowed. And second, in the introductory class, we were simply learning how to write news stories, so someone on the government beat would just do a straight forward story about what was covered at a student senate meeting, or a police beat person would just write a story giving the who, what, where and when of a petty crime near campus like a car being broken in to or something. But for this class, being that it was an investigative reporting class, we had to find investigative stories. That, it turned out, would prove to be easier said than done. Remember a few pages ago when I told you about the awesome investigative story I wrote for the campus newspaper about the poor condition of some student housing? Well, what I took for granted at the time I wrote that story was that my editor had already done half the work for me by simply finding that story! And when I think about it now, the same was true for pretty much all of my previous Journalism experiences. Once a month when I went to my high school and college newspaper meetings, the format of these meetings was the same. The editor for each section of the newspaper would stand up and rattle off a list of story ideas they had compiled, and then, once all of the editors had presented their story ideas, writers would find the editor that had a story they were interested in, and sign up for that story. In my high school mentorship, the editor would tell me what story to write. In my introductory news writing class, we had to look for stories sometimes, but since the stories were so straight forward, they hardly required any effort to find. It turns out that often, that is not how Journalism works in the real world. The textbook chapters and the professor gave plenty of guidance on potential places to find stories, such as reading other newspapers and crime briefs, which is where I went for all of my stories, as well as just paying attention to your surroundings and getting out in the community to talk to people. But since I had to do so much research for other classes, I didn’t have a lot of time left to research story ideas, and this research actually proved to be even more difficult than the research for my politics and environmental science classes because while researching story ideas did not require ten scholarly sources, it was almost easier to face the drudgery of finding scholarly sources on a concrete topic like environmental racism than it was to research when I didn’t know what I was searching for. So often times, I wouldn’t be able to find an idea for my beat story until the very last minute. Fortunately, the professor required us to email him our story idea the week before the story was due, otherwise my procrastination habit could have really gotten me in to trouble since I don’t think I could research a story idea, get the three required interviews, and write the story in one night.

And then, once I found an idea that I thought showed promise for making an interesting investigative story, the story would fall flat once I had gotten more information from the interviews. For example, one day in March, I went to check my college e-mail when I noticed an e-mail thanking me for registering with linkedin.com. I have heard of this site before. I think it is a site where professionals can post their profiles and network with other professionals. But being that I am still a student who has not officially entered the professional scene yet, I never registered with this site. I started to panic, fearing that someone had hacked in to my e-mail account, until I realized that this e-mail was sent from the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship list serve, so everyone on this e-mail list had gotten this message. I remember thinking it seemed a little out of character for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship to register everyone with this kind of site without our permission, and sure enough, a short while later there was an e-mail from a student on the leadership team who said she had no idea what was going on either, and that Intervarsity did not do anything on linkedin.com. And then I remembered that while this was the first time a whole list serve had received spam, I have occasionally received other spam messages in the past, usually from pharmacies wanting to sell me drugs online, and it occurred to me that the spam I get, and the spam sent to the Intervarsity e-mail list could be just the tip of the iceberg on a huge problem that could potentially pose a threat to internet security at the college. What a perfect idea for a story, and I didn’t even have to comb crime reports to look for it! This incident happened right before spring break, and the story was due two weeks after we got back from break. So on the first day back from break, when I still had not heard what had become of this issue, I e-mailed the team leader and asked her if I could interview her about the incident, thinking that since she was a student, I would have no problem getting her to talk to me. But to my frustration, she had already perfected the public relations attitude just like the toyota dealers and the school administration, and said the issue had been resolved and she would rather not talk about it. That left me no choice but to simply write about spam in general, and that wasn’t much of a story. I managed to get an interview with the chief officer in the Information Technology Department who said they have software to filter out most spam, but there is no perfect software out there that can filter out everything, and how students can forward spam to the department who can try to tell the senders to stop. I also interviewed a student who said she hated receiving spam, but that she has not received any this year, and it took me two more weeks when the revisions were due to get the third source, my politics professor who I quickly interviewed at the end of class one day, and who basically said the same thing. When my professor made a comment on this story basically saying there wasn’t much of an investigative component to it, I couldn’t have agreed more, but by the time I chased down enough interviews to realize this, it was too late in the game to find a different topic.

All of my stories turned out like this, and it didn’t help that I was unlucky enough to draw the police beat, a beat which I found out from one of the guest speakers, is the beat which is often given to the least experienced reporters right out of college precisely because it is difficult and less desirable for people who have earned seniority. I was quickly discovering how right they were, and not just because a lot of cops aren’t especially friendly and don’t like talking to real Journalists, let alone students for a silly school assignment, but also because at my college, the occasional car break-in, or underage drinking in the dorm is pretty much the extent of crime, which is a good thing of course, but sadly, this lack of crime was pretty disappointing when I depended on crime for story ideas. On the due date of every story, the professor would randomly partner us up to read and edit each other’s stories, and I was always so envious of my partners who always had better beats, and much better story ideas. One partner with the business beat wrote a story about a law that would allow farmers to sell raw milk, something that has sparked passionate controversy in our state because of safety concerns, and another partner who had the government beat investigated the controversy behind the mayor’s plan to get city water from another lake since the wells the city currently uses for water have too much radium which is unsafe according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The contrast between these stories and my stories was pretty discouraging, but these beat stories were only part of the workload of this class.

In addition to knowing how to write investigative stories, the professor also believed it was important to read other people’s investigative stories with a critical eye, a skill which I would have agreed was important, if only perfecting this skill didn’t have to add another layer to Homework Mountain. Every week, in addition to our current beat story and any revisions due for past stories, we were expected to read our local newspaper regularly because just like with my American politics class, every class began with a current events quiz about local happenings. In addition, sometimes the professor would assign us an investigative series to read, which was always a lot longer than the typical newspaper article, and then answer twelve questions about the series, such as listing what primary and secondary sources were used, strengths and weaknesses of the investigation, and if there were other stories we could write that were similar to that story. These questions weren’t too hard, but since I had so much other work to do, and since even in this class, I made the beat stories my top priority, I found myself scrambling every week to answer these questions, and cram as many newspaper articles down my throat as I could, hoping that for once, I could maybe do well on the quiz, but it never worked. Inevitably, there were always two or three questions I had to leave blank or guess on simply because I didn’t have time to read everything, once again giving this teacher the impression that I didn’t care about this class, though deep inside, I cared about this class the most of all my classes. Just like with Statistics, I sometimes find myself wondering if my professor just gave me an A because he felt sorry for me, or because he was impressed with my effort, even if the fruit of this effort was nothing to write home about. I know I wasn’t alone in my discouragement because I heard other classmates complain constantly, especially about the late hours of the class, and the professor purposely made the class a little difficult so that we would experience the same frustrations and deadline pressure that real Journalists face. For doing this, I actually commended him in a reflection paper he asked us to write about the course because I would rather know what difficulties people working in a field face now rather than have classes sugar coated, and then be in for a shock when I actually got my first job in the field.

But after all of that stress and all those discouraging moments when writing my beat stories, I hate to say it, but I sort of feel the same way I did in high school before the mentorship program, uncertain of what I will do with my life. I know that in the real world, the demands of journalism will be a lot less stressful when I don’t have three other classes competing for my time. I love the fact that Journalists have the potential to right injustice and spark reform. But I have also come to the realization that for every one story that releases an innocent man from prison, there are a million stories that are pursued with vigorous excitement that is dashed by the end of the story for so many reasons, from interview sources whose public relations training only allows them to skirt around issues instead of facing them, and sources who are not public relations focused but simply won’t answer your phone calls and take your work seriously, to the fact that so much of the profession is centered around deadlines making it difficult to pursue stories with thoroughness. Add to that the fact that you are constantly hearing about journalism jobs being cut, and I am left with the disappointing feeling that a profession that is so underappreciated, with public relations people constantly standing in the way of your efforts to uncover the truth, and with so much pressure to investigate stories with such little time that I am beginning to wonder if this is really the right profession for me. I am not the kind of person that lets one class turn me off to a potentially wonderful profession, so I am going to continue pursuing this major. Maybe I am not cut out for Investigative Journalism, but even if I just wrote the straight forward story saying that a fire occurred at a house, or this is what was covered at a government meeting, I would still be doing good work by keeping the community informed, even if information alone doesn’t have the exciting potential to change the world. My parents constantly remind me that I am young so I don’t have to plan my life yet, and that there are so many career possibilities I would be wonderful at if I decide Journalism isn’t right for me. My mom and dad have even said I should think about law school because my mom especially has been impressed by some argumentative essays I have written, something she says lawyers do a lot. For awhile, I kind of halfheartedly said I might think about it, but now that I have gotten a real taste of the difficulties in Journalism, I have started to take this advice more seriously and keep my options open. And if all else fails, my love for singing is still alive and well, so I could always take the Brad Paisley route: find a few good buddies, and start a band. I’m just kidding about that. But no matter which career path life takes me down, I agree with the attitude that things always have a way of working out, so rather than fret about the uncertainty of life, I am starting to appreciate the excitement and potential rewards of a life that is not centered around getting to a concrete destination, but about enjoying the journey, or maybe even straying from the path I planned to take and not worry if it takes me to a new destination because I am finding more and more truth behind that saying which says “It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.”

Environmental Stress

Alright readers, now it is time to fill you in on the other eight credits that made second semester the craziest one ever for me! Looking back on my semester now, I realize that while my politics classes were extremely demanding, which I talked about in last Monday’s entry, one advantage to the politics classes that made them a little more manageable was the fact that they met four times a week for fifty minutes. The fact that these classes met so regularly meant that even though they still kept me up all hours of the night, at least with these classes, it was a little easier to pace myself and not fall behind because even if there weren’t assignments due everyday, just being in the class and seeing the teacher almost every day reminded me what was due when so I could stay on track. But my other two classes last semester were a different story. My environmental science class met two days a week for about two hours, and my Investigative Journalism class only met once a week from 6:00 to 9:35 in the evening. Having class less frequently meant that it was all too easy for me to forget that I had assignments for these classes until the last minute, and these teachers immediately dashed my hopes that meeting less frequently would mean less work in the class. As I mentioned in last Monday’s entry, my teacher for environmental science sent an e-mail the Saturday before the start of classes telling us to have chapter one read for the first class because there would be a quiz. I didn’t have any books sent to me from the disability services office at that time, but that was alright with me because I had no intention of starting to read the chapter until Tuesday anyway, the day when classes officially started, and my first environmental science class was on Thursday. After all, classes keep me so insanely busy as it is during the semester that I don’t think I should have to devote one second of my vacations to schoolwork. Besides, the catalog number for this course was Env120, a level 1 course, so even if I couldn’t get the chapter read, I figured the quiz shouldn’t be that hard to guess on.

