“Abbie, your top button is undone,” said my fifth grade teacher at the Arizona State School for the Deaf & Blind (ASDB) in Tucson, a woman I’ll call Mrs. Jones.
On the days I had P.E. class, Mother let me wear clothes I could take off and put on easily since we had to change into gym suits. Today, I wore a dress because I was supposed to have a piano lesson instead of P.E. class, but the piano teacher was sick, and the P.E. teacher ordered us into our gym suits as usual. In the locker room, I found someone to help with the buttons on the back of my dress since they were hard to reach. But now, here I was, with school ending and a button having been missed.
“I can’t do it myself,” I told Mrs. Jones.
“Yes, you can, and you’re not leaving until you do.”
With a sigh, I reached behind me. The button and the hole were small, and my arms grew tired before I could finish the job, and I had to put them down. All around me were the sounds of the school day ending, children chattering in the hall, doors opening and closing. Gradually, the building grew quiet, and here I was, struggling with a missed button. In about an hour, Mother would pick me up at the little girls’ dormitory, but I wouldn’t be there because I’d be here, trying to button a stupid button, and she would worry. This thought caused me to panic, and I struggled again and again to fasten the button but to no avail.
After sitting at her desk and watching me for a few minutes, Mrs. Jones rose and said, “I’m going to write a letter to your mother about this.“ Her threat didn’t alarm me because Mother understood that there were some things I couldn’t do for myself, but when the teacher left the room, I gave in to my feelings of panic and despair, collapsed at my desk, let my tears flow.
After I calmed down and looked around the empty classroom, an idea came to me. I rose, picked up my books, crept to the open doorway. I looked left and right. Nobody was coming. Down the hall, someone was typing, and I assumed it was Mrs. Jones,, writing that dreaded letter. I sneaked in the opposite direction toward the main entrance. I encountered no one. Once outside, I hurried to the dormitory and found someone to deal with the offending button.
When Mrs. Jones arrived about half an hour later, I was watching TV with the other girls. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
I panicked and reached for the button and remembered it was already fastened. “Look, I did it. You said I couldn’t leave until I buttoned it, and I buttoned it.”
“I just finished writing a letter to your mother,” said Mrs. Jones. “Now, I’m going to write some more.” She turned and flounced out of the room.
The next day, Mother confronted Mrs. Jones in the hall outside our classroom. As we sat at our desks, we heard them yelling but couldn’t hear the words. “What are they blabbering about?” one of the boys asked. I said nothing.
Later, I learned that when Mother told Mrs. Jones she didn’t appreciate her method of teaching, Mrs. Jones threatened Mother that if she continued to make waves, I would be put in a special class for slow learners. This prompted Mother and Dad along with other parents to attempt to remove their children from the state school and place them in public schools.
“You’re not coming here tomorrow,” said Mother a few days later when she picked me up after school. “You’re going to look at Julie and Ashley’s school.”
Julie and Ashley lived with their parents in the house across the street. They were sighted and went to a public school. Julie was my age, and Ashley was a few years younger. Their younger brother Thomas was the same age as my younger brother, and we played together after school and on weekends.
“Good! I don’t have to go on that stupid Girl Scout hike tomorrow.”
“That’s right, and if you like Julie and Ashley’s school, you won’t have to go back to ASDB ever again.”
The next morning when I climbed out of the car at theMiles Exploratory Learning Center, (ELC) I heard the happy cries of children in the playground. There were several play areas on the school for the blind’s campus, but none of them were located directly in front of the school building. The playground nearest the school was in an enclosed courtyard, and when I was in the first and second grades, our classes had access to this playground. From the third grade on, we didn’t have recess so we rarely used it. I never heard children playing in the playground when I arrived at school.
As Dad and I walked toward ELC, a bell rang. This surprised me because I didn’t hear the bell ring from outside the school building at ASDB. At the sound, the other kids dropped what they were doing and hurried to the entrance, eager to begin the school day. At ASDB, there was none of this enthusiasm. Resigned, we walked into our classrooms, sat down at our desks, and waited for our teachers.
