Cumberland Times-News

May 8, 2008

We all need to develop a seeing eye

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

"You have to have a seeing eye!'' Helen Byrnes Miller told me, shortly after I moved to Allegany County more than half a century ago.

She was a multi-talented person, president of AAUW, in charge of the Bird Camp in Garrett County, where so many of our children learned about pileated woodpeckers and friendly snakes, and winner of prizes for flower arrangements.

At the time we were talking about the wild grape leaves she had used in a bouquet, turning them over so that the purple veins on the bottom side added a subtle, unexpected bit of color.

I never developed Helen's ability to recognize the potentials in the woodland weeds, but I think of her often, applying what she said to other observations.

It is not enough to look at the world around us; we need to notice details in the landscape, shifting patterns in the clouds and the quirks of appearance and behavior that differentiate individuals.

We don't all notice the same things, but we can share what we see. Several years ago, on an excursion to Lake Louise in Canada, I had the benefit of someone else's "seeing eye.''

Traveling from Vancouver to Banff, our train followed a river on the far side of which there rose endless tree-covered mountains. It would have been a rather boring trip but for two women, mother and daughter, in the seat in front of me.

They were experienced hunters, and as they looked across at the forest their trained eyes detected movement - a bear, young deer, an elk, or eagles circling overhead. They pointed out what I would never have noticed on my own.

It is not difficult to develop an eye for plants and animals, for architecture or department store bargains, but we are apt to look at other people without actually seeing them. We lump them together on the basis of national origin, or language, or religion, or age or hair-style or income. Knowing that much about a group, we don't bother to look further.

That reminds me of an incident in an English class I taught at FSU many years ago. My students were freshmen, black and white, boys and girls, few enough in number to make discussion possible.

We were talking about prejudice - judgments made prematurely - sparked by an essay in that year's textbook. All of a sudden there was a giggle a the back of the room. "What's the matter, Henrietta?'' I asked.

She giggled again. Then, "Before I got into this class I thought all white people looked alike.''

There was a gasp on the other side of the room. Students who had often heard their parents complain that they couldn't tell Chinese, or Hispanics, or Blacks apart, found themselves targeted for anonymity.

I don't know what happened after that. I can only hope that the Caucasians took a long look at themselves and their attitudes. Perhaps for Henrietta it was the first step toward a truly seeing eye, looking into the people around her instead of staring at them.

I don't remember Henrietta's last name, and I wouldn't recognize her if she returned to Frostburg for a class reunion. But perhaps I played a part in passing along the lesson that Helen Miller had taught me.

We all need to develop a seeing eye!

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.