How can that dog keep you safe?

February 18, 2013 • Posted in blindness, questions kids ask, Uncategorized, visiting schools, Whitney by
At Oglesby last week.

At Oglesby last week.

Last Friday Whitney and I visited an elementary school in a South Side Chicago neighborhood that’s been the center of a national focus on violence and guns the past couple of weeks. That very day, President Obama was at a Chicago high school nearby giving a speech about his new antipoverty policy initiatives. Our mission at Oglesby Elementary was far less controversial: Whitney and I were there to talk about writing, Seeing Eye dogs, and what it’s like to be blind. Judy Spock (a writer in my Thursday afternoon memoir-writing class) has a neighbor who works for a Montessori program at Oglesby, and the two of them accompanied Whitney and me on the visit.

Judy sat at my side while I talked to the kids, and as she rhythmically flipped through Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound to show off the beautiful illustrations, she noticed a boy in the class had his hand up. “Can you color?” he asked. I could, I said, but I’m not very good at staying in the lines. “Can you paint?” I had to consider this one a bit. “I could get the paint on the brush,” i said. “But whatever I painted would be kind of, well…abstract.” Next question: “What’s a stract? Hmmmmm. “I guess I meant it’d be a mess.”

The finger-painted wreath.

The finger-painted wreath.

The class grew quiet. I didn’t have to see to know their little minds were thinking, thinking, thinking. All of a sudden another hand shot up. “You could finger paint, couldn’t you?” a little boy asked. “We made a wreath!” And just like that, all of them started talking at once. “It’s right there! Behind you! We painted it with our fingers” I turned around to look. Don’t ask me why.

“No, over there! Not there! Behind you! On the wall!” Judy to my rescue. She turned around, looked up at the wall behind us, and described a huge piece of paper with a beautiful green circle of painted handprints: a holiday wreath. The boy was right. I could do that. “Maybe you and that dog could come next Christmas to try,” one of them said, which led to the next question. “How does the dog know where to go?”

I’m the one who tells Whitney what direction to go to get our errands done. I told the kids how we travel one block, she stops at the curb, I tell her,  “Good girl, Whitney!” Then I give her a direction. “Whitney, left!” She turns left, I tell her how smart she is, and we go to the next curb. “Atta girl, Whitney! Good girl!” I say, then give a direction. “Whitney, right!” Whitney turns right, and we’re off again. I explained how I listen very carefully for traffic when we have to cross a street. When I think it’s safe, I command “Forward!” Whitney looks both ways, and once she’s made sure it’s safe to go, she leads me across. More questions followed:

  • How do you wash up?
  • If you can’t see, how do you know where the doorknob is?
  • If you can’t see, can you play any games?
  • Did that dog write the book by itself or did you help the dog type it into the computer?
  • What if you got to a hole in the sidewalk and the dog took you around and right then a big bus came by an beeped really loud and you fell in to the hole?
  • How do you know where to press your fingers on the piano if you can’t see the sheet of paper?
  • Why is your hair so blonde?

That last question gave me an opportunity to tell them how I tap the lane marker to keep my place when I swim laps, and how the chlorine in the pool makes my hair turn lighter . “Do I look like Beyonce?” They chorused a joyful, “Yes!”

Just as it was getting time to leave, one girl asked, “How can that dog keep you safe?” She must not have been listening when I’d explained our routine at the stoplight, or what Whitney does to prevent us from falling into holes. I repeated my story about Whitney checking both ways before we cross a street, and then Judy and her neighbor led Whitney and me out to the car. We spent the entire drive home yammering about the delightful and curious kids at Oglesby and how thoughtful their questions were.

It was only when I got home and turned on the radio that I realized that last question might have been about a different sort of safety. The radio story said that in his remarks that afternoon, President Obama had paid tribute to 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who had attended a high school near Oglesby. “Too many of our children are being taken away from us,” the president said. “last year there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city, and 65 of those victims were 18 and under. So that’s the equivalent of a Newtown every four months.” The school where the kids want me to come back and fingerpaint is located at 7646 S Green St., right where the Englewood, Auburn and Gresham neighborhoods meet, and on the Friday we visited, the Chicago Red Eye reported:

In Englewood, a 29-year-old man was shot to death Friday in the 6900 block of South Morgan Street, officials said.
Englewood has recorded three homicides so far this year. This South Side community area logged 21 homicides last year, RedEye found.

