Pseudonym: On vision loss and hiding in plain sight from my high school classmates

I had tried all year to fade into the background. All attention had become unwanted attention. Then I wrote a story

Published October 9, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

Man holding sheets of paper and a cassette recorder (Getty Images/Medioimages/Photodisc)
Man holding sheets of paper and a cassette recorder (Getty Images/Medioimages/Photodisc)

We gathered in the library a week before the first day of school, me and my teachers and a liaison from the school board. I had never liaised before. Attending high school while legally blind would be another first. We were meeting to inform my teachers what I could and couldn't do after the genetic burnout of my optic nerves.

"Can he see the chalkboard?" asked Senora M, my Spanish teacher.

"You'll have to ask him," said my liaison, Leann.

I figured my teachers were directing their questions to Leann because she had set up the meeting, or because she was the adult and I was a shy teenager. My disability only months old, I hadn't yet discovered how many people would ignore me because I could no longer see them.

I said I could read the chalkboard with my expensive telescope from the Johns Hopkins low vision clinic, but it turned out I could not. For the first few weeks of school, high-powered magnifiers allowed me to take exams enlarged on the copier with extra time — most of a day for anatomy/physiology — but my central blind spots continued to expand throughout the year, and my remaining peripheral vision continued to blur.

As reading became increasingly difficult, deciphering my handwriting must have been a struggle for my teachers. If Mrs. Jones, my English teacher, hadn't asked if I'd prefer to take my tests orally, I might have kept answering questions I could only partially read. I hadn't yet learned how much help I needed, let alone how to ask for it. Perhaps, too, acknowledging that my eyes could no longer manage a few hundred words was a bridge I wasn't ready to cross.

One morning I showed up in Mrs. Jones's cubicle when I wasn't scheduled to make up a quiz or exam. In my hand were six typed, double-spaced pages, the first thing I had ever written that wasn't an assignment.

"If I gave you something to read," I said, unexpectedly nervous, "would you read it and tell me what you think?"

"Is that it there?"

Mrs. Jones, whom I'd had junior year as well, had a smile like moms on classic sitcoms. I could still hear it around her words even if I could no longer see it. She also had a way, throughout that year I was adapting to vision loss, of understanding when I was asking for more than her time.

Thanks to an extensive selection of books on tape from the National Library Service for the Blind — and an inability to play video games — I had turned to books for the first time since a fourth-grade obsession with Choose Your Own Adventures. I could still follow most TV shows with my ears, but audiobooks left me with fewer questions. They also made my shrunken world a little bigger. Writing my own stories offered another escape hatch.

I spoke sentences into the microcassette recorder I hadn't been using to record lectures. I had been a fast typist when I could see the keyboard, but learning how to type with fingers on the home keys wouldn't happen until the following summer. Until then, my Mom typed all my papers for me, sometimes with her eyes closed after a twelve-hour day of selling insurance. I told her my short story was for school, which was true enough.

The plot involved an average, nameless man who must answer a question posed by a celestial gatekeeper. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was somehow involved. It was pretty deep. More ambitious than the pedestrian classics we had been reading that year.

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"I don't think I get it," Mrs. Jones told me a week after I had given her the story. "Tell me what's going on here."

"Which part?" The allusions and symbolism were pretty subtle. I was prepared to make them more accessible for a wider audience. Did English teachers have connections to magazines that published short stories?

Mrs. Jones seemed to stare at the first page. "All of it, really."

I walked her through the man's culpability in his own demise.

Mrs. Jones turned pages. "Is he supposed to be dead?"

I gave her a big nod. Now she got it.

"But who was he? Before he died. Why are we supposed to care about this character?"

Mrs. Jones explained what made my story different — bad different and not good different, she meant but did not say — from the stories we had been reading in class. The more she said, the less I liked what I had written.

Somehow, instead of feeling discouraged by her critique, I felt inspired. Weeks later, I laid another story on Mrs. Jones's desk. The verdict on that first one being what it was, I delivered my latest when I knew she wouldn't be there. One day after class, she asked me when we were going to discuss "Bane."

Named for the main character, my new story was about a small-town man haunted by the house fire that killed his wife. Through encounters with townspeople, it becomes clear that everyone blames him for her death. By the end of the seven-page story, Bane himself becomes the victim of a fire of mysterious origins. Is it suicide? Murder? Whatever the cause, "It would be a fitting burial," muse the neighbors who discover the flames.

The plot was probably inspired by the noirish black-and-white video for Richard Marx's "Hazard." That I pictured Harrison Ford as the main character probably hints at some additional borrowing from the recent film version of "The Fugitive." If my tale lacked the texture and depth of a film or a four-minute music video, I hoped it was less confusing than my previous effort.

"That scene where everyone in the post office is staring at him ," said Mrs. Jones. "It's so vivid."

She turned pages.

"And the ending," she said, sounding genuinely moved.

She named some moments where I could provide more detail, a section where I could slow down, a few sentences that tripped her up. Her criticism, rather than undermining her praise, lent credibility to her compliments.

I'm not sure I had ever revised anything, let alone a piece of fiction that wasn't for a grade. Nor had Mrs. Jones asked to see another draft. But for whatever reason, that night I found myself speaking new sentences into my tape recorder. After so many doctors told me what couldn't be corrected, I think it felt good to fix something with only words.

Again, I left my stapled pages on Mrs. Jones's desk when she wasn't there. Days later, she told me how much better my revisions had made it. It was a good story already, she said. It was something people should read, she said.

"I'd like to teach it," she said.

"Do what?" I said.

"Can I? We could use a pseudonym." She said pseudonym with an air of mischief, as though it were a German sports car we were going to boost from a neighbor's garage.

