Adventures In Darkness
Today is all about finding self worth. How do we do that? I mean how in a world that is crowded for space; in a world where history moves at the flash of the internet; in a world where people don’t always judge each other fairly. It’s gonna take young men and women like you. The question becomes how does it all fit in? And that was my question. Where was my place? People have all kinds of misappropriate ideas of what it means to be blind. I believe that life is the celebration of personal uniqueness. And the greatest thing about being blind is I’ve never met an ugly person unless they wanted to be.
I want you to trust yourselves. It’s not easy at this age, not mine yours, to trust yourselves enough to be who you are. We are all pressured by peer situations, group structure, the need to belong, the need to get along. And I know those things are important, but you’ve got teachers to help you do that. What I’m here to do today is to try to engage you in deciding you are the single most important person in the world, and that there is no one quite like you. So how did that work for old Tom? It sucked.
I was born three months premature, three pounds three ounce; I dropped down below three pounds. My mother had convinced my father that I’d better see an ophthalmologist, an eye doctor. So the ophthalmologist looked into my eyes and he turned to my father and said, “Mr. Sullivan your child is blind put him in an institution. Lock him up. Put him some place where he’ll be safe.” What was he doing? He was categorizing me. I’m here not only to tell you to celebrate your own uniqueness but to tell you that being different is awesome. The only way you succeed in life is to carve out a sense of difference. How do you take who you are and what your gifts are and expand them to a place where your talent becomes valuable to someone else’s life? But I didn’t know that, I didn’t understand that. How could I? I was a little baby an infant and then a young boy who was blind and the category I lived in was blind. So what did my parents do? They believed the doctor, “He’s blind, put him some place safe.” They put me in Perkins School for the Blind in Boston Massachusetts, 38 acres surrounded by a 30 foot wall. It was my personal prison. They dropped me off there when I was five and I only came home on summer vacation and Christmas. I hated it there, but I hold a record at Perkins. I was expelled 11 times. The first time I got expelled was because I snuck down into the kitchen and found this cookie dough. The next day I was in the principal’s office in the punishment chair when she walked in. I was eight, she was 80. It was Helen Keller. She had been a graduate of Perkins and she was there to be honored on her 80th birthday; and so her guide Pauly brought her in. And Pauly signed that there was a little boy in trouble, and Ms. Keller asked, “Why?” and Pauly said that I had stolen cookies. And I heard this beautiful little voice, she said, “Little boy they tell me you’re a devil, is that right.” And I took her beautiful hand and spelled Y-E-S yes and she said, “Good, keep it up.”
Ya know if you think about it, we’re all trying to escape from something aren’t we. Maybe we are trying to escape our responsibilities. Maybe we’re trying to escape from pressure that our parents put on us to be the best that we can be. Maybe they have an image of us that isn’t how we see ourselves. Maybe we have a girl in this room whose dad would love if she joins his law practice, but what she wants is to dance ballet. Maybe we have a guy in this room who is really good at track and his folks hope that he gets a scholarship for that reason, but what he wants to do is go to New York and study acting. We could go through each and every one of you and I’m sure we’d find stories that relate to your dream versus the way you’re perceived. In my case that was a…huge problem. My mother saw me as the child that desperately needed to be academically bright and artistic. My father, his view of his son was that his son needed to be in the street playing with kids. He thought I needed to be socialized with hard knocks the way the world operated. So when I talk to you about the celebration of your own uniqueness here’s something else I want to talk to you about or I want you to think about. Do you know that every single young man and woman in this room has a disability? You do. It may not be obvious, it may be subtle, and it may be something you don’t talk about even with your friends. But every one of us in life has a disability. What I want you to do by the time we finish here today is to turn your disability into ability.
I took the most obvious weakness, blindness, and turned it into something that I hope you gain from today. They say your eyes take in 85 percent and five percent of what you know you gain from your eyes. I know a lot, and that’s without eyes. You see life outside in, I see life inside out. I’ve never met an ugly person. I’ve understood the system of labels and I hate them. When I went to the blind school I was a really angry kid, I felt like I had been cheated because I was blind. I had a music teacher named Hank Santos, he was one of the great jazz pianist in this country; and when I’d come for my Bach or Chopin lessons he’d say, “ Aw, hell with that Tom let’s sing Billy Holiday, let’s do Ella.” looking for that individuality. So one night he said, “Tom I’ve got permission to from the school to take you out of school tonight, I’m bringing you to my house. We’re having friends in and I want you to sing for them.” So I went to his house and there were about 30 people there and I sang all the Ella tunes and in the end this man came up to me. He said, “Well young man you were remarkable, but my friend Hank tells me you’re a pretty angry young man. Why is that?” I said,” well, I’m angry cause I’m blind.” He said, “Is there any other reason?” I said, “Well that’s a pretty good reason. Nobody will hang out with me, I don’t have any friends, I live in this prison called Perkins, I’m not part of the world.” He said, “Well yeah, but if you’re gonna be like that, aren’t you feeling sorry for yourself, what good is it going to do you to complain like that. You got to learn to be a teacher, you’ve got to learn to be a communicator, and you’ve got to set aside their prejudice by setting aside your own prejudice. And by the way, my name is Martin Luther King.” For the next 15 years Dr. King and I wrote each other every week, until he died.
There’s a lot to learn about life isn’t there. We come to a concept that is so…so fundamental to why we’re here today, that I hope it becomes really meaningful to you. See I believe that every single disadvantage in life can be turned into an advantage. As a blind person I’ve enjoyed this idea of disadvantage to advantage in ways that are remarkable.
Life offers so much potential. You all have so much to offer do not allow yourselves to feel the constraints and limitations that get brought on by fear. Roosevelt said that “fear is a liar” and it is. We, us, men and women, we are the most remarkable creatures. To celebrate your own uniqueness, to recognize that there is no one on this earth like you. And so when you give a speech or you play a sport or when you sing a song or you reach for a career or you fall in love. Whatever circumstances it is, we have the innate ability to overcome adversity and turn disadvantage into advantage. As young people if you don’t believe that now you’ll never find it. You have to leave here believing that the only limitation that anyone can put on you is from inside you. The rest of it is bull.
But we do face turning points in life. Turning points are moments that test us, that frame our character. I think that the content of our character is measured when we are tested. You are going to have critical turning points in your lives but you can with the exuberance the enthusiasm, the charisma and the dynamic of being younger look at your lives and say I am special, life is the celebration of my own uniqueness. A person isn’t measure from the ground to the top of their head; a person is measured from their shoulders to the sky, with the unlimited possibility to celebrate your own uniqueness and expand the human spirit.
Copyright © 2011 Tom Sullivan