Nancy Shugart 2015-08-12 23:32:47
My life seemed hopeless. But a gift from Lions made all the difference. The summer before third grade, I began losing my eyesight. When school started, I knew right away that something was very different… and very wrong. I could not see what my teacher was writing on the chalkboard, and I was beginning to hold my books closer to my face when reading. My teacher quickly picked up on my difficulty and called my parents. “Nancy is having trouble seeing the chalkboard,” she informed them. “No problem,” was basically their response. “We’ll get her some glasses.” This was 1965 in a small town just outside of Houston, Texas. Our family optometrist examined my eyes and, to everyone’s surprise, found nothing wrong with them. He tried a host of lenses expecting to find one that would bring the eye chart into focus for me. But nothing helped. I could see the big E but nothing else. The doctor reported to my mother that he had found nothing wrong with my eyes. He told her that sometimes children, in order to get attention, pretend to be unable to see. What could have been a simple eye exam had turned into an emotional nightmare for me. My parents also were upset and confused. My teacher was telling them I couldn’t see and the doctor was saying I could. They decided to take the doctor’s advice and just be patient with me. In time, everyone believed, I would decide to start seeing again. On one hand, I was relieved to hear that I would not have to wear glasses. Kids who wore glasses got called “four-eyes,” and I hated the thought of being teased like that. On the other hand, however, this news only confused me even more. If nothing is wrong with my eyes, I wondered, then why can my classmates see the chalkboard and I can’t? Why am I different? Day by day, I became increasingly frustrated. I just couldn’t understand what was happening, and no one seemed to want to talk about it. Convinced that my inability to see was all in my mind, everyone seemed to believe that if the problem was ignored, it would simply go away and I would start seeing again. My 8-year-old mind desperately tried to make sense of what was happening. My whole world was changing. I couldn’t understand why I was always getting hurt. Why was I always tripping and falling over things that others were able to see? During that year, there were many times I tried to explain to my classmates that I just couldn’t see some things. But the question they always asked then was, “If you can’t see, then why don’t you wear glasses?” And then there was the emotional pain. Why was I starting to lose my friends? One day I learned that a couple of my friends were quite upset with me. They thought I was becoming a snob because they had waved at me from down the street and couldn’t understand why I had not waved back. Mrs. Henderson, my third-grade teacher, called on me in class to read just as often as she called on the other kids. And when I said I could not see to read what she had written on the chalkboard, she would tell me to get out of my seat and walk up to the board so I could see it. Mrs. Henderson demanded as much from me as she did from the other kids. Today I am grateful to her for that, even though at the time I thought she was just a mean old witch. During that year, I discovered a skill to compensate for my loss of eyesight: memorization. If I thought there was a chance that Mrs. Henderson might call on me in class to read my book report, I would memorize it the night before. I would then stand in class and hold my paper at a normal distance from my face while reciting it to the class. I would look at my paper as though I was reading it when, in fact, I was really saying the whole thing from memory. Despite the false beliefs I was creating in other people about myself, I remained focused on one goal. My goal was to eliminate as much of my pain as I possibly could, the emotional pain from all the teasing and the physical pain from all of my accidents. Gradually, I figured out other little ways to help me achieve this goal. I learned that I could recognize my classmates by their voices since their faces were too blurry and no longer reliable for identification purposes. Of course, I took a lot of teasing when I would mistake a boy with a high-pitched voice for a girl. In spite of all the teasing I took from some kids, there were others who were very kind to me. Some kids seemed to recognize that I really couldn’t see clearly long before most adults did. This may have been because they were around me all day and they knew that no kid would ever “pretend” to not see a kickball coming straight at her face or purposely walk through a pile of fire ants just to get attention. When we broke for summer vacation, my parents decided it was time for another eye exam. This time they took me to an ophthalmologist. Unlike the last exam, my eyes were dilated in this one and examined very carefully. The ophthalmologist saw immediately what I had been struggling with for nearly a year. My parents were told that I would never see clearly again. The diagnosis was macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, two degenerative diseases that had affected the retina and optic nerves in both of my eyes. My visual acuity was 20/200—legally blind. But no one ever told me that. My parents took me to every specialist they could find. Some of the most prominent ophthalmologists in the country were located in Houston at that time, and I saw every one of them. I lost count of the number of doctors and interns who stared into my eyes with their strange instruments as though they were witnessing a rare phenomenon. I do know this: If I had a nickel for every time my eyes were dilated and examined, I could pay off our national debt. We kept praying that someone would offer us hope that I would soon regain my eyesight. But no one did. Instead, like a broken record, the response we continued to get was, “We’re sorry. There’s nothing we can do for Nancy.” I was concerned about what would happen if my teachers