Because I really am a serious student despite how much I vent about school in this journal, I sent an e-mail to the teacher telling her that I would be in her class and that I was blind. She replied right away and we arranged a meeting in her office Tuesday afternoon to discuss accommodations. I also e-mailed the disability services office and told them to make chapter one of the environmental science book a priority, and try to send it as soon as possible. The office sent it right away Monday morning, and as much as I was dreading getting back to the grind of schoolwork, vacations always help me to clear my head and forget about the stresses of the previous semester so I can start the new semester with renewed motivation. So I detached chapter 1 from the e-mail, ready to hit the ground running on it during a break between my politics classes from 10:00 to 12:00 the next morning. I shouldn’t have expected this plan to go so smoothly when this semester already promised to be a stressful one, or maybe I shouldn’t have ruined my last day of vacation with my decision to open the files after they were detached to make sure they read properly. Anyway, to make a long story short, the files that opened and read perfectly my first year and a half of college chose this semester to be weird. File after file that I opened gave me this weird message saying something about an “exception violation” and “data misalignment” whatever the heck that means. So I sent an e-mail to the disability services office informing them of this issue, and the lady who scans my books said she didn’t do anything different than what she has always done when converting the files, but tried something else and sent them again. Again they didn’t work, so the next morning instead of reading chapter 1 of environmental science on my braillenote, I had to have it read by the obnoxious Jaws man on a school computer. Actually, I take that back. By the end of the first paragraph of the chapter, I had enough of the Jaws man, so I selected the text of that file and a couple of others and pasted the text in the body of an e-mail, and for some reason, then I was able to read the files on my braillenote once I got home. Eventually the problem was resolved. I guess the original textbook files were PDF files which had to be converted in to microsoft word files, and we figured out that when the disability services lady converted the files and sent the original file, that caused the problems, but when she converted the file, and pasted the text in to a new word file, it seemed to work, or something like that. Anyway, that was the beginning of my semester. When I got home from that first day at about 1:30, I started reading chapter 1, but couldn’t get much read because I was overwhelmed and exhausted as I always am at the beginning of a new semester with new teachers and expectations. And I still had to go back to school that night for my first Investigative Reporting class.

Wednesday, I had no classes, so I should have devoted that day to reading Environmental Science, but there are only so many hours in a day, and not wanting to fall behind in my politics classes, I spent the whole day reading Chapter 3 of my American Politics textbook “Keeping the Republic”, and looking for copies of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence,, Federalist Papers, and the Gettysburg Address in braille. So, I walked in to my first Environmental Science class, already falling behind. It only got more stressful from there. One of the things I had come to like about college classes is that even though there is a lot of reading, there are generally only a few written assignments, and only one major project that you have the whole semester to work on, making it pretty manageable. But in Environmental Science, I felt like I was back in high school because there was a new assignment to do every day, and every assignment was a research project! In a biodiversity unit, despite the fact that the textbook had a lengthy description of dead zones where an excess of nitrogen from the use of fertilizers in agriculture depletes oxygen in water, and a detailed description of the most wellknown dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, everyone had to find another scholarly article about this dead zone and answer some questions about it. Another project for the same unit required us to do our own “self study” project by doing more research on biodiversity and presenting it in a creative way. I did some research on the Galapagos Islands and slopped together a brochure, which I got a B on because I didn’t present enough information, and possibly because I made no effort to get help to make it interesting with pictures or charts or anything. I just didn’t have the time, and frankly, was not going to devote all of my time to a class that was just for the university’s general science requirement, and neglect the other three classes that I would actually need for my major. There was also an assignment for that unit requiring research on the history and evolution of life on earth, using a website that was so overwhelmingly packed with links and information that my dad had to help me with the assignment. In the water unit, despite the fact that we had watched countless videos about water scarcity around the world, and read about countless situations in the textbook, we had to research three examples of water scarcity and steps that were being taken to address it, writing a detailed paragraph about each. And to add fuel to my frustration, this assignment was due the day we got back from spring break. For the unit on global climate change, we had to pick a country and complete a lengthy worksheet about the effects of global climate change in that country using research. In addition, this teacher assigned four reflective journal assignments where we were supposed to write about how we were doing on various aspects of our research for these projects, why we chose the topic we did for the “semester project”, which I will get to shortly, even how cohesive our group was for this project. Now in the grand scheme of things, writing these reflective journals wasn’t that hard, but it just seemed annoying to have to set aside time for reflecting, when I could have used that time actually doing the project. In addition, this teacher also had a “lifelong learning” requirement which meant we had to devote three hours to environmental science related activities outside class. I had no problem fulfilling this requirement because I went to a two hour presentation done by an advocate for plasmic gasification, a technique where garbage that would otherwise go to landfills can be incinerated using a special method where the energy can be converted to electricity. For the other hour, I went to a film presented by the United Nations Film Festival which comes to our college every year. The film was a documentary called “Seed Hunters”, and talked about how the vast majority of the food supply today comes from crop seeds that agriculture scientists bred to increase their yield, which they thought would address the famine issues that so many developing countries face. An unintended consequence of this however was that while breeding increased yield, it decreased the ability for plants to resist harsh climate conditions like heat, droughts and flooding, conditions that are becoming ever more severe and common because of global climate change. Some countries are already facing famine because of global climate change, and in an effort to address the issue before it gets worse, as well as save the world in the even of other catastrophes like nuclear war, there is an underground bunker which would be safe from any calamity, where the seeds for millions of grain, fruit and produce are collected, frozen and preserved. It is the goal of a small group of scientists to hunt down seeds for plants that modern farmers have stopped using years ago when they were encouraged to use seeds that produced a higher crop yield. These forgotten seed varieties could withstand harsher conditions, and with a little genetic engineering, scientists believe they could create seeds that can withstand harsh conditions and produce a high yield to continue feeding the growing human population worldwide. I suppose you readers could have done without all that explanation, but the moral of it is that these lifelong learning hours were interesting I guess. I just could have done without another thing I had to do that only exacerbated my mountain of assignments all semester.

Then, there was the science lab which I complained about having to take briefly in my statistics entry back in January, but it actually was not as horrible as I thought it would be. The worst aspect of it was the time it was held, 1:00 to 4:00 every Friday afternoon, so I had to listen to my friends talk excitedly about being done with their classes and going home to start their weekend at 11:00 in the morning while I ate lunch, knowing I still potentially had five more hours of class to go. There were a lot of boring visual activities like identifying bacteria under a microscope, and using kits to test the chemistry of water. But there were some fun times too, like when we went outside to count how many kinds of trees there were on the campus grounds, and I got to feel all kinds of samples of tree bark, or when I got to wade out in a muddy creek with some friends to kick bugs in to a net, and later feel the bugs we had caught. In a wonderful contrast to the teacher of the regular class, this teacher never gave homework and let us out an hour or so early almost every week. He was also a lot of fun to talk to after class while waiting for my dad to pick me up because he shared my enthusiasm for music, something that most science teachers in the past never seemed to care about, or at least never talked about. I also found plenty of time during this lab where I was not needed for recording and the activities were too visual for other students to describe to me, and this time I put to good use doing homework for other classes! But I couldn’t bank on getting this work time every week, so as much as I liked the teacher, and parts of the class, it was yet another annoying requirement in a schedule that was crazy enough already, almost like having an additional class, accept that since it was part of the Environmental Science class, I didn’t get any additional credit for this extra time! But the annoyance of having an extra class was nothing compared to the annoyance of the “semester project”.

