by Patti Harmon
From the Editor: Patti Harmon is a member of what seems to be a vanishing breed, a blind teacher working at a school for the blind. In fact, she was honored as the National Federation of the Blind's Blind Educator of the Year in 1991. This is what she had to say when she addressed the 1994 meeting of the National Association of Blind Educators at the NFB convention in Detroit:
I have been teaching at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped for twenty-two years and hope to retire in about three years. I thought you might be interested in what is going on in residential schools for the blind these days. As you know, the students attending residential schools are much different today from those two decades ago. When I started, the school had a very strong academic program; we had students who were blind but who had few other physical or emotional problems. Because of the variety of student needs today, my job changes yearly. For example, though I am an English teacher, I might teach cooking part of the time. At my school teachers must be flexible so we can reach each student. I never thought I would teach Braille.
When I learned Braille as a student, my teachers were what I thought of as very old. They stayed in the Braille teaching room and never seemed to do anything else. In other words, they were not very positive role models. They behaved the way I thought blind people should; they appeared to be dull and boring and not to have much self-confidence. Of course, I did not want to follow in their footsteps.
Because of the requirement for flexibility in teaching skills at the New Mexico School, I was asked to teach Braille during part of the day. So behold, I am that Braille teacher, alone in her classroom; however, that room is now a very positive place to be.
I always knew I would like to do something with English. In the 1960's, when I graduated from college, I thought I would just be a hippie. But I learned that one cannot make money writing poetry.
Even though poetry is not a money maker, with good Braille skills one can read and write poetry using Braille and can interact with sighted poets on terms of equality. Because I like to write, I have made writing a part of my Braille classes. I also use drama, which requires that my blind students develop good reading and writing skills.
When the music teacher announced that department was going to do a melodrama, guess who was first in line! I have found that, if I am interested in doing something, the students follow my lead. My limited musical ability disproves the theory that all blind people are good at music, but I pitch in and assist the students anyway. This year I was a fantastic man--at least I thought I was. As I said, today's teaching environment requires teachers to be very flexible. Teachers do a lot of educating about what blind children can do. Psychologically many youngsters have very low expectations for themselves.
I started working in 1972 as a fifth-grade teacher. I got the job because the teacher before me ran off and got married. A friend helped me, so I did not have to go through all the tortures of getting this job on my own. I had already filled out about one hundred applications when I heard about the New Mexico job. I Immediately got on the bus in Colorado, where I was going to school, and rode all the way to New Mexico.
After the interview I was told it would be about five days before they could let me know. I said I could not wait that long because my return bus ticket had already been purchased, so they hired me on the spot.
The school was worried because I have had diabetes since childhood. The superintendent went to the Board and said that blindness did not worry him, but with my disease I might miss a lot of work.
Of course, every year I get sick leave, and I have accumulated many days over the years. I simply do not allow myself to stay home. A lot of sighted people believe that blind people are sicker and have less stamina, but this is nonsense. Flexibility and creativity play a very important role in what we as blind educators do. I teach Braille in my English classes because I believe that for the blind student Braille is one aspect of language arts. Braille is simply reading and writing, and in my Braille classes we do a lot of both.
At this point in my career I am really worried about whether we are teaching young blind people the skills they will need for future employment. Many persons who are paid to teach blind children are not blind themselves, so they simply do not want to take the time to teach Braille. The scandal is that so far no one has required them to do so.
Because I was lucky, it was not difficult for me to get my job; but it has been hard for me to think about moving on to something else. When I retire, I think I will wander up the road to read poetry (in Braille of course) to the birds, trees, rocks, and any other items in my captive audience. I believe we need to nourish the dreams we had when we were young. As members of the National Federation of the Blind, we know that dreams can become reality if we want them to and are prepared to work at it.