Epiphanies for the Blind
Who's Teaching Who at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired?
By Mindy LaBernz, Fri., Feb. 23, 1996
Guadalupe is alwaysgood for a carnival-like parade of odd couples and unexplainables, the bizarre sights that cause my occasionally visiting father to shake his head in disgust -- or perhaps confusion -- and mutter, Austin. A particularly puzzling phenomenon that's stumped me for years is the clustering of blind children around scruffy, alternative types at street corners up and down the Drag. It's not the children themselves that are perplexing since the Texas School for the Blind and the Visually Impaired is located nearby on 45th Street, nor is it the presence of purple-haired cretins, because, well, like my father says, Austin.
It's the combination of the two that has always seemed incongruous, though -- enough to warrant an investigation in any event. Preliminary findings were ominous: Many of the creatures leading around what I perceived to be helpless, handicapped children were, frighteningly enough, those bong-sucking, acid-swilling, money-borrowing, no-bill-paying musicians I've grown to love. Worse still, they all seemed to be of the icky, "underground" ilk that doesn't care enough about themselves to bathe, let alone care about the well-being of -- again, as I perceived it -- some poor crippled kid.
Yet spending time within the walls of the TSBVI exposes the real story to be less about those nefarious musicians -- many of whom were actually in Slacker, but whose work ethic belies the tag -- and more about the students themselves and their inherent musicality. Still, the story cannot be told without a very central musician character, a guitar-player whose first and last name will forever be inextricably linked with my experiences inside (and outside) those walls.
Meet Jon Sanchez.
The Eight O'Clock
Pill Song Jon Sanchez, serene behind his curly, chin-length locks and darting eyes, thinks the Monday night class of grade-schoolers will be "a lot of fun." As one of two Music and Arts Instructors at TSBVI, he teaches three or four 45-minute lessons during his five-hour shifts Sunday through Wednesday. What those lessons entail, however, hasn't been explained as of yet. We walk to the Elementary Complex with the other instructor, Marlys West, a published poet enrolled in UT's prestigious graduate writing program, who acts as the "arts" arm of the operation. This evening, she will assist Sanchez and carries a teal laundry basket filled with "instruments" -- a couple of tambourines, some ridged sticks, called "timbali sticks," and a cowbell.
Recalling primary school lessons, I anticipate an orderly circle of children singing "Puff the Magic Dragon," perhaps bickering over who gets the coveted triangle or the seat next to the beloved teacher -- the only difference being that these kids will be visually impaired. At this point, the word "blind" conjures up cartoonish images -- dark sunglasses, canes, waifish Dickensian characters. The term will quickly prove to be embarrassingly inadequate, though, not to mention misleading.
A brighter observer may have gleaned from the two instructors' casual discussion about how mentally taxing the job is -- certainly more difficult than a five-hour shift at a restaurant, Marlys surmises -- that this line of work is unlike any preconceived notions floating blithely about in my mind. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd suspect it was Sanchez's goal to blow my mind.
We open the door to the classroom and walk into what the untrained eye would perceive as total chaos. Before the first introduction is made, I take a hit to my left hip from a little bespectacled blond boy (he looks like the "Messy Marvin" kid in A Christmas Story, so that's what we'll call him; in fact, we won't use anyone's real name) who immediately grabs my hand and drags me to the fire alarm on the wall, at which he keeps pointing. An official, adult type eventually explains to me that Marvin will persist until I do exactly what he wants, and since he's deaf and can't hear my questions concerning the objective, we'll continue this loop until one of us tires. Marvin looks to be far more determined than I, so I grudgingly let him be detached from my leg. Being anxious to show how patient and sensitive I am, I'm a bit miffed that my first encounter is cut short, especially since Marvin is clearly one of the complicated cases -- being deaf as well as partially blind. Sanchez, I reiterate, didn't warn me about anything.
