Swimming Up the Mainstream

Editor’s Note: With Labor Day behind us, the majority of children are back in school. The new school year always brings challenges as the children adjust to new classrooms and increasing demands. While we all get in our school groove I thought it a good time to share a blog post written by a woman who is blind who shares her perspective and memories of “swimming” in the mainstream.

DeAnna Quietwater Noriega

The Muppet character Kermit the frog sings a song entitled “It Ain’t Easy Being Green.” Going to public school with a visual impairment can seem like being green when everyone else is white, black, or some shade in between. It can feel like swimming against the current. Everyone else appears to be carried along, while you are floundering and trying to keep your head above water.

Secrets That Kept Me Afloat in the Currents of Public School Life

Although I could see well enough to learn to read at three, I became totally blind by age eight. I was mainstreamed all but eighteen months of my educational life. It’s tough being different from all the others, the square peg in a round hole. When I was very small, I pretended to be Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons on a mission in enemy country. imagining myself as someone bigger and braver than I actually am helped me figure out more than one wrong turn in a crowded noisy school corridor! Rather than feeling badly that I couldn’t play some of the recess games, I practiced at home to master the ones I could handle, like jumping rope. I talked others into playing games of my own invention. One such game involved tying sweaters over their heads, spinning them around, and telling them to find their way back to a particular location, like the water fountain.

In this way I explained to my friends how I used each sound, scent, or the feel of the sun to help me orient. They could share my adventures. I taught special friends to use braille so we could exchange notes the teachers couldn’t read. In my teens, whenever I found myself in a situation that scared me, I pretended to be the kind of girl who could handle any new experience. Acting a part helped keep me from freezing up.

Choose to participate in things you are really interested in. Going along with everyone else to be accepted isn’t a good idea; if what they want to do is dangerous, boring, dumb, or not what you want to do. You’ll have more fun doing things with people who like you for who you really are and like to do the things you like too do.

A common interest will help your new friends see you as a real person not that much different from themselves and not as a condition like blindness. For some people, blindness will always be one of the ways they think of you because it is human nature to put people in categories. How many times have you heard someone describe a classmate as that fat kid in algebra or the tall skinny guy with red hair?

The sooner you can accept your vision problems as only one part of who you are, the easier it will be to move on. Don’t let vision loss keep you from finding out what other qualities and labels might be part of the complex package that goes into making you unique.

Speaking Up For Yourself

There will always be those people who will purposely set out to hurt your feelings. Try to keep up a good front. If you let them get you down, then they have won. Meanness for the sake of feeling superior is a sad thing. It shows that they don’t have any better way to feel special. Making a joke back when someone says something mean is a good way to show them that they can’t hurt you with their words. Laughter can take away some of the sting and you don’t want to play the victim because words can turn into shoving, or escalate into violence. Showing fear or letting your tormentor know he has hurt you can encourage him to go further in his attacks than he might otherwise.

If you explain the special tools you use and make a point of talking to the teacher about what help you need; you will find people happier to lend a hand. Sometimes they are only holding back because it’s confusing to them that you don’t wave back when they wave at you in a hall but can read a book. A lot of people think that blindness always means you don’t see anything. So explaining what you see or don’t see and how you use other clues will make things a little clearer for everyone.

Even teachers can be a bit confused about how to treat you. While you are in school, it is your job to get a good education. Not putting out your best effort only cheats you of learning information which you may someday need. Speaking up for yourself in school is good practice for when you are out in the real world of jobs and adult responsibilities. If a teacher ignores you, don’t sit back and allow your precious learning time to be wasted. Ask questions! There are probably others in the class who don’t understand either. Asking for help isn’t easy, but it beats struggling with something you aren’t doing well. Don’t allow a teacher to give you grades without doing the work expected of the others in the class. Try to find a way to accomplish equivalent work.

Sometimes you may feel frustrated and wonder, “Why me?” No one ever said life was fair. Even those who seem to have it all, may have things in their lives that they wish were different. It isn’t what we lack that matters as much as what we do with the gifts we are given. Sit down and make an honest list of the things you like about yourself and the things you wish were different. Then pick one of the things off the negative list and figure out how you might change it. Perhaps you do poorly in math and you could seek tutoring. Or you could set aside more study time. You might never be a math whiz, but you don’t have to be the lowest in the class either.

As a young person, I had a bad temper, was shy and felt awkward with strangers. I worked hard to change those things because I could see how they got in my way. I decided that if I was to make friends and be included in activities, I had to be the one to make the first move. Other people can feel shy too or just not know how to show you that they want to know you better. Sighted people can smile, make eye contact, and make a friendly connection with each other without saying a word. It takes a little more thought and effort to approach a blind person. A lot of kids won’t take the time to figure it out, and you must be the one to reach out to them first. That isn’t always easy. You may feel afraid that the group you want to join will reject you, say something mean or just ignore you. The thing to remember is that you will never know unless you try. The times you are accepted and make new friends are worth the hurt feelings when you are not.

One of the ways I got over being shy was to reach out to other shy people. Putting them at ease made me forget to be so nervous myself. I found I liked helping others and that I could be useful and not always be the person needing help.

If there are things on your list that you can’t change, then try to let go of worrying about them. I will never be tall or a great musician. I can still enjoy music produced by others and figure out ways to reach things on high shelves. Life is too short to waste fretting about what you don’t have or can’t do. Concentrate on those things you can accomplish. Your life belongs to you and only you can decide how to spend it. Working on the things you want to improve will make you feel better about who you are. This is your life and you can take charge of it. You can make choices that will change it for the better rather than feel sorry for yourself, do nothing, and go nowhere in life.

Take Charge of Your Life

Look around you for mentors and good examples. They can help a lot. They have already dealt with the same tough times as you and can be sources of ideas in handling the challenges of swimming up stream. It’s true you may have to work harder and put more effort in to what you do than someone else. But you will become a stronger swimmer for the work you put in and have an edge over the drifters and floaters that go along in the current. You will be taking charge of your direction instead of letting that old river decide where you end up. Good luck, and make the most of each opportunity to learn and grow.