Oglesby Montessori is a free, open enrollment, elementary school that is a part of public (non charter) Chicago Public Schools. You can help them grow by letting Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago Public Schools (773-553-1500) and Mayor Rahm Emanuel (312-744-3300) know that the Auburn-Gresham/Englewood neighborhood deserves an ever-growing and expanding Public Montessori school.

crazytraintotinkytown On February 18, 2013 at 11:00 am

I loved this post and I love the refreshing honesty of the children and their curiosity and I pray that we are all kept safe

bethfinke On February 19, 2013 at 11:20 am


Giovanna Breu On February 18, 2013 at 11:12 am

What a sweet story !

Sent from my iPhone

S. Bradley Gillaugh On February 18, 2013 at 11:41 am

A really thoughtful blog this time (aren’t they always?) with some of the best questions you’ve received. And now I know you don’t use peroxide. Oops, am I dating myself?

bethfinke On February 19, 2013 at 11:22 am

No, I don’t use peroxide, and yes, Brad, you are dating yourself again!

Maria On February 18, 2013 at 11:43 am

Ummm……How does that dog keep you safe?? What a question for a Southside resident and Oglesby student? Don’t you wish we had an answer for her?? Scary , sad stuff. No wonder our president wiped a tear from his eye when he spoke on this issue last week!
It’s so sad a child needs to concern themselves with it.

Bev Miller On February 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Love the questions the kids come up with. I can just see your blond head poking up out of that hole in the street. Glad most appear to have held on to their innocence up to this point. So sad kids have deal with such heavy realities.

Deborah Darsie On February 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm

My only disappointment in the article is not learning what your reply to the ‘hole in the sidewalk’ question….

But I think my favorite was the sequence of questions leading to the finger-painting.

bethfinke On February 19, 2013 at 11:39 am

Yes, and that boy was so proud that he figured out a way to include me in their activities. Very, very sweet.

ojdohertyJenny On February 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm

More great questions. Their little minds never stop thinking.

Nancy B On February 18, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Love those questions. I’m picturing Hanni at the computer with cheater glasses on looking up at you, awaiting dictation.

bethfinke On February 19, 2013 at 11:40 am

And you know, Hanni is just the dog to do that!

Monna Ray On February 19, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Beth, I got your blog! Thanks so much. Monna

bethfinke On February 19, 2013 at 5:15 pm

You’re welcome. Thanks for commenting to let me know, and by all means feel free to share the link with others.

Allison On February 20, 2013 at 4:30 am

Hi Beth,

Thank you for such a great post. I have been reading your blog for a while now and I’m a huge fan. I really loved all the questions from the kids, they are so bright. I admire you, you give your time to go and speak to school children about living as a blind person, your adventures with Hanni, and writing. You make this world a brighter place for all of us blind people. Would it be all right with you if I posted a link to your blog on my website? I have a podcast where I review helpful apps for the blind, and things that I find interesting. Thank you again for such a great post.


bethfinke On February 20, 2013 at 9:20 am

And thank *you*, Allison, for the great comment! Of course you can link to my blog from your site, can’t wait to check out your recommended apps —

The Empty Pen On February 20, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I agree with Deborah…what *do* you do if you happen to get to a hole in the sidewalk and the dog took you around and right then a big bus came by an beeped really loud and you fell in to the hole? The people demand answers!

I went from laughing with the fun questions to crying because that little girl would even think about Whitney keeping you safe from bullets.

bethfinke On February 23, 2013 at 10:53 am

Answer to the loud beeping bus question: I hope I never find out!

Benita Black On February 23, 2013 at 12:01 pm

This is a wonderful and touching blogpost, Beth. I wonder if you find the questions kids ask are substantively different, depending on whether they are urban or suburban kids.

bethfinke On February 23, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Good question, Benita. So good a question, in fact, that Ijust decided to write an entire blog post about that. Stay tuned…

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