The Gift of Ishaq Ahmed (part one)




If you work with people, especially those striving to become something better, whether purposefully or by default, you can’t help but witness some of the magic of what it is to be human. I’ve been lucky this way. I’m one of the “by default” types, committed to growth for self-preservation reasons, and having come from such faulted beginnings that I marvel at myself and my fellow travelers. I’ve also been around long enough to know that there are some things for which words alone won’t do justice. There are miracles, and there miraculous people.

From 2004 to 2009, I ran a door-to-door sales crew in Calgary Alberta. I’d hire and train an almost continuous number of young reps, usually teens and young adults. Over the years, I went through hundreds of people, never knowing who would work out and who wouldn’t, but willing to give anyone a shot at better than average money, and in some cases, exceptional money.

With every prospect, I went through my usual pitch: the job was getting new subscribers for the Calgary Herald; we pick you up at home and drop you off; it pays decent commission every Saturday and we train you to do door to door on a team of like-minded reps. “You can do that right?” “Yes,” this particular prospect replied compliantly.

So I made arrangements to pick him up, taking his name and address, discussing our shift expectations, dress code, preparation, etc. At the very end, just as we were about to hang up, he says there is “just one thing.”

“I’m blind,” he mentions.

“You’re blind?”

“Yeah. I’m blind.”

“So how do you think you can go door to door in neighbourhoods you’re not familiar with and write orders?”

“I can do it,” he says. “It’s no problem.”

“What? Do you have a cane?” I ask.

“Yup, I’m really good with it. I need a job and I can do this.”

Boom. So… how do I say no to that?  He fits the criteria for my typical rep in every way: lot’s of free time, no extra-curricular activities that will interfere with the job, mom’s OK with him working. Kid needed money: he lived in one of the few low-rent buildings around–subsidized housing they call it–and right along my route.

In fact, I’d hired a young gal out of that same building a year or two before. I ended up giving her a place to stay when her mother couldn’t pay her hydro bill and she complained about having to come home to a pitch-dark apartment every night. Later, I trained her as my office manager, a job she did really well for a number of years.  I couldn’t help thinking: at least with this kid darkness wouldn’t matter. And you can’t put the want in someone’s belly. If it’s there, go with it.

I also realized on the spot that what he wants to hear is that he’s accepted. It’s a bluff, I tell myself:  likely some way for him to gain leverage with his mother. He’ll probably never show up. Or if he does, it’s going to be a novelty effort at best.

After all, I once had a deaf girl work for us. She didn’t work out because her lip reading sucked. She kept thinking others were saying stuff about her and ended up getting physical with other reps. Big girl from the Forest Lawn area, tough as nails.

But a blind kid? How’s he going to smack anyone? The cane maybe?

Anyway, it’s my inclination to call bullshit as I see it. So I act as if it’s no big deal. “I could care less if you’re blind, deaf and dumb as dumb,” I tell him, “as long as you can walk, talk and carry a binder, you’re hired.”  Now I’m curious; I want him to come in.

Next day, we’re outside his building waiting. It takes fifteen minutes for him to get downstairs.  It’s a bit of an ordeal. I’ll get better at it, he says. There are some challenges, namely, he’s got to learn the pitch.  It’s ten-fifteen lines by memory. We rehearse like heck in the van, and finally decide to just get him to invite the customers to read his pitch off his binder.

One of our best ambassadors for the job took him out first night. After a year or two working with me, Matt House doesn’t see difficulty, just solutions. Ishaq couldn’t have had a better guy to show him around. Matt nicknames him Ishdog.

He’s got the pitch printed out in Braille on the second day and he’s memorizing it all the way out to work. I send him out with our best female trainer, Melisa Davey, who trains him and watches a customer fall in love with this blind kid and sign up. He gets her approval. We knew he’d be fine working with someone but how about by himself?

