Remembering Back to School

The return to school in September is always an energetic time. At university, students are often overflowing with enthusiasm, which usually lasts until exams start in October. Then, things get hard.
I remember back to school for my kids. Through their elementary years, junior high, then finally high school, September was always about routine, about settling in, about finding a rhythm for a new year. And September was the New Year, not January.
While my fondest memories of back to school are those of my kids—the shopping for school supplies, the new clothes, the anticipation, the tears—my most poignant memory of back to school is my arrival on the UofA campus for the start of my undergrad degree in 1985.
As a blind student, I found the UofA campus an intimidating place. It was sprawling, confusing, and hard to navigate. I had some help from the people at Disabled Student Services, but I simply had to learn my way around. The bookstore was in the Students Union Building, and Disabled Students Services was in Athabasca Hall—both on the west side of campus
My classes took me from the Humanities building, through HUB Mall, to Dentistry, to the Old Arts building, to somewhere in the Engineering Wing. I got lost repeatedly as I found my way around.
I didn’t own a computer in those days—it was the 1980s and computers were just becoming a thing. I took braille notes in class using a slate and stylus. It usually threw off my professors the first time they heard the rapid punching of metal through thick paper. My god, that slate and stylus was loud. By the end of my undergrad degree, I had a four-drawer filing cabinet filled with braille notes. One of my prized possessions during my undergrad degree was a seventy-five volume braille dictionary that filled a six-foot-by-six-foot bookcase.
My first-year English class was an introduction to literature with Jim Nelson. I loved that class. We started with Chaucer, which blew my mind. I had the anthology on cassette tape—three dozen four-track cassettes that required a special tape player. I listened to the “Prologue” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” over and over again. Professor Nelson would walk into the class, write page numbers on the whiteboard, then lecture for forty-five minutes, leaving five minutes for questions. Those lectures were packed with information. He gave close readings of the texts, filling in historical background and pausing occasionally for anecdotes.
The first essay I wrote for Nelson’s class was an examination of three stories: “Araby” by James Joyce, “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D. H. Lawrence, and “Road from Colonus” by E. M. Forster. I can’t remember what I wrote for that first English essay—I’m sure it was terrible. I do remember, however, reading the stories while the rain fell that September. I sat in the room I called a study—the second bedroom of the house where my wife and I lived. I had been a reader since I lost my sight in a car accident at the age of ten, but reading those stories was like finding literature again for the first time. I read them over and over. The dark streets and the narrator’s obsession with his friend’s sister in Joyce’s story haunted my imagination, while the darkness and strangeness of Lawrence disturbed my universe. I started university thinking I knew something about literature; I was finding out I knew much less than I thought. I had quit a job to go back to school, and I was feeling my world opening up and bottoming out at the same time. I loved university, but I always felt like an outsider. I had access to books, but only books on tape. I had it in my head that listening wasn’t the same as reading, and when I needed to use the library, I always needed help.
I got through that first year—god knows how. And near the end of the winter term, Professor Nelson ask me and a couple of other students to stay back. I was nervous—I was always nervous talking to my professors. These were the halls of learning, and I was just one more Jude the Obscure, a working-class, blind kid who didn’t belong.
Professor Nelson sat in a desk beside me, and he gave me a letter. It was a recommendation to the honours program in English. It was an important moment. Someone was telling me I had something valuable to contribute. I’ve realized since such letters are about recruitment as much as anything else, but I’ve been grateful to Professor Nelson ever since.
Universities are different places now. I have the good fortune to work for two of them, and I feel more at home now that most people work digitally. The move to an online world has enabled me to work more effectively as a teacher and a researcher. In spite of all of it, I’ve never lost that early sense of being something of an outsider—the blind guy who reads and teaches but who doesn’t use actual books. I get a whiff of this sense every time I walk into a library—a building full of books, that are to me so many bound volumes of smooth paper that always keep their secrets.