By this point, I had read enough books on tape to realize "Bane" wasn't destined to grace the syllabi of English classes across America. On the other hand, what did I know? I had just turned 17. Mrs. Jones probably read more books in a year than I had read in my entire life.

Saying no never crossed my mind. If classmates hated my story, so what? They didn't care much for D.H. Lawrence or William Faulkner either. Besides, I wasn't the author. That would be J. Griffith Chaney, the pseudonym I crafted from Jack London's birth name.

I liked the idea of classmates talking about me without knowing it was me. I liked the idea of disappearing behind a fake name — of choosing to disappear. I remained close to my two best friends, but since losing my sight, I had become invisible to so many of the people I once sat with in the library and cafeteria. Unable to locate anyone whose voice I couldn't hear, I spent a lot of time in the conference room beside my guidance counselor, pretending to do homework.

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On the day Mrs. Jones distributed copies of my story, I worried for the first time that people would see through our scheme. Wouldn't it be obvious that these photocopied, word-processed, double-spaced pages weren't written by some long-dead wordsmith? This fear was allayed the following morning when the guy who gave all our teachers nicknames only he ever used complained about "Jonesy" giving us more reading a few weeks before graduation.

"She must really love this story," he said. "She typed the freaking thing herself."

If I was nervous in the days leading up to my story being discussed, it was hard to separate those nerves from the anxiety I had felt all year — hiding my identity was nothing new. When the school bell signaled the start of our discussion, however, I felt the unmistakable shiver of excitement.

"So what did everybody think?" Mrs. Jones asked.

No one replied.

From the lack of voices, it seemed like only half the class had shown up. Apparently, the physics teacher was holding a review session for the upcoming AP exam.

After a few unsuccessful tries to stoke conversation, Mrs. Jones asked questions about the plot, confirming that we had read it. Only a few of us had.

I was deflated but not disappointed. I hadn't expected enthusiasm from classmates who had not outwardly enjoyed anything we read all year. Mrs. Jones's opinion was the only one that mattered, and I already knew how she felt.

Other sections went about the same as mine, Mrs. Jones told me in her cubicle the next day. Unable to fill the period, she'd had us write down what we liked about my story. She read me some of the compliments. One girl said she enjoyed it so much she read it to her boyfriend over the phone.

Other comments were more general, perhaps to conceal how little of the story had been read. One exception was a student who said "this story reeks of drafts." Mrs. Jones dismissed him as someone who hadn't liked anything we read all year, but it would have been easier to dismiss someone who never did the reading at all.

On our final day of high school, Mrs. Jones led us to the large lecture hall to watch a movie. In light of what happened after class began, I've never been able to recall which movie it was.

"And I have one final announcement," Mrs. Jones began.

Somehow I knew what was coming. The smile around her words sounded too big for an announcement about makeup work. She probably spoke for less than half a minute, but the time felt endless. Having given no details about J. Griffith Chaney on the day we discussed "Bane," she now offered a brief biography of the author.

"Whoa. He's like our age," said a guy behind me.

Mrs. Jones made her way up the aisle where I was sitting and laid a hand on my shoulder.

All year I had imagined everyone's eyes on me, appraising the difference between who I used to be and who I had become. In hindsight, low as I was in our high school's caste system, it's unlikely that most of my classmates gave my vision loss a second thought, if they were aware of it at all, but everyone's eyes were on me now. Discomfort stayed with me after the applause faded.

Later that day, in the cafeteria, a girl who took AP English asked me if it was true that Mrs. Jones had taught a short story I had written. Her tone was nothing but friendly, but when she asked if I had a copy of the story she could read, I was grateful that I did not. Unfortunately, someone else at the table still had their copy and passed it to her.

The sudden attention made me queasy. It might have been a loss of faith in my story following that student's negative comment. How many other students, I couldn't help wondering, had felt similarly and weren't brave enough to say so? But I was more embarrassed, I now realize, because I had tried all year to fade into the background. All attention had become unwanted attention.

In the coming days, months, years, I would wonder if that short story was any good at all. It seemed likelier that Mrs. Jones wanted to teach it because I had lost my sight, not because I was the next Jack London. Self-doubt comes easily and often when you can no longer see what's in front of you.

But if Mrs. Jones had wanted to teach my story out of pity, wouldn't she have said nicer things about that first one? And hadn't she still pointed out ways the earlier drafts of "Bane" could be improved? If it was no good, why was she still teaching it two years later when my cousin had her for honors English?

It would be a long time before I'd learn the difference between how people felt about me and how I expected them to feel. The trick was letting go of the internalized shame related to my blindness. Revising how we see ourselves is rarely as easy as revising a short story.

"You don't write because you want to say something," said F. Scott Fitzgerald. "You write because you have something to say."

At 17, I wasn't sure what to say, but Mrs. Jones must have realized I was trying to say something. Twenty-seven years would pass before I'd publish a memoir about losing my sight and my misguided attempts to hide what I couldn't see, but in that simple story of loss and resentment, my teacher probably saw more of myself than I was able to recognize. By revealing that I was the author, perhaps she was telling me there was no reason to hide.

With nearly a hundred seniors, I don't imagine Mrs. Jones gave out many graduation gifts. I was surprised, days after we went over my classmates' comments in her cubicle, when she handed me a wrapped box. Inside it was a small metal cup.

"It says Class of 1994," she said. "On the other side, there's a line from a poem we read this year."

I turned the cup in my hand, running my thumb along the engraving.

"It's the last line from Tennyson's 'Ulysses.' 'To strive, to seek, to find…' Do you remember the rest of it?"

I remembered. "And not to yield."

By James Tate Hill

James Tate Hill is the author of a memoir, "Blind Man’s Bluff" (W. W. Norton, 2021). He serves as fiction editor for Monkeybicycle and contributing editor at Lit Hub, where he writes an audiobooks column.

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