Writer Beth Finke Goes from Teacher to Student
Before school ended last June, Eastview Elementary in Algonquin asked me to come talk about my children's book, get the kids excited about reading during the summer. Three students at Eastview are blind. Two of them are eight years old, the other one is ten. I arranged to have Braille copies of my children's book sent out ahead of time. The Braille version of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was produced in contracted Braille, a form of Braille I've never been able to master.
Contracted Braille has a bunch of shorthand symbols (contractions) for commonly used words and parts of words: there's a cell for the word "and," another for the word "the," and so on. Most of the letters of the alphabet are also used as shorthand for common words, such as "c" for "can" and "l" for "like." Kind of like texting, only you can't make as many mistakes!
When I met the vision teacher at Eastview, I apologized that my book was only available in contracted Braille. Those little kids would have to study Braille a long, long time before they could read those contractions.
"Don't worry," she said. Contracted Braille is the only Braille her three students read. Sure enough, the little buggers are Braille experts. These three little kids can even *write* in contracted Braille.
Each boy wrote a poem for me. I struggled with the contractions as I read their work aloud. They struggled to hold back their laughter as they listened to me try to read. They were happy to help me through, though, and in the half hour the four of us were able to spend together in their vision resource room we became fast friends.
The ten-year-old showed me how his talking watch works. The eight-year-olds, twin brothers, counted off their favorite rides at Disney World. We all laughed at the way other kids think Space Mountain is so scary. It's in the dark" we said. Big deal.
The boys had lots of questions about Hanni, my Seeing Eye dog. I told them that in order to train with a Seeing Eye dog they'd have to learn good orientation and mobility (white cane) skills first. Judging your location by what you hear, how the ground feels, which way the wind is blowing - you need those skills when you work with a Seeing Eye dog, too. Most guide dog schools won't let you train with a dog until you know how to get around with a white cane first.
Later on one of their teachers whispered to me that she was soooo glad I'd said that. Apparently the boys haven't been using their white canes the way they should. Now they'll have an incentive.
The poems they wrote have been travelling in my backpack with me all summer. I whip them out while I'm commuting on a train, sitting on a park bench, waiting at the doctor's office. I want to be able to read the Braille version of my children's book out loud when Hanni and I visit schools this Fall. In exchange, my three new boyfriends spent the summer tooling around using those canes of theirs. You know, just in case they want to train with a guide dog someday.
So many think of a disability as something that limits a person. But for my three new boyfriends and me , the learning never ends. It's limitless.