LightHouse Interpoint the regular literary supplement from the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Read all of the previous installments here, and if you’re a blind or visually impaired writer, feel free to pitch us.
“Draw with me,” my five-year-old son Langston insisted. He picked up a coloring book and dumped out a box of crayons. They skittered across the table, and one jumped to the floor.
I stooped, picked up the crayon from the floor and handed it back to him.
“No,” I told him as gently as I could, “you can draw by yourself.”
I couldn’t tell him the complicated truth: a confession of just how unprepared I was to draw with him. He knows his color now, so I hadn’t labeled the crayons in braille. More importantly I can’t draw.
This was something I thought he knew. Whenever we were out in public with sighted friends, waiting in diners with menus and crayons, he always asked them to draw with him, not me. Now he was issuing a challenge:
“But I want you to draw with me!” he wailed.
My shame deepend as my voice became firmer. “No,” I said with the questionable authority which came both from my position as a parent and the fear which drawing would uncover. the fear that he would see me at my very weakest, “You can do it,” I said.
He burst into tears. No drawing happened that day.
It was Friday afternoon, I was in third grade, and it was once again time for art class. The art room reverberated with a hum of activity, The tile floors, metal chairs, high ceilings and noisy classmates made it feel both vast and crowded. Whenever I entered the art room, I initially felt welcomed, free from the relative silence and rigidness of academics, but the welcome was loud and impersonal, the way I would always feel at parties with people I didn’t know, metal chairs scraping on linoleum and chattering voices hid me; yet sitting at tables with six or eight other kids instead of within the safe cloister of my school desk reminded me that I could accidentally knock someone’s crayon askew or swipe a cup of paint to the floor with an elbow. I loved art class, but I also felt paradoxically insignificant and exposed among those other kids.
My art teacher, Mr. Lewis, genuinely cared about my full participation in art class. He had just handed me a butterfly made of heavy cardboard to trace on thin paper attached to a screen board. Cardboard helped me to feel the pattern and also helped the pattern not to slide as I felt it, but its weight was the antithesis of the fragile grace of a real butterfly. The pattern helped me to draw an approximation – if not something truly artistic – while the screen board raised the lines I was drawing with my crayon so that I could feel them.
“Kristen,” one of my classmates called out to me, “Let me draw your portrait.” His name was Fred, and our teachers had deemed him “more” artistic.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I learned that he wanted to draw a picture of me. I sat as still as possible while he drew for an eternity, perhaps ten minutes in real time. He finished nonchalantly, handed me the drawing, which felt like an ordinary piece of notebook paper, Then he moved on to other people.
I was left with a picture I could not see. I was grappling with worries almost beyond my understanding, but somehow I felt that suddenly, this nine year old kid, whom I barely knew, who only played with me a handful of times during elementary school and who never kept in touch after that, had access to some part of me I had never known, the visual shell of me, the aspect anyone else could know by looking in a mirror. And I could never reciprocate. I couldn’t feel him and then make a sculpture of him. The only way I could capture the memory of his voice was recording him on a tape, which took minimal effort. But really … I couldn’t draw. I could trace around the butterfly pattern, but I could not stray from the pattern. I couldn’t draw someone sitting several feet away from me or even an object I had just touched without tracing it.
Because I was born totally blind with no light perception, I use several sight words like blue, shadow and light without having actually experiencing what they mean firsthand. Then there are words, like picture, which I have come to know through texture but which I know have hidden layers of light, shadow and color. When I was a child, many people made the effort to make pictures accessible for me. I received a wonderful Care Bear rug from my friend’s grandfather, on which the bear clearly stood out from the background. But other times, pictures felt like a language in which I knew words without syntax. I would often merrily read along in a braille textbook only to be stopped dead in my tracks with the fateful words, “picture omitted, ask your teacher.” Suddenly, my work was no longer pleasurably solitary. Usually the omitted picture was of something three-dimensional, a cube or a topographical map. When I finally felt a picture of a cube one day, I understood why. Larger portions of the cube represented the closer sides, while half-sides were the “hidden” sides, but I frustrated everyone including myself by saying, “But how can you think it’s three-dimensional when it’s really flat!”
As I grew, art became more accessible for me. Thanks to my parents, my best friend’s parents and some of my teachers, I learned about artists for reports. I took wonderful touch tours and described tours at art museums. I learned about and tried sculpture, weaving, sewing, pottery, macramée, in true exploratory, no-strings-attached fashion. My sculptures were shoddy non-replicas, my pottery vessils would not have held anything of substance. I enjoyed sewing and weaving for family and friends but not quite enough to start a new project. When the last knot was tied and the clay put away, I returned to words and music, where I felt more at home rather than like a carefully cultivated guest. In the museum there would always be sculptures to delicate to touch, paintings beyond the realm of good verbal description. I would get the joke without the laughter.
A few days after my son and I didn’t draw, he had his first real dental appointment. As usual, he approached the medical experience with a fortitude of which I was truly envious. The dentist, who usually worked with adults, was so impressed that he gave Langston a dinosaur coloring book and a new set of crayons. I knew what was coming. Sure enough, as soon as we were home, “Mommy, draw with me!”
I couldn’t draw any better than I had any point in my life. Not only that, but this was a coloring book whose lines I could not feel and stay within. But I wanted to acknowledge just how patient and calm he had been during a check-up which could not have been his favorite experience, so I said, “Okay, I guess, but I can’t stay in between the lines.”
“That’s okay!” he said. “Here, what color do you want?”
“Purple,” I said, thinking that maybe I would get out the braille labeler later. “What should I draw?”
“Draw whatever you want.”
My mind went blank for a second. I knew I could no longer make my hand remember the lines of that butterfly pattern or any of the other pictures my art teacher had so diligently helped me to feel. Then I remembered one design I had made as a kid, a circle surrounded by half-circles, petals encasing a flower’s center. “A flower!” Langston said when I told him what it was. “That’s pretty good, Mommy! How come girls can draw flowers better than boys can?”
I was startled. I knew none of my drawing was good. But I also don’t remember any five-year-olds looking at it. “Thank you!” I said. “I don’t think that girls draw flowers better than boys, though. Maybe some of them draw flowers more often. What should I draw next?”
“Here,” he said, turning the page. “Color the dinosaur. What color do you want?”
I took the blue crayon he handed me. I didn’t think that if I were sighted I could identify the dinosaur and tell him facts about it about it. I didn’t worry about differentiating the dinosaur from the background. I simply grabbed the crayon and made gigantic sweeping strokes which no one would have thought was wonderful coloring. When I was finished, Langston paused for a moment, then said gravely, “Mommy, you made that dinosaur REALLY extinct.” And we both laughed, about the confidence in my errors, about joyful, messy participation in things that aren’t your forte, about the way I had obliterated that dinosaur with sky.
Kristen Witucki is a writer living in New Jersey. She is completing a novel about blind characters growing up before and after IDEA and the ADA, and Is a Community Lead at Learning Ally. She is the mother of two sighted sons. More at kristenwitucki.com.