The project consisted of three components. On the first day of class, the teacher gave us a survey asking about our interests and what we hoped to get out of this class. Based on our responses to this survey, we were divided in to four groups. One group would focus on issues related to waste and recycling, another group would focus on food production and land use, and another would focus on energy. My group focused on environmental health and toxicology. Then there was a day in class when each group was to come to class having read different textbook chapters that related to their topic, and each of the four groups had a different reading quiz to take. The environmental health and toxicology chapters talked about all of the chemicals present in our everyday lives, in every product that we use, and how for many of these chemicals, their effects on longterm human health are still largely unknown. The chapters also talked about chemicals that scientists already know are harmful like mercury, lead and chemicals found in plastics like baby bottles that mess up hormones. After the quiz, each group had to get together, condense all of the information from these chapters, and put it in to our own words. Then we had to use this information to create a “wiki” on this website called wikispaces.com. Wikispaces is kind of like wikipedia, but it caters to a more academic audience, so a lot of colleges and universities use this site for students to educate the general public about what they are studying. Anyway, our wiki would be graded by the teacher, and a small group of other students based on the accuracy of our information, our clarity in how it is presented on the web page, and again, creativity through the use of pictures, or links to videos to emphasize important points. Fortunately, this part of the project wasn’t too demanding for me because we got time to work on it in class, and while I helped with brainstorming and condensing information, the other group members took care of laying out our wiki page. But that was only the first component of the project. The second and third components were a different story. For the second component of the project, each group member was given a list of questions related to their topic based on current environmental issues in the news. From this list of questions, each of us had to select one question to investigate on our own. The question that I thought would be most interesting was “is a disproportionate amount of industrial waste dumped in areas where minorities and people of a lower socioeconomic status live?” The second component of the project required each group member to create an individual wiki page addressing this question using evidence from ten, yes ten, scholarly sources! To put it in perspective, a communication course I had to take first semester had a major research project, but that course number was 150 which should have been more demanding than a course numbered 120, and yet that course only required six scholarly sources! When we were given a chance to ask the teacher questions about what we needed to do for the project, a couple of other students clarified with the teacher that they had read the project instructions correctly, and unfortunately, that number was read correctly, and was not a typo. Despite the fact that I had two months to work on this project, the sheer number of sources I had to find on a college online library that takes forever to navigate with Jaws, on top of the other research assignments for this class, and the assignments for my other classes meant that research which should have been interesting and somewhat enjoyable could only be described as frantic. But I obviously wasn’t alone in my desperation because just before spring break, about halfway through the semester, the teacher announced that she had found an environmental science tutor who would be available on Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday mornings in the learning center. As embarrassed as I was to admit that I needed a tutor for a subject other than math, I swallowed my pride and went to this tutor twice. The first time I went because there was only one month left to work on the project, a point in time when I hoped to have five or six sources of information, but only had two. I couldn’t just go in to the environmental science database, search environmental racism and pick the first ten articles I saw because a lot of them weren’t relevant to what I needed for the assignment, and because when I told my teacher about the articles I had found in a reflective journal entry, she said that I had a good start, but I needed articles that supported the argument that no, minorities and people of a lower socioeconomic status are not subjected to more industrial pollution. I looked in several databases, but every single article presented evidence that there was environmental racism, so I realized I needed the tutor. The tutor was wonderful, but she could not find any evidence disputing the presence of environmental racism in the college databases either, so she pointed me to a really good article on google scholar, a database of academic articles on google. The article talked about how committees who make decisions about industry location, like zoning boards and land developers, are predominantly comprised of white people, so the interests of minorities are often unrepresented. She also pointed out some articles that I had skimmed over before because I wasn’t sure if they were relevant enough, and gave me advice on how I could use those. So, by the end of the tutoring section, I was feeling a little better. The score now was five sources, four arguing that environmental racism is present in society, but only one disputing this argument. As demanding as this class was, I will give my teacher credit for being extremely helpful because when I told her that even the tutor couldn’t find much evidence disputing environmental racism, she agreed that there is not as much disputing evidence out there, and then she actually sent me three articles that she found her own, two of which I was able to use bringing my source total to seven! One article didn’t exactly dispute the presence of environmental racism, but argued an interesting angle, which is that if too much legislation is passed that make it difficult for industries to operate in urban areas where poor people often live because of lower housing prices, and if industries do move to more rural or wealthy areas, minorities and poor people would actually be negatively impacted. This is because these people often depend on these industries for jobs, and if industries relocated to rural or wealthy areas, the jobs would leave too. The author made an argument, backed up with statistical data, that poverty shortens a person’s lifespan a lot more than the negative health effects of industry. The other article used statistical data to point out that in some areas of the United States, white people are actually the ones located closer to industries with potentially harmful health effects. So now, with only three sources left to go, I was feeling a lot more optimistic about being able to complete this project and not fail the course. I gathered a couple more random articles from the library database, and a chapter from a book I found on bookshare, an online library for people with print disabilities which I am a member of. But once I had all of my sources gathered, I was faced with another problem.

As silly as this may sound, I did not anticipate how long it would take to fully read all of my sources because when I was looking for them, I was in fullfledged gathering mode, so I had really only read the abstracts for each article. I was so relieved to have gathered all of my sources that I had let myself become complacent about staying on top of the project, and it wasn’t until the week after Easter when I realized I only had a week and a half to go before everything was due that it occurred to me I better get going. But with all that I had to do for other classes, getting these articles read was easier said than done. I did the bare minimum amount of reading to get by in my politics classes. I read late in to the evening at the kitchen table so I would not fall asleep or be as distracted by the television. I read in the car on the trips to and from school, and I read when I got to class early until the professor started talking, and even then, sometimes I would keep reading a little bit. Reading for pleasure was out of the question, even on weekends, and every night was a late night. I felt guilty if I stopped too long to eat meals, take walks or enjoy little things like when Gilbert would flop down on the floor next to me and roll on to his back with his mouth hanging open, his way of saying “rub my belly Mommy!” But I knew that if I didn’t stop and savor these moments of pleasure, I would have lost my mind because those articles were long, and often so packed full of terminology and data analysis that my brain was fried when I got to bed each night. My individual wiki page, along with an annotated bibliography with a paragraph under each source telling about the kind of information we got out of it, and a glossary with ten terms related to our topic defined in our own words were due on tax day, but on April 13 when I still had four sources to read, I was frantic again, because even I was smart enough to realize that I could not put together a wiki page, annotated bibliography and glossary in one night. So on Tuesday morning on my two hour break, I whipped up a glossary based on the sources I had read. Tuesday night, I tried to finish the articles, but with my Journalism class that night, I didn’t have time, and after class, all I could think about was sleep, so Wednesday morning, I frantically read a couple pages of each source and decided that I would have to make do with that. That was also the morning I realized that I had no idea how to format my bibliography because the style manual the teacher wanted us to use was not available electronically for me yet, so back to the tutor I went. Once again she was extremely helpful, and I was able to type up the bibliography relatively quickly. I asked my parents if I could stay at school until my wiki was done because a couple of my group members and I wanted to ask the teacher a few last minute questions, but also because I so desperately needed to get this project done that if my home computer decided to do something stupid like not access the internet, or erase my work, my mood would not be pretty. Sure, there could still be issues with the school computers, but at least I would have access to professionals who would know how to resolve the situation or at least keep me calm better than myself or my parents could, and computer issues often effect a whole system so I would not be alone in my frustration. So I stayed at school until 6:30 that evening on a day that was usually a peaceful day at home since I didn’t have classes, writing up all of my research findings, putting them in to bullet points, and pasting it in to my wiki page along with my bibliography. Once again, my wiki wasn’t spectacular because despite all of the time I had put in to it, I had no time or energy left to care about my creativity grade. But I had reached that point in the semester where all that mattered was that it was done, a weight off my shoulders! In a week and a half, there would be one more component of the project, an oral presentation for the class, but I slept a beautiful sleep that night because the hardest work was done! Now I am always excited at the end of a semester, or when I finish a huge project for a class. But since this class took the meaning of demanding classes and huge projects to a whole new level for me, I was so excited, I was almost giddy as I sat down after my presentation. There was a final exam for this class a week later, but I had no ambition left to study, and I think that for the first time all semester, the teacher felt sorry for those of us who were misled by the course number because the test was a breeze. Well, I apologize that this entry has gotten longer than I meant for it to, and I still have four credits to go! So don’t go away readers. I guess this crazy semester still necesitates one more entry because on top of the political pressure, and the environmental stress of a level 1 course that all of my friends and I agreed should have been classified as a level 3 course, I still had to make time for Investigative Journalism.

Took this Job and So Far, Love It

I know I promised to update you readers on the other eight credits that made up my crazy second semester, and I will do that. But first, since I started my summer job at the college two weeks ago today, I want to update you on that because it has proven to be an exciting opportunity and is really going well. As I mentioned back in May, my job involves answering phones for the switchboard, which is the general number for the college that they can call if they have a question, or don’t know the number of a particular department they need to contact like Admissions or Financial Aid. At first, I was scared to death about what this job would entail and feared I would make an embarrassment of myself and my college since I have always been nervous talking to strangers on the phone. I am the kind of person who tries to mask my anxiety and be strong when there is an important event like a speech I have to give for a class, but I was more nervous than usual about the impression I would make in my first job, so my mom wasn’t fooled by my attempts to mask it. On Monday evening, when she sensed that I was quieter than usual, she pulled me aside and asked if something was upsetting me. I told her no, and that I was just tired since our house had been crazy the whole day since my brother flew home to visit. She didn’t see through this excuse. But the next morning when I was about to have a meltdown because it seemed like my mom and grandma who were driving me were taking forever to get ready, and I did not want to be late on my first day of work, my nervousness could be disguised no longer, so I confided to her how nervous I was. She assured me that it was normal to be nervous on your first day of a job, but my phone skills were really not as terrible as I thought they were. Normally, I might have thought that being that she was my mother, she could not evaluate my phone skills objectively, but I didn’t have those feelings that day because her confidence in me really eased my anxiety, and we got ready peacefully and arrived early to work just as she assured me we would. By the end of my first four hours of orientation, which was basically all I needed because the buttons on the switchboard, and the calls I would receive are pretty straight forward.

So in a nutshell, here is how my days of work unfold. Mom or Dad, whoever is available to drive me to work, goes to the college, and drops me off at the door just like they would if they were taking a sighted person to work. Gilbert and I walk confidently through the doors and behind the front desk where the switchboard is. It actually took him a few days to figure out the new routine, and sometimes Gilbert would try to take me to the dining room or downstairs to the basement of the campus center, but he is an expert in our routine now. When I get to the switchboard, I am supposed to use bleach wipes to disinfect the phone and table from the last person who used it and then I just sit and wait for the phone to ring. That waiting time allowed me to read, my favorite summer pass time, and get paid while doing it. What could be better! There is a computer equipped with Jaws there too, but the employee rules that the manager went over with me clearly state that the computers may not be used for recreational purposes like blogging, but that is fine with me, and it is actually easier to write when you don’t have to worry about your train of thought getting interrupted by the phone. I am not in any summer classes, but if I continue this job in the fall, I will be able to get a lot of homework done on that computer while I wait for calls. When calls do come, and there are a fair number of calls because even in summer, there are a lot of events going on at my college, I pick up the phone, tell them they have called the college switchboard, and then say with a professional smile in my tone of voice “this is Allison. How can I help you?” The only frustrating aspect of this job, believe it or not is that the switchboard gets a lot of calls from automated telemarketers. Once I realize it is a telemarketer, I just hang up, but since I cannot see the caller identification, I still have to say my script. There are also a surprising number of people who are trying to call someone else and dial the wrong number. But the fulfillment I have gotten from helping people reach the appropriate person or department, and the prospect of a paycheck of course, have made these small inconveniences worth putting up with. And no one has yelled at me or cussed me out so far, so I must be doing alright (smile).

