I hadn’t set foot in my high school since 1997, when I graduated (eeks, I feel ancient typing this!) That is, until 2 weeks ago when I heard they were putting on the play, “The Miracle Worker”. My 3rd-grader had read all about Helen Keller last year in 2nd grade, and she was fascinated with the story of Helen and her teacher, Annie, so my mother-in-law and I decided to take her and my niece to see it. I had also heard that there would be a blind actress in the play, making it even more authentic, and piquing my curiosity.
Since the play was in the evening, and I knew the theater would be dark, I decided to use my cane, even though the thought of sweeping my roller-tipped companion down the same hallways where I once fought daily to conceal my failing eyesight triggered a small panic attack.
But the logical cells within my brain pointed out that if I couldn’t be seen using a low-vision mobility aide at a performance aimed at applauding the accomplishments of a half-blind teacher’s work with a deaf-blind student, then I probably needed more than my eyes examined.
Still, as we walked down the shiny, linoleum-floored hallways, the familiar odors of school gymnasium and brown bag lunches stuffed in lockers wafted their way into my nerves. I held the rubber handle of my collapsible cane in a tight clench until we were seated in the auditorium theater and then promptly folded it down to the wand-like size I prefer.
My mother-in-law had gotten us seats close to the front, and she pointed out the different actors as they came on stage, both of us a bit surprised that the blind actress we had read about in the local newspaper was not playing the part of Helen, as we had assumed, nor of Annie, but a smaller role with a couple lines. The actress who played Helen did a phenomenal job, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that the aspiring blind actress didn’t get to play a part that would have felt pretty natural and fitting. Of course, I didn’t know how talented she was or wasn’t, and whether there were other factors involved, but I still felt overly disappointed by it throughout the play.
It made me think of this TED talk I watched a few months ago, given by this hilarious female comedian with Cerebral Palsy who was joking about how she auditioned to play a character with CP in a college play and how she was ecstatic that there was finally one part that seemed to be made for her. And then she didn’t get the part. She went on to talk about the incredibly low percentage of entertainers with disabilities in Hollywood and how most of the roles involving characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled performers.
The talk prompted me to examine the activities I chose to do in high school, and the ones I didn’t choose. Sports, minus cross country and track (which I did), were an obvious mis-fit. I naturally gravitated toward extracurriculars that did not involve flying balls for reasons both my sister and I have discussed when writing about growing up with RP. And I think the theater, which had been of moderate interest as a child and in middle school, felt off-limits, though I don’t know if I consciously knew that at the time. I think I just intuitively stayed away from it. Reading lines in dim-lit auditions, walking on and off dark stages, spatial awareness in a theater setting… none of these are very conducive to performers with night blindness and low vision.
I felt most at home in activities involving good lighting and small groups, such as the school newspaper, where I could write behind the safety of a computer screen.
So much of my daily routine as a high schooler did not come easily to me. Navigating crowded hallways during 4-minute passing periods, quickly opening combination locks, spotting empty seats, waving to friends… all took tremendous amounts of effort, and often resulted in a sense of failure since I could barely do these things that seemed so basic and effortless for everyone else. Words came naturally to me, at a time when nothing else did, and so I’ve held on to them. As I have arranged and rearrange them, they have done the same for me. And so they continue to be my favorite extracurricular activity.
This is probably the reason I felt tears spring up in my eyes at the end of the play, when Helen finally makes the connection between the letters w-a-t-e-r as they are signed into her hand, and actual water. This was obviously an emotional climax for everyone in the audience, but I felt the enormity of her discovery that night. I have experienced the power of language and the way it connects me with others and helps me make sense of the world.
Once I knew only darkness and stillness… my life was without past or future… but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.Helen Keller
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