He certainly didn't warn me about the 10 rambunctious tykes that have been very anxious for his arrival. From the minute that Sanchez enters the classroom, it's painfully obvious how integral he is to their week. Sitting on a long couch diagonally across from a hand-painted mural of Where the Wild Things Are, Sanchez is greeted with cheers, song requests, and non sequiturs, each preceded and followed by a sing-songy "Jon Sanchez." He opens his Beatles song book and starts the lesson with "Yellow Submarine," pointing out later that Beatles songs have become nursery rhymes for this generation of kids who've been raised on pop music. The singing begins. A boy we'll call David (because he looks like my cousin) is impressed that I, too, know all the words to the song (Sanchez doesn't), and nuzzles up to me. He's the first but not the last student I encounter who tells me he loves country music and that I'm pretty and do I have long hair? Both are popular sentiments on campus -- the music and the hair thing, not my questionable good looks. David's touchier than your average nine-year-old, but at this point, I'm assuming it's how little blind kids relate, and besides, he's lugging around a two-stringed acoustic guitar, so I figure he's just got that guitar-gets-chicks instinct.
As the lesson gains momentum, it becomes increasingly apparent that these kids aren't only visually impaired, but that they also suffer from some mental impediments as well. For instance, as much as I try to believe the behavioral quirks I'm witnessing are based on some correlation between age and visual impairment, birth defects manifest themselves in some slightly malformed faces and detached dispositions. Responsiveness in some cases seems absolutely nil.
A house parent who's been watching David question me comes over and tells him sternly that he's sitting alone if he keeps it up. Marvin has planted himself in front of a silent television that jumps from Thighmaster infomercials to black-and-white WWII bomber footage ("He'd freak if we turned it off," whispers Sanchez). Another girl, typical of the best singer in any group, tries to dictate the set list and keeps telling Sanchez she has to leave soon. What pressing business she has elsewhere is never disclosed, odd since all these children live in an on-campus dorm. Suddenly, a skinny girl with permanently closed eyes jumps up and yells out "I feel good" a few times. Sanchez calmly changes gear on the guitar and says, "Okay, sure, some James Brown?"
The room explodes with the thwacking of wood blocks and joyful, interpretive yaps and yips that phonetically, at least, resemble So good, so good, I got you. The little girl who made the request has a piercing sense of rhythm; she literally hammers her hands together on the two and four beat. The harder she grooves on the song, the harder she dances with an abandon that makes Deadheads look self-conscious. A follow-up of "Barbara Ann" and "Bingo" gets most everybody riled, and as the momentum builds, I realize that my preconceptions about "music class" caused a misperception of the chaos.
The explosion is not asylum-anarchy, but simply unfiltered emotional expression, pure unfettered enjoyment of music. These kids sing as ferociously as you do in the car or shower and dance as wildly as you do when your roommate's at work. What would be tsk-tsked by the voices of propriety and restraint is the norm here, and it's undeniably diggable. I'm laughing -- not at them, but rather giddily along with them. Watching the clapping girl wiggle and twist, I suddenly feel like the handicapped one because although music transports me like little else, it's almost exclusively an internalized pleasure. How is it that I'm briefly jealous of the clapping girl?
In this unbridled atmosphere, creative energy pulsates. Mental handicaps, it seems, debilitate aptitude in many areas, but not the creative. "The Eight O'Clock Pill" song gives me this insight. It's a little free-flowing ditty the kids wrote with the help of the ever-pliable, ever-musical Sanchez who can follow just about anybody on the guitar. The primary lyric goes something like this: "Let's go take the yellow cart for one more trip to the Health Center for one more eight o'clock pill." Poignant in its truth? Perhaps.
Meanwhile, I'm secretly skeptical about why Sanchez has encouraged a pretty and petite young girl (she looks like an Aubrey) to sing "Superstar," a rather maudlin Carpenters' hit. Later I ask how he selects songs for the lesson. "The musical choice reflects the mood of the day," he explains, adding that I got to see "a real treasure" when Aubrey sang because "when she sings she has no inhibitions, and her voice just fills up the room. It's really touching." The real goal, he confides, is to slowly gain her trust throughout the lesson to the point that she feels comfortable singing. Like most of us, she clams up when put on the spot.
