Cuore (Chapter 36)
Edmondo De Acimis
THE BLIND BOYS
The master is very ill, and they have sent in his stead the master of the fourth grade, who has been a teacher in the Institute for the Blind. He is the oldest of all the instructors, with hair so white that it looks like a wig made of cotton, and he speaks in a peculiar manner, as though he were chanting a melancholy song; but he does it well, and he knows a great deal. No sooner had he entered the schoolroom than, catching sight of a boy with a bandage on his eye, he approached the bench, and asked him what was the matter.
“Take care of your eyes, my boy,” he said to him. And then Derossi asked him:—
“Is it true, sir, that you have been a teacher of the blind?”
“Yes, for several years,” he replied. And Derossi said, in a low tone, “Tell us something about it.”
The master went and seated himself at his table.
Coretti said aloud, “The Institute for the Blind is in the Via Nizza.”
“You say blind—blind,” said the master, “as you would say poor or ill, or I know not what. But do you thoroughly comprehend the significance of that word? Reflect a little. Blind! Never to see anything! Not to be able to distinguish the day from night; to see neither the sky, nor sun, nor your parents, nor anything of what is around you, and which you touch; to be immersed in a perpetual obscurity, and as though buried in the bowels of the earth! Make a little effort to close your eyes, and to think of being obliged to remain forever thus; you will suddenly be overwhelmed by a mental agony, by terror; it will seem to you impossible to resist, that you must burst into a scream, that you must go mad or die. But, poor boys! when you enter the Institute of the Blind for the first time, during their recreation hour, and hear them playing on violins and flutes in all directions, and talking loudly and laughing, ascending and descending the stairs at a rapid pace, and wandering freely through the corridors and dormitories, you would never pronounce these unfortunates to be the unfortunates that they are. It is necessary to observe them closely. There are lads of sixteen or eighteen, robust and cheerful, who bear their blindness with a certain ease, almost with hardihood; but you understand from a certain proud, resentful expression of countenance that they must have suffered tremendously before they became resigned to this misfortune.
“There are others, with sweet and pallid faces, on which a profound resignation is visible; but they are sad, and one understands that they must still weep at times in secret. Ah, my sons! reflect that some of them have lost their sight in a few days, some after years of martyrdom and many terrible chirurgical operations, and that many were born so,—born into a night that has no dawn for them, that they entered into the world as into an immense tomb, and that they do not know what the human countenance is like. Picture to yourself how they must have suffered, and how they must still suffer, when they think thus confusedly of the tremendous difference between themselves and those who see, and ask themselves, ‘Why this difference, if we are not to blame?’
“I who have spent many years among them, when I recall that class, all those eyes forever sealed, all those pupils without sight and without life, and then look at the rest of you, it seems impossible to me that you should not all be happy. Think of it! there are about twenty-six thousand blind persons in Italy! Twenty-six thousand persons who do not see the light—do you understand? An army which would employ four hours in marching past our windows.”
The master paused. Not a breath was audible in all the school. Derossi asked if it were true that the blind have a finer sense of feeling than the rest of us.
The master said: “It is true. All the other senses are finer in them, because, since they must replace, among them, that of sight, they are more and better exercised than they are in the case of those who see. In the morning, in the dormitory, one asks another, ‘Is the sun shining?’ and the one who is the most alert in dressing runs instantly into the yard, and flourishes his hands in the air, to find out whether there is any warmth of the sun perceptible, and then he runs to communicate the good news, ‘The sun is shining!’ From the voice of a person they obtain an idea of his height. We judge of a man’s soul by his eyes; they, by his voice. They remember intonations and accents for years. They perceive if there is more than one person in a room, even if only one speaks, and the rest remain motionless. They know by their touch whether a spoon is more or less polished. Little girls distinguish dyed wools from that which is of the natural color. As they walk two and two along the streets, they recognize nearly all the shops by their odors, even those in which we perceive no odor. They spin top, and by listening to its humming they go straight to it and pick it up without any mistake. They trundle hoop, play at ninepins, jump the rope, build little houses of stones, pick violets as though they saw them, make mats and baskets, weaving together straw of various colors rapidly and well—to such a degree is their sense of touch skilled. The sense of touch is their sight. One of their greatest pleasures is to handle, to grasp, to guess the forms of things by feeling them. It is affecting to see them when they are taken to the Industrial Museum, where they are allowed to handle whatever they please, and to observe with what eagerness they fling themselves on geometrical bodies, on little models of houses, on instruments; with what joy they feel over and rub and turn everything about in their hands, in order to see how it is made. They call this seeing!”
Garoffi interrupted the teacher to inquire if it was true that blind boys learn to reckon better than others.
