After 27 years of teaching, you’re bound to have some pretty interesting stories. We asked Jerry Whittle, who retired last year from the Louisiana Center for the Blind to share some of his favorites.
One of the most remarkable braille reading demonstrations that I ever witnessed was when one of my students read more than 300 words per minute. Reading that fast was not so unusual, as I have timed over 90 people who could read beyond the 300-word mark…some exceeded 400 and 500 words per minute. Yet all of them used the two-handed method…except for this student.
This particular student used only one index finger on his right hand to read. He turned the braille book so that he read toward his stomach, running his entire finger and finger pad down the line; then, he would snap the finger up to the next line and bring it at lightning speed down the line toward him. He used his left hand to keep the page flat and to hold the next line at the left margin. He told me that his teacher had taught him this method as a child.
When he graduated, several students came to the Center reading more than 300 words per minute, and I showed several of them his method, since they all read with two hands from left to right across the page. When they turned the book and used only the right or left index finger, they could read competently in this manner…although not as fast as they did when using the standard method.
Before I started teaching braille at the Center, I met a remarkable young man named John Henry Jones while teaching English at the University of South Carolina at Aiken. He suffered from Hunter’s Syndrome, was a dwarf, and deaf-blind. I brought him the shortest NFB cane available, and he used it somewhat slapadashedly to protect his tiny frame. He had over-sized, pulpy hands which prevented him from reading braille in the standard way. His braille teacher had taught him to read with his upper lip, and—even at the age of eleven—he read in excess of 70 words per minute, using the skin just above the lip to keep from moistening the pages.
I invited him to my home and made shrimp Creole, and he attended Merilynn and my wedding. He came up to me after the wedding, tugging at my pants leg, and he said in his little tinny voice, “Why did you do it, Jerry? Why?”
Unfortunately, John Henry died when he was 18 years old, but I will never forget him. His spirit and courage were giant, and he was not deterred from enjoying a good book by using a most unorthodox method.