Standing On My Own
By Megan Bening
(Editor’s Note: This is the winner of the 2013 Metro Chapter essay contest. Megan and her parents are members of our Riverbend Chapter. Her mother, Jean Bening, is a board member of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, the parents division of the NFB.)
In one of my earliest memories, my mother is playing with me, pretending to chase me as I run back and forth across our lawn. Just as she is about to catch me for a kiss and a tickle, I veer crazily to avoid her grasp. I put on a burst of speed that I shouldn’t be capable of and lunge toward the door into the house. Before she can get to me or even shout a warning, I go sprawling face-first over my petal car, sitting next to the porch steps. Immediately she is there, holding me close as she kisses my face and dries my tears.
As soon as she has reassured herself that I am OK, she carries me to the middle of the yard and sets me back on my feet, giving me a gentle nudge forward to begin our game again. But something has been lost now: I have realized that I can’t see the obstacles in my path and I am not about to let go of her. Gently, she puts her hands on my shoulders and tries to push me forward. But I am stubborn and I know the dangers now. I am not about to be budged from the safety that her eyesight offers me.
As she continues to try to get me to play again, I begin to gear myself up for the mother of all tantrums. Before I can let out even one good scream, though, an odd smacking noise catches my attention. She is standing behind me, clapping her hands repeatedly. What can she be doing now? She takes my hands in hers and continues to clap them together as she gently but inexorably guides me first into a slow walk, then into a run. As I listen, I begin to realize that I am hearing two claps: one as she guides my hands together and another as the sound comes echoing back to us. As she guides me back toward the house, I hear that the sound is changing. She takes the time to run me first toward, and then away from, obstacles until I realize that if I clap, I will hear the sounds around me and can avoid the obstacles without her intervention.
I am once again beginning to enjoy this game, starting to giggle as the tears dry on my face. Then suddenly her hands are gone from my shoulders and I am running on my own. I come to a stop, unsure how to proceed without her. She waits to see what I will do and then begins to clap her hands again. But she doesn’t reach out to me. And eventually, tentatively at first, I begin to run away from her.
At first, she stays within arm’s reach of me, ready to grab me at the first sign of danger. But I have discovered the freedom of moving on my own with no fear, and I put more distance between us. She watches me giggle and run around her, always staying just out of her reach. She stands still and watches me move further away from her, confident for the first time in myself.
Years go by and I am in first, then second, then third grade. One week my class has a substitute teacher. I am a good student and don’t cause any trouble, so she has no reason to single me out for any punishment. That is, until she gets a look at the class’s penmanship and assigns us some handwriting exercises. Without asking anyone, I decide that because the class is using pencils and paper and I can’t see to do the exercises, I shouldn’t have to. The next morning when I show up for school empty-handed, the teacher sets me straight.
That night, I come home crying to my parents, teacher’s note in hand. As usual, we don’t talk about the note until after we have eaten dinner. Finally, though, the moment of reckoning arrives.
“What is this about not being able to go out for recess because you didn’t do your homework?” Mom asks me. “Didn’t you tell us last night that you didn’t have any? You know you’re going to be grounded for this. You lied to us and you disobeyed your teacher, and that’s not OK. Do you have anything to say?”
Through my best wounded-martyr sniffles, I try to explain the situation. I cry about being absent-mindedly handed a printed sheet of paper and explain how the teacher didn’t take the time to make up a different assignment for me. I explain in my most logical grown-up tone of voice that I can’t possibly do an assignment when I can’t see the instructions and don’t know how to print. Righteously, convinced that I have won this round, I rest my case.
“Didn’t you tell me that you have a substitute this week?” Mom asks. I nod cautiously. “So she has never taught you before?” Another nod. “Then isn’t it safe to assume that she probably didn’t know you couldn’t do the assignment?” Grudgingly this time, I have to concede the point.
“Then it is your responsibility to tell her so. You have to work with your teacher to find another way to do the assignment. If you can’t figure out how to do that on your own, you ask your resource teacher or your Braillist to help you. But you do not get to choose to ignore an assignment without even trying to find a way to make the assignment accessible.”
I spend the rest of the night brailling an apology letter to my teacher, which my mom then transcribes into print. Then, in glitter pen, she shows me how to print my signature at the bottom of the paper so that I can feel the lettering. The next morning I bring my finished letter to my teacher along with the rest of my homework. She accepts my apology and we go on with no hard feelings. I never see her again, but the lesson she and my parents taught me stays with me to this day. I grumbled about my homework incessantly, tried to avoid doing it whenever possible, but I never again tried to use my blindness as the excuse.
As I grow and become a young woman, we go through several more struggles. My parents and teachers take the time to coach me through fighting my own battles. I attend my Individual Education Plan meetings and my parents always, always make sure that I am given a say in my educational goals. I learn how to stand up for myself, how to respectfully contradict an authority figure when I know I am right, and how to appeal when I am unfairly punished. I also learn to refuse special treatment, to fight tooth and nail for every scrap of independence I can gain, and to relish a challenge and take pleasure in overcoming obstacles as they come my way.
Throughout high school, I begin to look forward to going to college. In my mind, it has become just another challenge to overcome. My parents take me to college fairs and chauffeur me around to check out different schools. I apply to two schools in Minnesota and to Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. I am surprised when I get into all three. Ultimately, I choose to stay close to home for my first year of school. My parents don’t say so at first, but I think they are vastly relieved.
Months pass in what seem like days and before I know it, my parents are kissing me goodbye at the door of my dorm. They have given me everything I need to succeed in the world without them. I have the tools to face this challenge head-on and come out on top. I fought to get here, and I will continue to fight to stay here. I smile at them and blow them a kiss as I turn and walk away, stepping into the first day of the rest of my life.
Now, I realize how hard it must have been for my parents to raise me the way they did. Given the news that their child was permanently blind and offered no solutions to the endless questions in their minds, my parents could have easily given up hope. But instead, they actively sought the answers to their questions. They kept looking until they found someone who told them “Yes, she can!” They set me on my own two feet and stepped back, even when it meant I got some bumps and bruises on the way. They realized that I needed to find my own way in the world far more than I needed them to swoop me up and protect me from all harm.
Today as I journey further into adulthood, I am more grateful with each passing day that my parents never let me take the easy way out. They loved me too much to see me settle for less than I was capable of. Today, I can look at a problem and where others say, “She can’t,” I respond with, “Watch me!” And their skepticism drives me to work even harder to succeed. By allowing me to stand on my own and to grow as a person instead of smothering and protecting me at every turn, my parents gave me the greatest gift they could have — the gift of independence.