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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Guide Dog Chronicles III: The Students

I didn’t live in a dormitory for very long while in college.  I preferred the life of off-campus housing and the liberty to select my own roommates.  While I had a private room at guide dog school, I did share a dormitory with ten other people from a wide variety of backgrounds, with a variety of belief systems, educational levels, likes and dislikes, accents and habits.  I learned a lot from the experience of sharing fairly close quarters with such a truly diverse group.

As you all know, I strongly advocate diversity and tolerance.  I had believed that my world outside of guide dog school, my population of friends and acquaintances, represent a highly diverse group of people.  My month at guide dog school taught me that I held some beliefs about my circle of friends and associates that didn’t hold water when compared to a broader collection of people.

On the outside, I count people from what I believed to represent nearly every group possible.  I must admit, I have no friends or acquaintances in the KKK or other far right wing hate groups.  I don’t really tolerate intolerance very well.  My friends include university professors, Noam Chomsky, the world’s most respected scholar (according to a survey of university professors around the world) has become one of my pen pals,, I have friends who had been homeless, one friend who still collects spare change to make her living, Viet Nam veterans, day laborers who enjoy fishing, people of virtually all races and ethnic backgrounds (I don’t think I actually know any Inuit or Eskimo people), I know medical doctors, hackers, police officers, firemen, criminals, radicals, housewives, Democrats, Republicans Greens, anarchists, communists and nearly any group you can identify.  A lot of this results from living in Harvard Square, Cambridge which celebrates diversity at all times.  

I learned at guide dog school, though, that I knew very few “typical” people.  Nearly everyone in my highly diverse crowd has some oddity that removes them from the mainstream of our culture.  They either travel extensively, study extensively, have a deep expertise in some field, have invented very important things, have written songs, poems, books, plays, software that made a huge impact, they came from a part of the world few Americans have any contact with or hold some belief that stands apart from anything labeled as “normal.”  Obviously, the people with the more extreme lifestyles, the fetish freaks, the people who beg for a living, the criminals, the drug addicts and those clearly on the outside rarely come into contact with “middle America.”  I didn’t realize just how weird the rest of my crew, the people with such an intense passion for fishing that they gave up good jobs to work cash in hand and spend most of their time in a kayak.  I didn’t realize that everyone didn’t have access to scholars, hackers and people like my friend Richard Stallman who drives the development of free software with such total passion that he differs profoundly from the other hackers around the world.

“Normal” people don’t live with the extreme intensity that my collection of curiosities (including me) do.  When they have a vacation from work, they don’t call the office every day to keep up on what might happen in their absence.  They don’t write long blog entries about the weird stuff that crosses my mind and that of others.  They don’t feel compelled to fight civil rights battles when they suffer the discrimination prevalent in the world of people with disabilities.  In short, they go through life without all of the intense fears and doubts that those of us extremists do.  In my month sharing living space with these people, I learned a lot from them and hope I can incorporate some of the serenity that they have that I have spent so long searching for.

I won’t name anyone but, rather, like the LMR (loud mouth redneck) I will use initials of a description to identify my classmates.  I will start with the Polish immigrant (PI).  I can only describe my short time in the company of the PI as an absolute blessing.  The PI has lived to 83 years old and has autobiographical stories that one rarely gets to hear first hand.  He described life in Nazi work/death camps, places where many of my distant relatives perished, with ease and anger.  He explained that, after the Nazis, all of life comes much easier.  His wife of many years had died two weeks before he came to guide dog school but, like nearly everything else, the PI took everything with grace and dignity.  He could talk to his dog in a manner that the animal understood and, in one major way, helped the rest of us bond in a very happy way.  The PI also had lost a lot of his hearing and would get a bit disoriented from time to time.  The rest of the class did our best to help him find things and, taking turns helping the PI, helped us grow closer together.  I will remain in contact with this lovely little man from Poland as he brought something into my life that I had never known before.

