Archive for February, 2010


We make our exit from a Fairview classroom--I'm told at least one in the audience couldn't resist at least trying to pet Hanni.

My plan for this week was to write a blog post about the trip Hanni and I made to Fairview Elementary School last Monday, but wouldn’t you know it. I got scooped! A story in the local Trib describes our trip to Mt. Prospect, Il far better than I ever could. Aside from two teeny-tiny numerical errors (Hanni and I have been together eight-and-a-half years now, and our walk to the train station in Chicago is only 12 blocks) the story is perfect!

On Monday, February 22 local author Beth Finke visited with grades 1,2, and 3 at Fairview Elementary School in Mt. Prospect. Because Beth is blind, she was accompanied by a furry, four-legged friend. Hanni, a ten year-old golden retriever/yellow lab mix, has been Beth’s guide dog for the past seven years.
After navigating a 16 block walk from their apartment in Printer’s Row to the Ogilvie Train Station, Hanni and Beth were picked up at the Mt. Prospect
station and headed to Fairview where Hanni made herself comfortable on the Library Resource Center rug. The students were enthralled with the adorable
dog, but Beth made sure they understood that when a guide dog is wearing a harness, it is working, which means no petting or feeding from anyone other than the owner. Guide dogs are performing important work and cannot be distracted while in the midst of their duties. To demonstrate Hanni’s remarkable skills, Beth had Hanni lead her through the crowded LRC to the door and into the hallway by uttering just a few commands. Once the harness came off, however, Hanni became a playful pet, rolling on her back for a belly rub.

Told through Hanni’s eyes, Beth’s award-winning children’s book “Hanni and Beth: Safe and Sound” illustrates the special relationship she shares with her trusted canine friend. LRC Director Laurie Oh read the book to all classes to prepare the students for this visit. Beth brought a special braille version of the book to Fairview and showed the kids how she reads with her fingers, a skill she is still learning. Beth lost her sight at age 26 from diabetic retinopathy. Beth had to learn a new way of living and her positive attitude has no doubt helped. She developed lots of little tricks like putting safety pins on all her black shirts or using rubber bands to distinguish between lotion and shampoo. When asked about not being able to see people and what they look like, she said she can tell a person’s beauty by the kindness he or she displays.

The story gives credit to Betsy Griebenow, the kind and beautiful volunteer who arranged our visit and picked Hanni and me up at the Mt. Prospect train station. It ends with a quote from April Jordan, Fairview’s principal, saying how much the kids benefit from cultural arts programs and meeting authors.

The Trib writer didn’t have column space to list all the fun questions the Fairview kids asked after my presentation, so here’s my favorite: “How do you know if you picked a four-leaf clover?”

I must have picked one that morning without knowing it. Hanni and I sure were lucky to spend our snowy Monday safe and warm with that beautiful bunch at Fairview.

Close your eyes and shoot

Anita with her little sister AnneMarie, Anita's #1 fan.

After hearing that my great-niece Anita had been invited to compete in a high school girl’s three-point tournament, I dug up an story about Matt Steven, a blind teenager who shoots free throws for his high school team.

Matt’s older brother Joe coaches the team, and he stands under the hoop to rap a cane on the rim whenever his little brother shoots. Matt never played a regular game until last year, when other teams (and the refs) agreed to allow him to shoot all the free throws during a particular tournament. He was 4-for-8 in his first game, and even the fans from the opposite team cheered when he hit his shots.

No one cheered during the second game, though. Matt missed all six attempts. His team was losing by one point with 10 seconds left when their best shooter — 6’4″ senior Ryan Haley — was fouled.

So while it was cute and all, having that blind boy shoot free throws, well, with the game on the line of course the team’s stud would take his place now to make these two last all-important shots. Or would he?

Haley really was going to shoot them, until he looked over at Matt on the bench. “And I thought, He comes to every game, he never misses a practice, he cheers us on. He deserves a shot. I mean, it’s everyone’s dream to make those shots.”

