I wasn’t exactly thrilled about starting second grade. After all, first grade hadn’t been a picnic. Learning to practice cane techniques and street-crossing meant I was frequently pulled away from recess. I’d overheard my parents’ concerns about my constant “t-a-l-k-i-n-g” in class; they worried the many visual activities and my resulting boredom were to blame.
Though I could speed through easy chapter books and correctly spell most of the big words in the long stories I wrote, I still couldn’t make heads or tails of most math problems and graphs. And P.E., which I’d eagerly awaited ever since my older sister had told me about it, was one of the biggest disappointments of all.
“You can’t always be with Cati,” an adult would invariably lecture whenever my best friend took my hand to run alongside me during capture the flag. Cati never cared that helping me would slow her down, but most of our classmates certainly did. Each day during P.E., I was shunted from classmate to classmate until Cati inevitably wound up holding my hand once again. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to sense that my blindness made me different; most people wouldn’t really, truly want me on their team the way Cati did.
In spite of my misgivings, the first day of second grade rolled along without a hitch. I paged through my new Braille books during silent reading, made it to and from the cafeteria by myself and joyfully reunited with the jungle gym, swings and monkey bars during recess.
For the final activity on that first day, we were to take turns contributing to a group painting. My table was called first, but before I had time to panic, Mr. Damaschino himself guided me to the back of the room. As my table-mates chattered nearby, Mr. Damaschino leaned down to my level. “What would you like to paint, Caitlin?”
“The sky,” I said shyly. “But I don’t know how, except we have to use blue.”
Mr. Damaschino placed a paintbrush between my fingers, directed it to a jar of paint, and guided my brush-strokes as expertly as if he assisted amateur blind artists every day of his life.
“Would you like to hear a secret?” he asked, still in a conspiratorial stage whisper.
“Yes!” I was awed by the prospect of hearing a real live teacher’s secret.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he said, “but there was a big fight at the last staff meeting.”
“There was?” I was astonished; I couldn’t imagine teachers fighting. “About what?”
Mr. Damaschino chuckled. “About which of us would get to have you in our class. All the teachers wanted you, but I wanted you the most, so I told them they couldn’t have you.”
I thought about P.E. and about being passed from hand to unwilling hand. What my new teacher was saying didn’t jive with my own experience.
Mr. Damaschino was still guiding my hand—still helping me paint my sky—but nonetheless, he must have seen the perplexity on my face. “I’ve heard—from many people—that you’re a very smart, very special girl.” He gave my fingers a gentle squeeze. “I think we’re going to have a wonderful time together.”
And we did. I worked hard on my math in the hopes of earning Mr. Damaschino’s signature smiley-face stickers. I sat with the girls at lunchtime and went on countless playdates after school. The boys were quick to defend me when kids from other classes pulled down my sunglasses or cut in front of me in line, and they never once balked when I asked to join their games of tackle football.
Our class was encouraged to write letters to one another, which were delivered daily by the mail monitor. Knowing how much I loved to keep my friends’ words, Mr. Damaschino made sure that the notes my peers wrote to me were translated into braille. I learned to touch-type, and Mr. Damaschino promised that, one day, I would be an author. And through it all, I came to understand that though I might not be everyone’s first choice—though my differences might initially cause others to hang back—I could and would win them over in the end, simply by being myself.
On my first day of second grade, when Mr. Damaschino helped me paint my sky, we painted it without limits.
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