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There's Always More to Learn

By Brook Sexton

(Editor’s Note:  At our annual convention, the Metro chapter sponsors an essay contest. Here is this year’s winning essay. No doubt many of us will resonate with the experiences Brook had at a national singles retreat.)

When I was a child, I thought that being an adult meant I would come to maturity all at once, but in reality it doesn’t happen that way. The reality is life is a classroom full of perfect opportunities to keep exploring better ways to handle relationships, set goals, accept constructive criticism, and learn from mistakes. I believe many lessons in life build upon each other, once I have found a solution to one layer of a challenge; I am faced with a new nuance of the same challenge that requires me to look at things differently.

Recently, I attended a weekend retreat of 700 single adults from across the country. Prior to the conference, I set 2 goals: to meet new people and to enjoy myself. I honestly believed that there would be people at the conference who would follow my lead and accept my blindness as one of the many characteristics that make me who I am. I also knew that there would be people there who would be barriers to reaching my goals because they believed I am helpless, amazing, or so different from them that we would have nothing in common. And guess what I was right.

We had a dance the first night of the conference. As soon as I arrived, I found a place for my cane and spent the rest of the evening on the dance floor. When we did line dances that I didn’t know, a lady I didn’t know grabbed my hand and talked me through the dance. When there was a slow song I found my way to the edge of the floor in hopes of finding someone to dance with and sure enough every single slow song I was out on the floor dancing. When the majority of the people out on the floor were dancing by themselves, I was part of a circle of people moving to the music. When we took turns in the middle as a “solo” dancer I was not exempt from showing off my moves and getting cheered on.

On Saturday afternoon, I ate lunch with two ladies from Texas—Susan and Cheryl and they subsequently invited me to tour the city with them. I learned about their families, their jobs, their dreams, and their struggles and they learned about me. Blindness was not a prominent discussion topic, but Susan and Cheryl naturally found ways for me to experience the sites in a meaningful way. As we went to different historical sites Susan showed me various objects that were being described by the tour guides. When we were in a bakery from the 1840s I got to handle the flour sifter and the various baking implements from that time period. At the print shop I was able to touch each piece of the process of placing the letters and printing documents in the 1800s. I got to hold the various different horse and ox shoes at the blacksmith shop we visited. It was a lovely relaxed afternoon in which I felt like I contributed to my new friends enjoyment as much as they did mine.

On Sunday, I met a guy who was genuinely curious about where I was from, what I liked to do, and what I did for employment. He answered my questions about himself and I felt like it was a balanced conversation in which both of us had an equal contribution. As we talked, many people walked by that he had met over the course of the weekend. It became very clear to me that he was quite popular with the ladies. I found myself feeling confident about my chances of finding other guys who would want to get to know me despite my blindness.

On the other hand, when I arrived at the retreat I walked up to the registration desk with a smile on my face and a friendly greeting. The woman happily took my name and found my packet and then asked if anyone was with me so they could help put together my name tag. I smiled at her and told her not to worry I would take care of it. She told me it was hard to put together. Again, I thanked her and proceeded to attach the lanyard and insert the name badge in the plastic sleeve as I thought "I hope this doesn’t reflect how the whole weekend will go”.

On another occasion, as I approached some steps a woman offered me her arm. In the spirit of getting to know new people I introduced myself and asked her where she was from. She replied that she was on the phone, but didn’t want me to fall on the steps. I declined her offer by saying I didn’t need help on the stairs, but I would like to get to know her and continued on my way thinking “If she wanted to get to know me, I would have no problem taking her arm, but she was only concerned that if she didn’t I would fall”.

After the conference, I received a Facebook messenger request from a guy from Florida who said he always wanted to have a blind friend and was super curious about how I did things. He also said he was curious what it would be like to be my handler. I wrote back with some bafflement at his choice of words that I think he would find that I’m not all that different from anyone else he knows and the conversation continued with me patiently answering questions about blindness while also trying to expand the conversation to more get to know you type questions. To date, we haven’t gotten past the amazement phase of the discussion and I can’t get the handler comment out of my head.

As I reflected on the weekend, I realized that in many ways I had matured in the way I handled this retreat in relation to others in the past. In the past I would have been too self-conscious to dance and I would have been super frustrated with not interacting with anyone except those who wanted to know if I needed a drink. Yet dancing broke down some of the blindness barriers which resulted in guys asking me to dance. Instead of coming home and asking why no one asked me to dance, I came home wondering what I needed to do to be the one asking for someone to dance with me. Instead of feeling like a burden or a service project for Susan and Cheryl, I came home wondering how I could help other people who feel left out feel included. Surely, I was not the only person amongst 700 people who was grateful a stranger included them in their group.

In the past, the frustration I felt with the registration lady and the lady offering to help me on the stairs left me feeling so discouraged that I didn’t feel like it was possible to overcome the negative attitudes about blindness. It sometimes took me a long time to want to try again to interact with people. In this case, as soon as I got to the top of the stairs a lovely lady from Brazil introduced herself to me. She offered me her arm and I gladly accepted and proceeded to get to know her. I think I will always wonder if there is something I can do to end the low expectations about my capabilities, but people’s attitudes need not stop me from seeking out people who innately believe in me or those who are willing to learn that blindness doesn’t hold me back.

The two gentlemen who I met, the one at the conference and the one over messenger, have left me feeling much more conflicted about my ability to believe in myself as someone who guys would want to date. I find myself expecting to encounter far more people who think I need a handler than people who genuinely want to get to know me. This perception should baffle me because just because one guy thinks I need a handler, it doesn’t negate the positive and meaningful conversation I had with the other. I will continue to work on my confidence on my own dateability and allow myself to mature in that area as I have done in others.

I am empowered by the knowledge that maturity does not have to happen all at once. It’s okay for me to feel less confident in some areas and more confident in others. My classroom of life has taught me some things and there are others that I still haven’t learned, and that’s okay. After all, once I find an answer to one question a new one will replace it based on my new knowledge and understanding.

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