So out comes Matt. And for the first time, the St. Phil {opposite team} fans aren’t rooting for him. In fact, they look like they’d prefer that he shoot straight into the hot dog table. “That might have been the best moment of all for Matt,” recalls Joe. “For once, he was just normal.”

I know exactly how Matt felt. It’s nice to be complimented for the things I manage to do without being able to see – getting to the airport by myself, crossing traffic-ridden streets in Chicago with Hanni, using a talking computer to read and write email messages, those sorts of things. But what really feels good is when we’re held up to the exact same standards as our average peers

The only reason the refs allowed Matt Steven to be a “designated free throw shooter” was because he was blind. In the end, though, Matt had to produce. Just like his teammates.

Matt lets go. Off the backboard and through. Tie game. Crowd goes berserk.
Says Joe: “I think it helped that he’s blind. He couldn’t see the crowd, the scoreboard, his teammates’ faces.”

The crowd stills again. Dribble. Tap. Shoot. Bank. Swish! Up by one. The gym windows nearly break.

Chaos. Joy. Wonder.

The story goes on to describe how Matt’s life has changed after that big game. His teammates call him “Shooter” now. Girls greet him in the school hallways, and he’s thinking of asking one of them to prom. If she’s smart, she’ll say yes. It’ll be the best blind date of her life.


More school visits

That's me and Hanni at Reavis School in Chicago.

Hanni and I have visited 4 schools in the past couple of weeks. Five, if you count a side trip to my alma mater, York High School in Elmhurst IL. But I’ll get to that later. First, the elementary schools. Reavis Elementary in Chicago, Jefferson Elementary in Milwaukee, Kipling and Wilmot Elementary Schools in Deerfield, IL all had us come as part of “disability awareness week.” Our presentations were geared to first graders, who were learning the five senses, and third graders, who were studying Helen Keller. “Have you ever heard of her?” a third grader asked. I told her I had. “Helen Keller was a writer, just like me! “I said. “Except she wrote a lot about politics.” The crowd grew silent. These 6 and 8-year-olds had no idea what I was talking about. Note to self: save discussion of Helen Keller’s socialist and feminist leanings for some other time. We moved on.

A student who had already read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound said he noticed that the woman in the book used a white cane before she got a dog. “Did you use a white cane, too, before you got your dog?” I had to explain that, hey, I am the woman in the book! “Do Hanni and I look like the pictures?” They chorused a “Yes!” Hanni turned 10 last week. People tell me she’s turning white around the muzzle. It was a relief to hear the kids say she still resembles the young energetic pup Anthony LeTourneau painted for the illustrations in Safe & Sound.

A first grader wanted to know what Hanni dressed like for Halloween. She didn’t dress up this year, but I was tempted to dress as a baseball umpire and go trick-or-treating with Hanni at my side — you might recall the umps were in a little hot water during the playoffs last season?

And at Wilmot School, in Deerfield, IL.

And now for our high school visit. Hanni and I didn’t go to York to perform; we went to see a performance. Remember my great niece Anita, the one I mentioned in my blog post about Obama’s election night party? She is a star on Willowbrook High School’s freshman basketball team, and Willowbrook and York are rivals. My sister Bev came in from Michigan to see Anita play, and Flo was going, too. Anita’s family and her grandma and grandpa (my sister Cheryl and brother-in-law Rich) always go to Anita’s games, and Hanni and I decided to take the train to Elmhurst and join the fun.

So there we were on the second row of the bleachers: Anita’s 93-year-old great-grandmother who uses a walking cane, seated next to Anita’s great aunt Beth, who uses a Seeing Eye dog.

We were right at the center line. Basketball shoes thumped back and forth. When I heard action at our right, I knew to cheer: Willowbrook might score. When the action was at our left, I could yell, “Defense!” Flo was a natural at play-by-play. She’d groan every time the ball went in-and-out of Willowbrook’s basket, so I knew when they missed. And she ever-so quietly repeated “Miss it, miss it, miss it” at every York free throw. A groan after that told me Flo’s voodoo didn’t work, York made the shot.

That's me and Flo and my sister Bev cheering Anita on--between gabbing.