As he explains that Aubrey loves that Carpenter's song, I feel like a sorority girl at one of those charity functions they're so prone to throw, cooing at the little blind children, letting them play with my earrings 'cause "Oh, lookee, they like the tinkly sounds" (that being a real anecdote from a worker at TSBVI). "There are people who would like music class to be "Oh Susanna," concludes Sanchez, bewildered that people would begrudge these children's musical moods by making them sing only peppy, conventional ditties.
Actually I sorta had "Octopus's Garden" or "All Together Now" in mind. But the Beatles, I soon come to understand, aren't always enough.
Jon Sanchez has asked me to sit in on a private lesson with a honky-tonk piano
player. I've already missed Melrose and my headache's not that bad yet,
so I figure, what the hell?
On our walk across campus to the Orange Dorm, the residential building that houses the Life Skills students (which as of yet means nothing to me), I try to ask tactfully about the children's mental impairments. Sanchez explains that being blind or visually impaired is only the base criterion for admittance to the school. Most of these kids have far more complicated case histories.
Garner Vogt, Director of Residential Programs at TSBVI, gives a far more official explanation in a phone interview. "If any of these kids were easy, they wouldn't be here, because they're referred by the local district. Every kid on this campus, the local board has said they cannot serve them. So these are the hardest kids in the state that are visually impaired." In essence, the referring schools either don't have the expertise, or as is the case in a lot of rural districts, the facilities.
The department in which Sanchez works, Life Skills, is for multi-handicapped kids. The other department, VH, or Visually Handicapped, is for "vanilla" blind kids -- some of whom are able to spend half-days at regular high schools. Vogt says Life Skills is a Special Education department borne out of the deaf/blind curriculum five years ago. "We moved students out from VH who were not doing too well, and it turned out that the deaf/blind curriculum worked well for them. It took off from there."
The Art and Music Program Sanchez teaches is different from the more structured, traditional program in VH. Before Sixteen Deluxe's Carrie Clark resigned from the job (recommending Sanchez in her stead) when her band became too busy, Life Skills had more conventional music classes like the ones in VH, but Vogt says they "never jelled," so the classes were made extra-curricular. As such, they fell into the residential curriculum. Since most students live on campus during the school year (all students go home for summer vacation), they require house parents, and it's this job in the Life Skills Residential Department -- the house parent job -- that musicians tend to gravitate towards. The "why's" aren't apparent or important just yet.
What is apparent, however, is that the music room Sanchez and I have finally reached looks like any other grade-school art room with paintings on the wall -- many of which are dedicated to Jon Sanchez. The only unconventionalities are the Ed Hall concert posters and a sign over the wood-pegged coat rack that reads, "For Canes Only." The Ed Hall boys have all been employed by TSBVI at one time or another, even naming an album, Albert, after an autistic student who also had a unique artistic vision, drawing pictures from odd perspectives, like the view from a menacing doctor's chair. Ever vigilant for exploitation -- which, for the record, I won't find -- I call the group's bassist Larry Strub, who's worked there since 1985 and claims to be partially responsible for the influx of musicians to the school, for a comment.
"Albert was a big part of our lives at the time," says Strub, "he took up a lot of our thinking." Albert's photo appears on the album and his drawings on the inside sleeve. Were these fringe musicians trying to capitalize on the odd? No. "We were saying he's different and he's interesting, but we weren't putting him on a pedestal as a freak." A sound Albert invented even made it into the mix of another of their albums, though its origin is indiscernible, and it's not credited to him. "If he drew something he really liked," continues Strub, "he'd honk and rock back and forth and throw up his hands like he was casting a spell." I witness a lot of these animated bursts from other students during my visits to TSBVI, although, like the Ed Hall boys, I find Albert's "honk" to be the coolest when I try it myself: Because he was almost deaf, he'd cup his hand and pull the top of his ear down, resting the palm of his hand on his chin, making a loud noise that would then be amplified.
