I almost had a student whose life I changed. But she changed mine instead.
Justine came into my high school Speech class on the first day of a soggy August afternoon and sat in the front row. She was quiet and serious, and she didn’t seem to have a lot of interaction with the other students. She wore the thickest set of glasses I have ever seen. And I realized almost immediately that she sat in the front because she could see almost nothing.
She was an eager student who came to class, joined in discussions, did her work, and clearly wanted to learn. She was highly intelligent and motivated. I didn’t realize at first that she also eagerly wanted to be in mainstream classes with her peers. But that was not to be.
A few weeks after school had started she was removed from my class, and Justine came to ask my help. The administration—a good one, by the way—had determined that she should be in another class that would be more helpful to her. Justine wanted to be in my class. I wanted that, too.
I did what I could, but we lost that battle. And maybe we should have. I’m still not really sure. But I do know now that even if it was the wrong decision, it was not enough to stop her.
I lost track of Justine. I left teaching to do other work; and she went on with her education. I heard of her now and then. She was at a private university and doing well. She was a member of a society run by and for the visually impaired, and was an advocate for their work.
Years passed, and one day I met Justine at a banquet for the society she belonged to. She didn’t remember me. But the next day she sent an email apologizing. She couldn’t see my face, and in the noise of the banquet hall she couldn’t hear my voice well enough. But now she remembered. As I do with all the former students who contact me, I invited her to lunch.
I picked her up at her public housing apartment, silently worrying about her safety there. Justine described for me her passion to help the poorest of the poor in Africa. She told me of her missionary visits to Africa, of her plans for her master’s degree, of the small consulting firm she started to assist with the work she dreamed of doing. She was leaving in a few weeks for a new city, and she was going all alone.
Her vision was worsening. All she could see now were hazes of light and, if she turned her head a certain way, a small window of fuzzy images. She spoke about how difficult it is to function in an unknown place without the ability to see what’s around her. What was in the shadows? Was it something about to fall on her? A curb? A dangerous insect? Someone lurking in the dark to harm her?
Justine told me that if she wanted to, she could imagine in the darkness that there were dragons, and insects, and poisonous snakes. She could see dangers around her everywhere and all the time. But she chose, she said, to imagine other things: tall trees; flowers blooming; sunlight; and gentle creatures. Armed with these images, she goes alone into the darkest corners of the world and manages to survive. She seeks these journeys, and she seems to require them.
Faith…is about the stories we tell ourselves when we are in the dark.
Listening to her speak, I realized that faith is not just about a belief in God. It is about the stories we tell ourselves when we are in the dark.
I have lost touch with Justine again, but her steady vision has stayed with me. When I quaver in my incredibly easy life, I think of her somewhere in the dangerous world with only a cane to help her: patiently, quietly, and with unimaginable grit, making her way through the darkness, seeing only beauty all around her.
This is the faith of Justine. It is a stronger and richer faith than most of us could ever possess. The curse of her circumstances created the necessity, but it is the quality of her character that made it into a great and unwavering gift.