Preamble or how I became a guide dog user
When I was 18 several things happened that changed my young life. For one I graduated with the class of '95 from Wichita High School West. We were, I guess as Wichita public schools go, a small graduating class, 142 walked across the stage at Century II on 30 May, 1995.
I was meant to go, had actually signed up for classes at Wichita State University in the fall, but as it turned out, I followed my heart and hard head and went to guide dog school instead.
I had been thinking about getting a guide dog for about two years. I figured sighted teenagers get cars, why not a blind teenager getting a guide dog? Independence is independence? Right? Right.
But, I wasn't mean at heart and knew subjecting a guide dog to the zoo that was public high school verged on mean, possibly abusive, for sure not putting the wellbeing of any dog that might guide me around first.
I first heard about guide dogs, I mean really heard about them, I had always just known that some blind people use the stick er um cane and others use dogs. Well. I was listening to a talking book that told all about these things about blindness. It had an entry for guide dog. When I heard the description floating up out of the tape player I was hooked.
I hated, still hate the stick. It was so. not cool. It made me look blind. And it just sucked. I didn't like going out with it. Even today as I wait for training with my third guide dog I hate going out with the blasted thing. It still is not cool and makes me look blind. To say nothing of it always getting stuck in cracks and jabbing me half to death. Gah!
Oh, there was a time that I thought the cane was cool. When I was 12 and at the extended school year program at the state school for the blind in Kansas City I thought canes were cool.
I had a nasty habbit of falling down steps, thinking they were flat ground. Or thinking shadows on the ground were dangerous pits, holes that I could trip on or fall into. When I came in from outside it took an age for my remaining useful eye to adjust to the change in lighting and I was for all intent and purposes completely blind. Same thing at night. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face, never mind trying to walk anyplace on my own hook.
I noticed that some students at KSSB, some who saw a lot better than I did, used canes. They did not fall down steps, trip over things, fear shadows or walking at night or in dimly lighted places.
I made up my mind. I had to have one of those canes. As all who know me well can tell you, once my mind is made up it is made up come hell or high water and if I want something enough I'll do whatever it takes to get it. Damn the challenges come what may.
I went to the travel instructor, having noticed a whole mess of white canes in a box in her office. I asked about getting one of those canes and how to use it. I told her more or less what I've said here. Blind in one eye and can't see out of the other... She gave me a cane to take to the dorm, not the one I'd end up with, just a test drive one to see what I thought. She said she'd see me that next afternoon for a lesson and to be fitted for the cane.
Oh! Happy day! No more bashing into things, falling down curbs, or up curbs for that matter, no more thinking shadows were waiting to swallow me whole. Yes yes yes!
That lasted exactly about four hours... That evening my folks called me. I was excited and told my dad. He... Said I didn't need a cane and would be taking one away from someone who needed it really and truly.
I thought about the huge heap of canes in the travel teacher's office and figured canes must come from someplace... If they needed more, I reasoned, they could just call the white cane factory or where ever the canes came from and just get more. It was the Kansas state school for the blind. Right? I did not tell my dad this.
I did however start to feel self-conscious...
I went for my lesson that next afternoon but found myself feeling like an elephant in a small room.
That next year I started to get travel training at school in Wichita. There was that damn cane again. And a teacher, several actually, who wanted me to use it. In public in front of God and everybody no less. Um erm? No.
I did all I could to not have to go to my weekly travel classes. Stayed home from school, forgot the cane, anything I could think of.
Travel classes filled me with fear and still make me uncomfortable. Going someplace strange alone for the first time? Yeah. I don't think so.
As time went on and I got to be a teenager my dislike for "that stick" grew and grew. I remember one day when I was in eighth grade that my V.I. teacher and travel instructor said I had to use the cane at home when I went out with my family. I had a huge non-folding cane with a huge ginormous marshmellow tip. A marshmellow tip is a huge blocky largeish marshmellow looking cane tip that's suposed to do something? muffle the shock of the cane getting stuck in cracks? I don't know. To my way of thinking it was the cherry on the look at me I'm a complete and utter looser cake.
My folks and grandparents Kennedy were going out to eat. Well so did I nad my brother and sister... I remember wanting to take the cane along just so my teachers at school would shut up about it and get off my back. But I was told "You don't need that cane, you have us."
This was my parents. There was no outranking them. So no cane.
It has only been very recently that my mom has encouraged me to bring my cane or, I'm guessing in future my new guide dog. This is a welcome change. If it had been like that when I was younger, I wonder if my life would of turned out different?
In the summer of 1994 I attended the college prep program at the rehab center for the blind, now closed, located in Topeka.
There were all kinds of things, braille, travel, that I didn't like. There were things, cooking and computers and my english 101 class at Washburn that I did like.
One thing that made the braille class more livible was the fact my instructor had a very very sweet yellow lab female. I was taken with the dog straight away and the instructor would let me stroke her dog at the end of the lessons. I asked a few questions about the dog, mostly though, just getting to pat her at the end of class was enough.
I started picturing my grown up adult self with some unnamed guide dog of my own. At that time I didn't have much of a clue as to where you got them or anything about them. I just figured dogs must be better than canes to get around with.
