I Am Diverse

My coworkers at the Disability Rights Center asked me to share the essay I wrote for my diversity statement for my law school, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity. It’s a term that’s being thrown around a lot these days and with good reason. But while I hear a lot of “we need to be more diverse”—whether it’s in education or employment or the arts—I don’t hear a lot of why.

 

What I liked about the chance to write a diversity statement was that it captured the point of diversity, the essence of its value to society. It didn’t just ask if I belong to a marginalized group. It asked how belonging to a marginalized group affected my experiences and perspectives. That, to me, is what diversity is all about. It isn’t just a number or a label. I am a person who is blind, yes, but that doesn’t in itself make me diverse. Because I am blind, I have experienced my whole life differently even than someone with sight who did the exact same things I did. It is these different experiences and challenges that I have had to overcome that give me a unique perspective to add to any conversation. That, to me, is why diversity is important: it aims to add all voices to a conversation, thus enriching that conversation with the fullness of the human experience.

 

To that end, I wrote my own diversity statement about my experiences in my high school marching band: my feelings of exclusion, my struggle for reasonable accommodations, and finally success not only for myself, but also for the band and the community at large.

 

So without further ado, here it is:

 

Playing my clarinet in the school band was the first time I felt fully included in an activity with my sighted peers. But when I entered high school, the band started formation marching in the halftime shows at the football games, and our band director simply could not see a way for me to participate. I was forced to stand and play on the sidelines, conspicuously out-of-place as the rest of the band marched behind me. I no longer felt like I fit in. In fact, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb, standing by myself and playing my part isolated from my section. By the end of my sophomore year, I had had enough. I did some research about other blind people in marching bands, formulated a plan, and presented it to the music department. They said I could try it if I found someone to help me.

 

So I approached my best friend, Amy, and asked if she would guide me for the halftime shows. She agreed, and after a lot of tripping over each other’s feet and several collisions with the sousaphone section, we learned to move across that football field as if we were one person. Amy stood behind me and kept her hands on my shoulders. She was like my shadow, guiding me to each exact position on the field as I played, but we moved together: Backwards march. On beat five, start playing “Eleanor Rigby”. Float sixteen. Hold twelve and dance. I was part of the band again.

 

The local news came to the championship to film the marching band with the “blind girl,” and when they said, “Where’s the blind girl?” we knew we’d done it. Amy and I changed the marching band together. And the marching band, Amy, and I changed the community and its perceptions.

 

During the summer, I joined a team of blind and sighted teenagers, and we hiked in the Andes in Peru and whitewater rafted the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Everest. Erik told us that when we work together, we all learn from each other, and at every step on those trips, we did. The blind members of our team were able to tackle and surmount an extraordinary physical challenge. At the same time, the sighted teens saw us climb those mountains and succeed. As we realized we could participate in sighted society, they realized they wanted us to participate—we were in fact great people just as capable and normal as they were, even if we had to approach challenges in different ways. Capable and successful people with disabilities break down barriers, change perceptions, and enhance communities.

 

And so it was with the marching band. I was not only able to march, but I showed the band, the school, and the community I could, and by extension, anyone can, given the opportunity. With our will and courage and music in our ears, Amy and I “stepped off,” together, “me and my shadow”.

 

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Arrivederci Italia

February was a rough month for me. I’d placed in the Dell Awards, which I was really happy about, but I couldn’t go to ICFA because it would be too hard on Mopsy, which meant I couldn’t go home for a bit. I’d just finished revising a novel, which was also wonderful, but now what was I going to do? I was being rejected from one graduate school after another. A lot of my classes were being canceled because of festivals and work placements for the students, so I had way too much free time on my hands to dwell. And June just seemed so far away. I’d reached a point where I’d realized that I had gotten something out of this time in Italy, so now that I’d done that, could I go home? Well, no, I couldn’t. I’d started this, I was halfway through this, and I was going to finish it. So I sat down and said, “Okay, Jameyanne, if you’ve learned so much, then what did you learn?” And I wrote this post. It turned out pretty flippant, actually, and at the time it really helped me get some perspective on the first half of my time in Italy and face the second with more confidence.

 

I was also pretty sure, at the time, that I could just use this post wholesale when I was getting ready to finally leave in June. And I can, but I’m adding to it. Because now it’s June, and I’m getting on a plane tomorrow, and I am overwhelmed with all the feelings I did not expect I would have and all the things I have learned in these last months.

 

Last October, I arrived in Italy, filled with hope and shiny new dreams. I’d graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon College with high honors in English. An agent was looking at my thesis novel. And I was going to Italy—a dream come true. I was going to revise my thesis novel and research another novel that I wanted to set in Assisi in the 1950s. I was going to make a ton of Italian friends, become fluent in Italian, maybe even fall in love (deep down, underneath all the horrible things I do to my characters, I’m a hopeless romantic, and there’s no getting around it). And, did I mention I was going to Italy?

