Barbara (Silvia) Dustin (1936-2017), was a student at Perkins School for the Blind from 1942 until she graduated in 1957. There were 12 members in the class of 1957, pictured above. At graduation, the male students wore stuits and ties while the female students wore white dresses. She married Francis Dustin on October 23, 1965 in Brattleboro, Vermont. She worked for the State of New Hampshire and later, as an assembly worker for Streeter’s Machine Shop in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, where she lived. While at Perkins, Dustin was a Girl Scout and took part in productions of Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin. In Junior High she served on the Student Council. Dustin was a drummer for the Nifty Niners Band and she sang in the Glee Club and in concerts. She was active in the Girls Athletic Association and served as Brooks Cottage House Captain her senior year. She was also a life-long member of the Perkins Alumni Association.
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This interview is a digitized copy of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Perkins School for the Blind. The interview was conducted on June 12, 2004, by Susan Summersby. The audio and transcript provided have been edited to protect the privacy of the interviewee.
This oral history transcript may be quoted if cited. A preferred citation is provided. The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind. For permission please contact [email protected].
Dustin, Barbara (Silvia). “Barbara (Silvia) Dustin oral history interview conducted by Susan Summersby,” 2004-06-12, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG195-2004-08, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Susan Summersby: This is Susan Summersby. I’m here with the Perkins Oral History Project on Alumni Weekend on June 12, 2004. And I’m here with Barbara Dustin, who will proceed to introduce herself.
Barbara Silvia Dustin: I am Barbara Silvia Dustin, spelled S-I-L-V-I-A, because it’s my maiden name. And I was born in Taunton, Massachusetts in 1936 and came to Perkins in ’42, just in September at the beginning of the war, as a kindergarten student. Went through till I got my diploma in 1957. And I wanted to talk about those years when I was young, when it made the most impression on me.
And the things I remember are, because it was war years, and everything was new, we had to participate in not just fire rehearsals, but actual bombing attack rehearsals when the alarms would go off in Watertown, and it was considered there might be an air raid. After all, we’re that close to the ocean. And if they could do it to Japan, Germany would probably fly to the east coast of Massachusetts. And we had to go down into the tunnels. Older will remember tunnels as damp, dark, dank places, hot, and interesting, but frightening to small children.
And there was a bakery in the power house, as it was called. And the lovely scent of bread would come up twice a week. And that’s, I think, if you’ve talked about aromas, that is one that everyone will mention, plus the pines at Christmas time when you opened the door to the Howe Building, and the heat came out with a lovely scent of pine decorations.
There were so many things. We had gyms and playgrounds and all sorts of things that we didn’t get at home. And I remember children who came from houses where there was no electricity. Remember, this is 1942. And when they were home, they didn’t see very well. When they got to Perkins, there were electric lights on at night, and they realized there was a whole other part of a day. And there were flush toilets.
And the other thing I remember is that we had meat. I had never known about beef, nor fresh pork, or lamb, or anything. And we had so much protein in those days, and we were really well-fed– a little gristly at times, but so much more than I ever had at home.
Everything was a new experience and a new education. And there were plants and flowers, not just hayfields. And Mr. Coon was in charge of grounds and had everything and anything you’d ever want or wouldn’t believe would grow here, and he grew them. And we even had a horse named Jenny who used to pull us in the sleigh through the athletic fields in winter. And we, of course, had swimming in winter, which was quite a surprise when you were old enough to be allowed to do that.
And we lived as families. And I have a classmate who says that he feels more family to the kids he went to school with than he does of some of his cousins because he spent more time with us. And today, we were even talking about G. A member of my family is here today– so glad to see him at alumnae.
Let me see. And there were teachers who lived in your house, so they became the adults of your family and taught you all kinds of things that you wouldn’t learn in school, but needed to learn in life. I had never heard of the Golden Rule. Thought it was a measuring stick. And I was told what it was and thought, that’s interesting, until I discovered what it really meant. And years later, I thought, gosh, there’s something that seems so simple.