realized just how little I could actually see. I was afraid that if my loss of sight were too noticeable, my teacher might have me placed in a special education class. Special education classes, back in the 1960s and in my hometown, were not what they are today. Special education classes then were used mainly as holding tanks for kids who were in any way considered slow or “handicapped,” as people with disabilities were called in those days. I was not slow intellectually, and I sure didn’t think I was handicapped. My mother told my teachers about my visual impairment. I was never told I was blind. I knew I couldn’t see as well as other people, but I never thought I was blind. Blindness, I thought, meant you couldn’t see anything at all. I could see things; they were just very blurry. My teachers were always supportive and caring. I honestly have to credit much of my academic success to my elementary school teachers. Though they may not have fully realized the extent of my sight loss, they were aware of it. Yet they wisely continued to demand as much from me as from my classmates. *** My love for school was still very much alive as I prepared to enter high school in the fall of 1971. By that time, I had been given a magnifying glass which helped make reading slightly easier. Long reading assignments, however, were still quite exhausting and painstakingly slow. Soon after school got underway, I heard that the swim team was looking for new members. Swimming was my second love in life, right behind chocolate. The team accepted anyone who could swim, and I swam like a fish. I soon became the team’s long distance swimmer. There is one swim meet that I will never forget, for it taught me a valuable lesson. I was signed up for only one event in this particular meet—the 300-meter freestyle. Swimming twelve lengths of the pool could be quite tiring, but this was the event I had always done my best in. I walked up to my starting block and looked around. I saw one girl on each side of me but I couldn’t see beyond that. I asked a teammate how many I would be swimming against. “Three,” she said. Okay, I thought. I only have to beat three girls to get my first place. You can do this, Nancy, I told myself. We stepped up on our starting blocks. The gun went off and we hit the water. Pace yourself, I reminded myself. Twelve lengths is a long way to go. “Five,” I heard my teammate yell at me as I made my turn. Seven more to go. No problem. I’m feeling strong. But wait! Both of the girls in the lanes next to me were passing me going in the opposite direction. I wondered, were they behind me or ahead of me? “ELEVEN.” The number I had longed to hear was now being shouted at me by a very enthusiastic teammate. I called upon every ounce of strength I had left and, with all the speed and power I could muster up, I made the final few strokes to the finish. OH, NO! My worst nightmare had come true. Not only had the other three girls finished, they were out of the pool and drying off. I was the only one still in the pool. But then three of my teammates rushed over to me. Why in the world were they so happy? Didn’t they know I got last place? “Nancy,” they shouted. “You got first place!” “You’re kidding,” I said. “All three of them quit?” “Yes!” I have learned that that’s the way it is in life; there are a lot more quitters than doers in this world. The people who are willing to be in it for the long haul and are willing to endure whatever it takes to achieve their goals, ultimately become the most successful people. *** Many of my high school teachers were unsure as to the degree or type of assistance they should provide. I was probably the only student with a visual impairment they had ever had in their classes. In the early 1970s, most students in Texas who were legally blind were not attending public schools. Most were sent to Austin to the Texas School for the Blind. Now, I have to tell you that I despise that word “handicapped,” but that was the term used back then. Over the years, the term has been changed to “disabled,” but I prefer “physically challenged.” After all, that’s what it is; it’s a physical challenge that calls upon the person to find an alternative way of doing something. One class in which I was occasionally called upon was Mr. M.’s math class. One day in class, Mr. M. called on me to solve a problem he had written on the overhead projector. I asked him to read it to me so I could work it at my desk. “You can see it,” he snapped. “You just don’t want to see it. You’re lazy.” I sat stunned. Mr. M. had, on occasion, been rude to other students who didn’t seem to want to learn, but never had he spoken to me like this. I could feel all eyes in the class staring at me, wondering how I was going to respond. After what seemed like an eternity of uneasy silence, I finally spoke. “There’s a letter in the office…” I tried to explain. It was a letter from my ophthalmologist that my mother had asked school officials to put in my file to help my teachers better understand the situation. But before I could finish my sentence, he interrupted. “I don’t have to read any letter. I’ve seen you walk around this school. You can see whatever you want to see. You’re just lazy.” There was that word again. It was that “lazy” part that stung the most. He had no idea how hard I worked to try to keep up with everyone else. No one did. That day was a turning point for me. All of those painful memories from childhood came rushing back, reminding me of how no one had believed me back then either when I said I couldn’t see. After all these years, I cried inside, the nightmare is still not over. I made a decision that day. I decided that I would never again allow myself to be hurt the way I was hurt in Mr. M.’s class that day. I decided that I would never talk about my eyesight with anyone ever again. *** I talked my parents into letting me get a part-time job at a cafe that was a couple of blocks from our home. They agreed to let me work only on Friday and Saturday nights. The cafe where I worked was very