First Person: Step by Step

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2014


One bright, warm, mid-September morning in 1992, the Route 16 bus made its usual stop at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union. Air brakes hissed. Doors whooshed open. I firmly gripped the harness handle of my black Labrador guide dog and commanded, “Baxter, forward!” I followed his competent lead and praised him with, “Atta boy!”

For what would be the first of many times in the coming years, Baxter and I joined the mob crossing the Washington Avenue footbridge en route to classes, labs, and lectures. I was full of trepidation over the sheer amount of physical work involved in getting to campus and back home, managing my studies, and tending to my family. But, class by class, season after season, for the next five years, we trudged the three blocks from our Golden Valley home, crossed a highway frontage road to wait at a suburban bus stop, and transferred in downtown Minneapolis to get to the U—our U.

At age 44, it was my turn to pursue the education of my choosing, where all my ways of knowing would be respected as valued contributors to learning. Where, regardless of my physical blindness—a permanent disability often regarded as a major obstacle to achievement and success—my dream of being respected as a whole person could be realized. I wanted to be in charge of whether or not—and what—I learned, how and why I learned, and my goals. I did not want the “you-can’t-do-it” messages that had haunted my childhood and hindered my learning to direct my education this time. I was determined to inform more than just my mind—I wanted to know how human differences could be valued. I hoped to learn more about living and I wanted to be part of how others learned.

That first day on campus, Baxter and I negotiated the green space known as the Mall, which stretches from Washington Avenue to the steps of Northrop Auditorium. I created a mental map of distance, landmarks, and changes in the texture of the ground. I catalogued building sizes based on the sounds coming from them, the echoes that bounced from them, and the gateway-like spaces between them. Once past Walter Library on the left, I held my breath until Baxter stopped to indicate a change in front of us. I reached out my foot and found the steps of Northrop. Baxter and I climbed them and sat down on the top step to celebrate. Such wide, ordinary, rough, concrete steps. Solid and safe. Not going anywhere, here when I needed them for rest, to process the day, to assure me that I could go far. I listened from this new vantage point to how far away the bus stop sounded. I reveled in a new sense of belonging.

From then until our June 1997 graduation, the steps were a reliable constant in my life. Whenever I had to go to the East Bank, they were part of my route. While perched there, I soaked in the sunshine, observed or participated in events, had fun, or hid out. The steps became the place where I gathered the courage to turn impossibles into why-nots. They became my higher ground and my launching point. I thought through the design of my major, then called an individualized degree interdepartmental major, the foundation of which was built from my previous post-secondary starts and stops. I opted to enter the College of Liberal Arts Honors Division. Did I say I wanted to be in charge of my learning? My choices provided fabulous opportunities for facing challenges of learning inside and outside traditional classrooms: internships, a teaching assistant position, one-on-one directed study, employment in the New Student Program, and applying for and being awarded scholarships.

Once, on a very early spring morning, an enthusiastic cadence informed me that an ROTC contingent jogged toward me on the steps. I jumped up, stood directly in the cadets’ path, and waited. “Make a hole!” a leader called. They parted to circle around and past me, never wavering in their tempo. Laughing, I pivoted, dropped Baxter’s harness handle and kept his leash, slapped my right hand on the nearest shoulder, and jogged with them to the end of the mall before dropping out. For those moments, I experienced the comradeship of soldiering on.

One late spring evening, a writing instructor asked the class to look at postcards of world-famous locations and people and create our own stories about the pictures. The instructor had forgotten that I couldn’t see. She accompanied Baxter and me outside to a marble bench not too far away from those Northrop steps of mine. “My postcard?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said. After exploring the stonework with my hands, I asked her to describe the marble. I thought about her description of the blacks and whites, then blended my discoveries and her descriptions into the following poem.

Said In Marble

Marble is white-water rapids and Siberian tigers!

Utterly cool-to-smooth,

Marble holds memories of molten years.

When I touch marble, when she touches me , My imagination deeply moves.

When artists and artisans dare to touch her,

She mesmerizes them.

They roll their sleeves—they take the challenge.

With patient strength

Of mind and spirit, hands and tools,

Artisans achieve great dreams and arrive at silk.

Marble hard copies measured time.

Its patterns bear witness to revolution and work.

Blacks and whites in marble slice through struggle to freedom.

Throughout the centuries of churches

Marble has been the testament of priesthoods.

Marble is the million journey-stories of slow being and pressured change.

It is the migration of a million geese

Through geographies of memory and dreams;

Over sharp-edged mountains,

Across deep-shadowed valley darkness,

Within the fractured look and roll of oceans.

One day,

I want to be said in marble.

On graduation day, as always, those wide, welcoming steps lured me to stop and reflect. This University and I had stood every test each offered the other. Faculty had indeed embraced all my ways of learning: I had been encouraged to publish my memoir, BlindSight: Come and See; I enjoyed new relationships, experienced new situations, and gained new perspectives and skills. I am honored to be an alumnus of such a place.

I am thankful for the ordinary—no, extraordinary—steps that were so pivotal to my learning. Now, 16 years later, whenever I worry about venturing outside the box, I sit on metaphorical Northrop steps—my steps—until the edges of the box gradually recede. As a student back then, I learned something important about taking time to find solid ground when I needed to. Now, I savor how my education has made a difference in my life.

Jane Toleno (B.A. ’97), now in her mid-60s, has begun rereading beloved books from her childhood to see if what she learned from them then is what she learns from them now. She and her husband, Tom, are traveling from their home in Big Lake, Minnesota, across the United States and Canada for a couple of years before settling in Minneapolis, near their children and grandchildren. First Person essays may be written by University of Minnesota alumni, students, faculty, and staff.


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