But everything was a learning experience. And for children who came from homes with parents that today would be brought up in court, fortunately, those days, they were not. And when we got here, there was the peace and the security of Perkins, and the training. And you were taken at face value. And you were not criticized, and you were not, well, literally slapped around for what you did or did not do, or could or could not do.
The teacher tried to teach you. And sometimes you couldn’t do it. And other times, you learned to do it. And it was an esteem-building type of situation. The whole thing, probably even including your sleeping hours, was an experience to learn. And those of us who had problems like that were so fortunate that we had a place away from home, thank goodness, for 24 hours a day.
And there were bad times. But I’m not going to talk about those because they were what we made them. We surmounted all that with a great deal of snappishness on our part. I said that we were like little puppies that have been let loose too soon. And we had to snap for everything we got. And we did snap some of the wrong people. But hopefully, we saw them in time to apologize for some staff member.
And my biggest sorrow is that because the stuff members– we had teachers who were elderly, gray-haired maiden ladies, as they were called in those days. They passed away before we left school. And even then, we were too young to go back and say, gee, thanks, and a little bit kind of like, gee, I don’t dare face her. [LAUGHS]
And after they were gone, and we were older, we thought I regret– very, very much, I regret– that I never could go back and say to a teacher, you yelled at me, and I hated you. But you really did me so much good. And I see it now, whereas I couldn’t see it then. And I do want to thank you for something like that because you made me what I am and a lot better than I would have been.
Summersby: What cottages were you living in?
Dustin: Ah. Well, we started in Anagnos. I was a little girl. And the third graders lived in Anagnos, and they took care of us kindergarten children. Taught us to comb our hair and tie our shoes. Yelled at us because they didn’t want to be doing it. And when it came my turn, I taught some little kids and thought, oh gee. I mean, they did it for me, but haven’t these kids learned anything in the meantime? And of course, why should they? I hadn’t.
And then I lived in Bradlee first and second grade. And then we spent three years, fourth, fifth, and sixth, in Glover. And I did not like Glover and did not like the house parents, house mother and assistant house mother.
And then we moved to Upper School, and I first lived in Oliver then in Fisher. And the reason we moved, mainly, in those days was because the school was enlargening from the beginning up. And they took one of the Upper School cottages for a lower school group of children. So we moved from Oliver to Fisher.
And then I came back as a PG because I had to make up credits, which I had lost because I was out most of a year in surgery and hadn’t participated in my high school exams, and I wanted my diploma. When I entered school, the reason I even wanted into school was because I wanted to learn to read. And somehow, I’d heard about Braille. And I knew I couldn’t see to read print. And my biggest thing was, I want to read a book. And so I came back. And I didn’t get my diploma, and I lived in Brooks.
And I also wanted to mention, because the Globe restoration is so important, it was called the World in those days. It was just, I’ll meet you by the World, which meant, meet in the lobby by that big globe that stood in the middle of the lobby. And of course, I think we only came up halfway up to the height of the globe. It’s so large.
And it was called the World. And I knew, because of the war, that there was a place called Japan that was way across the world. And I used to walk around the Globe and say, here is the United States. And I don’t know if I got to Japan, but I’d stand on the other side and say, and this is Japan. And see? They had to fly– and I probably thought– over the top of the globe to get there. And but it was just another thing that was part of my learning experience.
And another thing that impressed me greatly was I wondered, after I learn to read books, what will I do with myself? Can I get a job like Daddy and Mama? And I saw Mrs. Waterhouse, Mrs. Edward J Waterhouse, who taught what I believe was probably called elocution in those days. And she came to kindergarten, and we all sat around the table. And she taught us poems, and how to speak, and just answer questions properly, and things like that, as I recall.
But she had a guide dog. And I had heard of these, somehow or other. And I thought, no, she’s totally blind. She must be. And she was, because she has this dog. And she got here from wherever she came from, and she has a job.