Speaking of paychecks, I will receive my first one this Friday, and I told Gilbert that since he comes to work every day too, I am going to buy him a bone, and me a scoop of chocolate custard to celebrate. Last Wednesday afternoon, my dad helped me open my first checking account, which will be fully owned by me, not by my parents the way my childhood savings account was, and just yesterday, I received the debit card that I can use to withdraw my own cash or make my own purchases! I don’t need money that often because I hate shopping, and rarely have time to go out with friends. And since I live at home, I don’t have to worry about groceries or rent. But it is exciting to know that if I do want to go out with friends, or eventually get my own apartment or something, I will no longer have to depend on my parents for funding!

Anyway, getting back to my job description, when outsiders call, they often relate to me the information they are seeking. These calls are a little harder, and I still ask my manager for advice about who I should transfer someone to. A lot of calls though come from people on campus, or people familiar with campus, so a lot of times, callers can tell me exactly who they are looking for. I have already memorized a few of the extensions for departments that are requested a lot, and when I need to look up a number, I put the caller on hold, and do a search command on a file with the contact information for every department and faculty member on campus using my braille notetaker. When I find the number, something I am getting more efficient at every day, I transfer them. It is as smooth as that!

This job, I think is a perfect first job for nervous kids like me. It has given me a taste of what to expect in a real job. For example, I had to go to the business office and fill out tax forms, and while I don’t have to punch a time clock, someone helps me fill out a time sheet after every shift. I am expected to dress professionally, and was given a polo shirt to wear with khaki pants to work each day. While sighted people sometimes complain about having to wear the same thing to work every day, as I have said before, I really don’t care what I wear, so wearing a uniform makes getting dressed a lot more efficient since decisions about what to wear have already been made. On the first day of training, I had to sign a confidentiality agreement, and was informed of the breaks and wage I was entitled to, which is $7.75 an hour with a paid fifteen minute break for four hours of work, half an hour for six hours, and an hour for eight hours of work. I was also informed of the disciplinary action I would face if I was dishonest, or did not conduct myself professionally. Attendance is also required at weekly staff meetings where we discuss what needs to be done in the upcoming week based on upcoming events at the college. So basically, I am getting all of the experiences my parents say I can expect in the real world once I graduate college. But unlike what my parents have said about work in the real world, I am not expected to do more work than humanly possible, since like I said, when the phone is not ringing, I am free to read a book or listen to soft music, or even talk to friends briefly, as long as it doesn’t disrupt anyone’s work. The boss is awesome too, because even though eating is not allowed at the work station, she stocks a candy dish for when we need a sugar boost while we work. As hard as I try to stay away from it, almost every day, I succumb to the temptation of those miniature dove chocolate bars (smile). But I only eat one, and I exercise every day, so I’m sure it won’t kill me. And it is dark chocolate which they say is rich in antioxidants, so that makes it a healthy habit, right? (smile) I work Monday through Friday, no weekends or holidays, and my shifts so far have only been four hours. The first two weeks which is considered the orientation period, I worked from 8:30 in the morning until 12:30 every day, but this week I started my official schedule. The switchboard is open from 7:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night, and I will alternate weekly, working from 7:30 to 11:30 this week, and next week, I will work 2:30 to 6:30. So one week I will have the drudgery of having to get up early, but the next week, I will get to sleep in. Speaking of which, the one and only thing I am really starting to hate about the working world is having to get up so early. I was hoping to be done with that when school ended, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. In fact, on only the fourth day of work when I still started at 8:30, I remember walking down the stairs yawning that norning and proclaiming “man, this getting up early and going to work every day is getting old!” That really got my mom and me laughing because this was only day 4 of my working life, and my mom pointed out with a smile that I still have about fifty years to go! But hey, unlike school, at least when I work, I am being compensated for my sleepiness. So I am well aware that not all jobs that I will have over the course of my life will be this enjoyable, and there will come a day when I will have to support myself, so minimum wage will no longer be acceptable. But I love the age I am now which allows me to have adult experiences while still being sheltered from the harsher realities of the adult world. I love being at an age where when adults say pessimistically, “welcome to the rest of your life”, my youth and optimism allows me to say “Bring it on! I am ready, and excited about it!”

Political Pressure

Well readers, now that I have had a month away from school to decompress, I think it is time to start updating you on what a crazy semester it was. For starters, let’s just say that when your environmental science teacher sends everyone in the class an e-mail the Saturday before classes were supposed to start introducing herself and telling us to have chapter 1 read for the first class because there will be a quiz, that is not a good sign. Sure enough, when school actually did start, I was already in assignments up to my eyeballs. Of course, I realize that in college, you can expect a lot of work, but it seemed like the first three semesters of college would maybe have one demanding class that ran your life, and the other classes, while still having responsibilities and high expectations which kept me busy, were pretty manageable. But this semester, it seemed like every single class was demanding. In fact, a couple of times, I considered approaching the college board to suggest making each of my classes worth 16 credits so students could take one class a semester, and it probably would come out even in terms of the workload with the four class schedule I had the previous three semesters! I am joking of course, and I realize that more demanding classes are to be expected as I get farther along in my college years. But I don’t know if it was because I deceived myself in to thinking that since I survived a college math course, everything else would be a breeze, or because second semester goes right through January and February, the most cold, dreary and unmotivating months of the year where I live, but I think this semester just caught me off guard. As I mentioned in a previous entry, I cannot believe I achieved the awesome grades that I did, and I think once you read the following rundown of each of my classes in the next two entries, you will understand why. First, there was Politics 141, a class introducing the American Political system. Although I am majoring in Journalism, my advisor said that I should minor in something too because the classes required for my Journalism major alone would not give me enough credits to graduate, so as long as I had to take extra classes, I might as well get a minor. I have always thought all of the political stuff on the news was interesting, so second semester of freshman year, I took a class introducing the political systems of other countries because by understanding the political systems of other countries, especially countries the United States has conflicts with like Iran, I would have a better understanding of what is going on in the world, which might make me a better Journalist. Now this course I expected to be demanding because the course number was 201, and all of the courses I had taken up to that point were 100 level courses. Sure enough, it was demanding. There were lots of boring readings from Karl Marx, Lennon and John Locke, even a whole book written by a contemporary political columnist Farid Zakaria. We also had to write reflection papers about these readings as well as some videos watched in class frequently to show that we understood them, in addition to textbook readings. But this class was nothing compared to politics 141. In addition to the assigned textbook chapters, which are never brief, we had to read several of the federalist papers, which were editorials published in newspapers by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison trying to convince constituents to support the federal system that state delegates envisioned at the constitutional convention. We also had to read various other things like a letter written by Jefferson, and a couple famous court cases like Marbury Versus Madison. I will not torture readers with the details of this case, but let’s just say it was so complicated the professor spent a whole class period explaining it. Now as boring as these readings were, they could have been relatively manageable if it weren’t for the fact that for most of these readings, we had to go to a website called americansgoverning.com, purchase a $25 subscription and answer very specific questions about them. I understand the purpose of these questions was to make sure we were actually reading everything, and that we understood it, and maybe any other semester, answering these questions would not have been a big deal. But given how demanding all of my other classes were, these purposes could have been achieved through mandatory participation in class discussions, or even a pop quiz instead of adding to my mountain of homework.

But wait, there’s more! Every Thursday, we combined with a biology class for an interdisciplinary project where we were divided in to groups, and each group had to make a thirty minute video about a relevant issue that relates to biology and politics. This project was kind of fun, and while I don’t usually like to brag, I am proud to say that I came up with the idea for our topic! While perusing the New York Times, I found a really interesting editorial about how scientists figured out how to create a monkey that had DNA from two females and one male, so the monkey effectively has three biological parents. This hasn’t been done in humans yet, but if it can be done to monkeys, scientists say it could be done to humans in the not too distant future. Creating human babies with three biological parents could mean that one day, a mother who might be reluctant to have children if she is genetically prone to have a disease and does not want to pass it on to her baby would not have to worry because the parts of the DNA that cause the disease could be replaced with healthy DNA from another female. But the editorial pointed out that custody issues are messy as it is when only two biological parents are involved, so three biological parents would make this issue really complicated. So our group made a movie loosely based on this article about a court custody battle based in the future where a child finds out as a teenager that she has two mothers, and the mother who donated DNA to the birth mother wants to get back in to the child’s life. Our group worked extremely well together considering we were the first group to present so we didn’t have as much time as everyone else. Our movie ended up being awesome too. We earned fourteen out of fifteen possible points, and swept the mock academy award ceremony at the end of the year. Even Gilbert had a good time too since the group members who were designated to be the leaders made up a role for him. He was the family pet, and for his scene, to add comic effect, he is sleeping by the television, drooling on a biology book we used to represent the teenager’s textbook. But as fun as this video was to make, I cannot tell you how many hours we had to spend on this project outside of class, including evenings and weekends. And the sad thing is, I helped a little bit with the script and read some lines for the doctor testifying in court and a voiceover about how surrogacy contracts differ from state to state. But since much of the work was visual, like figuring out how to film and edit the scenes, I don’t feel like I contributed near as much as everyone else, so if I was overwhelmed by the project, I cannot imagine how overwhelmed my other group members must have been. Add to that the requirement to participate in an online discussion following each group’s video, and continually read national newspapers to prepare for weekly current events quizzes, and I think you would agree that I should have gotten at least eight credits for this class. But alas, all of that work was only worth four credits, and I still have twelve credits of work yet to explain.

