I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa when I was 18. RP is often known as “tunnel vision” because it affects peripheral vision first. To get a sense of how I see the world, form a circle around your eyes with both hands; see how 360 degrees of vision is affected. Rather than thinking of myself in a tunnel, however, I view myself as walking down a hallway. This makes walking for me an experience in expert navigation. Everywhere I turn is like a long, narrow hallway complete with obstacles and hidden surprises. I’m anxious about tripping, falling and knocking into other people and things (which happens daily) as I go down the hall. Blind Teacher Coming down the Hall is not only my moniker, but a paradigm for my life especially during Color War.
I am a life-long educator. I was first introduced to Color War in school when I was a young high school teacher. It was an unwelcome addition, I was unabashedly opposed to it, and I thought of it as a waste of precious teaching time. It took me a number of years to recognize that color war can teach valuable lessons: resilience, collaboration, alternately succeeding and failing, being part of something greater than yourself and going outside your comfort zone.
On a very practical level, however, Color War presents me with a specific challenge: The Hallway Competition.
In color war there is a theme, and each team is assigned a color and a name based on that theme. The Hallway Competition requires each team to decorate and arrange a hallway that represents the team name. The hallways in these schools are, at most, six feet wide, but they can be 20-30 feet long.
The competition can take up to a week, and the hallways are under constant construction for that entire time. This includes covering the ceiling lights with cellophane of the team color. For someone with RP, walking through a red or blue hallway, even an unobstructed one, is challenging, if not physically painful.
The Hallway competition also involves mounting something akin to an interactive museum exhibition complete with art, props, music and narration. There are multiple things happening on both sides of the two-meter wide space, as well as for its entire length. Invariably, there is a ladder in the middle of the hallway. During any given hour, four to ten students are busy painting, building, pasting, arranging furniture and other props, and climbing up and down desks. There is loud music blasting all day, so the students are also shouting and intermittently dancing. Even for the most abled, traversing The Color War Hallway is tricky.
In my last school, (Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, NJ) I had an office, located at the intersection of two hallways and around the corner from a third. This meant that during Color War there was no way I could get to my office without going through at least one Hallway. I could come up the front stairs, turn right and go through a Hallway. I could come up the back stairs and go down another Hallway. Or I could ride up in the elevator and walk down a third Hallway. For up to a week, I had no choice but to painstakingly make my way, blinking rapidly, hands out-stretched, through a red/blue/green/yellow/purple/orange lit hallway. Students filled the hallways, kneeling in front of large rolls of paper stretched the length of the floor, and setting up the displays on the walls and along the edge. There were things hanging down and a horizontal strip of tape at either end to keep competing teams out. For me, it was more than a navigation challenge, it was a nightmare.
I truly hate asking for help and loathe only slightly less accepting it. Nevertheless, when one of the kinder students took pity on me, offering to guide me through the Hallway, I would place my fingertips lightly on her shoulder and tentatively walk through. Sometimes, the discomfort of being helped was outweighed by my stubbornness, so I picked my way down the Hallway, taking mincingly small steps the whole 10 meters.
I was perpetually terrified of tripping, of bumping into something and of looking like a bumbling idiot. I was also plagued with the fear that I would ruin something the students had already put a lot of effort into. I knew that they wouldn’t blame me if this happened, but I also knew that they would be upset and then have to deal with both the practical implications of redoing what I had ruined, and the emotional fallout of feeling both annoyed with and sorry for me simultaneously.
It finally came to the point when I was old enough, grumpy enough and completely fed up enough with the whole scenario. Several years ago, in the middle of the first day of Color War when the Blue team had put floor-to-ceiling streamers at the entrance to their Hallway as well as covering the lights with blue cellophane, and they were absorbed in their work, moving and painting and dancing and texting, I stood at the beginning of the Hallway for a moment debating what to do next.
I took a deep breath and said loudly: “Excuse me! Blind Teacher coming down the Hall! Coming through! Blind Teacher Coming Down the Hall!”
One or two looked up and a third one waved. They didn’t stop what they were doing but they did shift a few props a little to the side and temporarily moved the ladder. I picked my way down the 30 feet of Blue Hallway, got to my office, let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding, closed the door, and sat down.
My daily life is a lot like Color War. There are a lot of activities I am not good at and don’t particularly enjoy. There are always obstacles, anxiety-provoking scenarios and embarrassment. But there are also areas in which I can shine, and valuable life lessons that I continue to learn and to teach to others.
My white cane announces my Blind(Teacher)ness as I navigate the Hallway of life; a lot of people are kind and want to help, and most just let me do what I need to do and try to accommodate me. But when they don’t, and when things get too overwhelming, I sometimes just retreat and close the door. Sometimes I even cry. Then I breathe, pull myself together, open the door and emerge, announcing: Blind Teacher coming down the Hall!
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