Legally Blind #5 – Fear and Loathing in Colorado, Part Two

I’m kind of an asshole. Okay, you can leave off the “kind of” in that statement and still be wildly accurate. I tend to speak my mind and to hell with the consequences. I tend to get especially vocal about deliberate ignorance, ideological domination, and my anti-ism nature. My social media pages are devoid of family largely because I’m so abrasive. It’s neither a good or a bad thing – it’s a part of who I am and I embrace that. Call me flippant, call me an asshole, call me whatever you like if you need to label me, but I will never sacrifice who I am for the sake of keeping the peace or playing politics. It’s come back to bite my on the ass so often that I’m surprised my behind hasn’t been chewed off entirely.

I say all that because you’re going to need to understand the National Federation of the Blind, the way they ran the Colorado Center for the Blind, and why I struggled every day there with their sometimes-rabid faith in their politics. It influenced everything about that school and was (at least at that time – I can’t speak to changes they may have made since) the truest backbone of the school and why I ultimately sucked so hard at getting along with many of the teachers. Some were born educators and genuinely great people, even if I don’t necessarily agree with their idealogies. Some were very much… well, not that, and seemed largely like NFB cheerleaders sent there to spit in the eyes of anyone with sight. If they were just pricks, I could probably forgive them, but they were also terrible teachers too, who opted to only teach fundamentals when it suited them.

Part of that stems from the never-ending flow of students through the CCB. Induction and graduation weren’t a regular thing. People were admitted any time, and graduated when they were ready – or in the case of people like me, when the student and/or the Blind and Low Vision counselors agreed the student had learned enough. Or, also like me, when the daily knocking of heads against each other grew too much and all parties agreed that it’s for the best for the student to head on out.

Now that we’ve got that pre-amble out of the way, let’s jump back to my second day. My roommate “Steve” pointed me in the general direction of a bus stop, where we lined up with a few other students, all of us armed with canes. Mine was different than theirs – mine was a folding cane with what’s called a marshmallow tip (because it looks like a marshmallow, in case that wasn’t apparent), and every single one of theirs was a normal stiff cane with metal tips. Cool little side note – there’s a reason for that. The metal tipped canes have a better tactile feel to them, though they wear out so rapidly I personally think the trade-off isn’t worth it if you’re familiar with the areas you’re traveling in.

In any case, I immediately felt weird and out of place, but I’d been feeling that since I flew in, so it wasn’t so bad. I don’t remember anyone in particular that first morning. It took me a while to acclimate to getting to know people by their voices, and that first morning, I was more or less pissing myself just trying to remember the route I needed to go each morning. What I do remember about the group that morning was how diverse they were, not just in terms of skin color and backgrounds, but in age and health. Some were fit as a fiddle, some were grossly overweight (as was I – I think I was in the 250 lb. range back then, and I’ve since packed on another hundie, something I’m working to change). Some were beautiful, some were handsome, some were strange to me, some were “normal,” some clearly had physical problems and limitations. With my thick glasses, I’d always felt out of place, but in with them, I actually sorta felt for the first time like I wasn’t on the fringe of normal society. I didn’t realize it yet, but these were very much my people, as weird and individualistic as we all were.

Apart from the tragedy of the Littleton high school shooting, that’s actually a really nice suburb, and it’s really simple to navigate via the bus routes in Denver… once you know what the hell you’re doing. I’m a slow walker, and that day, when we finally got off our bus, I was hustling my ass off to keep up with the group of students. I forget the specifics, but it usually took about half an hour or so each morning to reach the school, including a pretty neat light rail system I still really like.

