WBU-NAC region Otsuki Award
When Braille “Clicks,” the World Opens
Helen Kobek(53, Female)
What does the word “whether” mean to you? The word has new meaning for me now. Technically, it still means “uncertainty,” but now it also means “for sure.” At the age of fifty-two, for the first time in memory, I read a whole word. That word was “whether,” and I read it in braille. That moment heralded for me the vivid realization that I can truly read.
I lost my central vision at age nine, and, with it, my ability to read print more than letter-by-letter, laboriously. By that age, I had seen whole words, but I do not remember the experience, and two years of grade school did not make me literate. I did not learn braille until, at the age of fifty-one, I decided I was tired of suffering and straining to read. I was ready to stop struggling, guessing, and moving my eyes around to the point of nausea and fatigue. I decided to borrow braille instruction books from the Commission for the Blind, absorb the code, and get my fingers to “wake up” to the dots.
I had two pleasant braille lessons from a teacher, who assured me that, someday. I would know what “the” looks like in braille. It was like being five years old and told, benevolently, “Someday you will get long-term care insurance for old age.” It was completely inconceivable to me. It was, more or less, a nice idea.
The whole process of learning braille, however, was not “nice” for quite some time. It was a tedious, plodding grind, as it is for most people who learn braille later in life. I diligently read for an hour in the morning, and another at night. I use the word “read” loosely because it was more like filling a bucket with sand one grain at a time. I rattled away on my Perkins brailler. When I was not near my brailler, I practiced brailling on a table top. I was determined. For the first six months my brain read braille the way my eyes read print: letter-by-letter, laboriously. I would struggle for half an hour on one short word.“What is this? What IS this?” Then it would, ironically, be the word, “Grin.” After thirty minutes on a chestnut like “are,” feeling at once moderately accomplished and highly dysfunctional, I would wipe the sweat off my face, take a five-minute break, and keep going. Oftentimes, I despaired of ever truly being able to read.
After six months of this slow, drenching experiment, something “clicked.” As I was lurching along one night my fingers breezed across an entire word: Whether. I was stunned. “Oh, this is what reading is! I am reading!” I wept quietly for an hour, tears soaking into the thirsty braille paper under my fingers.
My brain was “getting it.” That very long, choppy, linear meter between my fingers and my brain was developing, changing, and whirring like a motor. That meter was being assembled and smoothed, like a railway between two important but vastly different cultural regions. It was a moment like you see in the popular movie: the “w-a-t-er” moment, but without the Captain rushing out of the mansion, and people running around.
No, this was a private event. It was a quietly glistening moment, where my nearly-blind and nearly-sighted selves met and shook hands – eager but beleaguered hands. It was a peace-making moment that ended decades of strain. So many years of struggle were rolling behind me. So much suffering was being laid down.
Now I read books, bank statements, magazines, and anything I need or want to read. I read bathroom signs and menus. I am catching up on reading I never did in my youth. I am learning things I should have learned before. I could have listened to recorded matter, but I do not process information as well that way.
I love reading braille because it is quiet. It is free of the chatter of human-recorded or synthesized speech. It is meditative in a way. It is rhythmic and calm, now that I can move along smoothly and at a good pace. Sometimes, when I read braille, I think about Louis Braille and the oppression he endured to bring this code to us: the burned braille books, the confiscated slates and styluses, and the corporal punishment enforced at his school. I think of him with gratitude and tenderness.
With braille, I am learning to spell. I now know how to spell “tsetse” (like in “fly”). Why am I talking about tsetse flies? Well, I’m so glad you asked! I recently read an engrossing article about the gut microbiology of tsetse flies, and the passing of microbes from one tsetse fly generation to the next! I would never have read that article in print. I have a host of interests I had never satisfied. Now I can satisfy these interests with braille, sipping up the world around me.
This stage in my life closely resembles the next part of the afore-mentioned movie: the part where Helen dashes about, asking for the names of everything around her. The Helen writing this essay is reading about history, the sciences, and more. Now, I am reading to learn.
Today I read about the history of the piano. Tomorrow it will be the botany of trees. Next week it will be how the human body dutifully takes up the cause of building new neurons, making me a reader at age fifty-two.