Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tale of Two Classmates

sign language teacher and student Berkeley California
In learning a bit about the teacher who stood behind blind and deaf Samuel Bean’s success in high school, we are reading about a determined and energetic woman. Mary White Eastman, though blind herself, was not about to allow any deterrent to keep her from achieving what she felt were vital goals.

Not only was Miss Eastman a strong influence during Sam’s school years at the California School for the Deaf and Blind in Berkeley, California, but she devoted hours to related causes. A brief article in the Oakland Tribune on September 26, 1916, revealed her additional involvement on behalf of the blind:
The San Francisco Association for the Blind has added a [house] teaching department under the direction of Miss Mary White Eastman. Instruction will be given free to all blind or partially blind who want to become familiar with systems and appliances used by the blind. Classes will be held Wednesday afternoons at 1516 California street, San Francisco.
The amount of effort it must have taken to enable Sam to achieve what he did during his school years provides an idea of the level of commitment of this teacher—and that was regarding just one pupil. It seems this work with the blind—and, in Sam’s case, the deaf—was not merely a job for this forward-thinking woman; it was a life’s mission.

Of course, Mary White Eastman did not operate within an academic vacuum. She was surrounded by like-minded educators who were advocates of the very values she advanced. The California School for the Deaf and Blind, located in Berkeley, nearly intertwined with the academic milieu of the nearby University, benefiting from inspiration from the thought leaders at that institution. One mathematics professor there, Newel Perry—soon after Sam’s graduation to be appointed Director of Advanced Studies at the then-separated state School for the Blind—was a catalyst for the dawning of new opportunities for the blind.

Newel Perry’s paradigm was summarized by fellow professor, Jacobus tenBroek, speaking at a memorial service after Dr. Perry's passing in 1961:
The new system took cognizance of the need of the blind for adjustments on the social and psychological as well as the physical level. It permitted and encouraged them to strive to render themselves self-supporting. It applied the democratic principle of individual dignity to an underprivileged class of American citizens. It guaranteed them a fair measure of independence and self-respect in the conduct of their lives.
Such values and concepts as these were not the norm at the turn of the century in which blind Newel Perry had earned his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Munich—and then could not secure a position with any institution of higher education back in his homeland. Returning to the Berkeley area, he found a more sympathetic public willing to give credence to his philosophy of increased opportunity for the “handicapped.”

It is within this framework that Sam’s mentor, Mary White Eastman, also made her mark.

And yet, there were indications that Mary White Eastman might not have been as well-received by such like-minded leaders as one might have expected.

In an interview conducted in 1956 by Willa Baum, a proponent of oral history, Newel Perry reflected on the many changes at the California School for the Deaf and Blind during the years of Mary White Eastman’s tenure. Apparently, by the time Dr. Perry had returned to California in 1912, the School was in a turmoil following the resignation of its long-time principal, Dr. Warring Wilkinson. Among other comments, Newel Perry observed:
Two or three of the different employees wanted to succeed Dr. Wilkinson. They had some students, too, who made trouble. There was Miss Mary White Eastman, a blind graduate of the School, who was a teacher of the blind children, little children, in what they called an “opportunity group” for retarded children. She was a woman who had never had any experience or training except that she was naturally a very good teacher. She was very ambitious and wanted to be made the head of the blind department….
Whatever her aspirations might have been, Mary White Eastman did not succeed in being appointed head of the blind department following the political upheaval at the school. True, she hadn’t, following graduation from the school herself, pursued any form of higher education, as had others among her graduating class. You have to remember, though, the overall context of this time period: not many women of the time—blind or not—attained the educational level of college graduate, let alone received the advanced degree of training as had Dr. Perry.

Over the years since Mary Eastman’s graduation from the California School for the Deaf and Blind, though, many others from the school had accomplished that feat. Several such blind students were listed by name in the eulogy given at Dr. Perry’s passing in 1961. All of them, it may be noted, held one other characteristic in common: they were all men.

One other curious fact does present itself in reviewing the background on this snippet of information about how others perceived Miss Eastman. Going back to her own graduation from the school, the 1892 article in the San Francisco Call named each member of the graduating class. There, listed right after the entry for Mary White Eastman, was the name, “Newell Lewis Perry.”


  1. Dignity, independence, and self-respect. And yes, those go hand in hand with women's rights. Those are like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

    1. Even though I knew this in the back of my mind, Mariann, it was surprising reading the full text of the eulogy for Dr. Perry, where the context for their challenges was laid out. We are very spoiled now in what we take for granted--never having to live the perspective of not having these benefits.


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