And she was, in a way, another inspiration to me, even though we saw her only once a week. But if she could do it, then why couldn’t I? And so I would stay at this school. And I would learn to do things too, and accomplish something. If I wasn’t a teacher, I’d be something.
And then we saw older kids, and that made it easier. Sometimes they would come to read to us from Braille. Oh my goodness. And they were probably sixth graders. But to us, they were ancient. And I thought, and I’ll be like that someday. And I’ll be able to– but then when it came my chance to come down and read to little kids, it was kind of like, oh gee, do I have to? But all teenagers go through that.
And we had sports, which were physically building. And what shall I call it? It gave you the idea that you could succeed in things, the confidence. And I’ll turn a somersault, I’ll run the marathon, or whatever is best you could do.
And were Christmas concerts. The music was wonderful, not just because people think that blind people are only interested in music, but it’s a great learning experience. It’s cooperation with your fellow soprano, altos, or whatever. It was learning Braille, again, and just the joy of listening to it and the pleasure of putting on a concert, and after we were graduated, coming back to see the other kids do it.
And I was impressed when I went to the graduation for ’04. The chamber singers and the chorus, small though it is, was wonderful– those lovely young girls’ voices, as mine once was. And I was so impressed with what everything– everything is different, and sometimes not quite to our old-fashioned choosing. But it’s the way it’s done.
And the achievement of what the kids can do now, and the training of the teachers who teach them, and the volunteers or anyone who helps them, because they need more help than we did– we had our volunteers too. And it was important to us. But thank goodness that there are volunteers who will take on something even harder. But that’s because they’re older, and they don’t say, oh, do I have to do it?
And I still see children– no, they’re grown-up girls now– alumni who are children who I used to walk to the infirmary or just do things for them. And some of them, I really was nice to. [LAUGHS] And they do remember me. And fortunately, I haven’t met someone who said, oh, it’s you. Come here while I hit you. [LAUGHS]
And this coming back to Perkins, too, is an experience– to see how far you’ve come, to relive old days, just to see home. This is home because we lived here so much. I came in September. And because there was a gas shortage, my family couldn’t come up to get me. I stayed for Thanksgiving. And I had never had a Thanksgiving before.
Summersby: What were the holidays like here?
Dustin: Well, you would stay on campus while those who could go home did go home or to– the larger vacations, sometime, you went to some foster person who would take you in for Christmas. But there was always a cottage open for the kids who could not go home, whether they lived too far or their families couldn’t afford train tickets, because they were trains in those days.
Dustin: And there was a full Thanksgiving dinner I had never seen anything like that. And I had my first birthday cake here, a chocolate cake. And I knew there were candles on cakes, but I didn’t know what you did with them. Blowing out didn’t quite– all those candles! How do you do that?
And I stood there and looked at it. And the house mother came over and blew it out. And somebody said, why didn’t you do that? And I said, because I have a cold, and I might spread my germs. And I had learned that, but I hadn’t learned how to blow out candles on a chocolate cake.
And there were parties and Christmas parties with gifts. And there were picnics and the pond, that was a much more woodsy place. But there was a picnic area then, small though it was. There was a place to cook hot dogs and tables to sit at and eat.
Summersby: Were there activities on the pond?
Dustin: Well, there was–
Summersby: Was there fishing and things like that?
Dustin: Well, there used to be fish in that pond, and frogs, and ducks, I do believe, and turtles. And there was a rowboat in which we learned to row. Of course, the pond has a current, and it will take you around. And then I remember one girl learning how to use her sight to find the dock and get the boat back in the dock. And we went around an awful lot of times before she accomplished that.
But every little thing was an accomplishment. After all, it is to all children, but we were blind children. Some had sight, and they would help out the ones– I mean, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And if you could tell somebody, these are your pink socks, and these are your yellow, that was your thing. And then they might be able to take you someplace in the dark because it didn’t make any difference.