The PI’s roommate came to Florida by way of New England and his nasal, bean eating accent made me feel like I had returned to Boston.  The Boston Guy (BG) enjoys his retirement on the East Coast of the Sunshine state and has been a dog handler for a long time.  Thus, he could offer lots of little practical tips about working a dog that I think could only come from a blind person’s perspective.  I’ll call the BG soon as I have some photos of us together taken because our doggies came from the same litter.

I spent more time with my table mate ™ than anyone else.  She came from Virginia and had a great attitude.  Whenever I started getting too neurotic, she would tell me, “Shut up and deal with it.”  Her “tough love” approach worked pretty well.  She did an amazing job of getting me past the fears and she cut through my bullshit like a chainsaw through daisies.

Across the hall from me lived the Jersey Hippy (JH).  He grew up one town away from me back in the Garden State.  We had a lot of common experiences growing up and his interest in alternative medicine intrigued me.  While I cannot explain the science behind his work, I can say that he showed me ways of reducing the pains in my shoulders, forearms, hands and wrists to near zero with various breathing and stretching exercises.  I remain in contact with JH and TM via telephone as neither has a computer.

One of my favorite people, a deeply religious born again Christian from Georgia (BAGCG) like the PI, suffered from deaf blindness.  This woman has a tremendous intellect and such deeply held beliefs that I enjoyed listening to her very lovely southern accent talk about whatever interested her at the moment.  The BACG also, one night, said, “It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten into trouble.  Let’s do something to get into trouble!”  So, as a team, we started working on practical jokes to install into the room occupied by the LMR and his roommate who had, conveniently, gone out to dinner.  We took a doody bag (those we use to clean up after the animals) and filled it with a mushed up candy bar.  We strategically placed it under his pillow.  A few hours later, when they got back and he went to lie down, he emerged with the bag asking what it was.  I took the bag from his hand and said, “Feels like shit.”  I tore the bag open, put a bit in my mouth and said, “Tastes like shit too.”  He went away.

The other tech head in the group came from Puerto Rico by way of New York and Miami (NYPR).  He and I could talk technology and had some fun when Mike Calvo came for a visit.  The NYPR certainly claimed title to the cutest male in the group and the babes seemed to dig him.  One night, someone found a tiny pair of women’s underwear in a drier.  She brought it out to us and asked, “Does this belong to either of you?”  We touched the undergarment and, realizing that it had less fabric than would be required to make a necktie, we both said that it wasn’t ours but agreed that we really wanted to meet the person to whom it did belong.  I had something of a Prince Charming fantasy but, instead of trying to find the person who fit into a glass slipper, well, you get the picture…

The single most cheerful and innocent student came from South Carolina and Starts College as a freshman this fall.  We’ll call her SCF.  The SCF arrived all bright eyed and ready to rock and roll.  She had a lot more energy than we older folks and demonstrated a love for life that, at breakfast time, scared me terribly as no one should feel that much joy at 6:30 am.  The rest of the day, though, her constant enthusiasm reminded us all of the joys in life and kept us smiling a lot.  When Mike Calvo visited, he gave her a Freedom Box and System Access demo and, for a few days afterward, this former JAWS user kept yelling, “This is so cool!”

The final student to whom you haven’t been introduced kept very quiet so I nicknamed her, “the ghost.”  We all had trouble knowing if she was present or not.  If we said her name, the ghost would respond, “I’m here,” in a timid sounding voice.  The ghost, when one could break through her shell, was a really interesting person and I found the conversations we had to be tremendously rewarding.  She also owned the thong but said no when I asked her for the Braille version of a modeling job.  Her “no” was accompanied by a giggle so at least I didn’t get slapped.


I introduced the last student, the LMR, to you in earlier posts.  At first, I tried to use my own pop psychology to explain his abso-fucking-lutely obnoxious behavior.  I thought and shared with other students that we all bring our own set of fears and insecurities with us to a place where we live with strangers and all have brand new dogs who we are supposed to learn to get along with.  Thus, we all, in our own ways, built shields between ourselves and the others.  I admitted quite readily that my scholarly vocabulary and constant talk of cool technologies, my know-it-all attitude and my insistence on adding to every conversation came directly from my fear center and that it was, for the most part, a bullshit way of keeping the real cdh (a panicked wimp who, at first, felt everyone hated him) psychologically distant from the others.  The ghost kept silent.  The JH would remain in the isolation of his room.  My TM would talk a lot about other people, helping bring them out a lot, but said little about herself.  The NYPR would, like me, cover using a lot of silly humor.  The SCF seemed most at home with herself because she would readily admit her fears to the rest of us and seek solace from our collective experiences.