The master replied: “It is true. They learn to reckon and to write. They have books made on purpose for them, with raised characters; they pass their fingers over these, recognize the letters and pronounce the words. They read rapidly; and you should see them blush, poor little things, when they make a mistake. And they write, too, without ink. They write on a thick and hard sort of paper with a metal bod kin, which makes a great many little hollows, grouped according to a special alphabet; these little punctures stand out in relief on the other side of the paper, so that by turning the paper over and drawing their fingers across these projections, they can read what they have written, and also the writing of others; and thus they write compositions: and they write letters to each other. They write numbers in the same way, and they make calculations; and they calculate mentally with an incredible facility, since their minds are not diverted by the sight of surrounding objects, as ours are. And if you could see how passionately fond they are of reading, how attentive they are, how well they remember everything, how they discuss among themselves, even the little ones, of things connected with history and language, as they sit four or five on the same bench, without turning to each other, and converse, the first with the third, the second with the fourth, in a loud voice and all together, without losing a single word, so acute and prompt is their hearing.
“And they attach more importance to the examinations than you do, I assure you, and they are fonder of their teachers. They recognize their teacher by his step and his odor; they perceive whether he is in a good or bad humor, whether he is well or ill, simply by the sound of a single word of his. They want the teacher to touch them when he encourages and praises them, and they feel of his hand and his arms in order to express their gratitude. And they love each other and are good comrades to each other. In play time they are always together, according to their wont. In the girls’ school, for instance, they form into groups according to the instrument on which they play,—violinists, pianists, and flute-players,—and they never separate. When they have become attached to any one, it is difficult for them to break it off. They take much comfort in friendship. They judge correctly among themselves. They have a clear and profound idea of good and evil. No one grows so enthusiastic as they over the narration of a generous action, of a grand deed.”
Votini inquired if they played well.
“They are ardently fond of music,” replied the master. “It is their delight: music is their life. Little blind children, when they first enter the Institute, are capable of standing three hours perfectly motionless, to listen to playing. They learn easily; they play with fire. When the teacher tells one of them that he has not a talent for music, he feels very sorrowful, but he sets to studying desperately. Ah! if you could hear the music there, if you could see them when they are playing, with their heads thrown back a smile on their lips, their faces aflame, trembling with emotion, in ecstasies at listening to that harmony which replies to them in the obscurity which envelops them, you would feel what a divine consolation is music! And they shout for joy, they beam with happiness when a teacher says to them, “You will become an artist.” The one who is first in music, who succeeds the best on the violin or piano, is like a king to them; they love, they venerate him. If a quarrel arises between two of them, they go to him; if two friends fall out, it is he who reconciles them. The smallest pupils, whom he teaches to play, regard him as a father. Then all go to bid him good night before retiring to bed. And they talk constantly of music. They are already in bed, late at night, wearied by study and work, and half asleep, and still they are discussing, in a low tone, operas, masters, instruments, and orchestras. It is so great a punishment for them to be deprived of the reading, or lesson in music, it causes them such sorrow that one hardly ever has the courage to punish them in that way. That which the light is to our eyes, music is to their hearts.”
Derossi asked whether we could not go to see them.
“Yes,” replied the teacher; “but you boys must not go there now. You shall go there later on, when you are in a condition to appreciate the whole extent of this misfortune, and to feel all the compassion which it merits. It is a sad sight, my boys. You will sometimes see there boys seated in front of an open window, enjoying the fresh air, with immovable countenances, which seem to be gazing at the wide green expanse and the beautiful blue mountains which you can see; and when you remember that they see nothing—that they will never see anything—of that vast loveliness, your soul is oppressed, as though you had yourselves become blind at that moment. And then there are those who were born blind, who, as they have never seen the world, do not complain because they do not possess the image of anything, and who, therefore, arouse less compassion. But there are lads who have been blind but a few months, who still recall everything, who thoroughly understand all that they have lost; and these have, in addition, the grief of feeling their minds obscured, the dearest images grow a little more dim in their minds day by day, of feeling the persons whom they have loved the most die out of their memories. One of these boys said to me one day, with inexpressible sadness, ‘I should like to have my sight again, only for a moment, in order to see mamma’s face once more, for I no longer remember it!’ And when their mothers come to see them, the boys place their hands on her face; they feel her over thoroughly from brow to chin, and her ears, to see how they are made, and they can hardly persuade themselves that they cannot see her, and they call her by name many times, to beseech her that she will allow them, that she will make them see her just once. How many, even hard-hearted men, go away in tears! And when you do go out, your case seems to you to be the exception, and the power to see people, houses, and the sky a hardly deserved privilege. Oh! there is not one of you, I am sure, who, on emerging thence, would not feel disposed to deprive himself of a portion of his own sight, in order to bestow a gleam at least upon all those poor children, for whom the sun has no light, for whom a mother has no face!”