Politics 141 accounted for only half of the political pressure I faced last semester because in November when I had to register for my second semester classes, my courses were just numbers in a catalog, so I was blissfully ignorant about how demanding they would be. Had I known how demanding Politics 141 would be, I might have used better judgment and not signed up for Politics 276 the same semester! But what’s done is done, and while I could have dropped the class, and thought about it several times since I didn’t understand half the stuff other students brought up in discussion, I decided to stick it out because I don’t want people to think I am a quitter, and because the disability services office has to go to so much trouble scanning my books that I would feel guilty dropping any class and making all of their effort a waste. I am glad I stuck it out with this class because it was kind of an interesting class. The title of this course was “Democracy, Globalization and International Governance”, and there were a lot of passionate and very thought provoking discussions about how people in developing countries are exploited by industrialized countries in global markets, and debates about whether institutional structures need to change, or the notion of state sovereignty abolished. And ultimately, I got a B in this course, which my parents and I both agree is not too bad. But earning that B was not easy. This was because this class was a discussion centered class. Discussion oriented classes are definitely more interesting than lecture classes in that instead of just listening to the teacher present a powerpoint and shove facts down your throat for fifty minutes, students get to talk and learn from each other since everyone comes from different backgrounds, and thus brings different viewpoints in to the discussion. But I have found that I get better grades in lecture classes because in lecture classes, it is easy to take notes because what you need to know is pretty concrete and well spelled out, whereas with discussion classes, I don’t really know what I should take away from each class for tests or papers because the topics are so abstract. And the combination of the fact that I often stayed up past 1:00 in the morning to finish homework leaving me in a constant state of sleepiness, and the fact that discussions were so abstract meant that without fail, about halfway through each class, the discussion would just become a swirl of meaningless chatter to me and I would inevitably zone out, which couldn’t have been good for my participation grade. The one awesome advantage to this class though was that on the first day of class when the professor went over the syllabus with us, he said there would never be any tests or final exams in this class because knowing how to take tests does not serve you well in the real world, a belief that I wish more educators would subscribe to, not just because it would make classes easier on us students (grin), but also because you never hear about adults taking tests as a routine part of their job, and when you have to teach to a test, creativity and passion for learning is lost. But I will save more indepth education philosophy questions for another entry. Anyway, the point I was getting to was that while the professor said knowing how to take a test is not a necessary skill to develop for the real world, he said that knowing how to take someone else’s argument, dissect it, critique it and write arguments of your own is a crucial skill to hone, and it was this professor’s quest to develop these skills in us that turned what I thought would be an interesting and relatively casual discussion format class in to another extremely demanding class. As I mentioned in my last entry, this class had almost daily sleep inducing readings from political philosophers like Charles Beitz, John Rawls and THOMAS pogge. But once again, just like in Politics 141, the professor wouldn’t let us get away with reading them on the honor system. Instead, he assigned a “ticket question” for each reading, meaning that a typed paragraph answering the assigned question was our ticket, without which we would be denied entrance in to the class. At first when the professor made this announcement, I wasn’t worried at all. In fact, I was confident that I could ace these ticket questions without any trouble. People have told me I am a good writer after all, and if I could write excellent six page papers, just one paragraph would be a breeze. And answering questions based on readings? I’ve been doing that since first grade! But when I read the first ticket question which said, “What question does the author ask, how does he answer it, and why does he answer it this way?” perhaps for the first time in my life, I was scared and clueless. The article was almost forty rambling pages full of questions, and by the time I finished reading, I was so sleepy and overwhelmed that I had no idea what the overall message of the article was. I really did try to think about the article, but like hopelessly scattered disorganized puzzle pieces, my mind was full of random questions and arguments that I had no idea how to put together, and I sure wasn’t up for reading it again, the standard advice of every teacher, including this professor, when a student doesn’t understand something. So I resorted to the old educated guess tactic which I figured would get me a good grade because most professors are pretty lenient graders until students get used to their teaching style, and a lot of teachers will give students a break if they see that students put some thought and effort in to trying to understand the reading, even if they were wrong. But when the first two ticket questions came back with a D, and the third gave me my first college F, it became clear that this professor took the philosophy of setting high expectations for students to a whole new level. For the first time, my confidence in myself and my academic ability wavered, and the realization that I might fail this course if something didn’t change fast scared me to death. Thus began a stretch of weeks where I devoted the whole evening to the ticket question, reading, and meticulously rereading paragraphs if I fell asleep, and gradually, my grades did improve and I was starting to understand what the professor expected in each ticket question. I even got an A on a couple of questions! But while my grades in this class improved, I was starting to fall behind in my other classes. I hate to confess to this, but in March, when it became clear I couldn’t devote all my time to one class, it dawned on me that there was a benefit in being blind and having all of your textbooks saved on a computer. That benefit is the “find” command. I think one of the first ticket questions I tried it on was the question “What is the overall moral outlook that best fits with the political conception of justice?” I opened the assigned article, did a keyword search for the words “moral outlook”, and bingo! It took me right to the section with the answer in it, so I only had to read that section of the article! I am a serious student, and still try to honor my wonderful teachers I had through school by upholding their high expectations for me and not cutting corners. But I had never been so overwhelmed with work in my life and I subscribe to that adage “desperate times call for desperate measures”. Actually, I even had my mom’s support with this new strategy. She pointed out that for so many years, I was at an unfair disadvantage in math because so much of it was visual, so it didn’t take sighted kids near as long to do the homework. Therefore, she viewed this find command, not as dishonesty, but a way of getting even with my sighted peers, since for once, I had the upper hand in saving homework time! And I quickly noticed that my grades on these questions improved dramatically too since by narrowing down my reading to the section with the answer in it, my mind was not overloaded with excess information, giving me a cleared head which allowed me to write more accurate answers for the questions.

But of course, as if all of this work wasn’t enough, no class would be complete without assigning full length papers, and for this class, there were four of them. Each of them had to be at least 2,000 words, which is about six double spaced print pages. Two of them required analysis of an article (whatever that means, I’m still not entirely sure), and the other two involved building our own arguments supporting or criticizing an article. I guess I did alright on these papers since I got a C on the first one and a B on the others. But while I can usually sit down and write a paper with no sweat at all, the expectation of this teacher, and the fact that these papers determined a large portion of our grade made me so nervous I didn’t know what to write, so that even if I tried to start the paper in advance, or get up early in the morning the day before it was due, I never seemed to be able to get it done until the very last minute. While I can usually meet or surpass word count requirements, writing papers for this class was like running a marathon where you were exhausted, and it seemed as though the finish line would never come. So with all of the complaining about my politics classes in this entry, you may be asking, “if politics is so demanding and causes you so much stress, why don’t you change your minor?” In fact, my dad and I argue about this all three semesters that I have taken politics courses. He hated political science when he majored in it in college and advised all four of us kids against studying it precisely because there is so much abstract philosophical stuff that we won’t ever need in the working world. But to his disappointment, me and both of my brothers decided to study it. My sister was the only smart one (smile).

My dad understands that a full fledged science major wouldn’t be a good fit for me because so much of science is visual, but he insists for some reason that I would enjoy taking an introductory psychology course, and maybe pursue psychology. Now don’t get me wrong. Knowing about psychology would be kind of interesting, and I have actually gotten a taste of it already in my communication courses. For example in my research methodology course when we were discussing ethical behavior when doing research, the textbook talked about a famous case where researchers wanted to know whether people would obey authority, even if it meant hurting someone else and they knew it was wrong. So subjects were put in to one room, and told to administer a quiz to the person on the other side of a window in a separate room. If the person got an answer wrong, the subject was to administer an electric shock, which increased in intensity with each wrong answer until the subject could hear the other person screaming in pain. This study was later deemed unethical because even though the electrical shocks were not really administered and the other person was just acting, the study still caused a great deal of psychological trauma to the subjects. This case, and a few others we have studied have occasionally inspired me to study psychology, and it really would be fascinating to learn more about human behavior. But I am a practical person who knows that psychology would involve more than just reading about fascinating case studies. It would certainly involve hard core science like learning about brain structure and composition and stuff like that, and since I would never understand that stuff well enough to become a psychologist, studying psychology would be a waste of time, and if I have to take boring classes, I would rather study something intellectual, than technical or worse, visual. On a side note, I also made a promise to myself that I would declare my major and minor, stick with it and be out of college in four years! If I am wrong, and psychology classes would be a perfect fit for me, changing my major or adding psychology as a second major could delay my graduation, so I think it’s better not to even go down that road.

Anyway, at the end of my politics 276 class, our hard work was rewarded with T-shirts the teacher gave to all of us. The back of the T-shirt says, “I get my kicks from POL276” and on the front of the shirt is Nelson Mandela’s prison number. He even gave Gilbert a bandanna so he wouldn’t feel left out since he came to class every day too after all, even though his “work” for the class was done once he got me to my desk (smile). A friend told me that she doesn’t wear her shirt in public because it is embarrassingly bright, but since I am blind, I don’t care what I wear, and the professor was interesting even if the work was demanding. So I love to wear this shirt and view it as a trophy from the teacher for all of our hard work. If I stick it out for just two more years, I will get the ultimate trophy of a degree, and although some view a degree as just a piece of paper, I like to believe it will mean more than that. It will be a certificate that I can display prominently to remind myself of the rewards of hard work and perseverance, and it will be my ticket that will increase my employability and career possibilities which will make all of the hard work now worthwhile. But again, I am getting ahead of myself. The political pressure only accounted for half the marathon of last semester, and it was only a minor. All I could say after the combined demands of my major and minor was “Thank God for summer vacation!” Stay tuned for my next entry, and I think you will agree.

