30 January 2013

Looking Back on Follow My Leader

Tami Lewis Brown at From the Mixed-Up Files interviewed Candlewick editor Kaylan Adair, and one passage rang a familiar chord for me:
I struggled with reading for much of my early life but in fourth or fifth grade, my (incredibly patient) school librarian convinced me to give the novel Follow My Leader a try. The book struck me as being intimidatingly long, but it was about a boy who’s blinded in an accident and gets a guide dog and I was obsessed with dogs at the time (particularly German shepherds), so I decided to give it a try. It’s the first middle-grade novel I remember reading for pleasure. And it’s no exaggeration to say that that experience changed my life.
I read that book, too, though it was in seventh grade and I was already an avid reader. My English teacher for the first half of that year, David Ticchi, was blind. He could hear any whisper in class and smell gum in any corner. He was also a weightlifter. No one messed with Mr. Ticchi.

I was curious about Mr. Ticchi’s experiences, so when I saw Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield in a library I picked it up. Of course, I picked up nearly every book back then. I think I read The Great Gatsby later the same year.

Garfield’s young protagonist, the equally presidentially named Jimmy Carter, loses his sight in a fireworks accident as a young teen. He learns new skills and bonds with a seeing-eye dog. Mr. Ticchi had very limited vision from birth and used a cane but not, as I recall, a dog. But details in the book about learning Braille, handling money, and other tasks stuck with me because I figured that’s how he did things, too. Those passages were certainly easier for a seventh-grader to understand then than The Great Gatsby.

Mr. Ticchi had someone read our essays and stories out loud to him at home. That was when I started typing my longer homework since I figured it would be easier on the reader (even though I used to have very good handwriting). As a result, I never learned to touch-type the normal way; by the time my high school offered that class, I had already developed bad but very fast habits.

Halfway through the school year, Mr. Ticchi left to evangelize for Ray Kurzweil’s reading machine—an early OCR and text-to-voice computer. Eventually he returned to the school system, but our paths didn’t intersect again. I never forgot him, though.

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