Saturday, January 19, 2008


When I was in the fourth grade I remember the teacher asking us which of our five senses we could do without. We were studying the senses in health and she really wanted us to think about it. We were assigned homework. All we had to do was go home and think about it and have our answer ready by the next day. I thought it was an odd assignment but agonized over what my answer would be. I was a pretty serious little girl in that dorky bookwormish sort of way. The fact is this is probably the only assignment I really remember from that entire year because it struck me as being pretty insightful. Or it could have been.

I agonized over what to choose. I never would willingly give up any of my five senses. Taste and Smell are intertwined so closely that to give up one is pretty much a two for one deal. Hearing...well my grandfather had been 95% deaf since WWII. He was one of the most amazing people I ever met and he fully expected the rest of the world to accept the fact that he was amazing- not because he was deaf but because he was just freaking amazing. And we did. Pretty cool. But I couldn't stand the idea of losing classical music. I couldn't imagine not being able to follow one instrument line in an entire symphony (I told you I was a really really dorky kid--classical at age 10--I was so misunderstood). The sense of Touch- In my young mind this was the most terrifying sense to lose. Couldn't think of the implications of losing your sense of touch. Eyesight- well, almost as terrifying. But I wore big ugly glasses and had a lot of trouble seeing without them. I am a very visually oriented person. I have been able to read since a very young age and am rarely without a book. I love art. I love museums. I love art history. And I love standing on the cliffs above the ocean and watching the water smash into the rocks. I love looking at plants and birds and people.

So the next day I gave my answer. I was the only person who would choose to give up my eyesight over any of my other senses. My classmates were horrified. But the way I figured it was that I could still read without my eyes. I could still enjoy the paintings if some one else described the (and everyone else would describe them differently because everyone sees them differently). I could hear, smell, and feel the ocean. I can feel, taste and smell plant. I can hear the birds. And people...people are pretty or ugly whether you can see them or not.

It felt like a life changing decision. Odd. Like I suddenly had insight into what people thought was important in life. Nobody understood how I could give up sight and I suddenly understood that the fact that I was a rather ugly child might be to my disadvantage. But I knew, at a pretty early age, why I found life so amazing. It did not matter how I perceived the world around me...what mattered was that I could perceive the world around me. That is part of being human. It doesn't matter if you are disabled or abledbodied. Because the truth was I could go on despite losing one of my senses and it wouldn't ruin my life. I was more than that. We are all more than that. And that's a pretty intense lesson for a ten year old.

I think I remember that health class because that was the year I had my first possible relapse with MS. I had intense headaches, I lost my balance every time I stood up. I couldn't focus and I was sooo very tired. I laid on the couch, did my missed school assignments, read the Narnia books over and over, and saw lots of doctors. My parents were terrified. My doctors had no idea what was going on and I was too tired to care. They ran tons of tests but never even considered MS (I was way too young). Finally they decided I was having a psychosomatic episode. At age ten. Because I was bored at school (because lying at home on the couch was so much more exciting). I finally got better and went back to school, ballet, and hiking. And forgot about the mystery illness and the health class.

I had several other weird symptoms growing up, all to do with my eyesight, and because they had already diagnosed me as psychosomatic the symptoms were ignored by everyone but my family and myself. I always got better. My eyesight worsened but was correctable. My balance and hand-eye coordination were always off but I worked hard to compensate. And because they misdiagnosed me I wasn't protected from doing things I really wanted to do. I danced, I hiked for miles by myself, I climbed rocks, and I lived the life of a normal if slightly eccentric teenager. I was an exchange student to Russia in 1995-6 and then went on to attend college at the University of the South. I was never told that I couldn't do things, always encouraged to push the limit, and pretty much thought I could accomplish it all.

I was a sophomore in college when my foot went asleep and was still asleep ten days later. I figured out, in my fencing class (trying to recover from a Passata-sotto into a fleche- silly stunt), that I couldn't feel anything below my left knee. I had my diagnosis four days later and entered into a new world. A world of limitations...both real and those imposed by society. You know...I think I could still accomplish almost anything but there is a really good chance I'd kill myself in the process. However I am always going to be grateful for that lack of a diagnosis at an early age. It did not effect the progression of the MS and I was never "protected" from things that I really wanted to do.

And my fourth grade health class is remembered. I thought I couldn't survive with out tactile sensation. I was wrong. But the revelations that came to me as a ten year old turned out to be pretty useful for me as an adult. Oh, and I wish to add another set of senses to that list. Empathy, Persistence, Understanding, Inquisitiveness and the all important, often flung around, always underestimated, Love. Those I could not live without.


Elizabeth McClung said...

I think I was torn between taste/smell and eyesight. Since I was legally blind at 12 anyway (Thank God for 20th century and contacts).

You recovered forward into a fleche? I was told when I asked to learn the same manuever (unless I am mistaken) that "only men, and only elite men are capable of such" - you were a foilist? An epeeist?

So, would you say in your case that ignorance WAS bliss, that without the medical term to hem you in you did more and were discriminated less?

"I think I could still accomplish almost anything but there is a really good chance I'd kill myself in the process" - I am of the same opinion, which was why I got myself in trouble trying to prove such this weekend. As Linda would say, "if you get killed before you accomplish it, then it isn't an accomplishment!"

nice post, got me thinking.

ms bond said...

Aah, but I would accomplish something...getting myself killed in the pursuit of greatness...isn't that what heroes do? (Achilles, Beowulf, just two quick examples) Grin. Linda really would not approve of me would she?

Ah...the manuever. One of my favorites for demonstrating the importance of strong legs. I could pull it off when fencing right- handed (I am right-handed)but trying to pull it off while fencing left handed -that resulted in "ahhh airborne...agh flat on face." My left leg just decided to remain airborne. And no...two ending moves in a row are not for "elite men." But honestly it is pretty useless in a bout too.
I was the "fencing instucter" at my college.I learned with foil but lost my heart and soul to epee It just meant I understood and loved the technique. We always promoted a student to fill the place of those leaving. I was good at understanding where the body should be, what was going wrong, strengths and weaknesses etc. Just a coach. I actually was always t0o slow to be a good fencer and I hate competition. But I loved directing bouts and teaching.