A Summer of Opportunities

Well readers, despite being out of school, it has been an eventful two weeks since I last posted. Monday night, shortly after posting my last entry, I checked my college e-mail and found out that I had been offered a summer job! Actually, a lady working at the campus center had been trying to recruit me for this job every semester since I started college, but I had always turned down the offer because school kept me so busy and left me so exhausted that I didn’t want to add job responsibilities to the mix. But then toward the end of February, she offered me the job for the summer. Now I was tempted because as much as I loved the long summers of college, I will admit that last year, by August, I was starting to get pretty bored and in need of a purpose in my life. But then a part of me got to thinking that next summer, I will be eligible for an internship, and the summer after that, I will be a graduate and will have to start looking for a job, and in the adult world, there is no such thing as summer vacation unless you are a teacher, and I don’t want to be a teacher. So this summer might be my last totally carefree summer. So I told her I would think about it, and she said there was no hurry. By the middle of March, my need for a purpose won the battle in my mind, coupled with a desire to take on adult responsibilities, so I told her I would take the job if it wasn’t too late. She said it wasn’t and that she would work out some details and get back to me. It turns out the detail she needed to work out was how she was going to pay me. That’s kind of an important detail right? (grin). Anyway, a couple weeks later, I got an e-mail from her asking if I got services from the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, and if so, could I give her the contact information for my counselor. She wanted to contact her and see if this agency could provide funding for my job. So, I forwarded the contact information, but then didn’t hear a thing for two months. I had pretty much lost hope of getting the job when I still hadn’t heard anything once school got out because summer employment officially started May 10. But I guess I couldn’t complain too much because in an economy where millions of people are filling out applications for employment wherever they can get it, it was pretty amazing just to be handed a job without having to apply for it. Still, I was disappointed, and had resigned myself to another summer without a purpose, when on May 17, the lady from the campus center e-mailed me back and said they got their act together, and I had the job if I was still interested. I wrote her back saying I was, and the next day, she sent an e-mail with details like the fact that I would get four hours of training and that my position was parttime and I would need to wear khaki pants and they would provide a polo shirt. I told her my summer was wide open and the only time I couldn’t start was the week of Memorial Day since I will be out of town visiting relatives. I didn’t hear anything again after that until this past Friday, when I found out that I officially can start June 8, at 8:30. I will only be making $7.75 an hour, but hey, that’s something, and it will add up over a whole summer! More importantly though, I am just excited to finally get a chance to have work experience and feel like my sighted peers who have already had summer jobs, but which I have never had since so many jobs offered to people my age are in stores or restaurants, or babysitting, all of which would not be practical since I am totally blind. But a couple of other blind students before me have done this job, so the campus has already figured out how to make it accessible. I will definitely keep you posted on how it goes!

And then later that night when I went to choir rehearsal, there was an informal “job fair” put on by the choir leadership since they were in need of volunteers to help with several committees. Although I have only been an official member of this chorus for two months, I decided to take a chance and volunteer to chair the Public Relations Committee because for one thing, I am majoring in Communications, and since public relations is a related to the field of Communication, doing public relations for the choir would be a great experience that I could use to determine if public relations is something I would want to pursue for my real career after college. My responsibilities for this job will be contacting local media outlets to inform them of choir events, and help write press releases and fliers. I have already learned how to write press releases in an introductory news writing class last year, and in an advanced news writing class I took this year, I got lots of practice learning how to contact people, so I am really excited about this experience. More importantly though, I am excited to assist with public relations for this choir because I love it. I will have to tell you in more depth how cool this choir is in a separate entry, but I will tell you now that it is a chapter of Sweet Adelines International, an organization for women that sing four-part barbershop harmony! I hope that with my public relations position, I can spread the word about this choir since it seems like a lot of people out in the community have never heard of it. The choir board has also said that they would like to increase their membership and attract more young people. In fact, although you can join this choir at sixteen, I am the youngest singer in this choir, which is kind of cool, but also troubling because as with anything, if the younger generation does not step up to carry on this art form, it might not survive. Since I am young, I would know how to relate to the younger generation, so maybe I could be an asset in the area of recruiting younger members. With this in mind, on Monday, I had a revelation! This choir does have a facebook page, and a simple website that briefly talks about the kind of music they sing and encouraging people to come visit a rehearsal. But what this choir needed was a blog! Blogging is popular with my generation, and it would facilitate a more indepth picture of what the choir is all about because people could post things like testimonials about how they heard about this choir and why the love it, or even account their experience preparing for concerts and competitions. And the most exciting thing of all was even though I am young and new to this choir, people loved this idea when I proposed it! So on Tuesday, I went ahead and created an account for this blog. Nothing has been posted yet because the leadership team is still working out some logistical things like setting out guidelines for what we post and making sure we do not go against any Sweet Adelines International regulations. Also, I have sent out invitations to some of the members to join the blog, but thus far, no one has responded, and a couple have admitted that the internet is still new to them, so they are not sure they will post much to the blog. I will have to work on convincing them that blogging is not anything complicated that only the young can handle (smile). But when we do start posting, I will definitely post the link.

Then on Wednesday, since the dog trainer was going to be in the area, he wanted to check in on Gilbert and me, so we met at my college for lunch. It was a happy reunion, especially for Gilbert who was so excited he wagged his tail the whole time, and when we took a walk to one of the buildings where I had class last semester, he was constantly stopping and looking behind him to make sure he didn’t lose sight of the trainer. It was comical, but a little embarrassing because with me, he is so well-behaved on walks. My facebook status I wrote when I came home read “Gilbert, when the dog trainer comes to evaluate us, you are supposed to be especially good, not especially naughty!” Several of my friends loved that status. But the trainer understood that dogs get excited and knew he wasn’t like that all the time. Anyway, he said we were doing great, that he was happy with Gilbert’s weight, which got me excited to realize that our walks that we were able to take this year with the beautiful spring we had were paying off. But what really got me excited was when the trainer observed that I needed help finding an empty table in the dining room, he said that he could come in September and train Gilbert to find targets like that because that is now something that all dogs currently in the program are trained to do. I always thought that after the first year or two, dogs were too old to learn new tricks, but the trainer said this is not true. With target training, Gilbert will give me even more independence than what he has already given me, and I am looking forward to that.

From there, I went to a nearby elementary school where I am a volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters from 1:00 to 2:00 on Wednesdays. I will have to tell you all about that in another entry, but for now I will say it is a wonderful experience that has given me a sense of purpose beyond school, and has really made a difference in the life of the first grade girl I was matched with. Then Friday, I went to the annual barbecue for the blind kids in our area, that my vision teacher still invites me and another blind friend every year even though we are in college. It actually didn’t end up being a barbecue though because unfortunately, the beautiful weather we had on Thursday turned in to a dreary rainy day Friday, so we went bowling instead and had pizza for lunch. I confess I am not a big fan of bowling because it is visual in that someone has to tell me how many pins I knocked down, so there is not much reward for the tedium of walking from my chair up to the bowling lane and swinging a heavy ball twenty times. I still went to the alley with them, but instead of bowling, I just sat and talked to my friend and my old teachers, which was a lot of fun!

When I got home, I had planned to write, but because of the humidity, the braille display on my braillenote which I use to type these entries was going crazy, bringing up a whole bunch of extra dots making it too difficult to read or write anything. However, at the time, I didn’t realize this problem was due to the humidity, and feared that there was something internally wrong with the braille display. This fear was backed up by the fact that there were a couple instances last semester where certain dots would not show up. The first time it happened back in December, the issue resolved itself for some reason, and when it happened again in February, I cleaned it with a damp rag. But the manual said that the braillenote was supposed to be sent in occasionally to be professionally cleaned by the company, but I never did this because I use my braillenote for everything and I hate being without it. But I thought maybe it was time to suck it up, and give up my braillenote so that the braille display could be cleaned properly for school when I would really need it. So I called the local vendor who is in charge of braillenote issues and whose number was programmed in to the address book of the braillenote. When I told him about the problem, he said that my model, the Mpower was obsolete now, and no longer under warranty. He said that the problem I had described was an indication that the braille display would eventually go out, and they were no longer making replacement parts for it. This meant that for $2,000, I could get the braille display replaced, but if anything else went wrong, I could be out of luck. So he recommended that I talk to the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation about trading in the Mpower for the Apex, the best and latest thing that everyone else already has. Immediately, I had reservations about this because other than the braille display, my braillenote was still working fine, and somehow I knew that the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation would not want to spend that kind of money when this machine basically still worked. But before I could finish asking the question of what to do if they don’t want to spend the money, he assured me that they would because it would make more sense in terms of cost. I should have known he was just trying to sell me something, but I thanked him and on Monday morning, called the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. I wouldn’t worry about it until then.

Then on Saturday, I went to a fundraiser for my guide dog school called Puppies on Parmenter. This was the time of year when my program has done Jog for Guide Dogs the previous two years, but this year, they decided to do something different. Instead of walking on a park trail, we walked the city streets of a town near where the program is based. Along the route, we would stop by various stores and businesses, and get this sheet we were given at registration stamped. Then we met back at an outdoor restaurant where we just socialized, ate brats and hot dogs, and listened to a band all afternoon. The stamps we got were exchanged for raffle tickets. It was another happy reunion for Gilbert because we got to see the trainer again, and a lot of fun for me too because I got to meet another puppy raiser, and pet the cutest poodle with hair evenly cut on his body, but a big pile of hair on his head. When I was getting my dog, the program only used labs, but now they have expanded to shepherds and poodles. The turnout was also impressive because when I got Gilbert, the program was just starting, so there were only a few puppies, and a few people. But now, there are 24 puppies, and the dog trainer said this was their most successful fundraiser yet with over four hundred people. So it was really exciting to see how much the program has grown just this year. I was also excited about Gilbert’s excellent behavior. He walked a little faster than I would have liked on the walk because he wanted to keep up with my friend’s guide dog, but the dog trainer said when two guide dogs walk together, the dog that is following will walk faster to keep up with the lead dog, so it was a huge lesson in trusting Gilbert and not reprimanding him to slow down. I only slipped once, and it wasn’t Gilbert’s fault. Apparently, a dog pooped on the sidewalk and the owner must not have noticed, so that is what I slipped on. Needless to say, when we got home, my shoes got a good wash (grin). When he saw the other puppies, he still got excited, but not uncontrollable like he was last year. I don’t know if it was because memories of last year made me decide to use the pinch collar, or if he was maturing, but I have heard puppies do mellow out after a few years. By the end of the day, my dad and I were both falling asleep because it was a hot, sunny day, but it was worth it because we had a great time.

