As my lessons with Vera and Jeff proceeded, life began to have a little bit of a rhythm. In no time at all I looked forward eagerly to each of my lessons. I liked the lessons with both of them but I think I liked the mobility lessons best. I loved the action and I loved that Jeff was teaching me why I did things in a certain way rather than just teaching me to do them.
It was clear that learning was good for me. In late February my doctor suggested that I enroll in some classes at nearby Samford University. Although the suggestion seemed slightly ludicrous I agreed. I found myself enrolled in a developmental psychology class that began in just three weeks time.
Abandoning his systematic lesson plan in the face of this new endeavor, Jeff and I began to go to Samford University for the few remaining lessons before my class began.
The building in which my class was held was a five story building. On the first day Jeff and I scouted out the building. We walked, with Jeff as my sighted guide, all over the building. “There could have been an easy route, But Nooo…” muttered Jeff, placing a big emphasis on the last two words. This was an expression I’d hear many times during my O&M training.
Deciding on a route at last, Jeff described it to me as we walked it together. Then we began. Over and over, Jeff and I worked the route to the classroom. The stairs were the most difficult for me. Locating the first step on the trip down the stairs was still a little frightening although I had done it many times. As I approached the top of the stairs I’d shorten my stride and slow my pace dramatically.
“Here,” said Jeff, “I’ll stand a couple of steps down to keep you from falling. Try to keep your head up. You won’t see anything by tucking your chin and looking down and it’s affecting your balance.”
Although I had laughed when I looked down at the envelope I was addressing when Vera gave me the envelope guide, this was different. “I know I can’t see anything but I just can’t help trying,” I said.
“Go back to the doorway into the stairwell,” said Jeff. “Try walking forward with your normal stride. Most importantly, keep your head up and concentrate on what you can feel with your cane rather then what you can’t see with your eyes.”
Taking a deep breath I did as I was told. Although still frightening, my approach to stairs gradually became smoother and more confident. By now it was early March and the weather was becoming warmer. We were able to have our picnics outside and Jeff began to take advantage of the beautiful Samford campus. The University sits on a hillside with the buildings arranged in a semicircle around a huge sloping green lawn. Sidewalks described the semicircle with all kinds of intersecting walkways and entrances to the buildings. Jeff showed me how to stay on a curving sidewalk by “shore lining.”
“It’s called “shore lining,” because orientation and mobility got its start as a profession during and immediately after World War II,” Jeff explained. “A lot of veterans of that war returned with new blindness. The Department of Veterans Affairs was the birthplace of the profession of blind rehabilitation so you’ll hear some military terms from time to time.” In my case, shorelining meant following along the edge of a sidewalk rather than walking down the middle. I could use this technique to follow a curving sidewalk or to locate an intersecting one.
Finally the evening of the first class arrived. My parents both came along for the ride and I cheerfully announced that I would see them in two hours when the class was over. Taking a deep breath I began the route.
With a huge sigh of relief and a warm feeling of accomplishment I entered the classroom at the end of the last hallway. The teacher, Dr. Kernan, met me at the door and assisted me in finding an empty chair. Everyone seemed relaxed as they chatted before the beginning of the class. Didn’t they realize that I had just accomplished the impossible? Heart still pounding I removed my tape recorder from my bag and was ready when Dr. Kernan began.
“Okay, now it’s time to get down to business again,” Jeff said as he picked me up for our next Saturday lesson.
“Cool,” I said. “What’s next?”
“We’re going to begin your training on the streets of Birmingham. Let’s go.”
As in the case of Vera and the matter of grade 2 braille, I was not disappointed to learn that I had much more to learn. We got in the car and Jeff drove to a quiet residential part of Birmingham. As we stood on the street corner wearing light sweaters, Jeff began describing the layout of streets and sidewalks. “Every block in this neighborhood is exactly square,” he began. “There’s a sidewalk running beside each street separated from the street by a grassy strip. I’m going to help you get lined up to begin with,” he continued. “Then I want you to walk straight down this sidewalk until you get to the next intersection.”
