A Cap, A Gown, An Ending, A Beginning

by Kevin Burton

   For some reason, in my mind’s ear, I can hear the lockers best.

   Back in the day, there was chatter, always chatter. I can hear that too, but indistinctly.

   It has been 39 years, almost to the day, since I graduated from the Ohio State School for the Blind. So I am at some remove from the burning issues of the moment, the daily teasing or singing or whatever.

   But there was always the sound of lockers in that hallway before school, between classes. Lockers not closing, but slamming.

   How hard do you have to close a locker before it qualifies as a slam?  I don’t know.  But those lockers always accompanied our craziness, like percussion pumping out the rhythm of our adolescent song.

   I cried the night I was dropped off at the school for the first time. Wearing a cap and gown, I cried the day I left.

   The days in between shaped me more than any before or since. 

   An old friend, talking about that time and place recently told me, ungrammatically “I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.

   Me either dude.

   Of course if you had talked to me then, I would have told you we were living in a prison. “The braille jail” we called it.

   In those days, I couldn’t always tell the difference between being clever and being wise. Perhaps I would not have seen the need to make such a distinction.

   But it was a residential school. We were all miles from our blood relatives. There were rules to follow. Now I look back and say probably not enough. But then, we thought we were incarcerated.

   So here I am all these years later and I wonder, what part of my current existence do I have dead wrong?  Am I finally able to tell the baby from the bathwater and act accordingly?

   How best to educate blind children is a discussion I never tire of. There is no one answer. Each child is individual.

   It could be beneficial for a child to get both the private and public school experience. I did.

   I did not start at the blind school until fourth grade. Then I spent half my junior year in public school in Wichita.  I went back to Ohio for my senior year and took classes at a public school in the morning and at the blind school in the afternoon.

   The public school experience prepared me for life in what we then called “the real world” of higher expectations. But it was life at the blind school that really propelled me toward being whoever I am today.

   A teacher at the blind school named Cliff Sagendorf wrote a note on one of my papers once. It was an aside really. He wrote, “Don’t be afraid to use some of your humor. It’s too good to keep to yourself.”

   The note showed he knew me and that he cared. It is something I have carried with me from that day to this. 

   How long did it take him to write that?  Maybe 30 seconds.  That is what you can do for a young person, any person, in thirty seconds. 

   Jim Rimmer, one of my gym/health teachers, gave me what I took as a supreme compliment but maybe wasn’t.

   He said that whenever something started in the class, some trouble (for us that meant mostly talking) he was coming to me first.

   “You’re they key,” he said. “If I can control you, I can control the class.”

   I don’t think teachers are supposed to say things like that out loud.  But I’m glad he did.

   I don’t mean to paint the whole time as rosy. I got my first taste of racial prejudice at the blind school. There were some other types of cruelty.

   But when my graduation anniversary rolls around, as it did this weekend, I’m not thinking about the bad times. I’m thinking about my sisters and brothers from other mothers, at a place on North High Street in Columbus.

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