Archive for the 'visiting schools' Category



That’s 105 in dog years — but hey, who’s counting?

Me, seven-year-old Hanni and our book when it first came out in 2007.

My retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni will turn fifteen years old this weekend! She was only five years old when I started sending Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound out to agents and publishers, and now, ten years later, the book and its star are still going strong. Just this past weekend a brand new review of Safe & Sound came out on a dogblog called Reading with Rhythm, And the good news? They liked it! Here’s an excerpt :

This book presents a great picture of what it’s like to be a working dog. It’s about the job at hand, but the story is also about the relationship between Beth and Hanni. How they had to learn to trust each other because both their lives depended on that trust. How that trust was the foundation for a deep love. It’s a lovely tale.

The star of the Reading with Rhythm blog is a real-life Black Lab named Rhythm who visits schools and the Somervell County Library in Glen Rose, Texas, where kids come and share books with her and sharpen their reading skills. The latest Reading with Rhythm post reports that Electra, a guide-dog puppy, came along with Rhythm on a recent school visit…and so did a copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound! The review says our book was “perfect for 3rd-graders” and “suitable for all ages, young and old.”

Hanni will be celebrating her birthday this weekend with Nancy and Steven, the wonderful couple who adopted her when she retired, and this book review sure is a great way to kickstart that celebration. Thank you, Reading with Rhythm, and here’s to you, Hanni. As the Beatles like to say: “So glad it’s your birthday — happy birthday to you – oooo!”

Do Seeing Eye dogs really know their left from their right?

Whitney posed as Hanni during our visit to Sears School last year — can you tell which is which?

Whitney usually leads me to the train station in downtown Chicago on her own, but when my gem of a husband, Mike Knezovich, generously offered to walk us this morning, I said “YES!” Reasons:

  • Freezing temperatures — if Whitney and I got lost or turned around for just a few minutes, we’d end up with frostbite!
  • Snowy slippery sidewalks
  • Salt (Mike can spot it on the roads and help us avoid those areas so it doesn’t end up in Whit’s paws)
  • The train we’re catching leaves at 7:52 a.m., which means we’ll be approaching the train station precisely when commuters are getting off trains and rushing to work

Today marks the start of our 2015 year of visits to schools — we’re heading to the Joseph Sears School in suburban Kenilworth. We were at Sears School last year about this time, and the kindergartners squealed with delight when Whitney led me in wearing snow boots on her paws. “That‘s our special guest Mrs. Fink,” their teacher announced. “And that’s Hanni, the dog from the book, too!”

We’d arrived late to Sears School last year (our commuter train had been delayed in Chicago due to weather) and our opening assembly had to be cut back to 15 minutes. After that, Whit and I gave separate fifteen-minute sessions for each and every kindergarten and first grade class.

Fifteen minutes was not enough time to explain that my last name, Finke, rhymes with “Pinky” and really, I prefer you call me Beth, that Hanni, the star of my book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, had retired, that this was a new dog, I’d had to decide when it was time for Hanni to retire, I could have kept Hanni as a pet or brought her back to the Seeing eye but I decided to find friends to adopt her, that she’s doing fine and is living an enviable retirement in Urbana, that I had another dog after that, his name was Harper, he retired early and lives in Wheaton with friends, and now, this new dog is Whitney, a sassy urban girl who is a ball of energy.

And so, I did what I had to do. I referred to the dog at my feet generically. She was “my Seeing Eye dog.” Ick snay on it-whey ee-nay. The questions during the classroom visits last year reflected what the kindergartners and first-graders were learning to do in school:

  • How do you put on your shoes?
  • How can you print your name if you can’t see the paper?
  • How do you read those green signs that tell you what street it is?
  • How do you get dressed?
  • Can you tell time?
  • Does your dog really know right from left?

I was honest with the little girl who asked that last question. I really wasn’t sure. “We say the word ‘left’ when we want our dogs to turn left,” I told her. I went on, then, explaining how Seeing Eye trainers teach us to point to the left and face our shoulders left, too, at the same time we give the “left” command. “So I don’t know if my Seeing Eye dog understands the word ‘left’ or she sees my body language….” I could hear the kids starting to fidget. I was losing my audience, so I stood up to show them how it works.

