The writers and editors at NJ Spotlight like to take advantage of the August slowdown to ease back on the throttle themselves and spend more time with family and friends. While we’re recharging, however, we’ll be posting an excerpt from a book or author with a New Jersey connection every day as part of our Summer Reading series. We’ll be back rested and ready on September 4. Have a great Labor Day and keep reading.
Kristen Witucki’s “Outside Myself” is the story of a young girl growing up in New Jersey and at first struggling and then adjusting to her blindness. What makes it especially extraordinary is that the Highland Park author herself has been blind since birth, making the young adult novel a sensory window into both her own life and society’s treatment of lives like hers. The following is the opening chapter of the novel.
I fell the first and last time I climbed the tires in public. The climb was ill-fated from the beginning. I was eleven, almost twelve, in sixth grade, the last year at our elementary school. Sixth grade is too old for elementary school and definitely too old for recess. Recess should be about having fun, however you choose to have it. But in sixth grade, recess is only about rejection. And while I get that we need to save the Earth, recycling car parts into playground equipment might be carrying the whole idea a little too far.
Tires were piled haphazardly on top of and beside each other; whatever held them together wasn’t obvious to me. About halfway up the apparatus, I lost a foothold and found myself tumbling to the woodchips below. Awkward, I thought, brushing pieces of wood from my denim skirt, imagining shards of glass instead. Clumsy, ungainly, klutzy. As I struggled to disentangle myself and to give myself a quick vocabulary lesson instead of allowing tears to fall, I heard Erin’s derisive laughter. Before I began the climb, she had said patronizingly, “But you’ll fall!” I ignored her, willing her to be wrong. But she had been right. And before I could decide how to answer it, how to explain that I was wearing shoes which were too shiny with clacking heels not meant for climbing, how to insult Erin, who had failed her spelling test while I got an A, the bell rang. Erin suddenly became the protector person again. She handed me my backpack and even tried to help me brush woodchips off my skirt, like she was my mother or something. I knew I had to go along with the act, but I wasn’t going all the way. I cringed away from her touch, clenching my teeth around the insults about to come out, but I took her arm and allowed her to shepherd me toward the door.
Under cover of the chatter of the other kids, Erin hissed in my ear, “I have a secret.”
“What?” I asked her. For a second I even forgot she had just made fun of me. I wanted to be in on the gossip.
Erin continued walking. “You won’t like it,” she warned. “Ms. Moore said we’re not supposed to tell you.”
“What is it?”
Erin’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Nobody likes you.” I stopped walking, and I made Erin stop walking. We just stood there a second as kids pushed past us through the enormous double doors of the elementary school. Then I asked, “Why?”
“Come on,” Erin said, suddenly in a hurry, “or we’ll be late.”
“No, tell me first.”
Erin just answered, “You’re stuck-up.”
I could only stand there gaping. I wanted to say, “No, I’m not,” but I wasn’t sure what stuck-up really meant. I imagined a bug stuck up on a bulletin board with a push pin, one leg waving a final feeble farewell. I wanted to tell Erin that my blindness is temporary and I’m getting an operation, but I don’t know exactly when it will happen.
Erin continued, “We talked about you while you were out of the room with your special teacher.”
The first special teacher I thought of was fat Mrs. Jones, who reeked of perspiration and cheap perfume and who occasionally still tried to get me to use a cane, a tool most of the kids called “your stick.” Mrs. Jones was one of the stupidest people I had ever met. I always told her that if she made me use the cane, I’d kill myself! Mrs. Jones wrote frantic notes in her notebook and promised to come back in two weeks.
Between Mrs. Jones’s visits, which were not very frequent, (she took a lot of sick time), if I was staying at Dad and Adrienne’s house, the cane resided in my bookbag; but if I was at Mama’s house, Mama made me take it out and walk with it. Then I realized that Ms. Ellis, my braille teacher, was the “special teacher” Erin was talking about. After all, braille is “special” writing. She came three days a week, but during seventh grade, she promised, she’d cut her visits down to twice a week. I could hardly wait.
“Come on, or we’ll be late,” I repeated Erin’s words and dragged Erin behind me, even though the human guide was always supposed to walk first. I hoped I’d slam Erin into a corner “by accident.” But eventually Erin pulled herself free and ran away laughing, leaving me to trail behind her like a worn-out blanket through halls smelling of chalk dust and despair.
