It was my last day of ninth grade, and I was taking my final final. A standardized algebra exam that was going to be graded on a curve. I went in with a solid A average and a toxic mix of confidence and laziness. Confident that my A was all but guaranteed, and lazy because this final was the last thing standing between me and my long-awaited summer break.
The questions were harder than expected. I didn’t think it would matter, and I just wanted to be done. So, I simply skipped three of the most challenging questions on the test. I printed the answers from my braille device, handed them in, and headed home.
The next day, my mom went to the high school without me for some reason, and offered to check my grades. She called me to relay news from my algebra teacher. My final exam score was one point below the cutoff to maintain my A average. Had I attempted even one of those three questions, I probably would have kept my A. But, due to my carelessness, I was about to earn my first-ever B.
My mom wasn’t upset, but I was. I hadn’t done it on purpose, at least not consciously. Earning good grades was important to me. I was kicking myself for being so reckless.
We could say I learned an important lesson about not getting too complacent, and trying hard up until the end. And we could leave it there. But, I sometimes reflect on what might have driven me, if unconsciously, to blow off that final exam
Less than a week earlier, I had a conversation with my algebra teacher. He told me that he was amazed and surprised by my strong performance in his class. When I asked him point-blank if he had expected me to struggle in his class because I was blind, he admitted he had.
I was a good student. Adults often overflowed with praise of my intellect. But at the age of 15, I had caught on to the shifted standard of inspiration porn. I could never tell if praise was legitimate, or if it was an exaggerated reaction when their low expectations were exceeded. I became attuned to the shifted standard that often hides under a veneer of amazement or awe in my abilities. The unspoken “You’re amazing….For a blind girl.”
When I reflect on that incident 20 years ago, I often wonder if I blew off that test to teach the teacher a lesson. He had voiced amazement that I could do well in his class. Perhaps I wanted to prove to him that I did well because I tried hard, not because I was amazing or inspiring. I wanted to show him that I was just human, and that if I quit trying, I would bomb the test just like everyone else.
Some might say, You do have to work harder in a math class when you’re blind. And perhaps that is true. But having never been sighted, I don’t compare my effort or innate ability to that of anyone else. What I do know is that like most people, I was successful when I put in my best effort. When my effort fell short, my achievement followed suit.
A few months later, I wrote a speech about blindness for my English class. Though I cringe now at much of the cliched writing, the following paragraph still rings true for me and many of my disabled brethren:
Unfortunately, some people hold very low expectations of a person who is blind, so activities as simple as walking down the street, attending public school, or competing in a speech tournament become amazing feats, requiring tremendous perseverance and courage. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the blind should be pitied, that blindness is a curse, or that the blind spend their lives trapped in depression and fear of the world. Both views can have serious negative effects on a blind person’s self-image. When you are always praised and commended, you are bound to get a big head, and any criticism will come as a shocking blow. But if you are always pitied and doubted, you can start to believe that you really are inferior and weak, and your confidence level falls from here (arms at chest level) down to the ground. Where is the middle ground? When can our actions be judged as is and not be distorted by the fact that we are blind, where our successes can be commended and our failures recognized, but ultimately, where we can all be respected as human beings?
So there you have it, from the (braille) pen of a teenager. For many of us, the greatest compliment you can give us is ordinary treatment. When we are treated like ordinary people, neither amazing nor deficient, we will be motivated to give our best, and to become our best selves.