In the real world, out on the street, a blind person memorizes or knows the route before leaving home. The pair gets themselves situated on the sidewalk and faces the direction they’ll start. The blind person commands “Forward!” and the dog guides them safely to the curb. When the dog stops, the person stops. That’s how a blind person using a guide dog knows they have arrived at an intersection.

If the person wants to turn right or left at that corner, the person commands the direction, simultaneously turning their upper body in that direction and pointing in that direction, too. The dog turns, and the blind companion follows the dog’s lead.

Back in the school classroom, I woke up the dog sleeping at my feet and lifted the harness off her back. And then, uh-oh, it dawned on me. These kids all thought my dog was Hanni.

Dog is my co-pilot. I offered a quick prayer. “Please, Whitney, go along with the ruse.” Pointing both shoulders and my pointer finger left, I commanded, “Hanni, left!” My Seeing Eye dog turned left with more exuberance than usual. She was onto the fake. I gave her another command. “Hanni, outside!” Whitney led me to the door.

This morning we should be there in plenty of time for me to explain to the students that Hanni, the star of Safe & Sound, has retired, and Whitney is my new dog. Our school visits this past year taught me that the kids are intrigued by a dog “retiring,” and it makes them feel special to meet the young dog – especially when she misbehaves and I have to put her through her obedience ritual. “It’s like a time out!” a boy at one school we visited exclaimed.

Just pressed the button on my talking clock. “It’s 5:52 a.m.” Uh-oh. Time to get ready. Wish us luck!

Happy Birthday! (Or should I say “Bon Anniversaire!”),

Today, January 4, is the birthday of Louis Braille. He was born in France in 1809, and his father had a leather shop. Note to children: be careful out there! Three-year-old Louis lost his sight after playing with his father’s sharp tools and accidentally poking his eyes.

Louis Braille’s parents did what they could to give their son a normal life. He was the best student in his school, and he became an accomplished organist and cellist. When he was 15, he simplified an idea that had been used in the French army to send messages that soldiers could read in the dark, encoding individual letters rather than sounds. He represented each letter by a different arrangement of six dots packed close enough that each letter could be read by a single fingertip.

Today, reading and writing of Braille is something of a dying art. There are now far more audio versions of books than there are books printed in Braille, and there are software programs to convert written text into audio. Today fewer than 20 percent of blind children in this country learn to read Braille. Technology is cool, but how will these children ever learn to spell correctly? How will they know where to put commas, quotation marks, paragraph breaks and so on? I didn’t lose my sight until I was 26 years old, so I was fortunate to learn all of that when I could still read print. I’m not proficient in Braille now, but the little I know sure comes in handy when I want to confirm what floor I’m on when I get off an elevator or to label CDs, file folders and buttons on electronic devices at home.

S & S

You blog readers out there who have a print copy of Hanni And Beth: Safe & Sound on your bookshelf should pat yourself on the back. You know a good children’s book when you see it, and your purchase has helped create more Braille books for children: My publisher, Blue Marlin Publications donates a portion of the proceeds from sales of every print version of Safe & Sound to Seedlings Braille Books for Children, a small non-profit organization in Michigan that provides high quality, low cost Braille books for children.

Over the past seven years, Blue Marlin Publications has Seedlings Logodonated thousands of dollars to Seedlings.

By producing Braille books for children, Seedlings helps promote “literacy for the blind,” providing visually impaired children equal opportunity to develop a love of reading. Safe & Sound is one of the books available in Braille from Seedlings, which means I’ve been able to read parts of the book aloud at the presentations I’ve been doing since Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published in 2007.

To find out how to order a copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in Braille, or to donate to Seedlings to help them create more books in Braille for kids, link to www.seedlings.org. Every ten dollar donation makes another Braille book possible.

Quiz show

Last Thursday I spoke to a U of I class in Champaign. Monday morning I spoke with second graders at Chicago’s Francis Xavier Warde School. Yesterday I spoke to visually-impaired adults at Blind Service Association.

