If I'd had any way of knowing what was behind that door, I might have turned and run back to the rusting jungle gym at my parents' house.
"No, she wasn't simply trying to get attention, Kathy Nimmer's sight was indeed failing. She was in second grade when she was diagnosed with a rare retinal degenerative disease which caused her vision to slowly deteriorate in stages – but it hasn't held her back. Ms. Nimmer received her BA from Trinity Christian College and then went on to get her Masters degree from Purdue University in 1992 Shortly thereafter she began teaching. Her accomplishments are many: she has earned numerous teaching honors including the Golden Apple, National Certification, and the Butler-Cooley Excellence in Teaching Award. She received first place in the Helen Keller International Memoir Competition for her writing. Ms. Nimmer spent five weeks in Russia as part of an exchange group for individuals with a disability, climbed mountains in the Sierra Nevada range, distance-bicycled through three states in two weeks, and ran with the Olympic torch in 1996. She is a prolific writer, motivational speaker, pianist, sports fan, and avid reader of mysteries. Elias is her third guide dog. (Source: amazon.com )
When I was a little girl, I could see the world spread out in front of me. This was true literally and figuratively. I had perfect vision, plus an enormous imagination. That imagination converted doll houses and their little figurines into magical stories. Then there was my fictional world of gymnasts who flipped and twisted on our backyard jungle gym with the girl bearing my favorite name always winning the gold. Ah, the joy of youth!
Then, life changed. My vision started deteriorating. We went from doctor to doctor with a diagnosis that I was inventing vision problems to get attention. Then came the news: I might become blind one day. I cried.
A small salvation became listening to books on tape, provided by NLS. I give too little credit there by calling it "small", for it quickly became an avid obsession to carry my big, bile-colored tape player up to the top of the jungle gym to listen to Bridge to Terabithia or to ignore the scratches on the records as Little House on the Prairie opened my failing eyes to worlds my imagination could paint vividly. I was hooked as a reader of recorded books.
At age eleven, the tape player and the doll house figurines, minus the doll house itself (too cumbersome to pack up), accompanied me to a school for the blind 150 miles away. There, I found a future much different than I'd ever counted on. New challenges, new teachers, long hallways that twisted in spooky ways…it was overwhelming. But, my keen interest in learning and dreaming won out.
Age fourteen swept away any pretence of being sighted as I learned braille, crossing that line between the seeing and what I feared would be the unseen. Nothing felt okay. I developed anorexia and depression, clawing for control in my spinning universe. Those little figurines of childhood could help me escape no longer, nor could the recorded books sustain their magic for long enough. After all, even the most verbose books ended, and then reality rose back up like a tidal wave.
With the prayers of my minister and with the support of others, I began to see a flicker of light in the darkness. My new desire became to succeed, to fill the emptiness with achievement. And so, I did just that. National champion gymnast, head cheerleader, speech team member, writer, pianist, valedictorian, all titles I added to my resume. I also started keeping track of how many recorded books I could read in one calendar year (108 was my record).
I used these successes to propel me into a small Christian college. There, I lost travel (mobility) vision and began using a cane. But, I found a career that seemed to fit as I trained to be an English teacher. The characters who inhabited my childhood worlds were leaping out of books that I could bring to life for my students and also leaping out of my own imagination and onto paper. The same tape player was still with me, now presenting more complex books that stimulated my maturing imagination and sparked my desire to share my love of the written word with others.
After grad school, I interviewed with a maverick principal who liked to be "first". I was his experiment; he would be the first principal in our region to hire a blind teacher. Bravo for me, for it got me in the door. If I'd had any way of knowing what was behind that door, I might have turned and run back to the rusting jungle gym at my parents' house.
My first years of teaching were one continuous haunting nightmare. Students slipped quietly out of my classroom, teachers didn't speak to me, parents didn't support my decisions, and chaos reigned. In the bleakest moment, right after a student's thrown book bag shattered a frosted glass window between my room and a nearby office, I contemplated quitting.
I spent one entire spring break praying, listening to several NLS books on the topics of inner strength, and brainstorming ideas for how to change my approach to teaching. Nothing magically became "okay", but I did find a tiny spark of hope again on that last Sunday evening of spring break. I would pilot a proactively positive attitude and a new set of teaching techniques for the rest of the semester and ultimately either succeed or quit the profession. Gradually, classroom problems declined, and my sense of worth grew. As I type, I am five weeks into my nineteenth year of being an English teacher.
Being one of the relatively few blind teachers who teach a regular subject in a sighted public high school classroom has been fulfilling. Sure, some of those old problems still rise up now and then, but the average day in my classroom is full of enthusiastic teaching, boundless encouragement for the 160+ students I see each day, and lots of laughter. I still rely on recorded books, listening to those from NLS and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) so that I can take extensive braille notes from which I teach. For pleasure reading I dive most readily into mysteries now. My students sometimes think I'm obsessed with serial killers! The old tape player nestles in a mound of dust on the top shelf of my closet as I revel in the increased freedom of digital books and their smaller, more savvy devices.
And I haven't stopped writing! In 2006, I published a book of poetry about my vision loss, "Minutes in the Dark, Eternity in the Light". Coming out this November is one of my biggest achievements, a full-length anthology featuring stories and poems by and about people with disabilities and the working dogs who make their lives easier. "Two Plus Four Equals One" will change people's lives. A year and a half ago when I created www.servicedogstories.com as a place to gather stories for the book, I couldn't see to the end of this writing project. Soon, the website will offer my book for sale in print, audio, and hopefully one day in DAISY. After all, how could I ever look that little girl I used to be in the face and tell her that this book of inspiration and hope would not be available in a format that blind people could access well? It is still a dream in progress, but the book itself will be a reality in a matter of weeks, so perhaps this dream too will have a happy ending, just like so much else in my life.
Editor's Note: "Everyone should read this book" is the title of a review of "Minutes in the Dark, Eternity in the Light" on Amazon.com:
"This is not your typical book of poetry...the author gives you a tiny glimpse of insight into the thoughts and feelings of a girl going blind, and what her life was like growing up, and what it has become. It's amazing. The author has a dry sense of humor that comes shining through as well. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I laughed. Often I did both at the same time. I highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially to people who work with children (or adults) who have any kind of challenge in their life. Doctors should read this book! Teachers! School administrators!"
Kathy Nimmer is an educator and a writer, she is not a publisher or technology expert. She hopes to publish her soon-to-be-released book "Two Plus Four Equals One" in DAISY format. If you or someone you know can help Kathy with the DAISY version of her book, please use the DAISY Contact Us form (newsletter category) and I will put you in touch with her.