Now it’s time to go out on his own so I explain what his block looks like. I find him one with a sidewalk that has cement walkways that bisect the lawns going up to each house’s entrance. I describe it for him, like a coach giving out a new pattern to his players on the field.

Off he goes, no questions, tapping his cane along the sidewalk and then the lawn and back again. When he double taps cement he knows it’s a walkway. He veers right and taps up the walkway, once on the cement, once on the lawn, moving quickly, doggedly, like any impatient teenager. When he gets to the stairs, he slows, feeling with his cane, and then steps up without hesitation. On the stoop, he moves forward using the cane to sweep the porch widely and find the door. Feeling the doorway, he looks, but with long slender fingers, searching the frame on each side for a doorbell.

I’m parked up the street, watching in amazement at his progress. I want to go door to door myself and say, “Did you see that? There’s a blind kid working your block! Pay attention!”  But, instead, I sit there watching in disbelief.

He went through ten or fifteen houses and suddenly stopped. Turning away from the houses, this time he approached the street and waited there, motionless, his head cocked a bit. Wondering what’s up, I pull up along side him.

He says,”Do you think I don’t know you’re there watching me? I heard you stop and shut off your engine. I know you’re there. It’s making me nervous. I’m not a little kid, and I’ve been blind for a while. I don’t need you to baby me.”

What the…? “Oh really? Ok bud. You’re on your own. Have a customer call me if you need me for anything.” I drove away, with nothing but admiration for his guts.

And that was it. Little guy, just fourteen-fifteen at the time, skinny as a rake, not even a hundred pounds, went about his business learning the new job in a way that was really not much different from any other kid. It took time before he got better; he made the same mistakes as anyone else. He never became my best seller, but he competed against himself everyday.

He also had a sense of humour. When you got in the van, he’d tell you how good you looked. He’d remark on the scenery, picking up the tiniest clue from the conversations around him and joining in by making something up. There were no off-limit jokes, and he answered each new rep’s questions about his blindness matter-of-factly and without self-pity. It was just his life.

With all the good-natured ball busting that goes on in a close-quartered sales team, Ishaq held his own. If he got too mouthy, I’d threaten to put him on blocks with construction sites on them. Those big mounds of excavated dirt were really confusing to tap with a cane. Another time, when he wanted a new cane, he stuck his out as I pulled up to get him on the last drop. The next day, we picked him up from the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) building near his home. He had a brand new model. He gave me the old one, and still bugs me about running over a blind man’s cane.

Or, I’d drop him at the top of a street and drive to the end of the block on the way to drop someone else. I might notice that there was a park on the last two lots, with an asphalt walkway veering off from the sidewalk into the playground. If I didn’t hustle back in time, I’d find Ishaq there in the middle of the park, head cocked, cane swinging to and fro trying to figure out where the darned houses went.

Another time, I circled his block over and over looking for him to no avail. Finally, I realized he might have tapped his way up the back lane where all the garages were. Sure enough, just as I pulled up to the lane to go look for him, out he comes from someone’s backyard from halfway down the block, tapping away furiously towards me to get back to the sidewalk and the other half of the block. Turns out, he tapped up the lane a little confused and heard voices. He ended up pitching a couple of men barbecuing in a backyard and wrote two orders

He had blind-sense too. Remnant cells in his eyes wired to a different, more primitive part of his brain that was left undamaged by his accident. It meant he could sense when there was something in his way. All the kids marveled at how he’d suddenly stop in front of a parked car, and tap around it. Reps who worked with him on occasion would test him, walking down the road or sidewalk beside him and purposefully not telling him of an obstacle approaching. Ishaq would stop and say, “there’s something there, isn’t there?” He became a bit of a legend; mysterious magus who could somehow see in another dimension, though his eyes could not.

We asked him about the stereotype of other senses becoming more enhanced. And they were. He sees with his hands, the subject of many flirtatious comments from the gals in the van. He was also a percussionist in his high school band. Boy, could he hit the drums. He’d tap out a rhythm on anything you put near him. Gifted and getting better, he was devoted to sound. He was also lucky that the digital age was upon us and could more easily pursue music as an important part of his life.