On the Tracks

My brother, who is always a source for bits of news, told me the other night about a visually impaired man who fell onto the tracks of the SkyTrain in Vancouver. Fortunately, some quick-acting students were there to help the gentleman out of the tracks—just as the train was pulling in. You can read more of the story here.
For blind and visually impaired people, navigating public transit can be tricky—and sometimes just bloody dangerous. Buses are one thing: you wait, bus pulls into the stop, and you get on. Trains are different. For one, it’s a train. Trains don’t stop as quickly as buses, and you have to wait on a platform next to a four and a half foot drop into the tracks. If you can’t see, it’s hazardous.
In 2010, I was coming home by train on a snowy evening at the beginning of January. I got off the train at the South Campus station, which had opened the previous spring. I stepped off the train, turned left instead of right, and headed down the platform to get the bus.
My mistake was turning the wrong way after getting off the train. The platform was covered with almost an inch of snow. They hadn’t yet had a chance to clear it.
I was heading for what I thought was the steps to take me down and out of the station. Instead, I walked straight off the platform and fell onto the tracks.
My initial response, lying there on the tracks on my side, was having no idea what had just happened. It wasn’t until I reached out and grabbed one of the rails with a gloved hand that I understood. That’s when I started to hurt and knew I had to get off the tracks.
The track-bed isn’t especially deep—until you’re standing in it. Try scrambling up onto a platform, slippery with new-fallen snow and level with your chest, while you are in shock and can’t breathe because you’ve just had the wind knocked out of you.
Fortunately, someone spotted me. A man ran over, and soon two people were hauling me up onto the platform. Other people came, and I was helped to my feet and onboard the train while the driver called for an ambulance. A slightly scared and completely sincere eight-year-old boy tried to comfort me while we waited for the paramedics. He insisted his grandpa would help fix my cane, which had gotten bent in the fall. The paramedics arrived, announced me injured but more or less intact, and gave me the choice of going home or to the hospital. Given the choice, I went home. They drove me the seven minutes back to my house, and I was never so glad to reach my own front door.
I fractured two ribs in that fall, and it took me all of eight weeks to recover. It wasn’t until February that I started taking the train once again—more carefully, as you can imagine.
I’ve gotten myself into all sorts of situations over the years, but rarely have I felt so helpless and in need of assistance. Strangers helping strangers is a powerful thing, and I’ve always been grateful to those people who helped me out on that snowy evening in January, especially that little boy, who understood the importance of helping out, and did his best to give me the comfort and reassurance he could.

My Hand at Writing Memoir

My first piece of nonfiction was published in Hippocampus Magazine last summer—a flash piece called “Q and A.” “On Smoking” is another first—my attempt at writing memoir. And I have Donna Talarico and the fine people at Hippocampus Magazine to thank once again for publishing it. You can read it here. Enjoy the piece, and make sure to explore the compelling nonfiction at Hippocampus.

