I’ve always had some unconventional jobs. Most people can’t understand my affinity to somehow become employed in the most out-of-the-box type of positions… but it makes perfect sense to me. I’ve always been an oddball. Normalcy doesn’t have much of a place in my world. If something “normal” found its way into my life, I’d probably twist it and find a way to make it less… normal.
So when people heard I was an assistant to a blind middle school English teacher, they would look at me with wide eyes and ask, “Whoa! What do you do? Lead him around the classroom?” And I would correct them. “No, I don’t go to the school with him. I work after school hours, in his home. I do mostly a lot of personal assistant stuff… Turn books into braille form with a computer program, grade papers, create essays, lesson plans… A lot of it is pretty boring.”
“Oh, well that’s cool… I guess. Blind, huh? Does he have a seeing eye dog?”
“Why, yes. Yes, he does. A yellow lab named, Barbie.”
“Cool! So, you must know sign language!”
“Umm… Really? You’re asking me if I know… ugh, as a matter of fact… I do. But never mind that! The dude is blind! Meaning, he can’t see? So, don’t you think sign language is pretty much lost on the man?”
“OH! Ha! Yeah, I guess you’re right! Wow. I can’t believe I just asked that! That makes sense.”
Yeah, I couldn’t believe they asked that either, but you would be surprised at how many people would noncognizantly ask that question. And it wasn’t asked by seriously daft folk. They were all fairly intelligent people. I suppose I just blamed it on many individual’s overall ignorance of those who are handicapped. Unless you have a handicap of your own, or someone close to you does, it’s hard to understand that way of living. I don’t mean that in a negative way, either. It just happens. We’re pretty selfish creatures that take a lot of how we live our everyday lives for granted. For example, something like bending down and being able to pick up a pen that you dropped on the floor. Seems simple enough, right? But when I was denied the ability to bend down to pick things up due to an injury, I had to retrain myself. I had to learn how to squat down a precise way to retrieve things. Yeah, it kind of sucked. But it made me realize a lot about myself and how I had taken a lot of easy, normal things I did everyday, for granted. I guess being handicapped, myself, for a long while taught me more than I realized.
Most of it is empathy. I learned to be more empathetic toward others. When I became handicapped, my empathy extended outward even more. I naturally gravitated toward jobs where you had to care for someone. I was relatively good at it. When you’re thrown into a position where you’re caring for someone who needs extra attention in some way, you have to think of all the different variables.
For example, when I first started caring for babies and toddlers, I started looking around the room at coffee tables, shelves, or anything else that had sharp corners that were the same height as the one year old in my care. Was there anything sharp or heavy they could pull down? That’s just a simple example… but you see my point.
So when I was interviewed for the position of Communication Support Assistant for the blind guy, I was asked if I would be ok with taking him by the arm, guiding him around a grocery store, letting him know when there would be stairs, and verbally describing a room. Of course I nodded my head and said that was perfectly fine with me.
Now, I’m this type of person that when I’m asked right on the spot if I can do something, I will say yes. And at that moment, I truly believe I can… Until I’m in that position and find myself thinking, “Shit, why did I say yes?” Like the one time I worked in Merchandising for Macy’s and they wanted me to climb to the top of a ladder in the stock room so I could scan a large rack of clothes at the top. With scanning gun in hand, I started climbing the ladder (very shakily) and froze a couple steps from the top. My chest tightened, my pulse quickened, and suddenly I was having trouble breathing. Echoes of my doctor telling me that if I took a really bad fall, the metal he surgically placed in my back would cause the ensconced bone to shatter. “Your back bone won’t break. It will shatter into itty-bitty pieces because of the metal surrounding it.”
Oh, fuck me.
I didn’t realize I was crying and hyperventilating until I heard my assistant manager below, ask if I was ok. “Hey, you’ve been just standing up there for awhile. Are you done with that rack yet?” When I looked down at her, the ground seemed to have turned to an ocean. It was rippling and moving in concrete waves. My eyes felt like they kept crossing and I was squinting to try to focus. My knuckles had turned white with gripping the handle of the ladder. Fuck this shit. I can’t fucking do it. Fuck! I descended the ladder and gave the scanning gun to my assistant manager, apologized, and told her that I couldn’t do it. Yeah, I still remember that disapproving look on her face.