 

Now, nine months later, I’m going home. I didn’t fall in love. I didn’t even make that many friends my own age, really, though I was pretty much adopted by some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. I traveled all over Italy, visiting Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Ancona, Bari, Matera, Gubbio, Narni, Spoleto, Spello, Canara, Montefalco, Bevagna, and Lake Trasimeno. I saw the big tourist spots, but also all the beautiful little towns around Assisi. And Assisi, too, of course. I taught English in two high schools, and I tried to organize a volunteer project with the school for the blind in Assisi that ultimately fell through.

 

Revising my honors thesis? Didn’t happen. Researching another novel set in Assisi in the 1950s? Maybe subconsciously, but I didn’t put real effort into it. And if anything, for a while I actually fell out of love—out of love with a country, out of love with a dream, out of love with some of my own goals and ideas. Looking back at myself boarding that plane in Boston, I’m not sure who I was then. I’m not sure who I am now, either, but I know I’m different. And I know what changed.

 

So here it is, what I’ve learned in Italy, the big things and the small, the flippant and the serious.

 

  1. Things like dryers, ziplock baggies, traffic laws that people follow, window screens, showers that stay hot for more than five minutes, grocery bags you don’t have to pay for, real wifi (not the kind on a stick), fresh milk that keeps more than four days, and salty snacks are glorious and should not be taken for granted. Ever. Ever!

 

2.  It really is possible to have too much of a good thing. I might never eat pasta again.

 

3.  Being an adult is hard.

 

4. Grammar is not as important as you might think. What matters is understanding, and if that means you’re speaking only in infinitives or playing charades while your jetlagged brain frantically tries to catch up, that’s okay.

 

5. I do not like boiled food. Potatoes, apples, greens, chicken, what have you. If it’s boiled and that’s it, I don’t like it. (Actually, I already knew this, but I thought it bore repeating.)

 

6. While there were definitely times when I really enjoyed teaching, there were also times when I honestly found it kind of boring, which sounds terrible, but I have to be honest here. And on the whole, I don’t think it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.

 

7. I have fabulous family and friends. I definitely would have lost my mind a dozen times over this year if I didn’t know they were all standing behind me—six hours and several thousand miles behind me, to be precise, but ready to listen to me and be a virtual shoulder I could cry on and cheer me on. (Did I mention the internet should never be taken for granted?) My parents came to visit me at Christmas for a family vacation, and then they came back again in March, when it became clear how hard a time I was having. If they hadn’t come back, I would have given up and gone home, and if I’d done that, I would have missed so much. I couldn’t have done this without them.

 

8. I have an incredible Seeing Eye dog. I don’t know how many times Mopsy has literally saved my life (I lost count the first week), what with the traffic laws being only suggestions and the drivers who I swear are out for blood. But more than that, she stood by me this whole year, when I was excited and when I was miserable, when I was dancing around my apartment singing Disney songs at the top of my voice or when I was curled up in bed feeling like I would never be able to get up again. When I felt like it was all too much, like I just wasn’t brave enough to get up and keep going, like I just wanted to turn around and go home, Mopsy was the one who forced her head under my arm and wagged her tail: “Come on. We can do it. We’ve come this far.” She deserves a blog post all her own, and so much more.

 

9. I love writing. I always will love writing. But writing all the time can be very lonely. Maybe if I was in the same time zone as all my writing friends, it would be better. I don’t know. But I’m not sure being a full-time writer is what I want to do with my life either. Of course I’ll keep writing and keep trying to get published, but I’ve been doing that my whole life while I was in school, so why can’t I keep doing that while I’m doing something else too?

 

10. There is no shame in crying over Disney movies when you’re twenty-four. (I already knew this too, but again, I felt it deserved to be repeated.)

 

11. Things don’t always work out as you plan, but they do work out, and they might be just as good.

 

12. I want to go to law school and become a disabilities rights lawyer. I might have come to this decision without Italy. I wasn’t sure even before I graduated that I wanted to get a Ph.D in comparative literature. I loved Italian literature, but I could read it without a doctorate, couldn’t I? So I might have realized that I had something else I could give, that so many people had fought for me and my rights all my life, and I could give back by fighting for someone else. But without Italy, without having to really fight for myself and my rights, without feeling discriminated and judged, I don’t think I would have had the same compassion and empathy that I have now, not only for people with disabilities, but for other groups as well.

 

There’s more, so much more, but it’s harder to put into words. There were times when I didn’t feel like I was really independent, but in fact, I have been more independent this year than ever before. True, I couldn’t cook myself—you had to start the stove by turning on the gas and then using a lighter, and in case I haven’t mentioned it, I have no aim—and I couldn’t even get to the store by myself without risking getting squished because the cars in Assisi think the sidewalk is at best a parking lot and at worst an extra lane. But I was taking care of myself and my dog. I had my own apartment and my own finances to handle. I was traveling to and from work every day by myself—stay tuned for the “Whacky Adventures of Mopsy and Jameyanne Trying to Get to School Without Getting Killed.” And I wouldn’t trade the ability to go to the store and cook myself for all the wonderful meals I had with Stefania and Bruno—my landlady and landlord—and the friendship we formed over those meals.

