by Francesca Marinaro
Every teacher knows the sensation of first-day butterflies, and years of experience notwithstanding, you never fully overcome that performance anxiety. The night before each semester begins, I lie awake battling the questions beating against my brain: “What if everyone drops the course? What if no one shows up? What if they laugh when I mispronounce their names?” yet larger than any other looms the question of how everyone will react when I stride into the room with a guide dog.
This semester, I faced the additional challenge of maneuvering campus with a broken foot and a walker, as if my blindness doesn’t make me conspicuous enough. Since I enlisted a colleague to help me with tasks like carrying my briefcase and opening doors, I wondered how my difficulty, however temporary, would impact the impression I’d convey to my students, many of whom had likely never encountered a blind person. Would they think me somehow inept—my injury related to the perils of navigating the world without sight? (I don’t think blind people injure themselves any more than sighted people do, but I’ve lost track of how many times someone has grabbed my wrist as I descended a flight of stairs under the assumption that I’d fall).
As students filed in, I stood carefully, swiping my clammy palms on my sweater.
“Wow, what happened to your leg?” one curious student asked. When I explained that I’d broken my foot, she observed sympathetically, “It must be so hard for you to get around.”
“It’s not easy,” I admitted. “but I’m managing.”
A thoughtful pause ensued, after which my student announced, “That’s because you’re a soldier.”
In the weeks following my injury, I’d spent hours berating myself for my clumsiness and uselessly asking why this had happened to me. Everything happens for a reason, so the saying goes, but for the life of me, I couldn’t see the greater good at work here. Ironically, I learned the reason courtesy of my admiring student—both the teachable moment my injury offered and, more broadly, that we discover the reason for why events in our lives unfold as they do only when we look beyond ourselves and consider how we can turn our struggles into stories that benefit others. I realized that just by standing at the front of the classroom, I’d given my students a lesson far greater than any my lectures would cover.
My students didn’t see what I feared they’d see: an exhausted, disabled woman. They saw a strong, confident woman who stared an obstacle in the eye and said, “Step aside, please.” They saw someone with the courage to show the world that people with disabilities can and do make productive contributions to society. They saw someone willing to set aside her anxiety to transform her trial into a teachable moment. I realized then that sometimes the greatest gift we can give to our students is our willingness to learn from the lessons they can teach us about ourselves.
Francesca Marinaro is an English professor and freelance writer/editor currently living in Florida with her guide dog. She was diagnosed with Leber’s as an infant and lost her usable vision as a teenager. She loves chocolate, Jane Austen, wine, Colin Firth movies, and defending the Oxford comma to anyone who’ll listen. Her work has been published on numerous blogs; visit her website at http://www.ffmarinaro.com to learn more about her work!