My fifth-floor dining room was rosy in the late afternoon sun of September last year. Marjorie, my teen-age reader, had just read me a newspaper story about the Pocahontas County, W. Va., Board of Education meeting to discuss hiring more people for special educaiton classes. There would be 12 people on the staff to serve a county population of about 12,000. I envied the children at Pocahontas High School, nestled close to fields and forests, children whose parents could choose at-home special education or the residential school, parents who could choose to let their children grow up rural.
Mine had been another time, 40 years ago, when there was no chance that I a blind child, would grow up in a rural environment. Then, under another rosy September sun, I was 6 years old, the new little girl, the matron's baby at the West Virginia School for the Blind.
I was not allowed to learn in the schools where my great grandfather had served as the third county superintendent, where my great uncle had served for years in that post at the turn of the century and where my grandmother had taught before she married.
Instead, I learned about the private lives of people who were not my kin and studied the history of an area where I had no roots. I was forced to be educated away from home because a sheep visible to me at 20 feet could be seen by most people at 100, because in going to the barn on a dark night I could see nothing where others could see shadows and forms of fenceposts and buildings. I was sent away because my view of the mountainous horizon was restricted to four degrees, though others could grasp the entirety.
When I was 3 or 4, before my language was secure, I awoke one morning in a state of anxiety for which I then had no words. My parents tried to find out where I hurt. Because I was shivering, they wrapped me in a blanket and propped my feet on the side fire door of the cooking stove and continued to question me. I sat hearing the eggs and ham popping as they fried in the skillets, looking through the back screen door at the peach tree that was almost out of sight in the morning mist, and feeling pressured by the questions.
In a voice so low they had to ask me to repeat it over and over, I could only tell them that I was going to Greenback to school with Sammie. Greenback finally came through to me as the name of the location of my oldest brother's school, and a correction began to settle into my mind. Because my older brother Calvin and I didn't see like Sammie, we were going away to Romney, W. Va., to school, and later my sister Nancy would go too. With that realization, I threw a terrible tantrum, placing my child's will against all the forces in the universe that had made blindness my reality to bear.
In preparation for going away to school, I spent my first night away from home with Mrs. McLaughlin and her daughter Marie, neighbors who worked for us. As usual for a working day, they ate supper at our house. We then rode horseback across the hill in the August dusk; it was almost dark when we went out the mill gate above the barn. I helped them feed their animals by lantern light and slept upstairs. In the morning I had breakfast and rode in the mountain sunshine back across the hill with them to my parent's home.
The sun did not shine the day before my brother and I went to Romney for the first time. In the afternoon Mother and Daddy went to Richardson's Hardware Store to buy our suitcases. We stayed home with the farm hands. I waded in the run, tried to see the schools of minnows and chewed the mint and camomile that grew there. Cal and I played in a workman's old broken-down Model T. We made our usual rounds of play to the chicken house, the barn, the garden, the cellar and the dairy, busy with our imaginary fall work of the farm. After a time, Sammie came home from school. We ate with him, and questioned him endlessly about his day. We ignored my younger sister. Later, when it was time for the evening chores, Sammie split the kindling and went to get the cows, while Cal and I carried the wood and kindling to the box on the back porch.
Not once did it occur to us to compare our ability to see with Sammie's. Supper was cooking when Mother and Daddy came home with our new tin suitcases that cost $7 each. Calvin's was dark brown and mine was tan. The luggage tags were real leather, with isinglass windows; they squeaked and smelled good. Mother was packing them when I fell aslee. I would wake to the day I became the child of an institution.
It was a foggy, 1938 September morning, and I put on my new green dress with the rick-rack, made by cousin Ruth with material left from a quilt. Cal put on his new Aunt Grayce suit. Mother, Daddy, Cal and I got in the car, along with Cleo, who was visiting with us to make the trip, I sat in my like spot by the window behind Daddy, next to Cleo. It was still early, and the fog had not gone up when we stopped at the store in Dunmore.
Many came to say goodbye to Cal and me, shook our hands, hugged us, told us to be good and hurry back. What could the words mean to me, a child not yet 7? I had no way of knowing that by nightfall my life would be changed for ever.
The matrons were at lunch when we arrived. The special train bringing most of the children from the state's major cities was still two hours away. Mother, Daddy, Cleo, Cal and I toured the halls and dormitories alone. The floors were slick, hard wood; the bathrooms were white marble, and echoed; everything seemed big and strange. When my parents began discussing the school with the matrons, the conversation seemed boring and inconsequential, so I made my usual inquiry: "Are there any kids to play with?"
I was immediately whisked off to the playground, where some curious girls were playing on the swings. Within a few minutes, it began to rain. The children explained that we had to go inside. I began to look for my family and discovered they had gone without a goodbye.
I cried and went to sleep. I awoke in a crowd of children I didn't know, surrounded by a peculiar mixture of smells that I would learn were common to any residential institution.
In my institution life I stood in line to have my hair combed by the matron. I stood in line to wash. Within the first week I had learned to wash and dress myself, including tying my shoes. I stood in line to go to the big, noisy institution dining room, where I sat at a white marble table with six other girls no more in their natural habitat than I.
In the early years my bed was one of 12 in a big room, and there was no pillow. Most evenings, bedtime came right after supper. In the institutional mass of activity and noise, I had my bed, the bentwood chair beside it, a hook in the sitting room for my coat and a big drawer for my clothes. Every child had these items, which the other children were not to touch.
A whistle blew for our rising and meals -- loud, so the deaf children on the other side of the campus could feel the vibrations. Electric clock bells rang for school and study. The matron rang a special bell for wash time and shoe polish time, and to bring us in when it began to rain.
