In 1996, at the age of twenty-six, I agreed to work a single substitute shift at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Burned out on academia and tired of making sandwiches, I needed a new gig, and the blind school seemed as good as any. My girlfriend worked there, and loved it, and all her friends did too. At the end of my first shift, I signed up for a second. At the end of my second, I applied for a full-time job. I have worked in the field ever since.
And the girlfriend? She became my wife. (Hi Nita!)
After a few years as a classroom assistant and job coach, I earned my teaching license in 1999. Twelve years later, I added a master’s degree in Special Education, with an emphasis in Orientation and Mobility, which allows me to teach blind students how to travel safely and effectively through their world – whether to find a classroom, find a bathroom, or cross a six-lane highway to get to that place on the corner with the good apple cider donuts.
In 2014, after almost twenty years in the business, I started writing Just Maria. I wrote it because I wanted it to exist. I had a student named Sam at the time, a fifth-grade bookworm and braille reader who had worked his way through half of the digital library that provided books for the blind. I went looking for a novel with a blind protagonist—one who wasn’t an inspiration, a sad-sack, or a saint—and hoped for a book that explored difference and disability without resorting to the saccharine. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to write it myself.
It was an absurd notion, sure, but not without precedent. I had written off and on for years, reaching back to my college days, publishing scores of essays, reviews, and short fiction in periodicals ranging from The Austin Chronicle to Blue Ridge Outdoors to Bridal Guide. It was a thrill to see my words in print, but always remained more of a thrill than a living – enough to keep me in breakfast tacos and barbecue, but not much more. I kept teaching, and in 2001 I traded flat brown for steep green, moving from central Texas to the mountains of North Carolina.
I’ve taught in the area ever since, and in 2014 took a job with the nonprofit IFB Solutions, where I manage programs for children with vision loss. When not taking blind kids ziplining, I read, write, and play barrelhouse piano with friends and family around Asheville.
Over the years, I kept fiddling with Just Maria: writing, revising, and sometimes taking long breaks I wasn’t sure I would return from. I kept at it more out of habit than hope – not because I thought it would be published, but because I believed it ought to be. By the time I finally finished it, and found a publisher in Regal House, my student Sam had graduated high school. He’s in college now, studying classics and history, and probably not reading much middle grades fiction. Just Maria will not be of much use to him, but I know there are other Sams out there, scores of them, and Samanthas and Aliyahs and Marias too, from Schenectady to Sacramento to Moline, and everywhere else besides. It is my hope this book finds its way into their hands.
Fitzroy Books is proud to bring you Just Maria by Jay Hardwig in the fall of 2021.