Guide Dog School Chronicles II: Are We Not Adults?
Throughout my life, I have attended a lot of events that required living in a dormitory or hotel like situation. I resided in dormitories for a while during college, I’ve attended a few million conferences filled with loads of other blinks staying in the same hotel, I went to YMCA summer camp and have attended various retreats, conventions and other gatherings where a bunch of we blinks had to live together.
Never, however, before attending guide dog school, had I ever found myself in such a strict and structured environment. As I mentioned in the first entry in my guide dog school chronicles on my arrival there, I feel that I do not have the vocabulary to praise the staff at Southeastern enough. The crew there is, in my book, a bunch of fucking saints and deserves all of the respect and gratitude that I contain for their tremendous efforts. The current staff, though, is not responsible for some of the weird rules that we blinks get scolded for breaking from time to time.
Southeastern established itself some time more than 40 years ago and, perhaps, back then, the people who wrote the rules did so as, being well meaning sighted folk, they felt we blinks might need extra protection from ourselves and each other. This was also the period when Seeing Eye, up in New Jersey, required blinks to wear coats and ties to meals so as to learn social graces. I’m told by friends who have attended virtually all other guide dog schools in the US that these rules are common to most if not all doggie schools so Southeastern is not unique in this, to me, bizarre tradition of treating blinks like children.
My upbringing and education taught me to question everything. This belief system comes from the core of the scientific method and rose out of the philosophy of the enlightenment. Hence, I don’t accept authority for authority’s sake and have spent many years in classrooms challenging concepts presented by teachers, professors and such. As a manager, I would scold any staff member for not challenging an idea I would present if they saw a hole in my logic. I believe in deferring to the expert and that one’s title does not mean that they know more about a specific topic than the most junior person on a staff. At FS, our team worked in a highly integrated manner and nearly every engineer had his or her fingers in everyone else’s projects as they all brought different things to the table. Thus, my acceptance of self governance, self guided experiences and personal accountability is endemic to my personality. I am and will always be a personal anarchist.
Thus, when I received my first scolding, for using profanity, I thought the experience was quaint but weird. When I received my second, for discussing Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the civil rights of blinks to ride busses with our dogs, I found myself thoroughly puzzled. When someone explained that we were not allowed to discuss politics or topics of controversy, I was stunned. Aren’t we adults?
Shortly after my controversial statements on civil rights (note, I didn’t think Martin or Rosa were controversial but this class did have a lot of students from the American south), I figured out why this rule applied: the LMR (loudmouth redneck) decided to present us with a monologue on how much of a non-racist he actually is and did so by using relatively racist statements which certainly offended me and likely offended others. I apologized to the staff member who had scolded me as I realized I had started a situation that might be hard to control.
On the other hand, I’ve had all sorts of political discussions with blinks from all points on the belief spectrum at ATIA, CSUN and other conferences without anyone scolding me or the others involved in the debate. All of the students were adults and I found a bit of discomfort being forced to avoid controversy. At the same time, I understood how “difficult” topics could cause friction and, therefore, make the jobs of the staff even harder than they were at the outset. Thus, I found myself in an intellectual quandary: does maintaining order and good will among the students trump our freedom to free and open discourse?
As someone told me that religion should also not be discussed, I avoided the topic. Of course, how many ecumenical polytheists could there be in a group of 11 people at a guide dog school? Hell, how many other students would understand my rather rare belief system? I found one and that conversation came in private and included all kinds of topics and we agreed to keep this communication secret so as not to bring down the wrath of the censors.
My next scolding came when a staff member determined that I had a woman in my room. Now, if this woman and I had met at an NFB convention while drinking alcohol (also prohibited at the school) and returned to one of our rooms and, consensually engaged in completely unspeakable acts, there would not have been an organizational problem. Such behavior might cause personal trouble as I’m not certain how my wife would have reacted if such activities occurred and she learned about them but, even though we were not allowed to discuss such acts at the school, the woman and I are both in our mid-forties and if adultery is what we want, adultery is what we should get. We are, after all, adults, if we were accused of “childrenery” that would make us perverts and criminals. We were, for the record, sitting on opposite sides of the room, fully clothed and listening to the DVS of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” stream from the Freedom Box Network. This woman was the first student to whom I introduced my wife and was my table mate at all of our meals. Finally, I won’t flatter myself by assuming that this woman would have held any romantic thoughts about a crusty old nerd like me anyway.
Nonetheless, the staffer informed us that such behavior was prohibited as people (other students) might start rumors about us. My friend and I decided to ignore this rule and, presumably, the staff assumed we were incorrigible and there is probably some kind of permanent mark on my record that will follow me for the rest of my life, just like the one I got for kissing a girl named Lois in the second grade.
I actually remember the last time I received a scolding for being with a girl, in a bedroom at a time that the authority figure found inappropriate. It happened in the summer of 1972 and my friend Linda’s mom suggested that we would have more fun in the pool than in the bedroom. Thinking back on that day, we did have more fun in the pool than the room and, had Southeastern a pool or hot tub, we might have been there instead of my room in the dormitory.
Back to the core topic, though, I was 12 years old when Linda’s mom suggested we play Marco Polo instead of Truth or Dare. I would turn 46 two weeks after being admonished for having a woman in my room at guide dog school. Once again, though, I can see the logic to this rule (this is probably the nastiest thing about being me – I can often see both sides of everything and tear myself apart trying to decide which way I should fall). In this case, nasty rumors might have made my guest uncomfortable or, more aptly, may have resulted in other students treating us poorly out of some kind of jealousy. We certainly didn’t want to disrupt the dynamic between the students but hanging out with a friend to listen to a movie is probably an inalienable right, isn’t it? We would have even have left the door open if it would have been possible to hear our movie over the constant drone of the LMR.
I guess this essay points to a weird aspect of my personality that I do not know exactly how to feel. I find that a set of rules to maintain order among adults rather insulting to our ability to act like adults. I also find that rules that only apply to blind students that get enforced entirely by sighted people to rub me poorly. Such rules never applied in dormitories when I went to college, certainly do not apply at conferences and conventions and, to my knowledge, have not applied to me in any situation since that day in August 1972.
Thus, I find myself torn between ideals like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the need to maintain order in the already difficult situation that is a guide dog school. Deconstructing the situation, we have two trainers assigned full time per class, one house mother and a handful of other staffers. These people are charged with the task of training, in our case, 11 blinks to use guide dogs. Each of these 11 blinks comes packing their own pile of fears, doubts and insecurities. The trainers also come with their own personalities which deserve the respect of the others. We students can place tremendous demands on the staff which will certainly cause them a lot of stress. At the same time, we blinks are confined to a dormitory with a bunch of people we don’t know, have just received a new animal who will become an integral part of our lives for years to come and, consequently, feel enough anxiety to blow the roof off the building.
So, I can’t say I know the right answer. Should rules that seem appropriate for a cub scout camp apply to adult guide dog school students? Quite frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to answer this question and that I don’t run a guide dog school. Obviously, the anarchist in me says let blind adults live like adults. The organizational behavior side of me says that such rules are necessary lest the stress, which already reaches peaks that bring many students to tears, completely overload everyone involved.