Marina has a similar habit of whooping. She's the honky-tonk piano player whose lesson Sanchez has asked me to observe. A diminutive Hispanic girl of about 15, she's quiet, reflexively twisting her short bangs, but greets me with a lilting "Hi, Min-dee." Sitting in front of a battered upright piano, Marina chooses what songs she'll perform from an Old School Country and Western songbook that Sanchez flips through. "She always knows what key is good for her," whispers Sanchez, "she's got perfect pitch." Because she is shy, Marina prefers to harmonize, tapping out boogie-woogie riffs while Sanchez sings and plays the melody in a lower register. "She loves ending songs on a major 7th." And when she's really diggin' on something, she let's out these great little whoops.
Though Sanchez tells me she occasionally plays Beatles songs, she rejects the songbook today in favor of lonesome, heart-achey C&W ballads. By the end of the lesson she's relaxed enough to belt out "Crazy" with dazzling Patsy Cline intonation, although my favorite is her version of "Mama Tried." She and Sanchez decide it'll be her featured selection (dueted with her boyfriend, Miguel) tomorrow night at Musicmania. As she leaves, she tells me I'm pretty and asks if I have long hair. I forget to ask Sanchez about Musicmania before the next class assembles. It's not the record store -- I know that, but nothing else. I'll find out soon enough.
I Can't Get No SatisfactionSanchez has convinced me to stick it out through tonight's final music lesson, a group of teenage girls. My silly, sighted-person brain is slightly relieved when a beautiful, China-doll blond pulls herself into the music room by a walker. "Pretty" equals "okay," my suburban conditioning recites. Still, the next 45 minutes are so disjointed and emotionally erratic, I can't shake a saccharine Junior-League voice in my head that purrs, "You all must be sooooo patient to work with these poor, little children."
Three girls spaced intermittently between kind-faced house mothers spend the hour relatively zoned -- one, in fact, keeps getting out of her chair, trying, it seems, to leave. The two strongest personalities, Catherine, the Kewpie doll, and Michelle, a biggish girl in the full throes of puberty, have their own agendas. From the moment Catherine sits down, she tells Sanchez how she wants "to sing `Wabash Cannonball' at Musicmania Tuesday night." As the house parents fumble with a tape that surely got tangled from her repeated listenings throughout the week, her phrase goes from a request, to a mantra, to a battle cry that will be heard throughout the lesson. It will be uttered at any moment of down time and will be accompanied by increasing amounts of tears as she sobs in and out of frenzies.
Concurrently, Michelle provides us with a soundtrack, randomly running through songs at the piano. Occasionally she agrees with Sanchez's selection; occasionally she does not. For instance, she grudgingly plunks out "Yellow Submarine," which, incidentally, bombs with the other girls as well, but more often than not she plays along to the radio waves in her head. While Catherine works herself up with the excitement of her beloved "Wabash Cannonball," Michelle mildly kills time with a medley of Christmas carols still dancing in her head from the Christmas program, and then segues into ballads like "Let It Be." Sanchez follows each cue easily on the guitar, but we adults seem to be the only ones singing.
Until, that is, a dainty girl with an exquisite face decides 10 minutes too late to break into "Let It Be." Michelle curtly announces she will not play that song again, and Catherine weeps on about the "Wabash Cannonball." As things reach a fevered pitch of song fragments, sighing house parents, and banging bumpy sticks (Catherine's name for the timbales), Sanchez responds, subconsciously, I think, to Catherine's entreaty by asking Michelle if she remembers "You Can't Always Get What You Want." He starts strumming the opening chords while we fumble with the words.
Michelle answers by slamming an infamous guitar riff into the keys. Bah bah, bah dah dah, dah dah dah dah, "I can't get no sa-tis-fac-tion." The adults start to sing as brows unfurrow and the tension lifts. The laughter is therapeutic, and the kids loosen up. There will be no kiddie Lennon and McCartney songs for this group of teenage girls; the Stones energize the class as only the guttural Jagger and Richards can. Although she's fixated on something else entirely, Catherine's tears make sense to me at this moment. Like the clapping girl, her reactions to music are totally unchecked, but she responds to music in the visceral way a teenage girl must. Carrie Clark, her old teacher, says she totally identifies with Catherine's emotional displays, calling her her "alter-ego." I understand. She looks like I felt when Supergrass came to town. If I were allowed to sob from the thrill and anticipation I would've.