Star Trek, A Celebration of Difference

The end of the university term means marking. In order to get through the endless papers, I will often run Star Trek in the background, something made easier at the moment by Netflicks, which currently carries the original series and all the spinoffs. Fifty years on, and the Star Trek universe still holds my attention.
I grew up in the late 60s, but I don’t remember anyone in my house watching Star Trek. I saw the show a few times at a friend’s house—the sight of Spock and his ears comes back to me vividly—and we even re-enacted a couple of episodes. But the summer before I turned eleven, I lost my sight in a car accident, and I didn’t fully rediscover the show until my twenties.
Much of my teenage years I spent reading. I discovered fantasy, and authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien opened me to worlds I had never imagined. I also began reading science fiction—Asimov, Le Guin, Clarke, and Heinlein. And at the end of my teens, I started watching reruns of Star Trek.
At this point, I was maybe developing something of an obsession. At twenty-one, I remember climbing through my parents kitchen window one evening in June while they were out. They hadn’t left a spare key, and I wanted to watch Star trek on their TV. My wife and I were living across the alley, but we didn’t have cable.
Seeing The Wrath of Khan in theatres, then watching Next Generation on television, got me thinking differently about the show. I always thought of it as a series that pushed boundaries—it was, after all, the final frontier. But for some reason, I remember feeling disconcerted by the character of Geordi La Forge, the blind chief engineer on Next Generation. At the time, I never asked myself why the character of Geordi bothered me—perhaps if I had, I would have learned something more about myself as a blind person.
There were, however, things about Geordi that just drove me crazy. Early in Season 2, for example, Dr. Pulaski offers to give Geordi back his normal range of vision with ocular implants. And he refuses. Geordi’s blindness and his visor both define his character—I get it—but I remember thinking a number of times as I rewatched the episode, “Just take the goddam implants!”
I’ve always found the scene poignant for another reason. Diana Muldaur (Dr. Kate Pulaski) had two roles in the original series. In Season 3, Muldaur plays Dr. Miranda Jones in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?,” a young blind woman who is assistant to a Medusan ambassador. No one, of course, knows Dr. Jones is blind until near the end, and the outcome of the episode suggests she has to come to terms with the limits of her disability. Interestingly, in this episode, Spock must wear a visor whenever he interacts with Kollos, the Medusan ambassador, the sight of whom causes humanoids to go insane. Spock’s visor here seems a rough precursor to Geordi’s visor in Next Generation.
Introducing characters with disabilities is only one thing that has characterized the franchise. Difference of all kinds was central to the show from the beginning: Spock, with his Vulcan control of emotion, is the alien who comments endlessly on human behavior. The show also provided a range of both racial and ethnic perspectives through characters such as Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov. More than this, the show has dealt with the foreign, the alien, and the marginalized in every incarnation since the original series.
It’s the relentless attention to difference I’ve always appreciated about the show. Apart from Geordi, differently abled characters appear variously throughout the franchise: Riva, the deaf mute diplomat who speaks through his chorus; and Melora, the gravity challenged ensign on Deep Space Nine. Even Worf is temporarily disabled after an accident in engineering that crushes his spine. The franchise also raises same-sex issues, most poignantly in the Next Generation episode that introduces the Trill, and the episode in which the Enterprise crew work with a genderless race to recover one of their shuttlecraft.
As campy as the Original series was, it spoke to Jean Roddenberry’s vision of a future in which humanity confronts itself by encountering difference. That same vision persists through Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. It’s what science fiction does best. It gives us a mirror for all that is good and noble, ugly and evil; it looks straight back and shows us what we don’t want to see. Like Armus from “The Skin of Evil” in Next Generation, science fiction is a genre that shows us ourselves—what we fear, what we hate, and what we don’t want to confront.
Because I’m a blind person living and working in a sighted world, I think I found a way to connect with the show in a way Roddenberry might have intended—a show about difference, about the alien, about the demons inside. I understand what it means to encounter the unknown—I do it every time I leave my front door. If Roddenberry wanted us to encounter the unknown, both out there and within ourselves, then he’s succeeded. Exploration, non-interference, truthfulness, and tolerance are qualities that Starfleet strives to represent in all things, and even if many of the series read like a simplistic utopia, if every one of us incorporated a modicum of those qualities into our lives—just a little more than we already do—then we would find ourselves living in a better world.

Le Guin, An Author for a Lifetime


The National Book foundation in America recently awarded Ursula K. Le Guin its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. A prestigious award for an outstanding author. But Le Guin’s books and short stories speak for themselves.
Le Guin is one of those authors I discovered early in my reading life. I was already a Tolkien geek by the age of eleven, and I was so new to fantasy that I had no idea another author could transport me the way Tolkien could.
The first book I read by Le Guin was The Tombs of Atuan. I think I was thirteen, blinded in a car accident two years before, and desperately trying to adjust to life at my old school. Junior high constitutes a particular kind of hell for many kids, but mine was a hell defined by being the only blind kid in a regular, inner city school. These were kids I had known my whole life, kids I had gone to school with for five years, and who now alternatively felt sorry for me, ignored me, or teased me. The teachers were helpful and well meaning, but intervening on behalf of the blind kid in the class only made my situation worse.
Before I started getting out much on my own, my dad would sometimes drive me downtown to the Materials Resource Centre. This was the library/resource centre that produced all the stuff those few blind kids going to public school in the city needed in order to function. They provided books on tape, both textbooks and novels. They reproduced math texts in braille, and they supplied tape recorders and brailers and everything else we needed to function in a regular school.
The head librarian at the MRC was named Leslie Aiken, and I think she was please to discover a kid so eager to read. She never saw the angry, troublesome side of my character, at least not early on, and she always recommended new books and authors for me to read.
It was Leslie who introduced me to Le Guin. She gave me The Tombs of Atuan, and told me since I liked Tolkien, I might like Le Guin. Understating the case, to be sure. My imagination was ravenous for more after reading and rereading Tolkien.
The Tombs of Atuan is actually the second book in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, but at the time, I didn’t care. I read the book, following Arha/Tenar, the high priestess, down into the tombs beneath the Place, and, oddly enough, I began to learn something about myself. I had enough awareness at the time to realize the tombs could be read as a kind of metaphor, although I don’t know that I knew the word yet. I had my own demons crawling around the labyrinth of my own damaged psyche at the time, and somehow experiencing Arha reclaiming her name and meeting Ged, the wizard in search of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, helped me to begin thinking about those things that were turning me into an angry adolescent.
I haven’t read the Earthsea cycle for a couple of years, but I intend to read it again this winter. Le Guin is a challenging author, dence with character, inventive in her use of landscape, devastatingly clear in description, and sometimes more cerebral than I like. And I’ve returned to her again and again over the years. The Tombs of Atuan appears in a course I teach by distance, and I even taught The Left Hand of Darkness to a first-year class. That was an experience of another kind, which I don’t think I would repeat. I have no real desire to teach more of Le Guin; I just love reading her books. She will always have a place on my literary map, and I will always first remember meeting a scared and angry girl, and a strange, inscrutable wizard in the dark beneath the tombs.

