Caitlin Mongillo: Fitting in and Standing Out

Caitlin MongilloCaitlin Mongillo received her B.A. in English and Secondary Education in May, 2010. In 2013, she completed her MSW from Stony Brook University. Caitlin recently relocated from Long Island, NY, to her new home in Southwestern Connecticut. Currently, Caitlin is the coordinator of an employment center, which helps people with disabilities find, and sustain, work. She also works part time as the social media manager and newsletter writer for a non profit organization which helps people with print disabilities. In her free time, Caitlin enjoys volunteering, reading, watching movies, hanging out with her family, being snarky and drinking copious amounts of green tea. She shares her home with her fabulous husband, a mischievous beagle mix named Sam, and her lovable yellow lab guide dog, Laser.


I can feel their eyes on me. They’re all staring, judging. My blue striped tee is too big and my jean shorts are too long. They don’t like that I don’t wear make up and they think my ponytail is childish. I don’t know how I let myself leave the house this morning; after all, it’s my first day of high school. First impressions are so important, and I’m failing, miserably.

My bus got in late, and I could not find the class, so now I’m late to homeroom. I like to get to class early so I can find the closest seat to the door. But, as I reach my hands out, I feel back after back after back. I do not encounter an empty chair beneath my groping fingers, only cotton and the slick sensation of sweating skin. I am panicked, and desperately want to cry. Finally, the home room teacher interrupts his monologue about locker combinations long enough to tell me there’s a seat in the front I can take. I extend my white cane in front of me and navigate the labyrinth of outstretched feet and backpack straps. The room falls silent as everyone, including the teacher, stares at me.

I traverse a row, and get to the front desk. I place my hand on the desk and feel a pad of paper. I move to my right and graze a Styrofoam coffee cup with my middle finger. Nobody helps me, and I feel tears pricking at my eye lids. All I want to do is sit down. I catch my foot in a desk leg and almost fall. This finally spurs the homeroom teacher into action, and he taps a desk a few rows over from where I stand.

****

Though the incident occurred eleven years ago, it has remained a vivid memory. If it had happened now, I would have handled things differently. But I was not the person then that I am today.

When I walked through the halls of my high school, I tried to keep my cane as close to my body as I could. Though the way a cane is useful to a person who is blind is by tapping it, in an arc, in front of the body, I never did this. Though my school teemed with students (my graduating class was just over seven hundred and fifty), this was not the real reason for my reluctance to follow proper mobility protocol. I didn’t want to be seen, and I did not want to be heard tapping my way merrily to math class.

Almost on a weekly basis in school, I’d hear the whispered or shouted name I dreaded: Blind girl. Everyone else, it felt like, got the luxury of being talked about behind their back. I was never afforded such courtesies. I was always on display, always a subject of conversation, as students frantically dodged around my long cane or scurried away from the swing of my massive backpack, crammed to bursting with heavy Braille books. “Blind girl” became my name from all those kids who didn’t sit beside me in class. “Blind girl” also became like my shadow, following me where ever I went. I didn’t like this “blind girl” and I did not want to be her.

I resented the title. I had a slight bit of vision I could use to detect colors and land marks. When I explained it to people, I would always, adamantly, title myself “visually impaired”. I didn’t have anywhere near enough sight to be considered a person with normal vision, but I also staunchly denied just how little I could see. I refused to accept “blind” as a term, mostly because of how often I heard it in a derisive manner as I walked the halls. I was clustered in with the boy in the rainbow kilt or the girl with the line of metal rings in her lip; just another freak, who’s only distinguishing feature was what was so clearly “wrong” with them.

I have learned that, overall, I was quite lucky in my high school career. Some of my blind peers were mercilessly bullied in school; getting pushed down stairs, having their homework ripped up, and enduring physical assaults. This never happened to me. A few times, if I accidentally hit a passerby with my cane in the hall, I would hear them tell their friends loudly that they wished they could hit me with my own “stick”. Another time, a friend told me he’d seen a group of boys pretend to pull my hair as I walked down the stairs in front of them. But, mainly, it was the constant scrutiny I felt like I was under which drove me crazy. I was visible as I stumbled about. The fact that I carried with me a four foot long pole was not lost on anyone. In class, I was able to fold up my cane and stow it on the ground. The clanging of my ten pound Braille machine in math class or the soft clatter of my note takers keys was forgotten by my classmates after a while; it was just what I did. The people in my classes got used to my blindness, mostly because it became secondary to my personality.

I was one of those obnoxious people who always raised her hand in class. Most of the time, I knew the answers to the questions being asked. I volunteered to read aloud in English and I relished the opportunity for extra credit debate performances in History. If there was a classroom activity taking place, I was involved. I tried to excel academically, because I felt like it would make my blindness fade more into the background. I wanted, more than anything, for people to equate my name with friendliness, creativity, and intelligence, rather than first thinking of my ocular ineptitude. So, in the classroom, I tried to stand out, while in the jungles of passing periods I tried like hell to blend in.

The classroom was my safe haven. It was where I could shine and show everyone, especially myself, that there was more to me than strangers expected. The only times I felt conspicuous were when the elephant called Blindness stomped his way into the room. I wish I could have known, in advance, the days we’d discuss Helen Keller and her struggles in History so I could figure out how to fake the flu. It also may have made my life easier to be absent for the entire Oedipus Rex unit in ninth grade and the many discussions we had about the blindness motif so commonly used in literature. The day my Honors English teacher asked me if I felt like I had more “vision” because I had no sight was the only day I think I have wondered if humiliation was a reasonable excuse for jumping out a window.

The fact of the matter is that I was not able to understand how people could not look at me and think that my blindness made me a freak. Because I couldn’t quite accept the fact that it didn’t. In the halls at school, people doubtless stopped and stared. I know for a fact they even commented on the fact I couldn’t see. But, looking back, I was really just a self-obsessed teenager in a sea of many other self-obsessed teenagers. Most of them probably noticed my shiny metal Braille machine or my fluorescent red-tipped cane, but these things really didn’t impact their lives. They may have been curious or uncertain how to approach me, but probably very few of them thought much more about me and my little life. Me being blind was much more of an issue to me than it ever was to any of them.

***

My guide dog and I glide down the hallway. As we pass by my colleague’s cubicles, they call out soft greetings to us. I respond to them, and concentrate on the route we’re taking. The staccato rhythm of his toenails on the linoleum accompanied by the chorus of his collar tags jingling is the perfect soundtrack to my contemplations of distance traveled and steps remaining in our journey. I direct my dog right at the reception desk, left at the end of the hall, and then straight into the conference room. As I open the door, I feel relieved that we have made it on time.

I can feel them staring. I know their eyes are taking me in. They might be admiring my charcoal blazer or the new black dress that skims my knees. They might see the shadow of coral lining my lips, or covet the sleek Mac beneath my arm. They might even notice how my eyes don’t really focus on anything in particular. My husband told me before I left for work that I looked beautiful, and I believe him.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Could anyone direct me to an empty seat?” From across the room, a woman calls to me. My guide dog skirts the table and brings me to the chair. The woman and I chat softly together about work, the weather, the difficulty she encountered finding the office building.

“I’m just wondering,” she says. “I know some people prefer to be called sight challenged or visually impaired. What do you like?”

“Blind is fine. It’s the most accurate description of my sight,” I say with a small smile. “But mostly I just like to be called Caitlin.”

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