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Letters About Literature National Winners 2018

National Honor Winner, Level 3: Maya Mau

Dear Helen,

It seems to me that many probably pick up your book to read the inspiring story of a deaf-blind child fighting her way through the world. They wonder what it felt like to be in your shoes—what having two senses stolen at such an early age meant for you. Under different circumstances, I would have been one of those people. But I had a different motive. I opened your book on a mission.

My sister Madeline was diagnosed with leber’s congenital amaurosis at four months old. In words that I could understand at the time, Maddy was blind. She had inherited two “bad” genes, one from each parent, resulting in her loss of sight. At first, she could still see a few bright colors, but her eyesight steadily grew worse. Right now, at eleven years old, she describes people as “indistinct elongated blobs” (she has a well-developed sense of humor) and cannot see shadows, but can still tell the difference between night and day.

As I began to understand her condition better, I felt an increased urgency to read as much about blindness as possible. People would find me with my nose buried in a book, waiting at the bus stop or in a corner of the classroom during independent reading time. I would stay up late at night in bed, spend countless hours in the library, and use every available opportunity to cram more information into my head. Your book was one of the first ones I picked up.

I was intent on finding a first-hand account of a successful blind adult. By the time I was ten years old, I was growing increasingly aware of the difficulties Maddy was going to face as she grew older—worried, whispered conversations behind closed doors were not as secret as they were meant to be. I overheard many—a tenth of all disabled people at that time were unemployed. Many government mandates attempted to but still did not protect the rights of people with disabilities. Stereotypes ran rampant, and discrimination was common.

During a trip to a library, I was aided by a kind librarian who showed me many books on disability. Yours immediately fascinated me. My eyes were drawn to your face on the front, calm and collected—it beckoned me as only a figure of authority can capture the attention of a child. Your eyes were turned down, as if you could be looking directly at me if I stood in front of you. I learned from the librarian that you were living without sight or hearing—immediately, I thought that if you could publish a book without two of your senses, my sister could be like you, too!

I carried your book back home, hugging it tightly to my chest. It wasn’t until I arrived, breathless at my bedroom door, that I allowed myself a peek at the first chapter. It was hard going at first—because I didn’t know many of the words that you used, I progressed slowly and learned to cherish my pocket dictionary. However, once I got going, there was no stopping me.

I was determined to learn as much as I could about you, Helen. As you told me about Anne Sullivan, Martha Washington, and your little sister, I learned how you struggled to understand words spelled into your hands—how the barrier finally broke down and you connected the word water to the substance. And as this happened, I began to grasp Maddy’s frustrations and the need to find release. You and she are very similar in that sense—although it was much easier for us to communicate with her than Miss Sullivan to you, she still did not understand many things that were going on. At the table when guests laughed at a mimed joke, she would immediately throw a fit if the punchline was not explained to her at once. In preschool, she would cry if a toy suddenly disappeared. In most cases, a classmate had only taken it away to play, but Maddy had no idea. She couldn’t see. And you knew how exactly this felt. You told me, “I struggled—not that struggling helped matters, but the spirit of resistance was strong within me; I generally broke down in tears and physical exhaustion. If my mother happened to be near I crept into her arms, too miserable even to remember the cause of the tempest.” Gradually, I learned the reasons for Maddy’s breakdowns. And when Miss Sullivan entered the picture with her patience and ways of description, I learned to apply what she taught me to my life as well.

Being deprived of both sight and sound, you constantly expressed a need to be aware of what was happening around you. Although Maddy could hear while you couldn’t, she was still often frustrated in the same way you were. From your teacher I learned how and when to supply information—what Maddy was interested in and what she wasn’t. You marveled, “I cannot explain the peculiar sympathy Miss Sullivan had with my pleasures and desires. Perhaps it was the result of long association with the blind. Added to this she had a wonderful faculty for description. She went quickly over uninteresting details, and never nagged me with questions to see if I remembered the day-before-yesterday’s lesson.” With your book as a guide, I was able to describe things to my sister that I never would have thought of even mentioning before. I realized how much our eyes take in at a glance, and how much of that is lost to people without vision—the way the sunset carpets the west horizon in blazing reds and golds. The mottled blue plumage of a blue jay in flight. The expressions on loved-ones’ faces.

