An Accidental Mentor
By David Hyde
Every summer, I came home from the school for the blind that I attended during the year. I looked forward to the end of school. I looked forward to going home and seeing my mother. I wasn’t excited about the new baby sitter (yes, today they are child care providers, but this was the sixties); I always got to train a new one. The first one I remember was Jeanie. She lived with us. She had just been discharged from the “school” for girls in our city. Later I learned you had to go to court to be admitted to that particular school. She was nice enough, but wasn’t sure what to do with a blind child. My mom worked, and Jeanie and I were on our own at least ten hours a day. TV was interesting for a while, but I had to keep it low because Jeanie liked to sleep until around 11:00 in the morning. She finally left us. I’m not sure if she left because she cleaned the coffee pot with bleach, or because it was discovered that I had trimmed the dog with my mother’s scissors. I’m sure it must have been the former; after all, the dog seemed very happy.
We went through a succession of child-minders, but most influential was Mrs. Gascon. I don’t know where mom met her, but Mrs. Gascon had three children (two girls and a boy), a big house with a yard on a cul de sac, and a big black Guide Dog. Mrs. Gascon was blind. Her husband was a truck driver, and spent most weeks on the road. She took care of her house, raised and disciplined her children (and me) and did everything except drive.
I had never spent much time with a blind adult. She did everything as a matter of course. She cooked, she cleaned, she made us clean, and do other things. There was no difference between the things she had me do, and those chores given to her three sighted children. Back then assistive technology didn’t exist, so she made modifications. I remember she had buttons on the telephones which would activate a speaker and receiver on the front porch. When someone knocked they would hear this voice over the speaker “who is it?” After the shock wore off, they’d say who they were, and what they wanted. Then she’d decide whether to let them in or not. In each room there was a telephone, and she could listen through any of them, one at a time. It was hard to sneak something past her.
Her kids and I did everything. We hunted lions in the grassy field behind her house. We rode bikes (I never got rid of training wheels, no balance) up and down the road. We jumped rope, her son taught me how to play poker (until I ran out of money) and it was an enjoyable summer all round.
She lost things and found them. I saw her make mistakes and watched her children love her. I think that is when I decided that being blind was ok. She could do anything my mom could do. It was a very quiet epiphany.
There were other people who watch me over the summers, but none as good. She wasn’t a teacher, but she taught. She never planned to be a role model, but I used her for one anyway. She did everyday things, every day, and lived a full life. The last time I saw her, she had grandchildren.
Being blind was just a normal part of life, and neither she nor her children thought about it. She might ask one of them to read a recipe on a box, or look at the mail, but it was most definitely her in charge. Over that summer, I learned what it was like to be a blind adult.
Many years later, I met her again. I think she was in her late seventies, and in failing health. I had a chance to thank her, and to tell her how important that summer was. She remembered me, but I was just a small part of a short period of her life. It brought home to me, that most of mentoring is doing the little things which, for the recipient, become big ones. She was, through no intent of her own, an important part of how I learned about blindness, and she did it by living normally.
David Hyde is a Parent Liaison and the Professional Development Coordinator at WCBVI. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (608) 758-6152 or toll free 1-866-284-1107 x6152.