Sanchez appears spent, but looks over at me with a grin as if to say, "See, I told ya it'd be fun." And tomorrow night, he promises, will be even better.
The green digital clock in my car reads 7:13pm. After the emotional drain of
last night, I dread walking into the rec center for Tuesday night's Musicmania,
an interdepartmental talent show at TSBVI. By the end of the night, my attitude
will be upended, of course, but sitting in the front seat of my car, I'm
unaware of impending epiphanies. Finally I work up the courage to head in.
The Real Rock & Roll
Free For All
A teenage boy, sporting an earring and little else on his head since it and his eyebrows are shaved, sits on a stoop outside the rec center. "Who's there?" he barks as I approach. It's a greeting, I know, but still I prickle at his intrusiveness before realizing we're dealing with a different set of social guidelines. "Mindy," I answer tentatively. A young girl sitting opposite him sing-songs, "Hi, Min-dee!" I'm reminded of Marina and take comfort that she'll be inside. Stepping into the main rec room, I feel like the new kid on the first day of high school. The friendly face of Jon Sanchez is an enormous relief, but he too quickly scuttles off as he prepares for the show. "This is gonna be a blast," he tells me affably.
I plant myself on a couch in front of the small corner stage and survey the room. CMT's "Dance Ranch" plays on an enormous TV screen beside the stage. Although the room buzzes happily with normal pool hall, air-hockey-type energy, a boy with a cherubic face and intense eyes, eighteenish, stews cross-armed on the couch beside mine. A house parent who gives off musician vibes relaxes next to him. I overhear him explain that everyone is kind of filing in and hanging out, but the boy, Peter, is still testy. One of my first hurdles to acclimation is coming to terms with the emcee, a girl with a misshapen face and mashed voice. The voice of pity rears its vile, Southern head again, when Peter snaps at the house parent to leave him alone and stomps off. I look to the musician to see how he offended him, but he looks nonplussed, if not a bit disappointed.
The emcee jumps onstage and tells us to "give it up" for the first act. The shaved boy from outside plops down next to me. After a few bits of conversation, I'm convinced of two things: One, this little bugger can see more than he's letting on, and, two, he's hitting on me. (Vogt confirms both suspicions days later when he tells me that his girlfriend just broke up with him and he's on the prowl.) I ask him if he's going to perform, and he says, "Nah, but usually I'd just get up and do a bunch of cut-down jokes. You know, like, Oprah Winfrey's so fat, she looks like the back of a bus. Hah!"
Somehow the irony of a handicapped kid telling fat jokes strikes me as funny, and he gets a big laugh. After we discuss our mutual love for the Beatles, he decides he'll do "Drive My Car" and runs off to find Sanchez. In retrospect, I think that exchange may have been the lightening bolt that creates those blinding moments of complete clarity. As pitiful as it may sound, it struck me that, hell yes, these kids are different than most of us were at that age. And as the night unfolds, similar levels of cognition repeatedly smack me in the face.
The show runs the gamut of genres. While a bulky black kid from VH interprets an original composition, most of the kids either sing along to a tape with the mid-range removed or perform a number they've worked up with the band. From a critical standpoint, the latter is always more entertaining, but the soloists' inspired shakes, shivers, and twitches combined with an obvious love for holding that mike lends an infectious purity to their performance.
Peter, whose main handicap seems to be a quick temper, sings "Karma Chameleon," and I ask Jon Sanchez where he fits in at TSBVI. He discreetly tells me that Peter has had a brain tumor for years, and his degenerative condition caused him to be moved from VH to Life Skills which, Sanchez sadly tells me, was devastating for him. Musicmania, thankfully, brings the two departments together in a social setting, and so I witness Peter's mood improve throughout the night. After he leaves the stage, he looks for approval from the emcee, who brazenly blows him off. She's all business, I suppose, but he seems a bit hurt and beelines it over to a burly VH student who earlier performed "The Heat is On."
