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The Case for Hanging In There

by Barb Johnson, Lansing, Michigan

Not Quite Fitting In

It's taken me several decades to clue folks in that I can't see or hear well. I can see five feet ahead. Everything else is like looking through pool water--outlines of objects come through without details. I say "Hi" to people not really knowing who I am talking to. I can pick up clues like body shape, hair color, skin color and that's it. Getting closer to people invades their comfort zone. People often back up a step. It's comical to see people edge backwards several times during a conversation. Even folks I know well and interact with daily have a distance they need to protect.

Growing up, I had a desire to fit in and be normal. I developed the skill of appearing to be a part of things but not really feeling included. My mom fought the school board to get me into junior high school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. I had previously been attending a class for partially sighted students in Detroit.

Ninth grade was a horrible year for me. There were four boys who slammed my self-esteem. When yearbook pictures came out, I tore up my picture and put the pieces into different waste baskets, so no one would be able to piece them together.

Tenth grade was much better. I had a new hair style and contact lenses, plus it was a new beginning at Grosse Pointe South High School. While I made friends and joined clubs, I was on the fringe of many different groups. I floated around seeking deeper relationships with the sad and "loners." I had a kinship with them and identified with their pain. I disrespected the "in crowd" for their shallowness and back stabbing. I did have friends, lots of them, but no one invited me for overnights or to movies.

Looking for Something More

My mom asked one day, "Doesn't it bother you that your sister has all the dates and you have none?"

"No," I responded. I didn't respect any of her dates and couldn't imagine having a fun evening with them. I was interested in art, music, and helping others.

Mom pushed college. "If Joe Blow and you were trying to get the same job, Joe would get the job because of your handicap." She was right, but I hated the pressure. And Mom was concerned about my gene pool. Was I going to pass on my poor vision? Later we found out that my handicaps happened because of quirks during the pregnancy that were never understood; none of these factors was hereditary.

I started asking my friends if they knew anything about adopting a child. I considered adopting, or working in a children's home. Already I was volunteering at the preschool in our Sunday school program. There was so much hatred going on about race in the 1960s that I was craving a community free of trauma and discord.

I began thinking about the fresh, clean land of Alaska. During my senior year of high school, I made an announcement to a friend that I wanted to: 1) live on an island; 2) work at a children's home; 3) live in Alaska; and 4) not get married for ten years. As it happened, all those wishes came true.

I only went to college to get away from home. I spent the first year at Michigan State University feeling depressed. I thought I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn't sure of my talent, and I knew I would never make enough to support myself. I considered studying to be a teacher, but I was told that with my hearing impairment, I wouldn't be able to manage a classroom. In addition, there were no jobs in teaching in the early 1970s. Social work was the next logical choice, but many would-be teachers had already switched to that field. In addition, it wasn't a good match for me because I couldn't see faces well, meaning I couldn't read people.

I eventually did fine at Michigan State after I found a goal to work for. I settled on recreation, which enabled me to combine everything I liked in art, social work and teaching. What's Wrong With This Picture?

After ten years in the field in Oklahoma and Alaska, I was ready to come home again. Lansing, my MSU stomping ground, seemed like the most logical choice; besides, my sister and best friend lived there. I tried to get a job with benefits, but only part-time employment was available.

Needing child development classes to get preschool employment landed me back in school at MSU. My intern assessment was glowing with praise and support--that is, until I mentioned I was interested in a teaching position. Total silence, with no encouragement to hang around. "I'm dead," I thought. "I just spent two terms working here as their substitute."

The non-response shocked and devastated me. Who would hire me if they didn't? That's when I started thinking about full-time home daycare.

A Place of My Own

I was already doing "Aunt Barb's preschool" with the neighborhood kids. I would take my red wagon full of toys, crafts and games to a different house each day. No one minded as long as each family home was equally trashed with kid chaos. My round robin daycare went on for years. I knew folks loved me and would trust their precious little ones with me. All I needed was a place of my own.

I went through eleven bank interviews over the next three years, the first of which didn't even last the twenty minutes that were scheduled. Along the way, I worked with a community college specialist in small businesses run by handicapped people, and I developed a sizeable business plan.

Eventually, we got to the tenth bank and found the perfect house in a great location. I had qualified for a disability down payment because of an unexpected eye injury. During horseplay, an elbow dislodged my retina, making me totally blind in one eye so that I was pre-approved for the down payment loan. Then they refused to approve me for the primary loan. "Your problem," my brother-in-law said, "is that you are so excited and energetic the loan officers say, 'She can do it.' But the computer says, "NO INCOME, NO INCOME, NO INCOME.'"

The eleventh bank, which had previously worked with foster homes and other stuff outside the box, accepted me at 6% interest instead of the normal 10%. Determination and faith had carried me to this amazing moment.

Bends In The Road

With a small staff, I cared for hundreds of kids over the years. The kids spent a lot of time outdoors--gardening, walking to the park, or taking the bus to the zoo. I always had a friend or relative on call with a car, in case of an emergency.

After 21 years, the state agency which licenses day care homes found out I can't see well. They tried to get my different doctors to sign documents about my ability to run my business. Nobody would, with the liability cases surfacing nowadays, and they were forced to shut me down. My entire house and outdoors was a child's fairyland of toys and activities. I was like Grandma Barb, spending all my time and money on my kids. It was hard to let go. My retirement party was like being at my own funeral. It was awful; people were crying, depressed, and angry.

Then my 93-year-old mother's health caved. Her independent life ended. So now we are sharing my house. She would never have agreed to live with me if I were still in business. And not having a business, I need her financial support to keep this four-bedroom house. Now I have a craft room, an office and a guest room.

I spent years trying to be different from my parents. However, I owe much of my personality and success to them. I have a love of land and gardening. My yard has over a hundred plants, including twenty tomato plants (to share with family and friends).

I have a can-do attitude. I enjoy looking out for the needs of others. At 93, Mom reads five different newspapers, writes many letters daily and reaches out to others. As I enter MY senior years I hope to glean the best attributes of my parents. They did the best they could with the knowledge they had in my childhood. Each experience and job enabled me to be successful in the next chapter of my life.

I am glad I'm not in that period of life that I felt I had to "prove myself," or in the financial drama of trying to pay the bills and make my business grow. Or the tired period of making it through the week, wishing I were ten years younger. Now I'm in the period of taking care of Mom; Dad has been gone for 35 years. I have a whole new world before me, the joys of nieces and nephews, weddings and births.

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% what you do about it. So hang in there; and never forget there's always a chance that things will change for the better, even if it doesn't seem that way at the time.

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