And everyone helped everyone else, willingly or unwillingly. And we roomed together. So we would be naughty, and whisper, and read books under the covers. And I used to hide in the closet and listen to the radio of the cook who had the room next door through the closet wall. And yet we were good and did go to bed on time. [LAUGHS]
Summersby: There was a curfew, or a time for bed?
Dustin: Well, we had a bedtime. When we were in kindergarten, we had to be in bed by 6:30 and up, I believe, by 6:30. And then later on, it was 7:00. And then when we got to Upper School, I think the junior high kids– 7:00 or 7:30, actually, I guess. And in Upper School, the junior high kids had to be in bed by 9:00. And they went to study hall from 7:00 to 8:00. And the older girls went from 7:00 to 8:30, but they could be up till 9:30 or 10:00. [LAUGHS]
And everyone was up at 6:30. And most everything was geared to the same– and we had a rising bell which went off, and you’d better be up. And breakfast was pretty the same time in all the cottages, and lunch and supper. So it was pretty well scheduled so you kind of knew where everyone should be at the time they should be there.
Summersby: Looking back, can you think of maybe one thing that brought you your greatest joy at Perkins? Seems like there’s been a lot that has affected you.
Dustin: I think the thing of knowing that I would be allowed to come back, and going through that, and finally getting–
Summersby: That was after your illness, you were saying?
Dustin: Yes, and sitting on the stage getting my diploma was one thing. But leaving tore some of that apart because, what do I do now, exactly? Gosh. But things stand out, like trips. We went to the aircraft carrier Wasp and learned about– as I say, this was in the war– and learned about planes taking off and landing. There were lots of things.
And symphonies! My goodness, to go to Symphony Hall, to go to the opera– and have people come here. I was a fan of Gene Autry, who was a country and Western singer and movie star. And he came here. And I remember standing behind him and patting his raincoat. I’ve actually touched Gene Autry!
And finally he turned around and said, yes, girls. What is it? And he was signing autographs for older kids. And we said, we just wanted to meet you. And we were upset that he kind of snapped at us, of course. But wouldn’t you, if someone had been patting you all the time? We said, but we like you. Thank you girls, he said.
And I’m sure– [LAUGHS] I don’t know if he was completely bored, or else, he just thought, these are little pests around my knees. But we took it in stride, figuring that that’s what he did thought. But that is a big thing. My neighbor never did anything like that. She had to see him in the movies I had seen him in his raincoat. [LAUGHS]
And then there were blind people who would come and perform. Some of them, we didn’t know. But we thought, well, they’ve kind of made it. Everything was an inspiration to, there are things you can achieve, and to try to achieve them. And then you had your teachers, who would back you up.
And bless the ones who stood by you and stood up for you, even though you were naughty. And you knew that you owe them something. And that really was one of the things to drive you to be good, plus the fact that you knew that you had them in your corner, and they would try as hard to teach them if you tried very hard to learn anything.
Summersby: What did you do when you left Perkins then [INAUDIBLE]?
Dustin: I worked in– I did assembly and packing and things for any place that had any assembly and packing to do. It was all hand labor. But I didn’t mind that, really, because although I had taken what then was called pretty much the college course class, except for I didn’t take languages, but I was– oh, I must have to confess that I got fairly decent marks for scholastic things.
But I didn’t mind that. My family was in that. They worked in the mills that New England used to have. And I thought, at least I got an education. That’s one step. And I’ll work in the mill and see how things go. But we had wonderful handicrafts, knitting and sewing. I made my own evening gown.
Summersby: That was here at Perkins, knitting and handicrafts?
Dustin: Yeah, yeah. We had ceramics. And we had weaving, which nobody would want to do today, but it’s a learning thing. It takes patience to weave a dishtowel. And we had knitting and sewing. Our class, all of us girls, even though the classes were small, but we made our evening gowns because we used to go to glee club performances in evening gowns in those days.