There was another instructor who ran several other classes and had a yellow lab male. She too answered my questions and allowed me to pet her dog. I knew to ask even without being told. It just made sense to me. I regarded people's guide dogs as an extention of themselves. I know I wouldn't like it if random people came up and started patting me without asking or warning so I figured others must feel like this as well.
Still, I think then the seeds of, madness were planted. I didn't give guide dogs much of a thought again until oh that next year, the summer straight after graduation...
I was back at the rehab center. There were the instructors too with labbies, male and female and then. To my joy a student. Who had a golden retriever female.
This new breed of guide dog was so, if you'll excuse the word choice, fetching. I had never seen a golden retriever. She was the most pretty dog I had ever lay eyes or hands to.
My student friend was also one of the kindest, sweeetest people I had ever met. I still remember fondly and have considered asking GDB, this is where her dog was from, GDB, Guide Dogs for the Blind, if they could put us in touch again.
I loved having a real live guide dog right there at the dorm. Unlike the instructors' dogs who I saw in "working" mode. I got to observe a guide dog team right around the clock.
My friend was awesome and not only explained about what went into caring for a dog, she even let me watch and sometimes help out. Never the feeding. I got to watch that but she was the only one who was allowed to feed or water her dog.
She also said having a dog ment getting up early or going out into the rain to take the dog out to do her business.
She told me about the school, GDB, she had received all her dogs from. That place sounded magical. I pictured blue sky day in and day out, palm trees, hippy-ish sort of out there laid back people. It sounded like the place for me. And, unlike the school in Kansas I had been looking into, everything was free. The trip out and back, the dog, the training, and, this was the thing to push me over the edge... They helped with medical expensis, leaving me to provide the dog food, grooming and other not hugely expensive things I knew I could cover.
No? Actually, what sealed the deal was when my friend let me "test drive" her dog. I was simply gobbsmacked at this dog leading me around things. Unlike the stick that was noisy and clattered at every step, the dog was more or less quiet. Oh that was that. To hell with college. I was getting one of those dogs.
I called Guide Dogs for the Blind on 31 July, received the information slash application packet on 2 August which I thought was a good sign as that was my sister Katie's birthday. I filled in and returned the massive amounts of forms and references required by the 15th of August. Had a home interview on 18 September...
I was sure that even after all this, I'd not be allowed to train with a dog at what sounded like the coolest school on the planet. I kept watching the post and kept not seeing anything with the GDB logo, back then a GSD in profile and shadow, on any of the letters.
On Friday, 6 October all that changed. I went to browse the post. Among the bills and letters and junk mail there was a big yellow packet with the GDB logo on it.
O my God! They wrote me back! Oh I didn't get accepted. But wait. It felt like a bunch of papers and a few tapes. Surely they wouldn't of sent such a huge package to say "no", they didn't seem like the sort of outfit to rub someone's nose in bad news. Still...
I ran into the house and tore into my packet. Tapes, and heaps of papers poored out onto the table. My mom asked what I had got and I said something from the Guide Dogs! A lot of something. My mom said she'd look at it and see what the papers said. She read out the cover letter.
I made it. They were inviting me to class in November. Wow. Me a guide dog user. Wow. Wow. woweee wow! Then something in the letter I didn't like. I had to go out to train for four weeks, which was awesome, and would be going to San Francisco. Way way beyond awesome. However the dates I was required to be away were 12 November through 9 December.
What! Were these people smoking pot! That was like over Thanks Giving! They can't do that. Everything is shut then. People have to be with their family. Really?
To say nothing of how the class also ran right on over the dates of my annaversery with my high school sweetheart and his birthday. Gah! I thought about calling them and saying I couldn't do those dates. And then I thought, there will be other Thanks Givings, and other annaverseries, as it turned out my boyfriend and I split up several months after I returned with my guide dog. I thought waiting all this time was hard. Here was a class date and everything so I best grab it when I could.
Oh wow me. class. next month. Aah! My travel packet came in on the 23rd. I remember my boyfriend reading over the packet and he made like they had written to say sorry, just kidding, you aren't getting a dog. Later that evening we were in a car accident. My first thought wasn't oh I hope my boyfriend is okay. It was. Crap! Now I'll really have to call and say I can't make it as I'll be in hospital, in traction no less. Great.
As it turned out no one was hurt, save for the other guy's car. Our car was dingged up too but the other guy, who Tboned the front driver's side by the tire, was totaled.
Finally the day before class came. I didn't sleep. At all. I worried about all sorts of nonsense. What if they lost my bags? What if I got on the wrong aircraft? What if I got lost and missed my connecting flight? What if the aircraft crashed? What if my classmates were hostile or didn't get on with me? What if my roommate was a gang member? It was California after all.
Finally it was time to go. I said good bye to my mom and my boyfriend drove me to the airport.
We made it through all the airport booyeah, a cakewalk compaired to now a days. Ugh I am not looking forward to any of this security blh blah..
We got to the gate and it hit me all at once. I started to cry. I wanted my mommy. I didn't want to go on this scary ass flight. Or to big as hell San Francisco. I didn't want to go to a 24/7 neverending, for the next 28 days, travel lesson.
My bags had been checked and I was expected to turn up at the other end of two timezones and several states later on down the day.
I got on the aircraft and sniffeled and sobbed to myself whilst listening to Nirvana and looking out the window. Then? Were were off...