Keener: From Out of Darkness, A Light

Published 2:00 pm Friday, June 9, 2023

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Louis loved watching his father, a saddle maker in their small French village. To him, his father’s assortment of leather and tools were the center of the universe. He longed to use those things, but his father forbade it. “My tools are not playthings,” Father warned. “You must never touch them!”

But, one day when Father was otherwise busy, temptation overcame young Louis. He hoisted himself onto the work table where there lay an assortment of mallets, sharply pointed awls and knives. Imitating his father, Louis jabbed at a piece of leather with an awl. Bending closer, he stabbed harder. Suddenly the leather slipped. Louis shrieked as blood spurted from his punctured left eye.

With little medical knowledge known at that time, the village doctor covered the eye with cold compresses and directed the parents to keep Louis in a dark room. Beyond that, there was nothing to do but pray. Soon the eye became red and swollen. Rubbing it, young Louis unwittingly spread an infection to the other eye. But, alas, in 1812, there was no known way to control the spread of disease.

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Louis’s vision grew dimmer and dimmer. As both corneas were soon destroyed, the four-year-old youngster became completely blind. There in the darkness he was left with the daunting task of rediscovering his new lightless world.

By tripping and banging into things, Louis eventually memorized every corner of their small bungalow. Only after that did his parents allow him short, but cautious, excursions outdoors.

His early walks were stumbling affairs, but as Louis persistently tap-tap-tapped his way with the small canes his father carved, he soon made it all the way to the village square. By now he could no longer picture how things and people looked, so his fingers and ears had to become his eyes.

The hardest lesson was that his blindness kept him apart from the other children. They occasionally talked to him, but he could not be included in their games. Left alone, there was nothing left for Louis to do but invent games and private playmates to populate his dark, isolated, solitary world.

When Louis was seven, the village priest took notice of him. He was surprised to learn that the little boy was a very bright and inquisitive child. Thus he began reading to Louis. Very quickly it became evident that the lad needed significantly more advanced lessons.

The local school teacher had never taught a blind student, but at the priest’s insistence he agreed to try. Seated in the front row, Louis listened carefully, remembering everything the teacher said. And because he so thoroughly concentrated, he was later able to recite the lessons—and without hesitating—answer the teacher’s questions. Soon he outshone the other students. Nonetheless, he was still unable to fully learn without the ability to read and write. What would become of him?

His future looked very dim, indeed. What would happen when his parents were gone? And what trade would he ever be able to perform? He was, after all, living in the age when most blind people begged for a living.

Meanwhile the priest persisted. One day he took a stagecoach to far off Paris to visit a school for blind children where they were taught useful vocational skills—even music lessons! But the greatest miracle was that they were taught to read and write!

Upon his return, the priest excitedly told Louis’s parents about this marvelous school. Maybe Louis could attend even though, to their regret, their boy would only be able to come home on holidays and summer vacations. Then to everyone’s utter joy, Louis was awarded a scholarship.

Just before his tenth birthday, on Feb. 15, 1819, Louis’s mother bundled him up for the long frigid trip to Paris. Nearly lost in his heavy coat, scarf and leather cap, the thin little boy bravely waved goodbye. Little did he know then that he was about to begin his new life at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth.

From that day on, his mornings began at daybreak when a loud gong awakened the children, followed by the tapping of their canes as they made their way to breakfast. After eating buttered rolls and coffee, the children tapped their way to the classrooms.

The school’s goal was to prove that blind children could become productive citizens. Founded in 1784, it was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Louis was the youngest of 60 students, all boys. He slept on a narrow iron bed next to a boy named Gabriel who thoughtfully whispered nighttime conversations to help the lost new boy feel welcome. And with his help, in no time Louis memorized his way to classes as well as the names of his teachers and classmates. By then he was too busy to be homesick.

His first lesson was in “embossing,” a system for reading and writing developed by Valentin Hauy, the founder of the institute. Embossing meant pressing large alphabetical letters into thick sheets of waxed paper. The raised impressions left on the back side of the paper could be “read” by tracing their outlines with a finger.

Louis practiced eagerly and soon was able to write sentences which then allowed him to enter the reading class. There the students ran their fingers slowly across big pages bound into heavy volumes that were propped up on wooden lecterns. The books were far too big and bulky to carry, or even to hold comfortably on a lap as the letters had to be widely spaced and tall enough to be legible by touch.

The letters O and Q, as well as I and T, were especially problematic. And one page of embossed print contained only a few sentences because the thick pages could be printed only on one side, then pasted back to back before being bound. Several volumes were needed to print one small textbook making them also very expensive.

Embossing may have worked in a classroom, but it was not a practical way to communicate. There had to be a better way.

To be continued.