The CCB claimed they couldn’t teach people with varying degrees of sight in an equal fashion, and made everyone with sight wear sleepshades in order to teach everyone equally. It’s an idea I can understand, but I don’t think their solution was ideal. Sleepshades. In the summer months, that was nothing short of insane. We’re not talking velvety soft ones, or something light you might put over your eyes. These were foam-backed plastic pieces of garbage that accumulated sweat and grossness without a great way of keeping them clean. Cleaning them with soap and water helped, but after a couple of weeks, regardless of how well you kept them, they stank and fell apart. Despite the continued barrage from sighted studnets like me that there had to be better ways of doing this – painted sunglasses being the most obvious solution – they insisted that the sleepshades blocked all of a person’s vision and leveled the education among all of the students.

Let me reiterate that point. Even when I pointed out the existence of the sunglasses used by those recovering from surgeries that covered up all the field of view, they still insisted sleepshades were the best solution because… well, I have no clue even to this day. It was obtuseness for the sake of its own stubbornness, and it was this kind of thinking that led to me clashing with my instructors time and time again.

The school itself was based out of what I believe was once a gym/rec hall type building. Built on several levels, the main floor overlooked the open-air classrooms, which were once squash courts, I think. Also on that central floor was a reception area, several offices, a kitchen, and a cafeteria that doubled as the “home ec” type classroom, which wound up becoming my very favorite part of my education because the woman who taught it – and I’m afraid I don’t remember her name offhand, which aggravates and saddens me – was the best of the bunch and a born educator.

I was run through my day’s schedule, set up in chunks like a regular school. Travel, Braille, Computers/Tech, Art/Woodworking, and Cooking/Home. Those weren’t the official names of the classes but that’s how I thought of them and continue to do so. There were usually weekly activities of some sort that got us out of the building, or put us in conference room lecturing settings. More on those dreadful things later, because boy howdy, do I have things to say about their cheerleading sessions.

I had, at that point, very limited cane experience. I knew the basics of walking with a cane – you tap with the cane in front of you on the opposite side of the foot you put forward, so that you have enough reaction time to stop yourself before you go plunging over an embankment or a curb. There are also larger sweeping motions you make when you’re not in a crowd of people, but by and large, the former is much more useful inn real world settings.

I was told to stow my folding cane and my glasses, and was given a new cane with a metal tip and my sleepshades. Then I was told to keep up while a group of students took a walk down the block and around in a big loop.

That’s pretty much the extent of my travel training almost for the first month. See any problems here? The travel instructors weren’t instructors. Not in the slightest. They didn’t teach, they told. They talked a lot about throwing people in the water and letting them swim, but when you’ve never seen a fish and you’ve only ever put your toes in the water, that’s no way to learn. And it almost led me to quit my very first actual day there.

That walk was the most humiliating, terrifying time in my schooling there. I felt like an idiot when I was told consistently my cane techniques were wrong without anyone taking the time to actually show me how or why I was doing things the wrong way. I was expected to learn from the other students, whose names I hadn’t even caught yet, and I was expected to learn immediately. I managed most of the walk okay by keeping up with the group, but that was a facade and the instructor knew it. So he had me cross a street.

In high traffic.

By myself.

You’re thinking at this point they were right to throw me in the deep end, that it would energize me to realize I can do this, that it’s not so bad. No. There are situations where I’m at my absolute best when my back is to the wall, but that situation is most definitely not downtown Denver when I’m already feeling like quitting and going home. It’s definitely not with a smirking instructor who continually, in all my months there, treated me like a weird second class citizen because I had sight.

I was afraid, and I was angry, and not the good kind of angry, the kind that can motivate a person to do great things. I was just… angry. I stepped out onto the street when I thought the time was right. I walked forward five feet. And I whacked my cane right against a very moving car that came to a screaming stop only feet away from me.

At that point I ripped off my sleepshades, used what little sight I had without glasses (mostly shapes and colors at that point – nowadays I couldn’t manage even that), and got across the street, so scared I will unashamedly admit I think I pissed myself a little. That was the first time I took my sleepshades off during travel periods. It was far from the last.

