"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"
From Where I Sit:
An Essay on Disability and Life by Homer Page
I always liked the beginning of school. It meant that the hot weather would soon be over and the promise of something new would be in the air. I have always liked the fall with its cool nights and warm days, ripe fruit and full granaries, fat cattle, and wood smoke. School was part of this and it was especially exciting in the fall of 1956.
It was the first year in our new school. I was in the tenth grade that year. Over the summer, I had decided to go to college so I enrolled in the college preparatory courses. This was a big decision. No one in my family had ever gone to college. My parents feared for me, and they knew that they could not afford for me to go away to school. Still, I knew that school promised a way out. I believed in my future, even though I had no idea what it might be. I just knew that this new year and new school represented a new beginning for me.
My family had farmed the poor rocky hill country around Troy, Missouri, for generations. They kept a few cows and hogs, raised corn and kids, took odd jobs, and somehow scraped out a living. In my boyhood, they drove old cars, went to church, ate Sunday dinners together, discussed the weather, shared the baby bed, and worried about the wars. They never discussed blindness or the Supreme Court, even though those two things would shape my life as long as I live.
I never knew my Great-grandmother, but I have a lasting image of her. My mother and uncle have memories of an old woman sitting in a rocking chair on a wide front porch smoking a clay pipe and telling stories to her grandchildren. She is the first of my ancestors of whom I have knowledge who was blind. Her name was Betty Krumes.
Betty Krumes had four daughters, two of whom were blind. One of those women was my grandmother. Her name was Annie Mary Krumes Creech. Annie had two children. Both were blind. One of them was my mother. Her name was D’arline Creech Page. D’arline had three children. I am one of them. My sister is also blind. However, my brother has normal vision.
In 1954 the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education. The Court ruled that separate but equal is not a concept that can produce schools that are equal. Thus, school systems that segregated their children according to race were required to desegregate. The Troy School System in which I was a student was a segregated district. It was required to comply with the new ruling.
My family and my community were racists. We were not violent about it. We just didn’t believe that Negro people, as they were then known in polite society, were as good as we were.
None of us were ready for the surprise that we received on that late summer morning when we arrived at school. No one that I knew had any idea that our school was to be integrated. So when the school bus in which I rode reached the school, I was shocked to learn from the others on the bus that they saw Negro students on the playground.
Nothing happened the first few days but, at the end of the week, a scuffle broke out in a girls restroom. Nothing came of it, but the kids talked. A white girl had made a remark, and one of the Negro girls came back at her. Cooler heads prevailed. It was the only racial incident that I was aware of while I was a student in this rural Missouri community.
I was 14 years old and outspoken, if not very wise. My family attended church at a little Methodist country church. The kids played in the yard before services. Teenage boys and girls teased and flirted as best they could. On the Sunday morning after the restroom incident, I stood in the churchyard talking with a girl who I had known all my life. “That’s what happens when you put ‘niggers and whites’ together,” I said.
She slapped me. “Don’t talk that way about my friends,” she said. Her slap was not hard, but it changed my life. I was ashamed. I knew I was wrong and I hated being wrong. I have often wished that I had thanked that 13-year-old young woman.
Over the next three years, the African American kids came to school and found their way through it.
John and Clarence became starters on the basketball team. Rachael took a leading role in the school’s musical performances. She sang a solo at her and my graduation ceremony and the others found their niche.
Rachael and I were in the same senior English class. I didn’t know her very well. We were not friends. I listened to her participation in class and knew her to be a better than average student but not among the very best. I was surprised by our teacher’s question.
It was Valentine’s Day. Our assignment was to make a valentine and write a poem to go with it. The teacher asked to speak with me in the hall.
“Would you be willing to receive Rachael’s valentine,” she asked. We were instructed to trade valentines and share with the class the poem that we received.
“Yes,” I said. I didn’t understand why she had made an issue out of receiving Rachael’s valentine. Then, I didn’t understand.
I have often thought about Rachael’s valentine and our teacher’s question. She was concerned that if Rachael and a white boy exchanged love poems, even in that highly structured non-personal environment, there might be an implied approval of interracial dating. She thought it was safe for me to be the white boy. I believe that she felt I was safe because I am blind. A blind person in my teacher’s mind was not a sexual being. The teenage sexuality imbedded in the exchange of valentines could not be dangerous when the couple exchanging poems included a black girl and a blind boy. It worked. Not a word was said by anyone.
We graduated in the spring of that year. I never spoke with Rachael about the valentine or anything else, but I have often thought about it. Why should a graceful, lovely, talented adolescent be such a threat? And why should a strong, athletic, intelligent blind boy be considered so sexually impotent. I received a letter from this teacher a few years ago. She was 97 years old. I had written about her and someone had shown her the book in which the essay had been reprinted. She said, “I hope I didn’t hurt you with anything I said, but back then blind people didn’t do very much.” She did not hurt me, but she gave me much to think about as I learned how, what others think about you can shape your life.
Rachael sang “When You Walk Through A Storm Keep Your Head Up High and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” Her clear, honest voice brought the people in the auditorium to their feet in spontaneous recognition of her gift. She went on to live a private life. I am told that she married and raised a family. She left our school, however, teaching us a great deal about walking through a storm.
It has been more than 40 years since I received that valentine. There have been storms, some were private and some were public. I have marched on behalf of racial justice and against war; I have worked in the streets with minority kids, and in the classrooms with those who were privileged. I have spoken to powerful political leaders and with my grandchildren, and I have learned that the fear and rage that can sweep through each of us can do great harm. When the value of our humanity is denied, because of our race or gender or disability, we wither inside, and when we out of false pride or selfishness or fear, diminish the worth of another, we commit a great crime.
It is better to affirm others than to negate and punish them for being different. What I find is that this simple truth can be learned and that we can become better at living through practice. Through practice we can learn to enter in to the humanity of others and teach them to understand and respect our own full humanity. In this way, the world can become better. Not all at once, but a little at a time. Not just in fair weather, but mostly in the storm. Not just the feel good stories of success in the face of great odds, but in the day to day struggle to fight boredom and despair, and face death with dignity.
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Copyright 2002 A&H Publishing Corporation