Each of these three presentations ended with a Q&A, which lead’s me to today’s quiz. Tell me if the following questions came from a college kid, a second-grader, or an adult with a visual impairment :

  1. How do you know what you’re wearing?
  2. How does it feel to be blind?
  3. What is the name of your book?
  4. What’s your favorite thing to do with your dog?
  5. What is it like to be blind?
  6. When you’re up there in front of us, do you picture what we look like?
  7. Do you know my girlfriend?
  8. So is there one thing that’s happened since you’ve been blind that you just can’t picture, you know, like instagram, or, like something like that?
  9. Is it sad to be blind?

That’s the quiz, now for the answers – let’s see how you did.

At Frances Xavier Warde last week.

At Frances Xavier Warde last week.

  1. A college girl asked this. I was wearing black shoes, black jeans, a gold sweater and a colorful scarf. The shoestrings on my black shoes feel different than the shoestrings on my gym shoes. I put a safety pin on the tag of my clothes that are black, and the gold sweater is the only one I own that has a cowl neck (so I just memorize that the one with the cowl neck is gold). My multi-colored scarf is the only one I own that has textured stripes I can feel, and the woman who sold it to me said it’d go with anything. “Does it?” I asked the class. They chorused a yes.
  2. A second-grader asked this one. I’ve been blind half my life now, I told her. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it usually just seems normal.”
  3. A visually-impaired adult asked this. My talk was about memoir writing, so gee, you’d think I might have mentioned the name of my book, huh! I’d forgotten, though, and when I told him my memoir is called Long Time, No See, he said he knew my story sounded familiar. “I read the audio version!”
  4.  The college talk I gave was to an animal sciences class, so you’d think this question would have come from a student there. But no, it came from a very cute second-grader. I’d never been asked this before, and I needed to take a few seconds to think before answering. “You probably guess I’ll say playing fetch with a ball, or having her chase a Frisbee,” I said. “But really, my favorite thing to do with Whitney is have her lead me to a place downtown, you know, get there by ourselves.” I explained how good it makes me feel to have confidence in my Seeing Eye dog.
  5. Another second-grader asked this question after I’d answered it the first time. She was no dummy: she didn’t buy my first answer! This time I admitted that being blind can be frustrating. “It can take longer to do certain things,” I conceded. “And I always have to remind myself to slow down so I won’t fumble around so much.” They seemed to like that fumble word.
  6. A college kid asked this, and I told them the last time I was able to see was 30 years ago. “So I picture you all dressed like college kids in the 80s.” They gasped, and then they laughed.
  7. An adult with a visual impairment asked this. “She’s from Champaign,” he said. And know what? I do know her.
  8. A guy in the college class asked this one. There are tons of things I can’t picture, but the one that stands out is 911. “The plane going into the building, the smoke, the people jumping,” I said, explaining that I went up in the Sears Tower and the Hancock Building in Chicago when I could still see. I remember how little the cars looked from up there, and how slowly they seemed to be travelling on the highways below. “But I just can’t picture how little the people who were trapped on top of those towers looked, or what it was like to see them jumping off the buildings, all of that.” It felt shameful to be intrigued by such a gruesome event, but I try to be honest when answering questions people ask at the presentations I give. I didn’t want the students to try to describe 911 to me – heck, they were only 6 or 7 years old when it happened. “Lots of people have tried explaining it all to me already, I’ve read books and articles, listened to TV shows and documentaries about that day,” I told them. . “I just can’t get it into my head.”
  9. This same question about my feelings came from yet another second-grader. At Francis Xavier Warde School the students spend a lot of their year in second grade learning about special needs, and I think these second graders were worried about me. “You’d think being blind might make me sad, or maybe lonely, but it really isn’t that bad,” I assured them, explaining some of the benefits of being blind. “One of them is that I can’t judge people by what they look like — I get to judge people by what they say, and what they do.” Judging from the concern those little kids showed about my feelings Monday, the second-graders at Francis Xavier Warde School in Chicago are beautiful.

A little thumpin’ thumpin’

Whitney and I took a train to Champaign Wednesday to give a presentation for an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois. While we were there, we stayed at the house of an old friend: retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni.

There’s Whit with Hanni’s bone during a previous visit to Urbana.

