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I am now going to try to write something about a bit of history. I am not sure I will have all the facts right, so if you really wish to know all details, it might be wise to do some further research. For my story, only the following is really important.
A long time ago, it was thought that children who were blind or partly sighted, could not go to a regular school like every other child does. there were of course no such things as computers and other technological things to help teachers, so each teacher who was going to teach blind children would have to learn braille, and many other things, in order to teach this child braille and of course also to read the homework and such of this child, as this all would be in braille. Also it was thought that there were many other important things that blind children should learn and it would be a disadvantage to have such children in a regular school. to make it all easier, there were 3 boarding schools across the Netherlands, at least this was the case in 1982, when this became important to me. One was in Zeist, called Bartimeus, the other in Huyzen, called visio, and the third, that's the one where I had to go, in Grave, it was called Theofaan. the location where each student went, was not only defined by the location where they lived. Grave was in my case closest to home, but I know people who could have gone to another school which was closer, but they didn't. It all also depended on an old dutch tradition, where people from several religious groups where separated, each group going to a school of it's own religion or belief system.
For me and my parents being Catholic, I went of course to the Catholic school Theofaan. Not that at the time when I was there it was still so important, but they have been hanging on to old traditions quite long for some reason.
theofaan was not just a school, where children could learn braille, writing, reading, and such... It also had one big building where we all could stay when school was out. of course Children like for example Alicey who lived really close to school, were able to go home every day. But we lived 80 KM's away from school, say at least an hour driving, it was not possible for my parents to pick me up every afternoon and have me back by the next morning.
so this large building, where our living areas were, was devided in many sub-sections, called groups. In each group lived about 12 children ranging from 6 to 14 or so, some blind, others partly sighted. There was always a guide, or several guides, present of course to watch us.
the school was somewhat different of course. Here we were devided into classes, most of the time there were not more than 6 to 8 children in one class. Here blind and partly sighted children were separated and the classes depended on age and how far you were in your learning process.
The classrooms I remember were devided into 2 parts, and most often besides the teacher there was also a teacher's assistent. Some lessons were given to the whole class together, for other lessons the class was devided into 2 groups. there were several lessons like calculus and such where everyone worked on their own pase, some like me were slower and fell behind, others were faster. so the ones who were faster were put together in one group and the slower ones in the other.
It has really been a long time ago since I was there, I went there in 1982 and was able to leave in 198, thankfully! After that I have pushed many of these memories away for my time there was everything but pleasant. So here are a few things I do remember.
First of all, I was homesick all the time I was there. My mother told me later that during the 2 years I spent there, I only grew 2 centimeters, it should have been quite a bit more... She thinks that in fact I only grew during the times I was home for vacation. Especially the first year I was there, was really tough for me. I hardly had any friends and I didn't seem to fit in. the guides on my group where I lived tried to be nice, I think, but to me they seemed the worst people in the world, unkind and not caring about my feelings at all. I often felt sick to my stomach, had trouble sleeping, didn't know my way very well and felt very far away from home.
Although we lived in a small group, it seemed huge. All 12 children slept in one large bedroom, where it was difficult for me to find my way. The rules were quite strict, there were strict bedtimes and it was also not allowed to get out of bed before the guides said so. and I think the most difficult thing for me was the food. I didn't like much of food anyway, and never ate a lot. But here the food tasted so differently, I didn't like it. And many vegetables that I didn't like at all, and that I didn't have to eat at home, I had to eat them there. Not in just a small portion, they used to fill up my plate with much more than I could handle. French fries or things that children just like to eat were rare, twice a year at most and even then they didn't taste right. It was a rule I had to empty my plate, even if I was full. this was very difficult for me, the harder I was pushed, the less I would eat. After several months the guides grew impatient with me, and then they started making me finish my food standing at the counter in the kitchen, that is, if I was still eating while everyone else was finished. Of course this made me feel even less at ease and even more sick to my stomach.
the first year was the most difficult. After the big summer vacation which lasted 6 weeks, I dreaded going back, but when I returned some things had changed. I don't know why this happened, maybe my parents had a talk with the guides or maybe they realized making me eat my food standing at the counter wasn't going to help in my case, only make matters worse.
In this second year for me, a new girl came to my group, called Christa, who was about a year younger than I was, and she was in another class as wel. But from the first time I met her, I somehow liked her and soon we became good friends. she also had a lot of trouble with being away from home and felt home sick, just like me, so I could really understand her feelings and tried to help her, somehow it made me feel better and stronger.
there was also another thing changing. they had started to renovate parts of the building, including my group, during the summer vacation. the first weeks back at school were therefore a bit chaotic. During the first week we stil had our meals at our own group, but we already slept somewhere else, temporarily. during the second week we even had to have meals elsewhere. It took several weeks, I don't really remember, I believe 7 or 8, but then the old group from the first year had been changed into a new one. Somehow it felt more positive after this transformation.
the most important change was that there was no longer 1 big room where we all slept. there were now several rooms for children who wanted to sleep alone, and some with 2 beds. And my new friend Christa and I weree allowed to stay in one room together. I was also slowly starting to make more other friends and fitting in with the rest.