The LMR never let down the constant loud talking.  If he had something to say to a staff member, he'd do so at the top of his lungs.  Other students were addressed with the volume knob set to eleven.  If he used his cell phone to call his wife or his business, the conversation remained so loud that we all know everything he ordered for his restaurant, the struggles he had with his wife and had to hear him beg his doctor for additional pain medication.  When he had nothing to say, he would just start talking about nothing, he’d recite nonsense from memory.  He never stopped and he didn’t seem to realize that he really made the rest of us angry.  I think everyone got on each other’s nerves from time to time but the other ten students moved from annoyance to dislike to, in one case, dropping out of the program due to the LMR’s constant loud voice.  He, of all of the people I met there, falls into a set of his own – the one person whom I hope never to hear from again.

So, I admit, I annoyed people.  My radical politics and know-it-all attitude certainly didn’t endear me to the gang.  After TM and JH and a few members of the staff talked me back in off the precipice and I felt less fear, I found I could tone down the bullshit and show a bit of cdh, the person, and found that it kind of feels good being honest with myself and others.

--End

4 Comments:

Anonymous Nancy said...

Hey Chris,
I wanted to tell you that your so called 'know it all attitude' sometimes really confused me, but for the most part, I learned that there is SO much stuff out there for Blind people and that as I get older, doing the same things that sighted people do without thinking will get easier for me to do.
The one thing I wanted to say was Thank You. You have empowered me in such a way that I have done things for myself and I think you helped me to grow up a little and meeting you also made me realize that I Can Do Anything.
Sometimes I get really depressed and I don't know what to do and I feel like I'm the only blind person on the Planet. It's very comforting that I got to meet such awesome people who are doing it! In your own ways everyone is doing it!
Thanks Chris, oh and by the way I did register FreedomBox and it is still 'really cool'!
Check out my webpage, I'll be adding some more photos when I go to Barnes 'n Noble b/c their internet is wireless and it's ALOT faster than the dial up we have at my house

7:56 PM  
Blogger Chairman Mal said...

Howdy Comrades! Chairman Mal hereby issues a Candy apple Red Alert about the Red Tide in Florida. It’s making dog guides ill, according to The News-Press, Florida. Warn the little pupsters for me, even the LMRN. This news arrived today through the auspices of our home boys at Blind News. So, should you be near the beach and your dog begins to cough, you may be approaching a bloom of vicious blind hating algae! That’s all for now. I’m heading for the kitchen to read a TV dinner with my nifty Kursedwell NFBB reader. If I were you, I’d wait for the movie! Keeping Austin Gonzo weird, I remain, Chairman Mal: Power to the Peeps!

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Mike Calvo said...

Hey Chris:
I really enjoy your stories of times at the guide dog school! Jacksan and I are well and we keep you and the X man in our prayers. For me Southeastern was nothing short of a life changing experience. I wrote an article about it and would love to share it if your readers would like it. Just let me know and I will be happy to post it.

Keep up that great writing style of yours dude! It's refreshing, frustrating, enlightening, thought provoking, and best of all direct from your heart.
Peace!

6:05 PM  
Blogger angel_dust825 said...

Hi, my name is Jillian, I happened to come across your blog while searching for guide dog schools on the east coast. I've recently become legally blind and my sight will continue to deteriorate until gone. I was wondering what guide dog schools you were speaking of and if you have any recommendations for me as to where to go. I don't know that this part matters, but i have 3 young children (the oldest being 3yrs) and am a single mother of them. I didn't know whether or not some schools took more of that type of situation into considering when matching and training dogs.
My location is in upstate ny, but travel isn't a problem.
Thanks for your time.
Jillian

4:24 PM  

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