by Kristen Witucki
One of my high school teachers told me once that to ask for help is not shameful. “Pride,” she told me, “can get in the way.” After all, she reminded me, blindness does impose certain limits. I can’t always read what other people can if the material is not accessible. I can’t walk to places in total independence if they feel unfamiliar.
So when I went off to college, I promised everyone that I would ask for help when I needed it and not let my pride get in the way.
But I have learned that asking for help comes with its own stigma. Your value as a person plummets, you become an object of curiosity and pity. You live in passive verbs.
“She is guided” instead of “She helps.”
I expected college to be everything that high school wasn’t. I expected to have deep conversations in coffee houses, to find friendship and possibly to find “true love,” whatever that was.
I did not expect pity, that old enemy.
Somehow, it seemed too juvenile, too small-town, for a college campus. I had forgotten the persistence of shadows, the image that clings to you somehow when the light is in the right place, something I had never seen but had always heard about. The “blind girl” still “shadowed” Kristen, even at college. Pity, then, was inevitable.
People asked me the same questions they always did. “How do you climb the stairs?” “Can you talk about your blindness, or should I do it?” Above all, they wanted me to know that if I needed any help that I could always come to them. They would help if I needed it, but they wouldn’t need me.
During the spring semester, when all of the papers and midterms tend to pile up and caffeine runs more thickly than blood through the veins, my printer decided that its moment of glory had come at last. “This paper’s blank,” my professor told me. “Your ink must have run out.” I was dismayed, but I could not help finding a grim humor in the situation. I had not bothered to ask a classmate whether the paper had any words on it for fear of being different but the blank paper highlighted my difference even more.
I went to the college bookstore. Surely I couldn’t be the only student who had run out of ink. But the bookstore had no ink cartridges. “There are just too many ink cartridges and printers to support at this point,” the student clerk told me apathetically.
The air inside the cab was thick with cigarette smoke, and the music, noise really, jarred me with its utter lack of feeling. I shrank as tightly into myself as I could. Nevertheless, my thoughts wandered to the driver, who, against the synthetic pulse of the radio, was strangely reticent, perhaps tired. “What must it be like for him,” I wondered, “to earn his money by driving around and around the town? No mental stimulation, no real company, only the exhaustion that comes with monotony. …”
I felt pity, and probably contempt too, for the tired man and his tedious lifestyle. “Thank goodness,” I thought, “I never have to live like that.”
As I left the taxi and entered the mall, the noise increased. People were rushing by, talking, cursing, laughing, arguing. The blur of bodies and voices threatened to smother me. “It’s Friday night!” I realized in panic.
Almost immediately, I began to laugh at myself. “Here you are on a Friday night in a crowded mall that you’ve never been in before, and you expect to find a store, an ink cartridge and your way home? What kind of an idiot are you, pretending to know so much more than everyone else?” The paroxysm of laughter startled me, revived me.
“Okay,” I thought, “you were dumb enough, proud enough, to get into this situation in the first place. So ask for help, and take the consequences. You deserve it.”
As I stood uncertainly in the thick press of human traffic, I tried to make out individuals, but all I heard was a continuous throng. “Maybe someone will stop,” I thought, “maybe I will meet someone cool. Maybe a new friend, maybe a lover. It could happen.”
The first people to stop were two old men. As they asked me if they could help in any way, I saw, in a flash, what their lives must have been like. They had probably married, were maybe even widowed. “I need to find Radio Shack,” I admitted.
The two of them walked with me, talking kindly about the weather, the crowds. Their conversation, as simple as it was, comforted me.
For all of its gadgets, the Radio Shack did not have the ink that I needed. Apparently, my printer was in the Ten Percent Breed, whose appetite could only be appeased with gourmet ink. “Try an Office Max,” the man suggested, “There’s one in South Hills. They have everything.”
I called a cab and asked to be taken back to school. The store owner contacted a security guard who, I was told, would help me find the right exit. As the two of us walked together, the guard asked me, “How long have you been … like that?”