Now don't get me wrong, I still hated boarding school. I still didn't like the teachers and guides all that much. I still felt uneasy about the rules. But at least some things changed making it easier to fit in. As long as Christa and I just whispered, no one would notice we were still talking and playing. We could sit up if we really couldn't fall asleep, no one would see it. We could get us a glass of water to drink because there was also a sink inside the room. And I had a friend.
then there was one other very important thing that probably gave me a whole different look on that second year. So around december they started talking to my parents, and also a few words to me, about changing schools. Politicians had decided to try sending blind children to regular schools in the towns where they originally lived, after they had spent a few years at the Boarding school. the teachers were of course responsible for choosing which students would be able to do this, and they thought I was the right person for this experiment. My teacher at that moment was quite sure I was going to make it in regular school, and that because of my being home sick it would be a lot better for me as well.
so they started talking to my school, where they were at first a bit cautious and not sure they should do this, but in the end all teachers at this school decided they were 100% behind this, and 100% behind me coming there. so I guess the fact that I knew that I would soon be leaving to never come back, gave me a much better feeling.
From the second year I clearly remember a few things that were a lot of fun. First of all, Christa and I both had dolls and a lot to play with. I had 2 dolls, a big one called Patrick and a smaller one called Moniekske. I sometimes was allowed to borrow a doll from my sister but then the guides would have issues, not more than 2 dolls on my bed allowed. But I remember waking up in the middle of the night one day, and taking that third doll in my bed with me as well, and I had it out of there before the guides came in again in the morning.
I also remember that we played more games during that time, also games where we ran through the long big hallway that connects all the groups together. And that hallway is fun to run through and play in, it is so long, at least 500 meters or more I guess. We also played outside more frequently and somehow the guides also seemed more relaxed and more into trying to have a good time. Some of the old guides had also left and were replaced by other, nicer persons. the one from the first year that I disliked most was at least no longer in my group.
I remember clearly that during this last evening Christa and I were playing longer than usual. christa had also been chosen to go to back to her own town and the school there, so she was just as happy as I was, although we were going to miss each other for sure. When we finally had fallen asleep, we were suddenly awoken by the guides coming into the room, in the middle of the night. They called us out of our beds and picked up our mattrasses, and put them all in the hallway in our group, where all the rooms were. so then we all slept together in that hallway, in a sort of camping-style. And they also read a story to us and let us talk a little before going back to sleep again. Not that I slept much, I don't believe I was able to fall asleep at all after that. But it sure was a funny and nice goodbye party!
Now I'm quite a bit older and looking back, it still makes me feel a bit strange about this time in my life. quite a few other memories come back to my mind now I try to think about it, but it also seems so far away. I disliked it so much, that I pushed it far away. Christa went to another school, very far away from where I lived. One year after we both left, we once met again, at first we both felt a bit shy again but soon felt as close as ever. But it was only one day. After that we didn't meet for years, until I was 22 or so, when we both had grown up and gone different ways in our life. Although we worked well together then, we never found our old friendship back again.
During my 2 years at Theofaan I was in the same class with Alicey, who luckily was able to live at home with her parents. At that time I was a bit jalous of her and somehow our contact was never so good then. When we met again at the Loo Erf, it felt different and we have been best friends ever since.
I have revisited Theofaan a few times after I left in 1984. the first time was a few weeks after my new year at school started, where I still knew many people and not so much had changed. the second time was in 1988, where during a vacation that I had, the school did not have a vacation for some reason. that's when my mother decided to go visit theofaan, together with my sisters angela and Gabrielle, and a friend of mine who had never seen Theofan until then. At that time although a lot had changed, a lot was also still the same.
After that i didn't visit theofaan until I had grown up, in 1998, where the committee for Blind and Visually impared student that I was doing voluntary work for at that time, had organized a get together weekend that was held there. that was a very strange experience for me. for the first time after many years I was back where I had many unpleasant childhood memories, but now to have a fun time. the long hallway that connects all the groups together, it was still there and had hardly changed at all over the years. a lot of the furniture was still there. the smells, sounds, sensations, nothing had really changed. We also were at the school for a short time, in the swimming pool where I had my first swimming lessons that I never really liked. That was the first time I realized a difference: I had expected the swimming pool to be much larger than it really was. But everything about it was still as I remembered. In a way it felt like a home that wasn't really home at all, but so familiar. We had a really nice weekend there, with a few minor setbacks, but for the first time I was there because I wanted to be there, having a good time with friends. And guess what....Christa, Alicey, they were there too.......
theofaan has changed a lot since my experience in the 80's and it even has a new name now. there is much more to the background of all this, but I am not giving history lessons on my website. My last big visit in 1998, and the fact that I met another lady who was in the same group where I was a few years later, made me think about this time, and all the memories that I have about it that I tried to keep away... so maybe it helped make me the person I am today and there were certainly good sides about Theofaan, but I'm glad children are being sent to regular schools now as much as is possible. Children should, if possible, be at home with their parents and not in a boarding school.
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