 

Stefania and Bruno basically adopted me, and I cannot put into words what kind, caring, loving, wonderful people they are. They took me for who I was, from the minute I walked in the door. They didn’t help me because I was blind, but because I was a young girl far from home. They welcomed me with open arms and hearts, and the love and friendship they showed me, from the start, has changed my ideas about what is most important to me. Thanks to them, I value my friends and family—and I count them family now—more highly than ever. When I come back to Italy, I know that I always have a home.

 

And finally, I saw that I can make a difference, even if it is one person at a time. When I first arrived in Italy, people were always giving me strange, if not downright hostile, looks. I was told that it was practically taboo for someone with a disability to be living, working, and traveling independently. Most Italians have never seen a service dog. What I was doing, living and working by myself in a foreign country thousands of miles from home, was unheard of. When I proposed volunteering at the school for the blind in Assisi to teach the kids some basic independent living skills–tying their own shoes, pouring a drink without spilling, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush without making a mess, that sort of thing–I was told, “They can’t do that.” I was told I couldn’t enter stores. Bus drivers forgot I had asked them to tell me when we were at my stop or forgot to mention I was on the completely wrong bus (if the buses are color coded, why are three orange buses going three different places?). Once, a woman started yelling at me on the bus because she was afraid of dogs and what business did I have bringing such a fierce dog on a public bus? People applauded when I poured myself a glass of water, operated a vending machine, or cut up my own food. I was not allowed to climb the tower of Pisa with Mopsy, and they refused to refund my ticket. I had to fight for every inch I gained. But I gained a whole lot of inches. After a while, people started saying hello to me as I walked down the street. A waiter at my favorite café started asking me how I did things myself. The next time someone threw a fit about Mopsy being on the bus, the bus driver started yelling right back at them before I could. How did I do this? I pushed. Yes, I am legally allowed to enter your store. Yes, my dog is getting on this bus. People started recognizing me. People started respecting me.

 

I will tell one quick story to really illustrate this. A few weeks after I first arrived in Italy, I went to the supermarket with Stefania and Bruno to buy cereal and milk, and the cashier didn’t want to let me in with Mopsy. Stefania and Bruno offered to go buy my cereal and milk while I waited for them, but I insisted that I was going with them and that I was legally allowed to. The cashier gave in, possibly just to shut me up, but hey, whatever works. But nine months later, just two weeks ago, when we went to the hermitage where Saint Francis communed with the animals, a nun didn’t want to let me into the church with Mopsy, and before I could even object, Stefania said, “First, she’s a guide dog and she’s allowed everywhere. Second, think where we are. Would Saint Francis really not let such a beautiful, good dog come into his church?” (Only an Italian would talk back to a nun like that.) Stefania’s growth, from taking my inability to enter a store at face value, to facing down a nun on my behalf, really drove home to me not just how much I have changed, but how much I have changed others around me this year.

 

And so here I am. Tomorrow, I’m flying back to America. I’m really glad to be going home, but leaving all the wonderful people I have met, even leaving this country that sometimes seems like an alternate universe where things just aren’t quite right, is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be. I know that when I get home, everyone is going to ask me, “So, how was Italy?” And I’m not sure what to say. I’ve had better years, but I’ve also certainly had worse (the year of the exploding eye chief among them). At times, it was really hard. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad experience. In fact, looking back on it even now, it has been a pretty incredible year, in every sense of that word, and I’m sure that I’m going to look back on this year and everything that I learned as a difficult but also a wonderful time, and really, as the beginning of something new.

 

So, arrivederci Italia. Until we meet again. And grazie.

Too Dark to Read

Groucho Marx once said that “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” And that’s what I want this blog to be about: how the creation and absorption of literature impacts my life.  In other words, I’m blogging about reading, writing, and occasionally the warm fuzzies of having a dog.

 

I am blind, but that’s not what I’m writing about.  It’s just a fact.  I’m me.  I’m blind.  Moving on.

 

I’m not blogging about it in general, but the fact that I’m blind does lend itself well to the title of this post, because the fact is, for me, it’s never too dark to read.  When I was little, when my brothers and I had early bedtimes and our parents turned out the lights, my older brother always complained that I could still read in the dark.  In fact, sometimes I would read so late that I would fall asleep with the book still lying open across my chest, and I would wake up some time after my parents had put it on my night table to find my fingers still moving across the sheets, reading a story even in my dreams.

 

Now, I’m going into my senior year at Kenyon College, where I’m studying English, creative writing, and Italian.  I read every book I can get my hands on, and I write young adult fantasy and literary fiction.  I love language.  It never fails to fascinate me how one word plus another word plus another word and on and on for hundreds of thousands of words can create a story that can make me laugh until my ribs ache or cry until my ears pop.  I hope to write a story like that one day too, and since my career after college is going to have something to do with literature, I feel like I should get some practice talking about it in a public way.

 

But this isn’t about literature in the scholarly sense of the word, not really.  This is about stories, and what stories can do for all of us.  For me, my favorite books are like old friends who are always there, whatever is going on in my life, and there’s nothing like the joy of discovery that comes with a new book.  And writing a story is just the same, a journey of discovery and emotion.  Stories of all kinds have gotten me through the hardest times in my life, so I guess what I’m really blogging about is how, even if you’re inside a dog, it is never too dark to read.