“I’ve been blind,” I told him, stressing the word slightly, “ever since I was born.” I wanted to give him, not only the answer to his question but also the freedom to speak more comfortably about a subject that was somehow forbidden.
“I can’t imagine,” he said, “having to live … like that.”
“Like what?” I wondered, “Like what?”
“I’m used to it,” I assured him, but I knew he didn’t believe me.
I stood alone outside of the mall. The parking lot was almost deserted. The night had taken on a chill, and I shivered in my light jacket. It was more than returning to my room without a cartridge. My shadow, the blind one, was still there, even though I could not see it.
I waited. Only a few people came through the swinging doors, climbed into cars and drove away. I longed for the noise that I had once dreaded. I continued to wait, but the taxi did not come. The driver must have stopped at another entrance, and, seeing that no one was in need of a ride, departed.
I shivered some more, this time with fear, for I did not know how I would get back.
A car pulled out of the parking lot, then idled near me. A woman got out and came over to where I stood. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“No!” shrieked Pride, that old friend the enemy.
“Can you tell me where a phone is?” I asked. “I need to call another cab. The one I called didn’t come.”
“Where are you going?” she asked me.
I told her.
“We can take you,” she said, “as long as you don’t mind riding with my daughter and her friends.”
“Okay,” I agreed, talking loudly enough to cover up the voice inside me that warned me not to ride with strangers.
The woman and her family asked me a lot of questions. They wanted to know how I liked the college, what I was studying. I told them I liked it very much, that I was majoring in English and hoped to become a teacher. Eventually, she asked me what I was doing in a mall in the first place. I wondered that myself. Malls are great if you can see where stores are or can watch people. If you can do neither, they are one giant hall of echoes.
“I need to get an ink cartridge so I can turn in a paper,” I explained. “I couldn’t find one. The Radio Shack recommended Office Max.”
“Well, let’s try it,” the woman suggested. “I’d be happy to take you. But we better hurry. It probably closes at nine.”
We sped across town, tires squealing. We arrived at the store. “Shit!” the woman said, despite her young children."
“What?” I asked. “9:01,” she said, “they've closed already. I guess you’ll need to come back in the morning.”
Inside my head, the victorious voice of the blind girl said, “You can’t even get around the mall or buy an ink cartridge! How do you expect to teach?”
Only when I had gotten to my room did the battle begin in earnest:
“You failed. You’ll always fail.”
“You just made a mistake! One mistake! One bad night! You’ll recover.”
“You’ll always need help. Always.”
“But you’re still a person. Still! You have a lot to give to the world!”
The arguments droned back and forth across my brain like so many insects until worn out from the struggle between Kristen and "the blind girl," I fell asleep.
I awoke hours later to the early sunlight streaming across my face. I covered my face instinctively for an instant, then smiled at how dumb that was. I sat up. What had I been upset about again? Something. What was it?
Oh, yes. That damn ink cartridge! I shrugged. It didn’t matter.
But I still needed that cartridge. I had recovered from the cold night of the soul, but my paper was still blank.
I sighed and toyed with the idea of waking someone up, explaining my terrible night and begging for company.
“I can’t do that!”
“Pride can get in the way.”
“But I can’t.”
I woke up and got ready to go. Once again I called a cab. I did not feel powerful anymore.
I asked the cab driver to take me to Office Max. The taxi still reeked of smoke, but the music/noise had vanished. “The store in South Hills?” he asked, and I agreed with him.
It was a real store, not part of a huge conglomerate of confusion. I walked in, found the counter and explained my errand. The ink was available. I was afraid that I would not be able to contain my overwhelming relief and happiness. “Do you want to recycle the old one?” the man asked me.
“Yes,” I said, feeling happy to be able to give help, even in the form of an old cartridge.
I called a cab, walked out of the store and waited for it. The sun was shining brilliantly. Spring could not be denied forever.
About the Author: Kristen Witucki is the Curriculum and Content Editor of Initiatives for the Blind and Visually Impaired at Learning Ally. Learning Ally is a leading ed-tech nonprofit organization proven to transform the lives of struggling readers with learning differences. Not a member yet? Find out how to join at LearningAlly.org.
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