To this day, I can’t understand what the point is of teaching a travel class if you’re not going to teach on a regular basis. Lumping the sighted people with each other so they could learn the basics would have been a smart move. Giving someone individual courses so they could warm up and get the basics down would have been a smart move. Throwing someone at the fucking sharks and expecting them to not get torn to shreds? That’s not teaching. That’s straight-up jackassery of a degree that still infuriates me to this day.

And that was my very first course.

Thankfully, Braille was next, and the instructor was much more decent at… you know… teaching. I’d never learned even the slightest bit of Braille, but this was the class most important to me. See, I know I can go blind nowadays because I know I’ll always have books on tape and Braille. Back then, I was terrified that if I went blind, I could never read again. An absurd fear, to be sure, but you’ve gotta understand, at that point, going completely blind was the apocalypse for me. That was the end game. If it had happened before I went to Denver, I would have curled up and probably withered into a husk of who I am.

I argued with my Braille instructor more than once. In fact, our irritation with each other once led to me and my close friend Rebecca getting separated in class like we were a couple of lovestruck teenagers who didn’t know any better and weren’t absolutely killing it in terms of progress. We argued ideologically, too – again, more on that later – and I get the feeling he plain just didn’t like me in the same sense that I got from a lot of the fully blind instructors there. By and large, though, I liked “Bob,” and if he wasn’t pushing the NFB agenda, I think we would’ve largely got on just fine. In any case, he was a good instructor, and when I opted out of travel courses later in my education when it became clear my time in Denver was numbered, I doubled up on Braille.

But still I was on the verge of quitting. That travel class had really pissed me off and I wanted out immediately. Enter the cooking/home ec class. This was the most chill, relaxed class in that school, and it was, oddly enough, the one class I never felt like removing my sleepshades, despite working with knives and hot stoves. The instructor was harried on that first day – I forget why, but she was busy with something or someone, and I was told to make some chicken salad for sandwiches out of some chicken breasts that had been cooked by an earlier class. Thankfully, she buddied me up with a good guy, my buddy Matt Palumbo’s former roommate who would graduate about two weeks later.

Chicken salad. Easy enough, right? Except imagine doing this all blind. The student I worked with showed me the ins and outs of the kitchen, and did a remarkable job of showing me how I could feel things out without any real danger to myself. But he’d also never made chicken salad either, so the two of us figured out the best way NOT to do it. And that’s by hitting the puree button for a minute, rather than the fifteen or twenty seconds it takes to whip chicken salad into shape.

Whoops.

But this? This was a harmless mistake. It was the sort of joyfully funny thing I probably should have experienced first rather than the outright terror of that travel class. We tried our liquefied goop, we laughed about it, and we cleaned up. And… it was okay. It was strangely okay.

I didn’t know it then, but that’s when I started to realize the education I needed in Denver wasn’t going to come from the instructors, but from my friends that I’d make there, in seeing how they functioned, how they dealt with things, how they lived a day to day life and what I could avoid. Through our daily mishaps, I wound up becoming okay with the future and the idea that I could live a really great, fun life even if I became fully blind.

I’m gonna leave this blog entry off with one last note from those earliest days there. My second day at the school – very literally my second one – I was asked to man a barbeque for a student’s graduation. Flipping burgers sounded easy enough, so I took it up. Surprisingly, it’s easier for me to cook meat completely blind than it is sighted. It’s easier for me to tell when the meat’s done than if I just look at it. Pink meat? What the everloving hell does pink meat look like? But slightly firm and with only a little give? That i can understand.

So I manned the barbeque. And I was happy with it, really happy. Right up until the point when I flipped a burger on the back burner and realized it was a two-tier barbeque by jamming the back of my hand against a very hot grill. Up until I was thirty, the hair on the back of my hand never grew back right.

Still beats the hell out of potentially getting hit by a car, though.

Part 3 will come soon. I want to reverse the order of things – we’ll talk more about the NFB and the reasons why I ultimately left Colorado before I get intot he joys of the life there. Thanks for reading.

Author: therealcamlowe

Writer, occasional victim of pug crop-dusting.

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