You also said, “I listened with increasing wonder to Miss Sullivan's descriptions of the great round world with its burning mountains, buried cities, moving rivers of ice, and many other things as strange. She made raised maps in clay, so that I could feel the mountain ridges and valleys, and follow with my fingers the devious course of rivers.” This passage especially helped me form vivid descriptions for Maddy—I build models out of polymer clay as well, and with the help of Miss Sullivan was able to teach my sister how the water cycle works.

You also warned me of many obstacles yet to come. Later on in your book, you speak of the difficulties you faced when taking tests—badly transcribed Braille pages, increasingly inconvenient symbols for math, and the constant need of a person hovering over you to spell out questions into your hand. Now, when I take my own tests in high school, I can’t help thinking about how much easier it is for a person with sight and hearing to do so. There is no need for bulky braille textbooks, loud embossers, or clacking typewriters.

There is no confusion between different systems of braille—after all, there is only one way to write English. Then I think of my sister across the street at the public middle school, struggling daily with screen readers, braille-writers, and inaccessible technology. You would be taken aback if you saw how much technology is being relied on today, and more importantly how unsuitable it is for the blind. More than one day has passed when Maddy cries over the unfairness of her situation—when an assignment is posted online but she didn’t know because her screen reader didn’t process it. And I know as textbooks get heavier and schools get larger, it will be even more difficult for her to continue her journey through public schools. She is the only visually impaired student in our district right now, Helen. I wish you were here in person to tell her how much that means. My sister is so brave.

Your story helped me accept the way Maddy is as a person. Whenever I find myself irritated by her demands or continuous questioning, I excuse myself and look at your face on the cover. I read your words, “For, after all, everyone who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better. I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory.” You have a special ability to reason with me, Helen, in a way no one else could. Your words seem like a direct response to my questions and frustrations, and no matter how often I visit your book, it never seems to get old.

Interestingly enough, Maddy and I are both writers and we constantly seek your wisdom when it comes to words. “Trying to write,” you said, “is very much like trying to put a Chinese puzzle together. We have a pattern in mind which we wish to work out in words; but the words will not fit the spaces, or, if they do, they will not match the design. But we keep on trying because we know that others have succeeded, and we are not willing to acknowledge defeat.” We’re still trying, too.

Do you know just how much your book has influenced me and my sister? After I finished reading it, I immediately asked my parents to request a copy in braille from the Library of Congress. They did so, and I spent the next few months rereading your story alongside Maddy. She could understand your struggles much better than I ever could, so I was not surprised when she began teaching me how to teach her. Your book brought us together, Helen. Without it, I think I would have never been able to connect with Maddy in the way I did.

As I sit writing this, I glance over to her desk and see the shelves of braille books, gray braille writer, braillenote, and large backpack. She is there now, typing away on her qwerty keyboard, her screenreader relaying information to her at a breakneck pace. Helen, I am strangely reminded of a scene in your book where you, too, sit at your desk and type at a typewriter. Your eyes do not focus on one thing but dart around continuously, like my sister’s do. Although you were a student long before Maddy and I were, the two images in my mind are strikingly similar.

I watch as she takes out her earbuds, closes her laptop, and reaches for her algebra textbook. I am reminded of how many hurdles still stand in her path—how, after each bend in the road, another part winds unseen. But you will always be there, Helen. You and your words and your wisdom will sit on my shelf and on hers until we need them again. I don’t want to say thank you right now, because that phrase seems too final and conclusive to me. For us, your story will never end. But because I cannot think of another way to express my gratitude, I take down your book from my shelf and open it up to the first page. There are no other words available at the moment.

Maya Mau