small. It only had four booths and a counter. I worked with a cook named Rose, and we made a pretty good team once we got to know each other. After a while, I became quite good at my job. I quickly memorized the items on the menu and how much each item cost, so I wouldn’t have to strain my eyes to read the menu. I memorized the keys on the cash register since I couldn’t see the numbers written on them. Some of the customers, especially the regular ones, picked up on my visual impairment rather quickly, while others never noticed. I wanted my visual impairment to be as inconspicuous as possible, and so I worked hard to make it just that. I occasionally filled coffee cups up till they were overflowing, and I sometimes left customers with wet clothes when I knocked their drinks over. Didn’t they know they weren’t supposed to move that glass of water once I put it on the table? I could cover up my visual impairment as long as I could control where everything was placed, but that was not always possible. Since we were the only two working that shift, Rose and I got to know each other pretty well. I told her all about my loss of eyesight and why I couldn’t see. I also told her I was considering quitting school. Rose had told me once that she had left school when she was fifteen, so I knew she would understand. I told her that I was now ready to start working full-time at the café. Rose was in her late 50s and had been working as a waitress most of her life. She let me know that she did not enjoy working like a dog all of her life. She said, “Oh, you want to be like me when you grow up? Is that the kind of life you want?” That one particular conversation with Rose played over and over in my head many times. Though I still had more questions than answers about what I wanted to do with my life, the fact that I was at least starting to question my choices and their consequences was definitely a good sign. *** My vision of becoming a teacher began when I was in Mrs. Blackburn’s kindergarten class. I remember coming home from kindergarten every day and lining my stuffed animals up in front of my little chalkboard and teaching them everything that I had learned from Mrs. Blackburn that day. I had the smartest Teddy Bear in the neighborhood. As I passed from grade level to grade level, the vision went with me. I knew I would have to go to college to become a teacher, but I really had no desire to continue my education after high school. I did not have many fond memories from high school, and I could not imagine college being any better. My parents had always wanted me to go to college, but since no one in our family had ever been, I had no one to advise me about how to get started. My high school teachers and counselors never discussed college with me and, considering how low my grades were there, I can’t say that I blame them. One day a friend of the family brought over a course catalogue from the community college. Out of curiosity, I began thumbing through it. My interest was sparked when I saw they offered a degree in music. Two weeks after graduating from high school, I was back in school again. I enrolled in the first summer session at the community college as a music major. It did not take long to realize that my musical background was not nearly as extensive as my classmates’. I had taken piano lessons during my elementary and junior high school years but had not continued it in high school. Many of my college classmates had not only taken private lessons throughout high school but had also been actively involved in either band or choir. I had a lot of catching up to do. I worked hard that year. With my little magnifying glass, I plowed through the reading assignments and memorized all of my piano and vocal music. As always, the pace was slow, but I now saw purpose and value in what I was doing and I was very pleased with my results. It was refreshing to see As and Bs on my grade reports again. As my first year at this community college drew to a close, I asked my music instructors about the music programs at several universities in Texas. When I asked them which university they considered to have the best music program, they unanimously agreed; it was North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton. My teachers, to my surprise, weren’t impressed at all with my decision. “You’ll be out of your league up there, Nancy,” was their response. But off I went to Denton. And you know what? They were right! It was tough. In fact, I believe to this day that going through that music school is the hardest thing I have ever done. It’s also one of the accomplishments that I am the most proud of. My first day on that campus is a day I will never forget. Upon arriving, my parents and I carried all of my things up four flights of stairs to my room in the Bruce Hall dormitory. This was the life, I thought. Bruce Hall was where most of the music majors stayed and now I was a part of it. What am I doing here? was the first question that invaded my mind as I watched my parents pull out of the parking lot and begin their 300-mile journey back home. Why am I crying? was my second question. But it didn’t take long before I fell in love with the place—with the campus, but most of all with the people. Everyone was so friendly and so helpful. The professors were very approachable, and they were not shocked in the least by my visual impairment. They had seen it all. Unlike the public schools in my hometown, I was not the first visually impaired student to come through this university. In fact, there were many students on that campus who were overcoming greater physical challenges than mine, and watching them go after their dreams strengthened my belief that I, too, should go after mine. As my first year at NTSU progressed, proud feelings of accomplishment were mixed with those same old feelings of frustration. I was still using my small magnifying glass when reading and the going was very slow. Regardless of how strong my determination was, I could not keep up. I ended up dropping a