Sunday was a nice quiet day of going to church, and then out to lunch, the calm before the storm called dealing with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. My normal counselor it turned out was on leave, so when I called at 9:00 Monday morning, I was transferred to the person substituting for her. I left her a message introducing myself and telling her what the braillenote vendor said. She did not call back the rest of the day, but when I checked my e-mail, she said I had not been keeping in touch with them by e-mail on a monthly basis like I was supposed to. As a result, my file could be closed, so she wanted me to call and make an appointment. My parents and I were livid. My regular counselor had briefly mentioned how I should touch base once a month, but I had no idea failure to do this could potentially close my file, and school keeps me so busy that the months get away from me. And what am I supposed to say each month when I am just going about my business and nothing has changed? My parents and I had a lot of fun joking about what I could say in these monthly updates. “Hello. I just wanted to let you know I am still blind, and will probably still be blind next month too. Bye.” So my dad helped me craft an e-mail response saying I wanted to work things out, and I would call the next morning. The next morning, I called and made an appointment for Wednesday at 9:30, and she told me to bring another copy of my grades from this semester and my schedule for next semester because she had not received the copies I mailed to my regular counselor, as well as some training grant letter I hadn’t realized I had gotten because it was in print. What am I going to do when I am on my own and my mother isn’t there to keep track of my print mail? I probably should ask for these documents in braille or via e-mail, but that’s a separate issue. Anyway, the next day, I was told that at this point the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation does not want to spend the money on a new braillenote when this one is only two years old. This was actually perfectly fine with me because the braille display works fine now, but my dad pointed out that now would be the time to get this new machine because if something goes wrong with it during the school year, it would be catastrophic because I rely on it in class to which the person filling in for my counselor said I should have a backup plan. I don’t know how successful we were, but doing our best to keep steam from coming out of our ears, we tried to point out that if my computer with Jaws that was purchased for me were to crash, I could easily just go to my college and use a computer there because almost all of them are equipped with Jaws. But I don’t have a laptop, the school computers are not portable so they would be of little use since most of my classes are in old classrooms with tiny desks not intended for large computers and of course, mainstream colleges don’t have spare braillenotes lying around. So I was told to go home, find the exact cost of repairing the braillenote versus getting the new model, and present a formal list of these price quotes and a justification for why I need this computer. I called the vendor as soon as I got home, and haven’t heard from him yet. I may make a followup call on Tuesday, or I may just forget it. This machine does work fine now, and I just don’t want to deal with this bureaucracy anymore until I have to. I also found out that the reason they want monthly updates is because the federal agency that they get funding from does not like a long gap in contact with clients, and that I should just shoot them a quick e-mail telling how school is going, if all my technology is working, or even if I have started a new extra curricular activity or fall in love! Seriously, can’t I just go about my own life and not have to share every detail of my life with Big Brother? I swear, as soon as I get a stable job and make enough money, I am closing my file with the state and buying my own technology. Anyway, I had a headache when I got home from dealing with this bureaucracy, so after making the quick call to the vendor, I was ready for lunch and rest.

But the day took a turn for the better when my vision teacher came to our house after school to give me some assignments she had gotten at the last minute that needed to be brailled for another student. Believe it or not, I can type braille faster than the teacher who taught me braille, so I was happy to do her this favor for all that she and the school district did for me. While there, she also brought Geyser, a puppy that she is raising for the same program I got Gilbert from. Gilbert and Geyser didn’t play long because it was hot outside, but they did play some in our livingroom and seemed to have a great time, especially Gilbert who is an only dog in our house so doesn’t get much socialization with his own kind.

Then yesterday, I went to my little cousin’s eighth grade graduation which brought back so many memories about my own apprehension when leaving the security of middle school for the uncharted territory of high school, so I tried to provide encouraging words. Then tomorrow, we are leaving for Indiana to visit my grandma and some other aunts, uncles and cousins for one more week of carefree days before I start my summer job. When summer first started, it had been such a crazy semester that I had no ambition, and would have been fine with another carefree summer with no responsibilities that I loved as a child. But now that all of this opportunity has been given to me in my choir, my summer job, opportunities to help others and even the chance to speak up for my own interests with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and the continuous opportunities for Gilbert and me to become a more skilled and confident team, I actually don’t mourn the loss of childhood as I thought I would, but instead am feeling a sense of excitement. I suppose my tune could change when I am fully emersed in the working world, maybe with a husband and children depending on me, trying to cope with one stressful situation after another. This is how I have heard a lot of adults describe the real world. But for me being young, the adult world is new and exciting, and I feel as though I have the maturity now to not mourn for what is over, but take a leap of faith and embrace new challenges, and seize new opportunities. Vestiges of childhood do still remain. I still live at home with my parents, who I depend on for food, shelter, health insurance and transportation to school and extra curricular activities. When school starts again, it is likely that I will be kept so busy with schoolwork that I won’t have time to hold a job or pursue as many opportunities. But I am so excited that at least for the summer, I will get a small taste of the adult world and explore new opportunities, so that when I enter in to the adult world for good after college, I will enter it already having some experience.

Reflections on My Blog and the Art of Writing

Well readers, at approximately 1:00 on the morning of Tuesday May 4, I clicked send on the final paper for my political theory class, which was also the final assignment for the first half of my college career. Monday morning, I took my last final exam in Environmental Science, so sending this paper was a sort of ribbon cutting ceremony to welcome summer vacation! And after such a crazy and challenging year, you cannot imagine how blissful these first two weeks of summer have been. My days have been filled with sleeping in, going to bible study with my mom, reading a Jodi Picoult book, listening to some awesome music from the 1960s and 1970s that my dad got from the library especially the Jersey Boys soundtrack, taking walks on park trails, socializing on facebook, and just enjoying not having to go anywhere or do anything. I apologize for the fact that writing in my journal was absent from this list of leisure activities, but as usual, I am ready with an excuse (smile). As silly as it sounds, and as excited as I have been all semester to finally have time to write in my journal, the crazy amount of school writing I had to do last semester drained me of any ambition to write. I sat down at my computer several times intending to write an entry, but then couldn’t think of anything to say, and would end up reading instead.

A couple of years ago, I started the tradition of writing my parents letters of appreciation for all they have done for me in the past year for Mothers Day and Fathers Day. My parents look forward to their letters every year now because it is a gift that is from the heart, so I did not want to break tradition this year by not having a letter for my mom because she deserved my expression of love and appreciation this year more than ever since I don’t know how I would have made it through all of the academic and medical difficulties that came my way this year without her love and support. But even writing this letter was mentally taxing because I just couldn’t find the right words to express myself since I was so accustomed to academic writing which does not encourage creativity or emotion. In the end, it was a nice letter, and Mom loved it, not that she would ever tell me if she didn’t (smile), but I haven’t felt like writing since.

And as silly as it sounds, I could not fully relax and enjoy summer until Thursday when my grades came out because while I am usually confident that I did well, for some reason, I couldn’t help worrying that I might not do as well this semester because this semester was the most demanding semester I have ever had. It turned out that I had nothing to worry about. I got an A in my American Politics class despite the fact that I never did fully read many of the federalist papers and textbook chapters that were assigned. I got an A in my Journalism class despite the fact that I had a difficult time finding people to interview for assignments, and therefore had a couple of stories that were pretty onesided and boring to read. I got an AB in Environmental Science despite the fact that I think there was a typo in the course catalog that classified it as a level 1 course because there was so much work in that class. And I got a B in my political theory class despite the fact that we had to read an article a day from theorists like John Rawls, Thomas Pogge and Charles Beitz. If you have never heard of any of these people, don’t feel bad because until this class, I had never heard of them either. But all you need to know is that they don’t know how to write clearly and concisely, and if everyone in America read their work, there would no longer be a market for sleeping pills (smile). Anyway, getting back to my grades, my career grade point average was 3.66, so I would be on the Dean’s List again, but the anxiety of possibly having to retake a course if I didn’t earn all of the required credits made me too nervous to write. Today though, perhaps due to the fact that it is finally sunny outside instead of cold and rainy like it has been all week, I feel inspired to write.

There is so much I need to update you on regarding this eventful semester, but first, I wanted to reflect on this blog itself because although it may not seem like I am passionate about this blog since I do not update it very often, the truth is that finding out about livejournal, and keeping this blog has ben such an exciting experience for me that has renewed my passion for writing. If some fortune teller had come up to me in kindergarten or first grade and told me that I would one day have an online journal about my experiences with college and a guide dog, and that I would love it, I would have told them they were crazy because back then, I actually hated writing. I don’t know if it was because when you are a child, you don’t have the vocabulary, or for that matter, the patience and discipline to think of anything worth writing in a journal, or if the dread of writing was unique to me because back then, I had to use a manual metal braille writer that required you to push hard on the keys to make the braille dots, and the fatigue in my fingers overpowered my ability to see any reward in writing. Actually, both of these factors probably played a role in my dread of writing. In any case, when the teacher told the class to write in their journals, and I just sat in front of my braille writer for what felt like hours not wanting to write, my assistant would allow me to use the journal to simply practice writing random braille words, just so that I would be writing something. Eventually, I was able to write simple entries about random things like a fun trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, but I still never really enjoyed writing these journals. Writing stories was even more difficult for me because I had enough trouble putting in to words the events of my own life that trying to create a fictional character and a fictional experience was overwhelming. Looking back on the fictional stories I did manage to write when I got older, I realized that the plots made absolutely no sense. One story for example, and to make matters worse, it was a story the teacher published by putting a fancy hard cover on it, was about a school with no kids that magically turned in to a crayon. I really ought to find that book and throw it in to the next fire my dad makes for burning leaves (smile). But despite the fact that I hated the writing process, even in first grade, the honor of being published, even if the only readers of the book were my teachers and my family, was thrilling, so maybe even then, I subconsciously knew I would get over my hatred of the writing process. By fourth grade, writing became more serious and teachers no longer put a fancy hard cover on stories, but instead just handed them back with a grade and it would sit in a folder somewhere collecting dust until it was eventually thrown away, so once again, I dreaded writing because the expectations were higher, and there was no reward for my efforts.