Permission was needed to go outside; special permission was sometimes available to come in, too. The outside geographic boundaries consisted of the front sidewalk from the teachers' porch to the tree just above the see-saws, and across the field to the edge of the garden. Outside, away from adult ears, we told secrets and played the games of childhood, including Old Witch, What Time Is It, Mother May I, Hide and Seek, and Go, Sheepy, Go. We skated on the sidewalk and walked arm-in-arm singing.
All of us believed there really was tattletale tonic on the matron's shelf, which some had had to take from time to time. Being outside also included play with children from the town. In this milieu we were all children, but we knew there were differences -- town kids went home at a prearranged time with Mother and Daddy, or in answer to a mother's call. In the spring, town kids sometimes played on our grounds after we had been summoned to bed. A dream of mine was to be a town kid who would run out and play for just a bit at the blind school, study at home in a cozy room with a lamp, lounge in big overstuffed chairs and be hugged good-night by a mommy and a daddy.
In the indoor hall we did not walk towards the windows beyond the matron's sewing room door, or in the other direction beyond the fuse box on the wall just past the sitting room door -- a total distance of less than 20 yards. Inside we sang, tried to stay out of the matron's way and hearing and played with the battered assortment of communal toys, which was not available before the cold, rainy fall day when the toy press was unlocked and its contents unleashed for yet another season.
Each toy had once belonged to a specific child. Only two toys were sturdy enough to remain clearly identified with their owners: Dorothy's broken car, and Donna's rubber doll, Rub-A-Dub. My Snow White dishes soon were mixed with the others and had no more personal identity. The matron discouraged children from bringing their own toys because they would be scattered about, cause fusses, get broken and make the dormitory messy.
Sometimes we had long periods of play in the dormitory before our noise prompted the announcement from the matron of a quiet hour when we all went to bed. In these times of play a corner of the sitting room was sometimes marked off with a line of chairs for a house or hospital. During hospital play a sickbed made from bentwood chairs was unique for child-inflicted misery. Usually patients had had cataract surgery or tonsillectomies. In hospital play one child was always designated to play the sick little deaf girl. Her rold was to be out of bed when Miss Nettie the nurse came in. She was to make very strange noises and tap on the blind children and try to communicate.
During a lot of my time out of classes I felt lonely and lacking for something to do. School was not challenging, but did provide some organization for my time. In the first year we seemed to be practicing needlessly for one school program or other. There were some nice toys in that classroom which I do not remember getting to play with very often.
That year, Mrs. Kinney, the big girls' matron, found a doll which she said she thought I would like to have, and that she would dress for me. I was invited to choose the color of its clothing -- blue -- and I observed the progress of the clothing being made: pants, slip, dress and hat. The doll was tall and hardbodied. When the project was completed, the doll was given to me. Tickled as could be, I carried it to school. Our first-grade teacher took it to be a class possession. Even its naming became a communal project, perhaps my first time to vote. I cannot remember the name I wanted, but I do remember the name selected was suggested by one of the boys -- Sonny Boy.
We learned to read braille from a braille letter drill. Actually, our group was quite sharp, and we read nine other books that year. The children who could see a lot wore aprons to cover the book so they would not read with their eyes.
Before long I discovered there were two worlds in the institution. One was ordered and strictly controlled by the teachers and matrons who quoted a Dr. Crauss, the superintendent. This world was filled with binding rules -- no belching, three sheets of toilet paper only, no talking to the boys, etc. Are we allowed, your're not allowed, I'm going to tell, and many other cliches bred by this environment were a constant refrain.
The other world, mysterious and fluctuating, was governed by the children. It seemed to derive its reason for being, and energy to continue, from the necessity for breaking the endless rules. Bullying, bartering, bribing and hazing were commonplace in this maze, unprotected by adults. Parents, naturally, allied with the teachers and matrons, so I spent many weekends sitting in the chair by my bed because I had indulged in some lifesaving operation such as loaning my socks to the child ruler.
Some lived in the vivid imagination of every child. Every conversation had its references to what it was like at home, how parents would view a given thought, what home kids were like, etc. It was wonderful to have our parents and siblings visit, and even nicer to go home for that first holiday.
On about the third morning after we would return from a visit home, the last trace of Daddy's cigar smoke would be gone from my coat when I took it from the hook to put it on for school. Then the full impact of being away from home descended yet another time.
The familiar stayed while the personal dropped away. When I went to a store in Romney, the sounds and smells may have been the same as at home, but there was no one chatting with my mother and daddy, no one bending low to hear what I had to say. My brother Cal, who had been my closest companion, became one of the boys whom I could speak to only in class. Only at holiday time were there Sundays spent at Grandpa's eating the wonderful food and listening to the farm talk throughout the afternoon, along with trips to Marlinton, the county seat, seeing Dr. Jim, Cal Price at the Times office and the Langs in their dress shop, going to the bank and drugstore, emergency runs for sheep dip, lamp-oil and cheese at Pritchard's store in Dunmore, and listening to the long, not-understood sermons while seated in the straight pews of Baxter Presbyterian Church.
I did not grow up learning, like my family before me, to be a landowner and dweller, milking cows, feeding chickens and walking to a rural school bus on a tedious but nonetheless beautiful winter morning.
The closest I would come to living that life was during the growing-up summers of World War II. All available help was either fighting or working in the defense plants, so Cal and I worked in the hayfield with Sammie and Daddy. Cal built the stakes to the topping out point, and I rode the horse to haul the hay. In addition to the haymaking, Cal caned chairs, chopped and carried wood for the cooking stove, mowed the yard and was generally handy. I washed the dishes, mopped and waxed the floors, helped with the washing, and ironed it, except for the tablecloth and Sunday clothes.
These summers were full of hard work, and typical of those enjoyed by other landowners' children. Yet I remember no one saying, "Maggy, when you grow up and finish your education, you must come and work and dwell among us."