“How was school today?” Adrienne asked later that afternoon after maneuvering Miles in his stroller, and me with my bulging backpack, down the hallway through the door into the spring sunshine.
Adrienne was Dad’s new wife, and I still didn’t feel used to her being in my dad’s house: her smooth jazz music played in the kitchen as she prepared meals; the heavy, final sound of the door shut to their bedroom each night. Sometimes Adrienne asked me lots of questions about what I was reading or doing or thinking about, and sometimes it seemed like she wished I weren’t there so that she and Dad and the baby could be their perfect family alone.
Mama didn’t like it, but Dad insisted that Adrienne meet me at the end of each school day. When Adrienne started meeting me at school at the beginning of sixth grade, she used to push me along just like the stroller, and I could feel myself about to fall. I had to teach her that the safest way to guide me was for her to give me her elbow, so I could walk a little behind her. I couldn’t believe I needed to tell her the obvious!
“But Steven, she’s eleven years old,” Mama yelled at Dad in his front hallway a few weeks ago. Dad had told me to go into the living room with Miles like he didn’t want me to hear what they were yelling. He didn’t know that I was born as an eavesdropper. My parents also didn’t know how to lower their voices. It seemed that ever since I was born, they talked to each other by shouting. “Eleven-year-olds don’t walk with their parents. You should encourage her to learn to walk home alone.”
“She needs our protection,” Dad insisted.
“It’s six blocks!” Mama cried. “Five street crossings, not much traffic, no turns in the route at all! That’s not asking much. When she comes to my house from school, it’s across town. That’s different. But the walk to your house is the perfect opportunity for her to practice using the cane, to become more independent.”
“This is for her safety. Could you imagine walking so far and not seeing where you’re going?”
“No, but can you imagine what it must be like to have learned to be helpless? Your fairy tales taught her to be helpless!” It was like Mama was accusing Dad of being a villain like the Big Bad Wolf or the witch who put Snow White to sleep. But someday Dad will give me the operation, the feather that makes Dumbo fly.
“There are medical advances all the time. There has to be some hope for her,” Dad answered, and my mother jerked me out of there into a stormy silence.
I secretly wished that I could walk home without Adrienne’s routine questions and constant nagging. She treated me like a baby! But I knew I couldn’t do it before I had the operation. I didn’t hold Adrienne’s elbow this time, instead I held onto the stroller which Adrienne steered, like she couldn’t possibly do it without me.
“School was fine,” I told Adrienne as we walked home. “What did you do in school? What happened?” “Nothing,” I told her. I wished it was fall, not spring.
Leaves gave me the excuse not to practice with the cane (“But, Mama, it feels like the sidewalk isn’t there!”). Besides, I liked picking up leaves sometimes, feeling leaves shaped like castles and butterflies, mourning those broken beyond repair. I didn’t like the way the rake dug in with its sharp teeth; instead, when I was relatively sure no one was watching, I carefully moved the most unique leaves by hand, as if they were parchment, out of the way of pedestrians who would never truly understand them. I couldn’t ever be really sure no one was looking at me. Sometimes sighted people got so quiet that I knew they were standing there. But sometimes they caught me by surprise.
“Nothing? Were you paying attention in school?”
“Adrienne doesn’t know anything,” Mama sometimes said. “No wonder your father married her.”
“Tallie, you’ve got dirt all over those new shoes. I spend so much time cleaning up after you!”
Oh, how I longed to say, “If you didn’t make me wear them, I would have been able to climb the tires.” But I knew that if I told Adrienne about that incident, Adrienne would tell Dad, and then he and Mama would fight again, so I didn’t say anything. Besides, I didn’t really know if my fall could be blamed on the shoes. What if it wasn’t the shoes? I kept thinking. What if it’s just because I’m blind? As we walked home, I listened to Miles’ chatter about the birds and a ball in someone’s yard. Sometimes I was jealous of Miles. He could see, and he had just one set of parents. Still, he was a good little kid, and I loved playing with him. He never laughed at me. It wasn’t his fault he had the perfect parents, the together parents.
Copyright © 2018, Kristen Witucki. Excerpted from Outside Myself with permission of Wyatt-MacKenzie.
This book may be purchased on Amazon.
Read more from the 2018 Summer Reading Series.