But then one day in fifth grade, I was lying in bed flipping through Stone Soup Magazine. This is a mainstream children’s magazine that my vision teacher subscribed me to in braille from the National Library Service. It was a bimonthly magazine filled with short stories, poems and book reviews. I loved these stories because many of them were beautifully written, and though some of them were fictional stories about other planets or the future, many of them were about real experiences in the author’s own life. What I hadn’t realized until this night however was that these stories were written by children, and on the front page of the magazine were instructions for how you could submit your own work that could be published in the magazine. How had I not noticed such an exciting opportunity? I asked myself. And in that instant, my passion for writing was renewed because if I could write a story that was accepted by the magazine, it wouldn’t just mean that one copy of the story would be made with a hard cover on it. It would be published in the true sense of the word because thousands of children, and maybe even their parents all over the world would read my work. On top of that, a lot of children write letters to the editor complementing particular stories, so I could get feedback from total strangers about my work. That would be so exciting! So immediately, I began brainstorming a story. The story idea that I was most passionate about and ended up writing was called Violet’s Woods. It was a pretty dumb story looking back on it now, but at the time, I was in love with it. It began with me reflecting back on a wonderful vacation to a cabin in the woods of Northern Wisconsin when I was in fourth grade, and how I longed to go back again and get away from the stressful city life. Then, I think I talked about how when my mom took me to an area way in the back of our yard that was known as Violet’s Woods because it used to belong to a sweet elderly neighbor named Violet, the silence and serenity that permeated this woods brought back the wonderful memories of this vacation. Then, the story looks to the future where I imagine myself with a child of my own, living in the north woods and bringing her up to appreciate the wonders of nature. I wrote the rough draft of the story in braille, which took me thirty braille pages, and almost a year to write because of the length and complexity I had in mind for the story, and the fact that since I was limited to the manual braille writer, it was hard to get inspired knowing that it was a lot harder to erase words or rewrite sentences, and the fact that I could only write on weekends and vacations because of school responsibilities. Then my mom helped me type it up and gave me suggestions for how I could revise it. Just before Christmas in sixth grade, I mailed the manuscript to Stone Soup Magazine. The instructions said to include a self-addressed stamped envelope with my submission, and they would send a letter in four to six weeks saying whether or not they would be able to use my story. The exciting realization that I had sent a story to a magazine where it could be published was all I could think about for the five weeks of waiting. My mom reminded me not to take it personally if my story did not get published because magazines often get a lot more stories than what they are able to publish, and sure enough, the letter in that envelope five weeks later was a rejection letter saying just that, and inviting me to keep writing and try again.

A few weeks earlier, I had allowed my vision teacher to read the story, and when I told her the next day about the rejection letter, she confided to me that the story wasn’t a very strong story because there was no conflict. With all of the story writing practice I have had through school, I kicked myself for forgetting the importance of conflict in a story, and when I thought about it, I have never read a published story that did not have conflict. But then there was a part of me that wondered “why can’t people just write and publish what is in their heart without having to follow some arbitrary conventional wisdom about writing?” After all, the real world is full of conflict. Why are stories only marketable if they create fictional conflict? Just as writers view writing as an escape, as a way to express themselves and temporarily forget about the problems in their real lives, shouldn’t the same be true for readers? Wouldn’t readers enjoy a simple story about what makes this world wonderful and beautiful despite its problems? Of course, when I was in sixth grade, I was too young and immature to ponder philosophical questions like these, and instead just became a little defensive toward this teacher’s criticism. But looking back, I think these were the questions I was already subconsciously thinking about even if I did not have the maturity to articulate them.

I continued to struggle with these questions through high school and college when I took creative writing classes. I had no problem when it came to writing essays or news stories for the student newspaper, but in my creative writing endeavors, I have always felt that arbitrary rules stood in my way. I was even told by the teacher of the creative writing class I took first semester of this year that a poem I had written about the peaceful lullaby of a warm breeze gently caressing wind chimes on a summer day would be better if it had some sort of conflict. This suggestion was made during a peer editing workshop, and one kid suggested that when he imagines those kinds of days, he finds them kind of boring. I politely listened to these suggestions, but my soul was screaming “there is absolutely nothing boring about those kind of days, and I do not want to make a conflict out of such a wonderful image.” In the end, I modeled my poem loosely after the song “These are A Few of my Favorite Things”, a song Julie Andrews sings in The Sound of Music, and one of my absolute favorite Christmas songs. The song, if you have never heard it, ends by saying “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.” I ended my poem by saying “And when the snow falls, and school makes life restless again, I think of this summer lullaby, and my heart is filled with a divine sense of peace and joy.” I love the fact that the song, and my poem end this way because it acknowledges that conflict is an inescapable fact of life, but keeps the main imagery of the poem beautiful and conflict free, the way I think it was meant to be. I never actually found out what my final grade was for this poem, or any of the other pieces I wrote because I turned in the final portfolio on exam day and never had a chance to pick it up from the teacher’s office last semester. But frankly, grades are so subjective when it comes to creative writing, so I am not going to worry about the grades. Creative writing should be about expressing what is in your heart, and that is what I did.

Anyway, I have struggled all my life with the question of how I could publish what was truly on my mind without having to follow some arbitrary requirements for imagery or character development or conflict. I attempted to keep a personal diary a couple of times but although it would give me complete freedom to write what I wanted, it too would eventually just sit in a box somewhere collecting dust. Heck, even if someone found it in an attic someday, I would have to read it to them since hardly anyone knows braille. If they didn’t find it until after I die, I guess they would be out of luck if they were curious as to my childhood thoughts (smile). As silly as it sounds, I have always found it hard to find the motivation and discipline to write when I knew no one would ever read it. Now let’s fastforward to April 30, 2009, the day before my last exam for my freshman year of college. On that day it hit me that the year that began with so many changes in my life, was coming to an end and had gone smoothly, and it occurred to me that I wanted to have a record of this eventful time in my life, one that people I was close to, as well as strangers could read and experience with me. That was when I remembered that a couple friends of mine had online journals reflecting on their guide dog training. The year before, I never would have dreamed of keeping a blog because I didn’t have enough confidence with computers to enjoy the experience. But last year, I had been equipped with a computer that had Jaws on it, and through some training at the Badger Association of the Blind, and the practice I got when I had to type essays and do research for school, my confidence had grown exponentially, making me realize that I could start my own blog!

After doing some google searches, I found that a lot of blind people I knew were on livejournal, so it must be somewhat easy to navigate for blind people. So the next day, May 1, I took a leap of faith and created my account. The only thing I needed help with was typing the security code because Jaws wouldn’t read it, and I couldn’t understand the audio of the website. Then I was a little overwhelmed because when I went to try and post an entry, there were links for html posts, rich text, and voice posts. All I wanted was a straight forward edit box to type my message in, hit submit and have it be posted in a readable form! I began to wonder what I had gotten myself in to, and if I should just delete this account and forget it. My computer confidence was not as improved as I thought it was after all. But that small voice inside me reminded me that this was something I could figure out, and that if I didn’t give up, I would be rewarded. So I expressed my frustration to the Wisconsin guide dog users list, and a wonderful friend who already used the site boosted my confidence again by saying that there was an edit box for just a simple post, below the subject box, and that my confusion was understandable because there was no prompt indicating that it was the box for the message. Sure enough, on May 2 when I went back to look, I found it, and my lack of confidence evaporated. I was on track again with a renewed excitement for this uncharted territory called the blogosphere. I have a policy of not mentioning names in this journal so as not to embarrass anyone, but I want to tell this friend thank you for your support! You know who you are.

Then, there was the whole issue of apprehensiveness about sharing personal information online. I had watched enough news programs about the dangers of the internet to not give out things like my address and social security number, but since my internet confidence had just come about in college, I was paranoid that I would write something that a future employer would view as immature, or worse, that some crazy stranger would send death threats if they didn’t agree with some arbitrary thing like the guide dog program I had chosen or something, which I now realize is pretty unlikely, but you can see it in some of my early entries when I am very guarded as to what I share, and in fact, a lot of the early entries about my experiences were friend protected. Actually, my original intention was to only update this blog through last summer because the sole purpose of it was going to be for mature reflection about my graduation from high school, and my transition from a cane user to a guide dog handler. But it wasn’t long, and actually I think it was while I was writing my second entry about my dream of one day having a guide dog, a dream that was inspired by bedtime stories about guide dogs, that it occurred to me that with this blog, I had found what I have always wanted: a place where I could write whatever was in my heart, unencumbered by rules, and anyone could read my thoughts. The only person who was limiting the scope of what I write about was myself! So here I am today, still blogging, and loving it as much as ever! Of course, this blog most likely will never be a bestseller, but if I was offered all of the money in the world, or so much popularity that people were camping outside bookstores to be the first to buy my book at midnight on the day of its release, I would decline the offer if it meant having to write what some editor thought was marketable instead of what was really in my heart. I read a wonderful quote somewhere a couple months ago in which someone compared their diary to a canvas that they could paint any way they wanted. I have also heard analogies comparing writing to sculpting with clay, and although I am not an artist, these are wonderful examples of imagery to describe how I feel about writing. Just like in art, true writers don’t worry about rules. I have written entries recalling obstacles I have had to overcome in guide dog training, and unexpected hardship like my surgery. But I have also written entries simply recalling why I love life, and even a couple entries like “A Tale of Flatulence”, written for the sole purpose of having fun and brightening the day for readers with a good laugh. Like an artist, I started with the intention of painting one thing on my canvas, strictly reflecting on my guide dog training, but then took a whole new direction, deciding that the canvas would be a lot more interesting and colorful if it had no restrictions as to what could be painted on it. In the same way that some painters simply paint for the love of the craft and never enters their work in to an art show, I write simply for the freedom this craft gives me to express whatever is on my mind, and I think I have joined the ranks of many writers and artists who have come to realize with maturity that publicity, fame or fortune are meaningless if they inhibit your enjoyment of the craft. I know a lot of my entries have been really long, since I don’t like having to subscribe to length requirements either (smile), so I understand if some of you no longer follow my entries because they ramble so much. But for anyone who is still reading my entries, I just want to say how much I have enjoyed the process of painting this canvas, and I hope you will continue to enjoy reading this canvas as it becomes more detailed and vibrant in the years to come.

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!”