Anita played well, and The game was very exciting. I know it’s old news by now but I just gotta say: it is oh so cool that girls are encouraged to play sports now. Helen Keller would be pleased.

Anita, the budding star.

After the game, 14-year-old Anita was promoted to the varsity team – she’ll be playing in the regionals this week. Not sure Flo and I will make it to any of those games, though. After we successfully climbed down from the bleachers, Flo pulled me close. “I don’t know about you, Beth,” she whispered. “But my butt is sore!”

Only one disappointment about yesterday’s Super Bowl

The Super Bowl Shuffle commercial I blogged about last week got edited at the last minute. They cut out Joette’s part! She e-mailed me when the game was over, her subject heading was “boohoo”:

They cut half of the commercial (my half). However you can see the whole thing on the Boost Mobile website.

Those advertisers know exactly what they’re doing, doncha think? They knew all those football fans would be watching the Super Bowl just to see my superstar senior citizen writing student Joette, so they cut her out of the commercial. You know, in order to get everyone to link to the Boost Mobile site. If you can put up with all the cell phone promotion stuff on that site, you’ll be rewarded by seeing the entire shuffle the way it was intended: with Joette included.

I’ll say this: Joette’s commercial appearance (not!) got me paying attention to the Super Bowl from start to finish, something I haven’t done since 1986, when the original Super Bowl Shuffle was all the rage. If you read this blog, you know how much I love New Orleans so with apologies to my nieces Marsha and Susan and their families who live in Indianapolis, I gotta admit: I loved, loved, loved, loved the way that game ended yesterday. Congratulations, New Orleans Saints!

Senior Class

One of the seniors in the memoir–writing class I teach will appear on the Super Bowl this Sunday! No, not in the game. In a commercial! With the 1985 Chicago Bears!

From the WGN Radio website:

During the first quarter of the Feb. 7 game, an updated version of the classic “Super Bowl Shuffle” will light up TVs in bars and living rooms across the country in the form of a cell phone commercial. Some key elements, however, will be different this time around. Most noticeably, the now-middle aged players will be wearing No. 50 jerseys and singing refashioned lyrics to promote Boost’s new $50 plan in front of a cast of aged actors.

One of those “aged actors” is…Joette Waters, from our “Me, Myself and I” memoir-writing class. Joette did a fair bit of acting when she was younger and decided to get back into it now, in her prime. She was thrilled to get the part and said the former Bears players were all nice, nice guys who were easy to work with. Describing her role to me, she simply said, “They shuffle, and I’m the referee!”

Look for Joette during the Super Bowl.

At class last Wednesday, we all agreed that Joette will be the *star* of the commercial on Sunday. Former quarterback Jim McMahon, defensive end Richard Dent, wide receiver Willie Gault, and linebackers Otis Wilson and Mike Singletary? They’ll just be there to back Joette up. Look for the Sprint Boost Mobile commercial during the first quarter of the game Sunday night to see our superstar in the Super Bowl.

And wait. There’s more! Another student in our class, Hanna Bratman, was on TV recently, too. Hanna was featured in a Someone You Should Know segment on CBS television here in Chicago in January. You might remember Hanna from a previous blog post. Hanna grew up in Germany. Her family was Jewish, and Hanna escaped on her own before World War II. She was only 20 years old when she arrived, alone, in the United States. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time. “I’ll tell you this,” she often says to me. “I’ve always been very, very lucky.”

On January 7, Hanna celebrated her 90th birthday and the 70th anniversary of her escape from Germany to America. The CBS interview focuses on how Hanna has embraced technology to write her memoirs–she has macular degeneration and uses special software that enlarges the print on the screen for her. From the CBS web site:

What do you want to be doing when you’re 90? Hannah Bratman of Chicago is going high-tech to make memories. As CBS 2’s Harry Porterfield reports, she’s someone you should know.

I am a very lucky woman. Thanks to that memoir-writing class, Hanna is someone I do know. So is Joette. I am surrounded by superstars.

Me and class stars.

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February 2010
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