Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Unclouded Vision of Life

While Samuel Bean obviously was not in any shape to help “whip the Kaiser” after his number was drawn for the draft in 1917, he was able to add his solitary, individual impact upon the war effort.

The school Sam attended provided not only academic instruction, but also training of a more practical nature. In order to contribute toward their own future support, the young blind students were prepared through efforts in what we might call sheltered workshops. Apparently, one such applied learning opportunity came about through a government contract—most likely war-related—in which students could earn while they learned work skills.

An article in the Oakland Tribune on May 5, 1918, explained Sam’s training experience:
            Combined with close application to his school work, young Bean has been earning $4 per day splicing tent ropes for the government. Where a seeing person possessed of all his faculties is able to tie but 80 knots per hour, Sammy has been turning out 120 ropes.
            “At first it seemed a hopeless task to splice over 20 a day,” he says. “Eighty seemed a fabulous amount to do. But if others could do it I determined that I could, also. Before we finished the contract I could do 120 per day.”
Of course, once again, the newspaper seemed more than willing to gush over Sam’s accomplishments:
            In the workrooms at the blind school, young Bean holds the title of the most efficient worker among the scores of pupils who ply their tools. But for the fact that he necessarily needs more than ordinary time to accomplish his tasks [ his academic assignments] young Bean’s future would have been decided by his ability in the workshops.
A year later, the Tribune was once again focusing on Sam’s work ability, quoting him in another article on May 11, 1919:
            “I can work,” he declares, “even if I cannot see and hear. And I can support myself and help others besides.” As evidence of young Bean’s ability he earned more money than any other student at the school splicing ropes for the government during the war for use as tent fastenings. His earnings in this way went toward the support of a mother and several brothers and sisters.
Of course, this last statement is in error; Sam had only a twin brother and an older sister. While it is commendable that he was able to turn around and share in the support of his family—another report mentioned “young Bean has bought several Liberty Bonds and has contributed to the support of a mother living in Alameda”—his was far from the Dickensian vignette his journalist friends seemed intent on portraying.

However, in that era, self-support for the handicapped was indeed a question that needed to be addressed. Though the California School for the Deaf and Blind evidently made every provision possible for its students’ vocational training, societal pressures—and, perhaps, a modicum of reality—seemed determined to shunt those not considered “normal” into the back rooms of “sheltered” work. Perhaps that was what Sam himself had in mind when he remarked, “The world treats the blind and deaf with compassion—that should not be so.” That type of compassion may have seemed even too cloying for the very “victims” for whom it was intended to provide relief.

Perhaps the true picture comes out when the Tribune’s 1918 article admits:
            What his future holds for him his teachers and friends are trying to fathom. His handicap makes competition in a seeing and hearing world practically impossible. Were the government to furnish endless contracts for splicing and tying tent ropes his problem would have been solved.
In the face of that reality, there is no doubt Sam, himself, was intent on maintaining a firm grip on that positive attitude that had become his hallmark. In regard to his employment track record, the Tribune noted:
            This evidence of his ability is but another mark of the determination which has characterized his desire to be able to do the things which other people accomplish.
Before Sam graduated from the California School for the Deaf and Blind, the Tribune had noted,
            Sammy, with a cheerful philosophy of life which knows no obstacles in the way of success, is confident that his way will be cleared in making himself entirely self-supporting when he finishes his studies.
Following his graduation from high school, the Tribune continued to carry stories about Sam’s progress in various projects he had launched. For a while, it did seem like Sam would be as successful as he believed he’d be. Perhaps this positive thinking thing did really work—at least for him. After all, it was the newspaper’s observation about Sam,
            Of his ability to “make good” after he has left school young Bean has not a doubt. Despite his handicap he has an unclouded vision of life.

Photograph, above: closeup of the hands of Sam and Maud Bean, from their undated portraitseemingly as dark and blurry as the world in which they must have existed.


  1. It must have really been something for someone to "explain" to him through touch what task they wanted him to do...amazing:)

    1. If nothing else, it must have developed quite a sense of persistence and determination...and patience!

  2. Very thoughtful post. Perhaps the reporters writing the news articles need to imagine that if they were in Sam's place, they could be absolutely remarkable and lead a blessed life. Maybe that's why the overdo it and are "cloying."

    Even if Sam did feel sheltered, and the object of excessive compassion, he still rocked. Way to go, Sam. He's in his twenties now and still persisting and accomplishing.

    1. Mariann, I'm not really sure why the "cloying" issue really grates on me. You have a good point about the reporters. I think the best way to look at it is through the context of attitudes concerning the blind and deaf during that era--contrasted with the new philosophy being advocated at that time by proponents of education for a more sustainable model of independent living.


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