Sure, maybe I could have gotten a better grip on my fear and handled the situation better. But it was the first time I was faced with climbing a ladder since I had been injured. I was never really good at admitting defeat, although I’ve gotten better over the years with the mental pep-talks. It’s exhausting sometimes to have to tell myself that I can do it; or mentally distract myself from the fear. But hey, that’s my handicap, right? And after all, I have that downfall of saying yes before I fully realize if I can actually accomplish that request. But stubbornness pushes me to do it. You reap what you sow.
But I digress. It’s not that I couldn’t handle caring for the blind man. I could. What I wasn’t equipped to handle was his bigotry and blatant disregard for fairness and equality. When you spend a lot of time with a person, you begin to see them for who they are. Flaws and all. Now, I’m not saying that I’m perfect. Not at all. I’m very flawed and sometimes I don’t do the right thing. I’ve been selfish and have done things I regret. I try to be fair and abandon ignorance but, alas, I’m only human. However, this man had shown sides of himself that disgusted me. He gave lower grades to the Hispanic kids and he favored certain students. “But, Henry. This kid just copied, verbatim, an article online. I have the article right here!”
“Haha, oh what a trouble maker. Well, then give him a ‘B plus’.” He sat in his home computer chair giggling. This was a student he favored and I couldn’t understand why. The kid had copied almost all of his assignments from online or another student. He wasn’t doing his work.
“But it’s plagiarized! That’s a failed assignment.” I said in disgust. I was infuriated at this point because he gave a ‘C’ to the pervious kid’s essay. That kid actually did the work.
I sighed and wrote the grade down. I moved onto the next essay. Before I had a chance to finish reading the essay to Mr. Bigot, he asked, “Wait, what was the name of the student?”
“Oh, give him a ‘D’.”
“What?” I said aghast.
“He’s always talking in class and being disruptive. Ugh, George.” He furrowed his brow and his mouth tightened into a thin line of distaste.
“But, I didn’t finish reading, he-“
“Give him a ‘D’! I’m the teacher! Next!”
I bit my lip. This kid’s grammar and spelling was a little off, but he did the research and it was fairly well written. Being the English nut I was, I knew it wasn’t copied off the internet and his essay was done well. He obviously worked hard on it. In between the spelling errors, his words conveyed that there was a love of English within this kid.
There goes my empathy again. I felt my heart breaking for little George as I looked down at his essay. Sure, he may be a rowdy kid who liked to talk in class. Maybe he couldn’t sit still. Maybe he has problems at home… Maybe, whatever! Judgments aside, I saw potential in that essay. And if his potential and efforts didn’t get nurtured, his confidence and self-esteem would plummet. In turn, instead of this kid excelling in what he clearly had a talent for, he would turn down a more destructive path. He needed someone to believe in him. Isn’t that what a fucking teacher was for? Sure, you taught the kids but you had to also believe in them! You weren’t just teaching, you were guiding. I knew talent when I saw it.
I gripped that red pen in my hand and let out the breath I was holding in anger. As I exhaled, I began etching the grade onto his paper. I wrote down: ‘A-’ (Excellent research, but you need to pay attention to your spelling and grammar. Keep up the good work!)
“What are you writing? I can hear you writing.” Henry questioned me accusingly. I was caught. Shit. My brain fired off possible responses throughout its synapses.
“Um, what? Oh! Nothing. The next essay didn’t have a name on it so I just wrote, ‘No name. You must write your name.” I quickly recovered from my shock at getting caught. I crossed my fingers.
“Oh.” Henry let out a breath. “Yeah, they always do that. So stupid!” He laughed. The tension left the room.
But the tension was still caught in my chest. I lied to a blind man, I thought. I started to wonder who was the asshole in this situation? I let my empathy guide me. I justified what I had done, hiding behind my empathy and my judgment towards this man as an educator. Again, I reiterate that I’m not perfect.
But to this day, I wonder what happened to that kid. I also wonder what his face looked like when he saw his grade. I hope he was smiling.