The School Year, A Force of Nature


As an undergrad, I was a terrible student. I left things until the last minute, I wheedled extensions on assignments, and I had bad study habits. Maybe I was just a student.
For years, first as a kid going to public school, then at the university, and later as a parent and a teacher, September has always meant the beginning of the year. New Years has never been the beginning; it’s only halfway. The real start of the year has always been the fall.
September has become a threshold in my subconscious, characterized by anxiety, anticipation, nervous excitement, and nostalgia. It’s such a weird month. The school year is a force of nature, rising from the remains of summer to drag students and parents and teachers alike down the fall and through the winter. She inexorably plows through holidays, good days and bad, only lessening her grip with the end of exams in April, until, finally, worn out and fading, she explodes into fragments with the arrival of graduation and summer holidays.
Every August, my kids would shop for school supplies with their mom, while I found backpacks and tried figuring out lunches my kids wouldn’t hate. But before kids and teaching, I was a weird, half-terrified undergrad at university, in awe of both the campus and my professors. These were people who knew more than I could ever hope to understand, who evaluated me with an unnerving objectivity, and who I could barely bring myself to address.
In my third year, I took a children’s literature course during the spring term with Jon Stott. He was then around the age I am now—short, a little round, and full of a restless energy. The class met in the Humanities Building, and I sat at a table near the door—my preferred seat. Professor Stott would pace up and down the room, lecturing as he walked, never relying on notes, and only stopping to occasionally write on the board. Back in those days, I used a slate and stylus for note taking, and it struck me from almost the first day that he didn’t seem fazed to have a blind student in his class. I had become used to professors not quite knowing what to do with me. They were generally helpful and understanding, but I couldn’t help sensing their bemusement, as though they had discovered a talking, brightly exotic reptile in their classroom.
Professor Stott came up to me right away and asked what he could do to help, and to come and talk to him if there was a problem. That in itself was unusual.
I took children’s literature during spring session because I was short an English course, and by third year I was becoming irritatingly superior as a student. Fortunately for me, I remembered that a measure of humility wasn’t such a bad thing when it came to reading. I discovered books in that class I’d never heard of, and I read books I’d known of for years but thought myself too intellectual to bother with. Meeting gilly Hopkins was a revelation. Reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time was a surprise. Wasn’t it a girl’s book? And who the hell was Aslan?
I learned how to ask questions in that class, and I learned to be less ashamed of how much I didn’t know. I had read a smattering of children’s books, and I always loved what I read. But I had never thought about kid’s books as being important in the same way as adult books. Professor Stott showed me differently. He talked about Gilly, Anne, and Bilbo as though they were real people. He brought them out from the page and took them seriously. And then he forced us back to the books—to read and read again, and not just make stuff up when we talked about the books.
I was lucky that spring. Lucky to meet a professor who was not only a skilled teacher but a skilled reader. He had a passion I couldn’t ignore, and he opened up a world of books that I’ve been exploring ever since. And luckier still, that spring I was open to something new and open to being taught. I was able to say what I thought in that class, and I was taken seriously. The experience enabled me to take on kid’s books as something to love, to read, reread, and wrestle with, for myself, with my kids, and in the classroom.