I remember picking up the last few reps on a darkened street corner one evening when suddenly a red mustang convertible swerved in front of my fifteen passenger van, cutting us off and preventing me from driving off. The odd time a rep crossed the line with a customer I’d have to intervene and smooth things over. I prepared for the worst as I got out to meet the person and deal with the situation.

Turns out the guy had been looking for us for 20 minutes. His upset wasn’t from anything we did, but something else entirely. Ishaq had been at his door that evening at a time in his life when the client was facing some big challenges, unsure if he could meet them.

Seeing this young blind kid pitch on a cool night, after dark, and go about gratefully doing his job with earnest enthusiasm, made him stop and think. He was overcome with how ridiculous his problems were when compared to not being able to see. The way Ishaq persevered without any hint of feeling sorry for himself inspired in this customer a deep sense of respect and gratitude. If a young blind kid could go sell newspaper trials door to door, he could do anything. The customers was teary-eyed as he recounted how affected he was, asking if there was something more he could do. “Can I give him money, or contribute to his education?”

One thing about Ishaq is that he’s not inclined to use his blindness to advantage; refusing pity like it’s bad karma. It’s just not in his nature and he won’t ask for help if it can at all be avoided. I finally had to agree to let the customer call the newspaper the next day and tell them how he felt about Ishaq. This kind of thing occurred often once Ishaq became more comfortable at doors, though I’d rarely make a big deal of it.  He was truly amazing (but don’t tell him I said that).

You’d think he’d sell more orders than anyone too, but the truth was many customers didn’t fully realize he was blind. His eyes were still pretty good looking back then–the cataracts were just starting–and he acted deceptively normal once trained. He’d rarely look you in the eye if that’s what you expected. If they spotted the white cane they might think they were being scammed, unless they took the time to talk with him. You know how people are. In a sense, he had to overcome that detriment to his sales.

However, it was the lessons he taught all of us that mattered most. His life was one big display of courage, of determination, of confronting fear, of telling himself he could do anything anyone else could do.  He just never said no to anything. He agreed to do his best and figured out how to make it work later. Also, if outsold by the blind man, you could expect to feel embarrassed on the ride home. It would be Ishaq who did the ribbing.

For a full season, from spring to late fall, until the cold and icy streets forced him indoors, we were inspired by this skinny kid with the big smile who laughed so easily.  He affected all those who came into contact with him, each feeling privileged to be around his indomitable spirit. He was a sweet guy, tender even, and he cared about the people around him. He sees the world through his heart, something more of us wish we could do better.

Born in Libya during the Gaddafi years, he was raised partly in Egypt and partly in Sudan. His father was an Egyptian farmer contracted to open up lands along the Nile River for agriculture near Dongola, Sudan. His family followed. Mom’s Sudanese.

At nine years old, Ishaq had fallen backwards off a simple plastic chair, the flimsy mass-produced kind you might find lying around your own backyard. Hitting the back of his head on a rock, he was hurt. Then, the whites of his eyes turned blood-red within a few days after the fall. Doctors told his mother that he had perhaps a two-week window to get the kind of medical attention he needed.

By the time his family could both afford it and manage the distance to care, it was too late. The swelling damaged his visual cortex. Over the course of the following year, his vision slowly shrank from the periphery in, until the tunnel through which he desperately tried to remember his life with sight, finally went completely dark.


For the Gift of Ishaq Ahmed part two click here

to contact me so I can work with you click here

C K Wallace © 2016

2 comments on “The Gift of Ishaq Ahmed (part one)

  1. Jeanne January 4, 2016 3:58 pm

    What a beautiful, heart warming tribute to Ishaq. What Ishaq did with his cane, you’ve done with your words.

    • wally January 4, 2016 7:29 pm

      Thank you. He would appreciate that.

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