And so if you had a gown for a dance, then it later became your glee club gown. Got kind of sick of seeing it. I don’t want to wear that thing to a dance. I wear it out in the car and standing on the stage at glee club. And so we had made dresses, and skirts, and what have you. And we decided that we wanted to make– one person had the idea, and we said, yeah, me too.
And the poor sewing teacher took it on. And they were not the most fancy of gowns, although they were pretty. They were gowns. And we made our gowns and wore them, because we know that it was getting close to graduation, the next year. And our parents would probably say, what? Buy you clothes two years in a row? So we made them. And we wore them proudly and had a fashion show with them.
We had bands. The boys had a wonderful band that played for the girls’ dances. And we girls, ourselves, were in a band. And we had a leader named Mr. Vargas, who did chorus and band and was mother hen to us all.
And this is terrible to say. No one’s going to understand this. But in our day, the school was segregated– no, not colorwise, boy and girl-wise. And that’s why the two sides of the school looks so much alike. And one was the boys, and the other one was the girls. The west close was the girls, and the east was the boys.
Now, when I was a small child, it was shortly before that that there was school for the boys on their side and school for the girls. Same thing, but boys and the girls. And there were trains to take the children back to the north states. And the boys went on one day and the girls and the next. And they came back in the same order– not on the same train, no, no, no.
Summersby: Not even on the same train.
Dustin: And so when we started having classes together, as I had said, Mr. Vargas was mother hen. They used to have separate glee clubs. And when they were merged, we would go on buses together, and he’d ride rain on people. But he’d let you sit to the guy who was the person of your affections of that moment.
And there was a lot of music at the school performances. And that is so important. I always said that kids should learn music, and they’d be better at math. [LAUGHS] And then there was math. And there were appliances in those days, believe it or not, which you could use to learn to do things. There were so many more.
And just recently, I heard a younger person was talking about all of the things, the equipment, and the this, and the that, that they had to go to college. And a friend of mine said, gee whiz. All I had was a Brailler and talking books, and lucky to have the Brailler. The talking books had been around, but the Brailler had just been recently done by the Howe Press.
And we made it through college– the hard way, but we managed. And now they have it easier– hard for them in some ways because they’re used to this stuff. But there were all kinds of things available. And Perkins was a lovely place to come and test them out. You had of these people who were all in the same boat, different grades, and all behind that big iron fence that used to go around the campus. [LAUGHS]
Summersby: Barbara, we’re running out of time.
Dustin: OK, what do you want?
Summersby: But I want to ask you, would you have any advice to pass on to this year’s graduating class?
Dustin: To the graduating class, take everything you’ve learned here, scholastic or otherwise, and use it in your life. And try to achieve, because you can do it. Look at how far you’ve come. And there’s more that you can do, will do, and should do. And don’t let anyone– don’t let anyone– tell you you cannot. If you try, you can. And if you can’t, go do something else. But do something.
It’s in you. You have been taught. Now take what you’ve been taught, and run with it, and keep on running as long as you can, because you can do– and remember that even little things count. Just having a family of your own, raising your kids, taking care of your husband or your parents, is doing something. And so there is a goal for you in life. And I’m sorry. I told myself I wouldn’t do this.
You’ve gotten an education. And to anyone coming in, get one. It’s here for you. Take it. Don’t be like a friend of mine who said, they never did anything for me. And I said, you’ve got grade school through high school education. What more did you want? You’re supposed to do something with it once you get it. So you’ve got it now. And best of luck to everybody. But try. Try, and you’ll succeed. You really will. And look back on it, and know that you did.
Dustin: Oh, thank you.
Summersby: Well, thank you very much, Barbara. Thank you for sharing so much, your first small experiences here at Perkins. And it’s great information to have as part of the oral history here. I appreciate your time.
Dustin: It was my pleasure.
Summersby: Thank you.
Dustin: I wanted to do it.