couple of classes that first year because the work load was just too much for me to handle. I had, without a doubt, chosen a very challenging major. In addition to my lengthy reading assignments every day, I also had to memorize pages upon pages of music for my piano and voice lessons. When that first year ended, I went home for the summer. I tried to relax, but I spent most of my time worrying about what I should do. I sat in my bedroom crying my eyes out. My mother came into my room that night and, seeing my anguish, she began to cry too. She wanted so much to help but didn’t know how. She and my father had taken me to every specialist in Houston many times over the years, but the answer was always the same: “We’re sorry. There’s nothing we can do for Nancy.” *** In my second year of classes at NTSU, I took a semester of Spanish. The instructor of my Spanish class was a young graduate assistant from Peru. One day this instructor asked me to stay after class to talk with her. She had noticed how hard I was struggling to see the book and said she felt certain that the financial aid office would pay to hire a reader for me. I went to the financial aid office that afternoon. Immediately the lady answered, “Oh, you don’t need us. You need the Commission for the Blind.” The Commission for the Blind? I didn’t say it, but I was thinking, I’m not blind. I just can’t see clearly. I felt awkward walking into the Commission for the Blind. I had with me the letter from my ophthalmologist. My hope was that it would strengthen my plea for help. After waiting a few minutes in the outer office, Martha, the counselor, invited me into her office. “I’m not blind,” I told her. I wanted to make that clear to her. “So I don’t think you’ll be able to help me, but maybe you know someone who can.” I then pulled the letter out of my purse. “This will explain the medical reason why I can’t see clearly,” I said as I handed it to Martha. She read the letter and then slowly returned her attention to me. She seemed a bit confused as she said, “This letter says your visual acuity is 20/200.” She paused. “Do you also know that 20/200 is legally blind?” Legally blind? I’m sure the look on my face told her this was the first time I had ever heard that phrase before. Martha couldn’t believe that I had been legally blind since age eight, and no one had ever told me. She was extremely curious to know how I had managed all those years without any help. “It hasn’t been easy,” I began. Though I had just met Martha, I felt that I was finally talking to someone who had the capacity to understand what I had been through. Martha wasn’t blind herself, but she had been a counselor for the blind for many years. I also noticed right away that she did not have a left hand. For some reason, this made me feel more comfortable about opening up to her. She knew personally what it was like to overcome a physical challenge. We talked for over two hours. We talked about the many ways I had learned to compensate for and even disguise my visual impairment. Talking openly about these things for the first time was like taking a breath of fresh air. I had spent a lifetime trying to hide my visual impairment. Something else momentous happened. Martha asked if I was familiar with the fourth floor of the library. Was I ever? I had only basically lived there studying for the past year and a half. She asked if I knew where the media center was on that floor. Of course I did. Though I had never needed to go in there, I had passed the room every day on my way to my study carrel. Martha then told me about a machine they had in this media center. “It’s called a CCTV, which stands for closed circuit television [today known as a video magnifier]. It’s a magnification machine that enlarges print and displays it upon a screen.” I didn’t walk to the library, I practically ran. I had to see this mysterious machine that Martha said might make it possible for me to see to read again. I walked into the media room and a lady at the desk led me to the back of the room where the CCTV was located. It had a screen similar to a TV which was raised about a foot off the table. There was a movable table beneath the screen. The lady asked me if I had a book I would like to read. My backpack was full of books. I pulled out my music history book, opened it and placed it on the movable table. The lady said proudly, “The Lions Club donated this to our university library. It’s quite amazing.” She then turned the machine on. Within a few seconds, I was in tears. But this time they were tears of joy. I couldn’t believe my eyes. For the first time since I was 8 years old, I could actually see to read. The print that appeared on the screen was large and clear, and I didn’t have to strain my eyes to see it. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. This had to be the most fabulous machine man had ever invented. The gift of reading had been given back to me. And to think I nearly gave up; I almost quit school because I couldn’t see to read. If I had quit, I might never have discovered this miracle machine. The people in the media center had to pry me away from this new miracle machine at closing time that evening. I did not want to turn it off. This machine had just opened up a whole new world for me. It was a world with endless possibilities—a world whose door had been closed to me for most of my life but now was open. And to think God chose a graduate assistant, all the way from Peru, to lead me to it. Miracles really do come from the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected ways. Shugart became a teacher, devoting 21 years to elementary school children. She recounts her life in “Challenged to Win,” from which this story is excerpted. She is president of the Austin South Austin Lions Club in Texas. Digital LION Watch Shugart’s inspirational talk, which cites the role of Lions in her success, at a TEDx conference at lionmagazine.org.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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