Whitney and Hanni are both Labrador/Golden Retriever crosses, they are both graduates of the Seeing Eye school In Morristown, N.J., and both of them are very, very smart. I had no trouble telling them apart, though. Hanni is a tail wagger — you know it’s her when you hear a thump, thump, thump on the floor. She’s taken on more and more of her Golden Retriever side in these matronly years: she wears her hair long and full. Her coat matches her personality: fluffy.

Whitney, on the other hand, is a lean, mean machine. She’ll be five years old next month, and she no longer shows signs of childish jealousy that she used to on visits with her predecessor.

Fourteen-year-old Hanni is in very good hands with her people Steven and Nancy. She’s slowed down, of course, and when we enter the room, she just lifts her head and acknowledges us with the thump, thump, thump of her tail wagging against the floor. The only person she gets up to greet at the door now is her beloved Nancy. I use Whitney as a role model: I don’t show any signs of childish jealousy. Truth is, I’m joyous.

At 14 years old, Hanni still gets out regularly for walks. Sometimes, she even runs. I eavesdropped on Nancy in the other room as I buckled Whitney’s harness on to get ready for our trip back home to Chicago. “Wanna go to Homer Lake today, Hanni-boo?” she cooed. Whitney guided me out for our ride to the Champaign train station then, and we left to the happy sound of Hanni’s tail thump, thump, thumping her answer to Nancy’s offer.

Back to school

I practiced with Whitney ahead of time, so when the Dukes of Distinction presentation started Thursday night, we knew exactly what to do: follow fellow

That's the York High School Commons all done up for the ceremony.

That’s the York High School Commons all done up for the ceremony.

distinguished alum Dr. Robert Chen (“I go by Bob, he said when we were introduced) down the red carpet, stop when Bob stops, and pivot 90 degrees to the left to face our audience. Whitney guided me beautifully, and as the audience cheered, I gave Bob a nudge.

“It all feels a little odd, doesn’t it?” I whispered. Bob agreed. He’s a leader in immunization research at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and he’s working now on HIV prevention research at the CDC and serves on the World Health Organization’s HIV Vaccine Advisory Committee. I’m guessing he’s won an award or two before. “The organizers are all taking it so seriously, though,” he whispered back. “You don’t want to disappoint them.”

And you know what? We didn’t. The event was well-organized, the room was full of positive energy and pride, we kept our talks relatively short, and everyone enjoyed the assortment of chocolate covered strawberries, brownies and cookies — especially Floey’s five-year-old little brother Ray, the youngest person there.

Hearing my brother Doug play at Fitzgerald’s was a perfect way to celebrate afterwards, and the alarm rang way too soon the next morning: all of the Dukes of Distinction had to be back at York at 7:30 a.m. to spend the day visiting classes. An entourage of high-energy well-organized students whisked us from one twenty -minute visit to the next, and after a while, I lost track of how many there were in all. I do know we visited:

  • a gym class (they were doing yoga!)
  • an animal behavior class
  • a creative writing class
  • a children’s literature class
  • a calculus class
  • the student newspaper staff
  • three different sophomore English classes
  • A concert band rehearsal
  • and a partridge in a pear tree.

My sisters Cheryl, Marilee and Bev came along with Whitney and me to all these classes, and all four of us were surprised at how much we enjoyed the calculus class. Leslie Davis Stipe (a friend from my York High School days) teaches that class, and she explained that it’s a “flipped classroom.” She makes videos explaining how to do calculations, students watch the video on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in their high school’s high-tech Commons, and they can repeat the video as many times as necessary to help them understand. They return the next day to do what we used to call “homework” together in class. When we arrived, Leslie was circulating around the class while the students worked in small groups to do their exercises. It was great to see technology being used to make the most of a real-life teacher’s ability instead of trying to substitute for human interaction. Some other highlights:

  • The sophomore English students were all reading short stories and studying “identity.” One student asked if I thought my identity changed after I lost my sight. Another wanted to know if my sense of beauty changed, too.
  • The boys and girls cross country teams were heading to state championships in Peoria this weekend, and the band was coming along to play and cheer them on. When I told the band kids how much I used to love those bus trips, and that a lot always happened in the back of the bus, they laughed in agreement. It was reassuring to know some things really don’t change.
  • A creative writing student asked if it was hard for me to write without being able to see. “I don’t mean physically typing,” he said. “I mean, is it hard to describe things to readers?”
  • When the journalism teacher asked if anyone had one last question, a boy said he did. “Is it just me, or is that the most beautiful dog anyone has ever seen?”

Late in the day I had a one-on-one talk with a 16-year-old student who is losing her sight due to Stargardt’s disease. She seemed relieved when I told her I know what that is. I understood. “It’s nice to not have to explain that stuff all the time, isn’t it?”

We shared stories about friends who stick with us, and how difficult it is to learn Braille. She told me she might be going on a college visit early next year — it’s being arranged especially for high school students with visual impairments. They’ll go as a group to a number of colleges in the Chicago area. Each trip will include a talk by someone in the students with disabilities office.

By the end of our visit, she and I decided we’d try to arrange a presentation both of us could do together sometime. I’ll do my normal shtick, and she can demonstrate some of the new technology she uses to keep up with sighted friends her age.

York’s principal, Diana Smith, caught up with me at the end of the day and said she’d already heard from that student. “She told me visiting with you was the best thing that’s happened to her in high school.” If any of you blog readers are interested in having this 16-year-old and me come speak at your school, civic group, library, whatever, please leave your contact info in the comments here.

When 3:30 finally came around yesterday I was totally exhausted. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: teachers should be paid wayyyyyyyy more than they are now. Everyone should visit their old high school, too. I can’t promise you’d be given the royal treatment that I was (I was treated more like a Queen than a Duke) but boy, is it worth the trip.

Sound the trumpets — and the trombone

Tomorrow’s the big day. Every year York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois honors a number of distinguished alumni, and six other York alumni will be honored along with me at a ceremony in York High School’s Commons tomorrow night. York is the “home of the Dukes,” so honorees are officially called Dukes of Distinction.

And so, tomorrow night, I get my crown.

Okay, it’s just a plaque. But a girl can dream, can’t she?

The reception begins at 7 p.m., and the program follows at 7:30 p.m. Mike has ordered a Zipcar to get my Seeing Eye dog and me there in time to practice walking on the red carpet. I know, I know. Sounds like a punchline, right? But it’s true! My sister Cheryl lives in Elmhurst and has made multiple trips to the school district office with photos and memorabilia from my York days, two other sisters are coming in from out-of-state, and my eight-year-old great niece Floey will be joining them at the head table along with Mike, Whitney and me. From the District 205 web site:

That evening, seven alumni will be recognized at a celebratory reception followed by a recognition program during which they will speak. The event is free and open to the public (no ticket necessary). The following day, November 7, honorees will present to and interact with York students in large and small group settings.

And wait! There’s more! My brother Doug is coming in from Louisville tomorrow night, too! I’ve written about Doug here before. He’s a professional jazz trombonist, and tomorrow night he’s performing at Fitzgerald’s in nearby Berwyn, Ill. with Petra’s Recession Seven, a Chicago-style early swing/trad jazz band:

Thursday, November 6 Petra’s Recession Seven –
Petra with trumpeter Bob Ojeda, clarinetist Kim Cusack, guitarist Andy Brown, bassist Joe Policastro, drummer Bob Rummage,
and special guest trombonist Doug Finke
7:30-10:30 pm
Fitzgerald’s http://www.fitzgeraldsnightclub.com
6615 Roosevelt Rd. Berwyn, IL 708-788-2118
$10 cover

That’s Doug: Has trombone, will travel.

Flo took my sisters and me along to hear Doug perform with the Original Salty Dogs Jazz Band when we were little, and we all grew up listening to the jazz records he left behind when he embarked on his music career. Louis Armstrong, Hot Five and Hot Seven. King Oliver. Lil Hardin.

Flo went to York High School, and all of my sisters and brothers graduated from York, too. What better way to celebrate my new dukedom than to dance to Doug’s music with Mike and my sisters. Not sure how awake I’ll be when “presenting and interacting” with high school students at York the next morning, though!


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