The First Time Blindness Burned: Lessons From The Camp Grounds

The First Time Blindness Burned: Lessons From The Camp Grounds

When I was in fourth grade, our class went on a four-day camping trip. Much to my surprise, I loved every moment. I panned for gold, touched rocks and flowers and redwood trees, and slept in a tent, outside, for the first time in my life. I’d been hungry enough to learn that I actually liked bacon bits and cheese in my baked potatoes, and that bagels and cream cheese were delicious. We hiked the muddy trails, sang songs and roasted marshmallows beside the campfire, and washed plastic dishes in giant tubs of hot water and frothy soap bubbles, and I found myself wishing we could have stayed for several more days.

The final morning dawned cold and drizzly. A classmate helped me retrieve one last bagel and cup of cocoa from the breakfast area. We all huddled on the dew-drenched benches in our ponchos, arguing good-naturedly about what to do on the long bus ride home.

While the parents and teachers cleaned up and double-checked the camp site for forgotten items, my friends and I lugged our duffel bags to the bus stop, then regathered in the three groupings we’d stayed in throughout camp.

Camp Counselors & Gaming

Our counselors were named Jessie, James, and Marty, nicknamed Mud. The Pokémon fad was booming that year, and I’d been amused because Jessie and James were the villains on the TV show. But while James was unmistakably gentle and soft-spoken, and Mud was quirky and silly, Jessie, my counselor, had proven herself to be stern and no-nonsense. While I’d gotten along with her over the past few days, I hadn’t felt especially drawn to her. Even at that age, I rarely connected with people who weren’t openly warm and affectionate.

Jessie suggested that our group play a game. Each of the two teams would rush to complete an activity, after which the people at the ends of the opposing lines would race to grab an object—in this case, a rubber glove—as a means of signifying that their group had been the first to finish the game.

“Caitlin, you’re at the end of line one,” Jessie said, “and I’m at the end of line two.

So, Mary, when you’ve finished for line one, you tap Caitlin, and she’ll know to grab the glove.” With a playful air, she added, “Unless I’ve already grabbed it, of course.”

Instinctively, I hesitated. “Can I switch with somebody? It’s just … I’m not always good at grabbing things fast. Or knowing where stuff is.”

“You’ll be fine,” Jessie said briskly. “This has nothing to do with seeing. The glove’s right there on the table.”

Activities, Anxiety & Blindness

As a rule, I avoided activities in which my failure to perform comparably with my sighted peers might mean success for the other team. My classmates had long since grown accustomed to calling my name from the kickball bases, letting me seize their flags every so often during Capture The Flag, and scolding students from other classes and grades who tried to cut in front of me in line.  They were patient when I took longer to do things, dribbled balls two-handed, and needed a buddy in freeze tag. Only the night before, when Mud had wordlessly brought out a bag of Oreos, three of my classmates, concerned that I’d be short-changed as everyone scarfed the cookies, had grabbed extras for me.

My peers didn’t pity me, nor did they cut me slack. Rather, they were effortlessly and sensitively providing me with accommodations long before any of us could have spelled, much less defined, that word. They trusted that, better than anyone else, I knew what I did and didn’t need … and I honored that trust by always doing my best and by refusing to take advantage of their generosity.

The night before, those three extra Oreos had been shared among all of us. Before taking seconds, we’d made sure everyone had had firsts.

Blindness Burned in the 4th Grade

In the wake of Jessie’s words, I should have protested further. I should, at the very least, have felt comfortable asking to be shown where the glove was, to be given a partner if I wanted one. But I was nothing if not obliging and compliant, and while speaking up wasn’t especially hard for me, I was still finding my voice. I never made trouble or fusses or waves. And so, that day, I swallowed my misgivings and resolved to do the best I could. I knew, at least, that if I failed, my classmates wouldn’t blame me for the loss.

Jessie started the game. The very second Mary tapped my shoulder, I leaped up, hands fluttering madly over the tabletop in search of the glove. Just as Mary sprang forward to bridge the gap, there was a loud rustle. Jessie, across from me, had jumped up, too. The glove, only inches from my desperately searching fingers, was snatched away before I could even touch it.

“And done!” Jessie didn’t gloat, and the students on her team were much too empathetic to cheer, but I was incensed nonetheless.

“That’s not fair, though! Our team finished first; I just couldn’t find the glove!” Despite the fact that I rarely cried, certainly not at school, tears were close. My classmates’ sympathy, though silent, was so palpable that I could sense it, and I had to struggle even more valiantly to maintain my composure.

“Caitlin, it’s just a game.” Jessie patted my shoulder. “You don’t have to get upset.”

My dad had taught me to punch people: to wrestle, to defend myself if I needed to. But I had never, in my life, felt any desire to physically strike another person. Hands, I believed, were much more suited for holding than hitting. What was the point of fingers if not to twine yours with someone else’s?

In that moment, however, hearing Jessie’s patronizing tone and feeling the weight of her uncaring hand on my shoulder, I longed to lash out, if only that would make her hurt the way I was hurting, the way she had made me hurt. I figured she wouldn’t see that coming any more than I was able to see the glove.

This was more than just a game … and people were always telling me, often when I had every right to cry, that there was no reason for me to be upset.

Jessie had said that this game had nothing to do with seeing. But how could she know that? Only I, who couldn’t see, was in any position to make that judgment call.

I held my eyes open wide in an attempt to dry the impending tears. Mary guided me to the head of the line, and I grudgingly participated in the rest of the activity. When the time finally came to load the buses, Mary protectively took my hand and led me on board.

“I don’t think that was fair,” she said loyally.

I nodded but didn’t trust myself to speak.

burn

Lessons From the Camp Grounds

I learned, that day, that the world is comprised of two groups of people. Simply put, the first half will strive to understand. The second half won’t.

I imagined that there was a bridge between the worlds: a wiggly bridge, like the one at the park. I loved that bridge now, but when I was little, I’d only ever crossed it alongside a friend, or with the knowledge that someone on the other side was waiting for me, outstretched hand ready to catch mine. I always announced myself, too, before I charged across that bridge. I never knew who was standing on it, or lying across it, or hiding underneath it.

No one could cross that bridge, in good faith, without putting other people first, without listening, without consciously ensuring that no one would get hurt and everyone would have a chance to cross safely, in whatever way worked best for them.

In life, there would be people, like my parents and teachers, who would help me to think creatively, to bring goals into clearer focus, to make the impossible possible. There would be people like my classmates, who would willingly slow down, adjust their lens, and acknowledge that many problems have more than one feasible solution. But there would also be people intent on doing just the opposite. There would be people who, not caring whether or not I’d earned it, would whisk a hard-won trophy away from my seeking fingers the moment it was within my reach.

At nine years old, my fervent hope, perhaps naive but certainly earnest, was that the good would outweigh the bad, and that those who knew better would find a way to guide the others across the bridge.

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