Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why I blindfolded a color guard

As a teenager I was co-captain of a color guard, which basically meant I marched with a saber and spent most of my time teaching kids how to march while tossing rifles and flags in the air. I remember learning to toss my saber in the air and catch it by the handle, which took a while. I wasn't the most coordinated person and spent hours in the backyard practicing with a broom, just to avoid ER visits. Of course the blade was blunted, but still.

It was a brand new color guard, so we didn't do competitions until we were able to execute a whole routine, which was taking months because members kept marching into each other. All it took was one person forgetting their steps for the whole thing to go awry. A few of my friends showed up at outside practices just for the amusement of watching it all. Meanwhile we marched in parades.

Out of frustration with our slow progress, our fearless leader/coach took us to see a competition one weekend to show us how it was was supposed to be done. A color guard marched with complete precision through their routine and I was told to watch the co-captain carefully to see how she and the captain exchanged sabers while marching under the flags. (I couldn't help but notice that their color guard held the flags up, and their co- captain didn't have to contend with being conked on the head. Ahem.)

"She's really good," I said as I watched the co-captain. Our coach nodded. After the routine I went over to introduce myself. I watched as another member of the color guard handed the co-captain a cane. She was legally blind.

I explained to her that we had a new color guard and she and I had a few laughs about the wrinkles of doing that. Then I asked her for some tips and she told me that, as a legally blind person, she counted everything out - each step, each movement which prevented mistakes. She told me she was used to doing this due to her disability, but that sighted people cheat. She suggested I blindfold the new kids to make sure they didn't "cheat" but knew the routine.

At the next practice, I told everyone to put blindfolds on and to leave their flag poles and rifles on the sidelines. Parents of the kids were not happy with me, but I was able to see within minutes who knew the routine and who was "fudging it". I took care of the stragglers by marching them through the routine over and over again until they got it and within a month we were at our first competition.

A few people dropped flagpoles and rifles, but no one was out of step or in the wrong spot. Even though we let them take the blindfolds off.

I thought of this story when I read Steve Kuusisto's op-ed in the NY Times about David Paterson yesterday and about how legally blind professionals " are by nature tireless in acquiring information, and we remember virtually every detail of what we read or hear."

And I thought of it when I read this quote from Andrew Imparato, President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities who talks about "...the power that comes when disabled children and adults claim their identity, reject social constructs of what is normal, and define success on their own terms."

As for the color guard, it disbanded all too quickly when our fearless leader had to relocate for his job. I didn't get to keep the saber. Which is rather disappointing, considering I could have duct taped it on and used it as a reacher - a great conversation piece.

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