"She used to be nice to me," he tells his friend over and over. (I know this is his friend, because he introduces him as such to any and everyone he encounters.) After introducing the next act -- three boys whose tom-heavy version of Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue" feels like some tribal incantation -- the emcee sits next to the friend and proceeds to be snippy to him, too. "See, see. She used to be nice to me," repeats Peter. It all seems like regular high school dynamics, but knowing Peter's regression, his accusations make me uneasy.
The boys onstage have segued into "Love Me Do," an interpretation that suddenly gives me a new understanding of the bellows and brays of the avant-garde. However, what these kids are doing as they yelp "Love me dooooooo! Lovemedo!" is completely uncontrived and real. Certainly an artist could be inspired by it, and suddenly Sanchez's music with Flying Saucers and his new band Miracle Drug makes more sense. "That's how I listen to music and how I love it," says Sanchez about the effect of his musical experiences at TSBVI, "when it's done with passion like that -- as pure emotion."
When Catherine gets wheeled up to the stage for "Wabash Cannonball," my stomach tightens, because I fear the inevitable derision and snickering. The three house parents sitting around her for moral support aren't half as uplifting as the warm and enthusiastic response from the crowd. She sobs her way through the song, only getting out a single, heaving "Wabash Cannonball," before she's wheeled off, muttering, "I wanna do it every Tuesday, every Tuesday," and as this happens I'm overwhelmed by the implausibility of this scenario in public school. These kids simply would never get this opportunity. "In a perfect world, they would," says Sanchez. "In this place they really get a chance to excel. They're among peers, they're among friends. They're in a very trusting environment.
"A lot of people consider this money to be wasted and put in the wrong place. I believe a lot of people would like to see places like TSBVI shut down, because they'd like you to believe that kids can get this kind of education in their home district."
Though Jon Sanchez claims TSBVI has been fortunate with its funding, my mind wanders to the dilapidated piano on which Marina and Michelle especially depend. The ivory is missing on a lot of keys, and Sanchez tunes it himself. The final act of the night, a boy from West Texas with a really heartbreaking talent for country, could use a new autoharp. He dedicates his song to a sparkling, giggly girl who is the heartbreaker of the school and the center of the popular table. Marina also sits there and lets out a whoop when she hears the dedication. The song, "Close Enough to Perfect," snaps me back to reality. Sitting in an isolated spot with Sanchez playing quietly behind him, the boy aches his way through the song. The pathos is undeniable in the piercing truth of the song's chorus.
Swallowing tears before any of the sighted people catch me and toss me out for my audacity, I look around the room as if through a surreal, Romper Room-glassless mirror. I see Jake from Hominybob, and Virginia from the Unhung Heroes, and Dave from Terraplanes and Tim from the Orange Mothers. Why are they here? It can't be because of the musician-friendly midday and late-night hours or the cushy benefits of a state job. And it can't simply be for the novelty of the experience, or their appreciation of the bizarre. So what is it that draws them to TSBVI?
"To some extent I think that people gravitate to this kind of work because they have a perception of some disability within themselves, and they gravitate to something that allows them to work on their own disability," speculates Vogt. His final comment not only elucidates his experience at TSBVI, but my own. "You know, you have a perception of something that might be a myth, and being here is a way of working on it toward some sort of solution."
A cloying part of me would like to end with some trite conclusion about how the blind taught me to see. Instead, though, I'll finish up with a joke -- not my own, but that of a visually impaired friend, and an actual graduate of TSBVI, who occasionally substitutes at the school. Coincidentally, he worked last week and met shaved boy early one morning. (He knew it was the same kid because of the ex-girlfriend bit.) I inquired if he'd fessed up to hitting on me. "Oh sure," said my friend laughing. "In fact, he told me I should go for you, because he thought you were so beautiful." And?
"Well, I pointed out the obvious, of course."
"He's blind." n