“How will I know I’m there?” I asked.
“There will be a down curb. You should be able to feel it with your cane. Now, get going.”
Taking a deep breath and hesitating long enough to make sure all of my body parts were in the correct position I began. It seemed I had walked about a half a mile. Where was that darn down curb? I slowed my pace uncertainly.
Jeff, who seemed to have been expecting this called, “You’re doing fine. Keep going.”
Finally, I felt the tip of my cane touch nothing. I had arrived at the end of the block at last. So relieved I was to finally know where I was, I forgot to stop for a second or two. With toes dangling over the down curb, I teetered.
“Okay, great job,” announced Jeff as he steadied me. “Step off of the curb and then turn 180 degrees. I want you to use this down curb to line up and see if you can establish a line of direction to return to our starting point. Oh, and this time, when you feel your cane out there in mid air, try to stop a little sooner than later.”
Hearing the smile in Jeff’s voice I did as he directed. A couple of times, while walking back along the sidewalk, I felt my cane hit grass. Trying to correct the veer I had obviously made, I did a quick check to make sure that my hand was centered and that I was in step. This time I walked right off of the sidewalk into the street when I reached the end of the block. Gaining my balance I tried turning right around and stepping back up onto the sidewalk. The only problem was that the sidewalk wasn’t there anymore. I stepped up onto grass instead. Knowing that Jeff had been right behind me during my walk down the sidewalk I called out, “Okay, I give up. What did I do wrong?”
Knowing a teachable moment when he saw one, Jeff said, “Grab on. We’ll go sit on this wall for a minute.” Taking Jeff’s proffered arm I followed him over to a low stone wall. “Kinesthetics,” Jeff began, “refers to the ability to judge distances based on your speed of movement and the passage of time.” After our discussion of kinesthetics Jeff showed me how to systematically search for the sidewalk if I veered during a crossing or if I did a one eighty only to find that it was not there.
I was ready to try it again. I traveled the block a few more times and felt more comfortable approaching the down curb each time. On those occasions when I accidentally stepped out into the street, I learned to stay calm, turn around, and not panic if the sidewalk wasn’t right in front of me. Using the systematic technique that Jeff showed me, I was able to relocate the sidewalk every time.
“Okay, good job,” said Jeff as I found the end of the block and managed to stop before stepping off for the third time in a row. “Now we’re going to begin crossing streets. Jeff showed me how to bring my cane right up perpendicular to the curb and close to my body. “As you’ve probably noticed there’s not much traffic on these streets so you can’t really use the traffic to line up your crossing. Instead, find the drop off with your toes and try to move in a perpendicular direction from that of the curb.”
Muttering something about hanging ten, I followed Jeff’s instruction. With an affirmative nod to Jeff asking if I was ready, I set off across the street. Wham, my cane collided with the up curb on the other side and I screeched to a halt. “Great,” called Jeff. “Now pop your cane up over the curb and see what you find.”
“It feels like the sidewalk,” I called back.
“Yes, exactly.” Jeff replied, now right at my shoulder. “You found sidewalk at the end of your crossing meaning that you made a straight crossing and didn’t veer. If you had veered, you would have found grass instead.
“Okay, cool,” I replied. Can I keep going?”
“Go for it,” Jeff said. So, I went for it. We crossed street after street. Not every crossing I made was straight though. When I found grass instead of sidewalk I had to make myself stay calm. I was learning an important lesson. I was learning that I had a bit of the perfectionist in me. Okay, maybe I had a lot of the perfectionist in me. But life isn’t perfect. And it’s especially not perfect whenyou have to relearn how to do almost everything as an adult.
When I got home I carefully considered what I had learned that day. While I still preferred to feel the small victory of making a straight street crossing I had also learned that making a mistake was okay. Mistakes were going to happen. I just needed to accept that, learn what to do when it happened, and get on with it.
Next: Does It Get Any Easier?