By Nancy Scott
I learn by doing. I can’t get anything into my head or my bones until I’ve done it a hundred times. This character quirk causes both trouble and fun, especially the time I learned to use a white cane to maneuver my new neighborhood bus routes. My instructor, Shelly, provided at no cost to me by Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, was very smart and calm.
Though I use a cane in and around my apartment building and I always carry a cane, I am, at best, a moderate route traveler in familiar places. And, after a bad incident of veering into traffic, I knew I needed more time than Shelly could give me to gain confidence. So I asked a friend to walk routes with me.
Kathy had oriented me to the inside of my apartment building. I knew she had a knack and the patience for orientation. We walked together and I explained the techniques I’d use, such as trailing edges with the back of my hand and keeping myself slightly inside the corner at street crossings. She already understood my need for extra practice and to not let myself get scared off by one mistake.
Then, we walked the route several times with Kathy moving farther and farther away from me and only giving help when I had trouble, like correcting my crossing of the two driveways.
Kathy even took the bus to the mall so I could have a second experience going with a sighted guide. After the trip, Kathy said, “I think we should do it one more time before you work with Shelly again. And I’ll be somewhere but you won’t know where. And I’ll do what Shelly says and I won’t help ‘unless you’re gonna die.’”
On Tuesday morning, we agreed by phone to meet at the coffee shop. I set out, trailing grass lines, crossing streets when no cars were moving and veering a little from parallel traffic, and carefully lining up to cross the dreaded driveways.
I’d begun to know people at the bus stop and they watched me learn. So when I arrived, the first question was, “Is anybody watching you or can we help today?”
“A friend is watching. It’s not the real instructor but I still can’t cheat. I don’t know where she is but she might be somewhere in her car so she can follow the bus.”
“What kind of car?” one of the four women immediately asked.
“I never thought of that. I don’t know.”
They all began scanning. And, after mere seconds, announced, “There she is. She’s watching. That must be her. You’ll have to tell her that she’s a great friend but a terrible spy. We found her right away.”
I got to the mall and found the coffee shop by carefully trailing the outside mall walls. This is tricky because it requires paying attention to displays and wide doorways, not to mention sound and scent landmarks and people. But, when I entered, congratulating myself, I followed the wrong side of the counter and ended up behind it instead of on the customer side. (There was a radio playing and I headed for it.) I knew something was wrong because the tables weren’t where they should have been.
Kathy, my bad spy, was already there and had clued in the coffee shop lady that I was coming. I asked if I was in the right place and could I get chai. Then, I asked about finding a table. There was a slight pause (coffee shop lady looking at Kathy for help she wasn’t giving yet) and then the coffee shop lady explained where I actually was.
“How did I do that?” I wondered. “Let me see.”
I went back out and checked the doorway again. Then I checked the stores on either side. That was right; candy on one side and ice cream on the other! I didn’t pick this part of the mall for nothing.
Kathy later explained that the coffee shop lady wanted her to do something, but Kathy said, “She’s just checking out what she did.”
I returned and came in the right way and found a table where it should have been (or where it always was). Then, Kathy came over and ’fessed up, including saying that the bus stop women had all pointed at her.
As I write this, Shelly has called to say I’ll need two more lessons to learn the little mall (which is on the same bus route). That means I’ll get eight hours of training. It’s good to have such a knowledgeable teacher.
And now that Kathy understands how I travel outside, she should be able to teach me anything I would need to know if the bus stop or the routes change. Kathy’s extra practice also gave me the confidence to continue traveling. It’s good to have such friends, even if they’re not good spies.
And it’s good to know that, soon, I’ll be judged safe to travel alone and able to cheat without anyone watching me.