ELC consisted of three class groups called bases Base E was kindergarten through second grade. Base L, where I was sent, was third fourth and fifth grades. Base C was sixth grade. Base L had three connecting rooms for math, science, and language arts. Students in this base were assigned to one of these areas as a home room.
At the start of the school day, students gathered in their respective home rooms. I was temporarily assigned to the science area. Mrs. Gilbert was a pleasant woman, and I liked her right away. One thing she said that morning has been stuck in my mind to this day. “Paper airplanes are fun but not on school paper.” At ASDB, we did crafts projects but never paper airplanes. I thought this was a cool idea, but I never followed through.
After the mandatory home room meeting, students could visit any area of the base they liked as long as they filled out a time slip stating what time they were in each area and how long they stayed. There was no set curriculum. Students could learn what they wanted. Besides textbooks, there were educational tapes, and in the math and science areas, hands-on activities such as counting rice into different size Dairy Queen cups.
The school also had an art room for drawing only, a crafts room, and a library, all of which could be visited at any time during the school day as long as students checked in and out of these areas. The cafeteria also served as an auditorium. There was a stage at one end of the room, and when classes weren’t in session, students could play records and dance. After lunch each day, there was choir practice followed by folk dancing and drama classes which anyone could attend but which weren’t required. There were no bells except to signal the beginning and end of the school day and the lunch period. Students were free to do what they chose.
At ASDB, we had to do reading followed by math followed by English followed by library or music period etc. Bells rang to signal the beginning and end of each period. We stayed in the same classroom and had the same teacher for everything except for physical education, music, and library periods. The teachers told us what to do, and we couldn’t choose what we wanted to learn.
Lunch was also different. At ASDB, when the bell rang for lunch, we went to our respective dormitories, even the day students. We put on aprons that tied at the neck, lined up, and marched across the street to the cafeteria. Once inside the vast lunchroom, we stood behind our assigned chairs and waited for the blessing to be said. This was done by one of us who volunteered, using a microphone in the center of the room. After that, we all sat down at our places, and students at the head and foot of each table passed around food and drinks.
At ELC, we lined up outside the cafeteria when the bell rang for lunch. Instead of walking to assigned tables, we went through a serving line. We collected silverware, napkins, trays of food, and cartons of milk. Before doing this, we paid a lady a small amount of money or gave her a ticket. When we got our food, we could sit wherever we wanted. There was no blessing. One thing I didn’t like about this arrangement was that there were no seconds which meant I couldn’t have more chocolate pudding. Fortunately, a girl at my table offered me hers.
When school was dismissed, I was smiling, as I climbed into Dad’s car. “Can I come back here tomorrow?”
“Of course you can, honey.”
I soon settled into the routine at ELC. I was permanently assigned to Mrs. Osterman’s home room, the math area. By some miraculous twist of fate, I was able to receive some textbooks in Braille. Other material was read to me either by other students or the teacher who also helped me fill out the time slips. I often visited the library where I curled up on the couch in a corner and read a Braille book. One time, I sat down with the language arts teacher and made a tape in which I read her a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson in Braille, and we talked about it.
At the end of the school year, I played Dorothy in a production of “The Wizard of Oz.” This was improvisational theater which meant we made up the lines as we went along based on what we heard in the movie. It was great because I didn’t have to worry about reading and memorizing lines. Back then, I actually believed that a cyclone picked up Dorothy’s house and carried it to Oz, and she was able to get back home by clicking her heels together three times and saying, “There’s no place like home.” This was because I couldn’t see what was going on in the movie, and my parents didn’t tell me the truth until a year or so later. If I had remembered what Dorothy says at the end of the movie about looking no further than your own back yard to find your heart’s desire, I would have said that during my performance. When you’re a kid, you don’t always think about the moral of a story.
A girl in my home room I’ll call Nancy said to me one day, “I don’t like this school. You don’t learn anything.”
It may be true that in an unstructured learning environment, a student may not be motivated to learn, but if you become involved in things that interest you, you’ll acquire knowledge. At ELC, I not only learned the words to “Over the Rainbow,,” but I also discovered that you have to look further than your own back yard to find a world of possibilities. Through the years, I’ve also come to realize that it’s not a sin to ask for help buttoning that unreachable top button on the back of your dress.
Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome