Archive for the 'visiting schools' Category



Questions from the kids: our first school presentation of 2016

A full house at Lincoln Elementary.

A full house at Lincoln Elementary.

My Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I started our new year of elementary school visits in a big way: we took a commuter train to Elmhurst (The Chicago suburb where I grew up) and gave a presentation to 250 kindergartners, first-graders, and second-graders. All. At. Once.

Whitney usually leads me to the train station in downtown Chicago on her own, but when my gem of a husband, Mike Knezovich, said he’d accompany us yesterday morning, I had five reasons to swallow my pride and accept his generous offer.

  1. Freezing temperatures — if Whitney and I found ourselves lost or turned around for just a few minutes, we might have ended up with frostbite!
  2. Snowy slippery sidewalks
  3. Salt (Mike can spot it on the roads and help us avoid those areas so it doesn’t end up in Whit’s paws)
  4. The train we needed to catch left at 7:40 a.m., which meant we’d be approaching the train station precisely when commuters were getting off trains and rushing to work
  5. And oh, yeah. I still have a cast on my broken left hand.

My sister Cheryl lives in Elmhurst. She greeted Whitney and me with hot coffee at the train station there, brought an extra-large-sized pair of mittens in the car to fit over my cast, drove us to Lincoln Elementary School, took pictures at the assembly, and then drove us all the way back to my doorstep in Chicago afterwards. Cheryl has always had a way of boosting my confidence, and we have fun whenever we’re together. I grew up the youngest of seven children. Cheryl is fourth in line, and this explanation of middle child syndrome describes her perfectly:

Many times they go in the opposite direction of their oldest sibling to carve out their own place of achievement and relish in the satisfaction of being capable of doing it on their own. They are sensitive to injustices and much less self-centered than their siblings (first born and last born), which allows them to maintain successful relationships. They are put in the position to learn social skills that are extremely useful, not only within their household, but within their social community.

The kids at Lincoln School were sweet, polite, and very curious. The Q & A part of the presentation was entertaining, as always. A sampling of their questions:

  • What does your dog like to chase?
  • How can you tie your shoes if you can’t see them?
  • How long did it take you to learn to read and write Braille??
  • How do you write if you can’t see?
  • Do you shop by yourself?
  • Can you write cursive?
  • Does Whitney ever slip on the ice?
  • Does your dog keep you safe from other things?
  • Do you always have to say your dogs name before you tell her what to do?
Whitney demonstrating her best Seeing Eye manners.

Whitney demonstrating her best Seeing Eye manners.

For that last question, I picked up Whitney’s harness and told the kids that when you’re training at the Seeing Eye school they teach you to always say your dog’s name before giving them a command. “If I just say the word ‘right’ like I just did there, Whitney doesn’t even notice, but if I say, ‘Whitney, right’…”. I had to stop talking right there, mid-sentence. Whitney had immediately flipped right and was guiding us toward the hallway! “I guess the Seeing Eye knows what they’re doing,” I said with a laugh. The kids laughed right along. Whitney was a big hit.

The most thoughtful question yesterday was this one: “What is your biggest challenge of the day?” My days have been particularly challenging lately with this cast on my hand, but Mike and Cheryl made my day yesterday far less challenging than it would have been otherwise. Huge thanks to them both, and also to all my other friends and family who have boosted my spirits, many of them by taking me for walks while the cast was preventing me from grasping Whitney’s harness.

Broken hand update: my friend Colleen drove me to a medical appointment Monday and helped me convince the hand experts to shorten the cast a bit to expose the tips of my fingers. It’s a ton easier to hold the harness now. Whitney and I take a train to another suburban school tomorrow morning, and if the weather warms up enough by then to melt some of the snow and ice, we may be able to get to the train station on our own. I have my Fingers crossed — the ones in my right hand, at least.

Time out for Seeing Eye dogs

That's Ray mugging for the camera.

That’s Ray mugging for the camera.

Realizing I wouldn’t be able to see when his schoolfriends raised their hands to ask questions, my six-year-old great nephew Ray volunteered to help me call on kids in all three of the first-grade classes we visited at his school yesterday. All of the first-graders at Westmore Elementary had read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound before Whitney and I arrived, and that meant they had time to come up with some pretty thoughtful questions. Examples:

  • What kind of dog food does your dog eat?
  • How can your write a book if you can’t see?
  • How do you drive when you’re blind?
  • Can you get that thing on her back off of her by yourself?
  • What if you’re with your dog and you bump into something?
  • When your dog isn’t there with you, how can you see?
  • What does the safety pin do? (This after I’d said I put a safety pin on the tag inside anything I wear that is black)
  • What happens if your dog gets distracted?

Whitney was as spirited as the students we were visiting, so we answered that last question with actions rather than words. After she flipped to her back (with her harness on) to beg the kids for a belly rub, she popped up to lick a first-grader in the front row. Time for her seven-step obedience ritual:

  1. “Whitney, sit!” She sat.
  2. “Whitney, down!” I pointed to the ground, and even though she uttered a huge groan while she did it, she managed to lie down.
  3. “Whitney, sit!” She popped back up.
  4. “Whitney, heel!” I held her leash, walked four steps forward while she walked along at my side.
  5. “Whitney, sit!” She sat.
  6. “Whitney, rest.” I stood in front of her, put my palm up in front of her nose for a second, walked backwards away from her, and she didn’t make a move.
  7. “Good girl, Whitney!” That’s what I said when I returned to her side.

When the obedience routine was over, one first-grader exclaimed, “It’s like a time out!” We had a ball at Westmore School, and as I write this post, Whitney is enjoying a real time out: she’s fast asleep under my desk.

Full, creative, and pleasurable

It’s been a very happy week here in Chicago. Ours started last Friday, when Mike and I took an el to Schaller’s Pump on the South Side to watch a playoff game. Schaller’s Pump has been at 37th and Halsted since 1876, and from Mike’s description it hasn’t changed much since then.

The bar is cash-only, the bartender was our age or older, and when she recommended the ribeye sandwich we didn’t bother looking at the menu. She served it with a cup of bean soup and a draft beer. I felt like I was a world – and a lifetime – away, a college girl on a date with Mike.

The whole class celebrated Wanda's (on my right) 94th. Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.

The whole class celebrated Wanda’s (on my right) 94th. Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.

The next morning my Seeing Eye dog and I walked over to the Chicago Architecture Foundation for Must-Hear,a special 25th anniversary walking tour they put together for adults who are visually impaired or blind. Whitney and I headed directly from the tour to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre for their first-ever audio touch tour in honor of, you guessed it: the 25th anniversary of the ADA. The actors from the play Disgraced got on stage to describe their characters, their clothing and their hair styles to us before the play. Minutes later my friend Brad and I were blown away by their fantastic performances on stage. The week went on from there:

  • Monday my Lincoln Park Village Memoir II class started a new eight-week session, and that night Mike, Whitney and I took an Amtrak train to Milwaukee, where we enjoyed cheese curds and Miller beer at our hotel bar.
  • Tuesday Mike rented a zipcar in Milwaukee so we could visit our son Gus in Watertown, Wisconsin.
  • Back home Wednesday the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead in the Chicago Cultural Center celebrated writer Wanda Bridgeforth’s 94th birthday, and her fellow 94-year-old writer Hanna Bratman arranged for a ride from the assisted living center she’s living in to be there for the party, too.
  • By Thursday I’d flown to St. Paul, Minnesota to speak at Metropolitan State University (a disability studies class there uses my memoir Long Time, No See as a text book), and I enjoyed dinner that night with my great-niece Shelley Rae, a stylist known for her skills with coloring hair. Shelley regularly travels to NYC and L.A. to teach hair-coloring classes but had spent most of her Thursday afternoon at her salon in Minneapolis doing a client’s hair in a “rainbow sort of swirl thing.”
  • This morning I woke up in my St. Paul hotel room and had the staff take care of Whitney while I swam laps – the hotel adjoins the oo la la St. Paul Athletic Club – before taking a cab to the Minneapolis airport for my flight home.

You know, one of my favorite reviews of my children’s book was one from Booklist editor Donna Seaman, who pointed out how Safe & Sound not only shows young readers how remarkable Seeing Eye Dogs are, “but also how a person without sight can live a full, creative, and pleasurable life.” Amen! And now, for a day of rest.

Lipstick in the dark

I started our presentation at Wilmot Elementary School on Friday by showing them how I put lipstick on without looking in a mirror.

And then…showtime!

At Wilmot School, in Deerfield, Ill.

I explained the three rules Wilmot students should keep in mind if they happen to see a guide dog with a harness on: don’t pet the dog, don’t feed the dog, and don’t call out the dog’s name. “Those things can distract a Seeing Eye dog,” I told them. “It’d be like if someone nudged you or kept calling your name wile you were working on your spelling words at school. You wouldn’t be able to concentrate on your work.”

I suggested we come up with a fake name for Whitney. “We’re going to be here at your school for a while today, and you might want to say hello if you see us in the hallway,” I said, explaining that if they use my Seeing Eye dog’s fake name to say hello, Whitney wouldn’t look their way and get distracted from her work — she wouldn’t realize they were talking to her.

I asked the kids what their principal’s name was. “Mrs. Brett!” they called out. “Does anyone know Mrs. Brett’s first name?” I asked. After a moment of silence, one sweet little voice rang out. “I do! It’s Eileen.” And so, it was agreed. The kids would call Whitney by her code name on Friday: Eileen.

Most of the questions during the Q&A part of the session had more to do with blindness than dogs:

  • How do you cook?
  • How do you drive?
  • How do you read your text messages?
  • If your dog dies, how will you get anywhere?
  • Do you ever even get into a car?
  • How do you put your other make-up on?

The most poignant question, of course, was the one about what happens when a Seeing Eye dog dies. I talked a bit about grief, and then moved on to what it’s like to train with a new Seeing Eye dog.

My favorite question of the day was that last one. “The only make-up I wear is lipstick,” I told them, letting them know how flattered I was that they’d asked. I must be stylin’.

Okay, okay. Your blind fashionista knows you’re wondering: take the top off the lipstick tube, place the open end on your bottom lip and turn the knob until you feel the lipstick just starting to emerge from the tube. Run the lipstick across the lower lip only, then press your lips together to add color to the top. Voila!

Their tooth fairy Is A lazy, shiftless hussy

You might recognize my friend Lynn LaPlante Allaway’s name: she is principal violist with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Lynn wrote a guest post here after Whitney and I visited her kids’ elementary school, and your fun comments to that post helped encourage her to start a blog of her own called Backwards and in High Heels. Read these excerpts from a post she published there last Tuesday and you’ll discover that Lynn’s new blog is going to be about more than music:

A photo from One of Lynn’s kids classrooms we visited a couple years ago. I hope the tooth fairy can find them all!

One of the classrooms we visited at Lynn’s kids’ school. Hope the tooth fairy finds them when she needs to!

The title of Lynn’s June 2 post is Our Tooth Fairy Is A Lazy, Shiftless Hussy, and it starts like this:

Oh, the shame! I was walking past my kids’ room last night and on the bedroom door, there hung a note. It was addressed to our Tooth Fairy, that truant little bitch.

Here Lynn inserts a photo of the note her dauther wrote. Seeing, ahem, as I can’t see photos, I was ever-so-grateful Lynn spelled out the words on the note, too. She writes, “If you can’t decipher kids’ scrawl, here it is spellchecked, for your reading pleasure.”:

Dear Tooth Fairy,

Please come get my tooth. I have been waiting for 4 days.

From,
Sophie
Top Bunk

Lynn speakes out “on behalf of beleaguered Tooth Fairies everywhere” when she admits she didn’t even know Sophie had lost a tooth. “It apparently happened the night I had a concert, so go ahead and throw a big heap of Workin’ Mama Guilt on top of this Shame Sandwich,” She writes. “Our partially-toothless daughter had been suffering in silence, waiting patiently for three nights before she even let us know she had a tooth under her pillow!” Back to the excerpt:

When she finally told us about it, I was horrified and said many nasty things about our Tooth Fairy that I now regret: how she is unreliable; takes to drinking under stress and blacking out for days and nights on end; how after she’s been to the house to collect teeth, I notice little things, like jewelry and loose change, have gone missing. Maybe, in retrospect, I laid it on a little too thick but I wanted her to understand who we’re dealing with here.

So back to me. Is Sophie’s fairy tale ruined for life? Will she start therapy soon? Or does the tooth fairy elbow out the evil mother? Do Sophie’s GPS coordinates finally lead the fairy to the upper bunk? I guess you’ll just have to link to the shiftless hussy blog post on Backwards in High Heels to find out for yourself. Welcome to blogland, Lynnie

Does your dog have a dad?

A writer in the Monday memoir-writing class I lead grew up in Germany, came to America through a study abroad program at Vassar, and stayed. Brigitte has retired from a career in academia now, and twice a week she volunteers in a third-grade class at a Chicago Public School.

The kids at Swift had a lot of energy and questions.

The kids at Swift had a lot of energy and questions.

Nearly all the students in Brigitte’s third-grade class at Swift School are children of immigrants, and to celebrate the end of a successful year, Brigitte ordered every one of them a copy of my children’s book, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound and had me come over last Friday to meet them all.

I was captivated by the children’s curiosity. Without being able to see them, I forgot that the nine- and ten-year olds in Brigitte’s class might look different from any of the kids in the other classes Whitney and I have visited this past school year. Maybe you can tell from the questions they asked?

  • How old is your dog?
  • If she is only five, why is she sleeping?
  • How old are you?
  • How come you got diabetes?
  • Has life changed for you now, you know,because you’re blind?
  • How do you cook?
  • How do you fry?
  • You never said what the building was like where your dog went to school. How old is the school it went to?
  • Was it hard for you and your dog at first, you know, when it got to Chicago?
  • Would you have a dog if you never got blind?
  • Is your day ever very challenging?
  • Does your dog have a dad?

That last question was one I’d never been asked before. Yes, I explained, my dog does have a dad. A mom, too. “One of them is a Golden Retriever, and the other is a Yellow Labrador Retriever,” I said. “They still live in New Jersey, that’s where my dog was born.”

After hearing my anser, the girl who’d asked the question said, “I think your dog is sad, because it misses the family it grew up with.” And that’s when I remembered. These kids had parents from different countries. Maybe that little girl’s response about my dog being sad, and the question about life being challenging, and whether or not my dog had a hard time when it first moved to Chicago…those questions might stem from something they hear their parents say from time to time at home.

These third-graders were mature beyond their years, but they were fun, too. And smart. Thanks for asking us to come to Swift School, Brigittte, and for seeing to it that each and every one of those kids got a book to bring home. Whitney and I had a ball.

More questions from kids

My sister Bev’s grandson is a kindergartner in Caledonia, Michigan, and when we were visiting there this week, young Bryce was kind enough to share his Great Aunt Beth and Whitney with his fellow kindergartners and first-graders at Paris Ridge Elementary School.

Bryce's class was full of questions.

Bryce’s class was full of questions.

Teachers read Safe & Sound to all the kids before we arrived, so they were all set with questions when we got there. Some examples?

  • How do you go to bed?
  • Does your dog drive?
  • Can you take a taxi with your dog?
  • How can you see if you’re blind?
  • What if the taxi driver has allergies?
  • Does your dog like getting a bath?

That last question gave me a chance to explain that Seeing Eye trainers encourage us to brush our dogs every day. “I lift her ear flaps to check her ears when I’m brushing her, too,” I said. “If they smell bad, that lets me know she might have an ear infection,” I said. When I brush her, I feel her coat, too, so I’ll know if she has any lumps or bumps that the veterinarian needs to check out.”

Back to that question about baths. Seeing Eye dogs are almost always on leash, so they don’t get into mud puddles and stuff like that. “And if we brush them every day, they never really need a bath.”

The question made me remember the one and only time one of my Seeing Eye dogs did need a bath, and for some reason I decided to tell the kids how that happened. “I was on a city bus with my first dog, Pandora, and someone a few rows ahead of us threw up,” I said. After pausing for a chorus of Eeeeeeooooooos from the audience, I continued. ”The puke seeped under the seat from the front of the bus to the back, and it got all over my dog. She really needed a bath that time!” I heard a chorus of “uh-huhs and “she sure dids” that time. The questions went on from there.

  • Does Bryce ever get to pet your dog?
  • When is it okay for your dog to disobey you?
  • I just want to say, I have a dog who is blind.
  • I think I saw you when I was in Chicago. Was that you?

And finally, my favorite of the day :

  • So, you know, when your dog had to take a bath that time, what color was the throw up?

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