The click, click, click of plastic canes skimming the stone floor echoed my pounding heart and racing thoughts. Should I touch them when I greet them? What if I accidentally say, “See you later”? A bell sounded, and students began to leave a nearby classroom. Some sauntered confidently down the hall, others ambled with little direction, and those more fearful clung onto the arms of slow-walking staff. Meanwhile, walkers and wheelchairs supported limp bodies.
As I stood in the entryway of Perkins School for the Blind, my initial worries about how to greet the students were replaced by a larger fear. It had nothing to do with inexperience (after all, I had spent years caring for my autistic brother), nor was it typical first-day-on-the-job anxiety. Instead, it was a sense of powerlessness. As I looked into dead-end eyes, I questioned my capability to do what I love most: to see and facilitate progress. I desperately wanted to hoist my soon-to-be students out of their dark abyss. I wanted them to be happy, to see life in all its beauty. And, selfishly, I wanted to be the one responsible. For the next few weeks, as I guided my students through the school courtyards, as I helped their fingers clasp paint brushes and their feet find soccer balls, as I conversed with them about their relatives back home — I wondered if, after my time was up, these kids would even remember my name.
Of course, most of them didn’t. But as the summer went on, I came to realize that maybe this was okay. It wasn’t all about me. During Perkins’s end-of-summer music night, my idealism and naïveté were washed away by pouring rain. Drenched, all forty-three adolescents scrambled into a tiny cottage living room. Students sprawled out on overstuffed armchairs, staff perched on treadmills and coffee tables, while I wedged myself between three rambunctious boys on an old loveseat. “Medications, come get your medications!” was drowned out by guitar tuning and lively chatter.
I turned to Brendan, the boy sitting beside me. We had spent most of the day together, holding our ritual breath-holding competitions in the swimming pool and debating iPhone model rankings at dinner. Now, I held the Braille guide that he made for me and closed my eyes, trying to envision each cell of dots. “Z… resembles a handle? Oh wait, no, that’s Y!” He grinned approvingly.
Suddenly, a hush swept over the room, and the lead singer strummed the first chord to “Hey Jude.” The carnival began. Shimmying and rocking, engulfed in a sensory tide, my students performed. I watched wheelchairs become stages, seizures become dances, and dead-end eyes become gateways. For the first time in a while, I felt truly and irrevocably content. Everything about that night was unorthodox, flawed, dented, and bruised. And yet, that’s what made it perfect.
Two weeks later, I’m still at Perkins, but this time doing office work. My students have all left for home, and the campus is nearly deserted. To the drumbeat of the ancient air conditioner, I copy, alphabetize, type, file, sort, and declutter. I create my own rhythm. I produce visible results. Weeks earlier, this would have given me incredible satisfaction. But now, I feel empty. From my perch in Howe Tower, the ground seems miles below me. I am on top of the world, yet insignificant. I am surrounded by coworkers, yet lonely. I see progress, yet feel no achievement.
Hours later, the clock strikes five — my cue to shut off the lights and lock the office door. Leaving behind my un-jammed copy machines, reassembled mailboxes, and pristine stacks of paper, I descend from my tower. As I make my way across the deserted grounds, with my students’ off-pitch chants of “Hey Jude” still ringing in my ears, I feel at home. This is the place where I learned to see.