As Michelle’s cheery greeting echoed around the room that first morning, there was a chorus of mumbling. Everyone else must share my I-don’t-do-mornings tendency, I thought, while Michelle seems to relish mornings.
In an equally cheery tone, she continued, “I’m expecting you to call me Michelle. Yeah, I do have a newly acquired PhD but we’ll let the Dr-title for those with more experience. Plus it makes me feel old and stodgy.”
I was impressed.
Amish people do not bother with surnames or titles; they use first names and nicknames because anything else is thinking more highly of oneself than one ought to. Because I had been around the non-Amish block for several decades, I knew that worldly social standards meant using surnames when addressing anyone older than oneself, and of course, my last school teachers had been Mr. and Mrs. but were college students children and were university professors called Professor or Dr. Imsuperior or Mr. Lowly or Ms. Generic?
Michelle had neatly solved my problem, at least for this one class.
The second instructor of the day also said, “You can call me Kristen.” She too was a young woman but there the similarities ended. Her dark hair did not whirl nor did sparkling bits of color dance at her ears and she wore dull neutral shades of clothing. She was, however, equally distinctive. She wore darkly tinted glasses, and her left hand rested on a harness attached to the body of a beautiful chocolate Labrador retriever as she introduced me to Larson, her guide dog.
Again, and according to prior arrangement, I was the first student in the room. She and I briefly compared notes about our similar disabilities but because the room was much smaller, darker, and cramped, I soon moved away from the door. Where the first classroom had been large and spacious with two walls of window furnished with small tables and separate chairs, this one was not only smaller but filled to overflowing with seating I soon grew to hate.
Between the mini-table and the back of the chair that was permanently affixed to it, there was a minimum of space into which I was, apparently, expected to squeeze my elderly woman’s body. For the umpteenth time, I wished I could switch bodies as easily as I changed clothes. And what was I supposed to do with my backpack? Let it in the eight inches of floor space to get kicked and tripped over?
As each new person entered the room, the noise level increased. While the first class’s interaction included the awkwardness of strangers with the instructor providing the sole source of sound, this space rang with, “Oh, hey, didn’t I just see you a minute ago? Are you in this class too?” or “How was your lunch? When did you get here? Are you unpacked yet?”
When the room seemed poised to burst with sound, enthusiastic energy, and the same twenty-five students that I’d seen in my first class, Kristen introduced herself and Larson. Instead of the usual lets-introduce-ourselves, though, she explained that a sighted teaching assistant would be in the room at times, and more importantly, we needed to understand that her dog was not the class mascot.
We were to relate to Larson as we would to her. He was not a pet when he wore his harness and because she did not expect us to rub her ears or offer her treats we were not to do that to Larson either. We were to think of him as a four-legged instructor.
Laughter bounced around the room.
An hour and a half later, bits of laughter floated with me as I left the Willard Building and waited for the white minivan on the same corner I left a hundred years earlier. I felt like a first-grader walking home after my first, first day of school.
“So, it looks as though you survived,” my daughter said as she us drove home.
“Well, yeah, I wasn’t sure at first. I nearly got stuck in the restroom and then a desk but I think I can do this. I only had two classes but I was with the same group of teens for both of them. That will be fun and easier for me. I already recognize some of their voices.”
“Now if I could just borrow some of their energy . . .”